Conan Gray was only a high school senior when his song ‘Idle Town’ blew up online. Living in a small town in Texas, he’d skipped class one day to record the track on Garageband with a microphone duct-taped to a broken lamp. “Millions of people were reaching out and it didn’t really make sense to me,” Gray reminisces now. “And I just kept living my life, going to class, hanging out with my friends. I think just the fact that I wrote ‘Idle Town’ in a moment where I really was just like any other kid with issues and living in a small town is what made it resonate with people. When I was faced with it going viral, it kind of opened my eyes to the fact that I could pursue a career because I always thought it was a little bit of a pipe dream until that happened.”
Born in the winter of 1998 in San Diego, California, Gray faced quite a bit growing up, from his parents separating to being bullied in school for being mixed-race. He moved around a lot the first few years of his life. His first two years were spent in Hiroshima, Japan where his paternal grandfather had become sick and needed assistance. A few years later, he settled in Georgetown, Texas where he spent the remainder of his teen years until he moved to college at UCLA.
“It was a massive adjustment,” he recalls. “I don’t think I’ll ever really be a city kid. I was so used to living in suburbia and not really having much to do and not really having this crazy world bustling around me all the time, but it took like a solid year and a half for me to feel like I was in a place that I knew was familiar. Also just moving away from all my friends, and going away to college, I think that every single person in their early 20s have to do deal with this. It’s just a period of life where everything kind of feels like your world is ending. And it kind of feels like everyone is out to get you.”
In 2013, Gray began posting videos on YouTube where he vlogged about his life in Texas and shared his music. It was around this time that he posted his song ‘Idle Town’ that really put him on the map and people’s radars. The track has amassed over forty million streams on Spotify to date. In 2018, Gray got signed to Republic Records and his whole life took a turn. He released his EP Sunset Season and then opened for Panic! at the Disco on their ‘Pray for the Wicked’ Tour. Currently, he’s working on his album from which he has already released several singles – The King, Checkmate, Comfort Crowd and Maniac.
“My album is very much just about my whole entire life,” Gray says. “I think my EP was about my senior year of high school and my album is about everything, including prior to high school, middle school, growing up, and things like that. I think it’s very chaotic and all over the place. It’s got a large range of things. Someone who likes folk is going to like the album, someone who likes straight pop is going to like the album, someone who likes grunge is going to like the album. It’s just about my entire life, all the ups and downs. I’ve had a less than ideal childhood so it’s kind of about what happened in the past, what’s happening now, and who I am now.”
Songwriting is a big part of Gray’s life and something he enjoys doing. He’s been writing his own songs since he was 12 years old and he’d like to continue to do this as his career develops. “I focus mostly on my life,” he says about his lyrics. “I’ve never been in love before so I’ve definitely written a lot of songs about not being in love. When it comes to drawing inspiration, I’ve written a lot of songs about my friends. I’ve written songs about people with full names in them, which should not come out. There’s a song on the album that’s named after the person I literally wrote it about. I just think that if something is genuine, people are able to relate to it. I think that drawing inspiration from my own mind is just the way that I kind of write and process my emotions. I would be writing songs, regardless of whether people were listening or not.”
His fans have definitely taken to his lyrics and relate to them, something that Gray was shocked by in the beginning. He says, “When I was a kid, I started putting songs online. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was a very lonely kid. I moved around a lot and I think that made me really sentimental because everything that I had was getting torn away from me. But on top of that, I think it made me just kind of feel like I was the only person on earth to go through what I was going through. And then, when I started putting up songs online, people started to tell me like, hey I’ve been through the same thing that you’ve been through, and it was really eye-opening. It really makes me happy to know that a song that I wrote when I felt really alone has helped other people feel less alone.”
While working on the album, Gray is also on his Comfort Crowd Tour, which he’s headlining. “We just played a sold-out show in Terminal 5 in New York, which was really amazing. Six months ago, I was playing the Bowery Ballroom and that’s a very small venue,” he laments. “Six months later, I was playing to 3,000, which is so insane. It’s just moments here and there that I take it all in and it’s just crazy that so many people come. To be able to go on stage every night and just lose my mind, hug fans and relate to them and feel them. I always felt like I was such a weirdo, but now I realize that all my fans are just as weird as I am.”
Performing wasn’t always easy for him. Describing himself as shy and reserved, he felt like he had to shove himself on stage and hold back vomit before a show. “The first venue I ever played was a year ago and it was in Dallas and it was a 250-cap room. The tenth show of my life was at The Forum in Los Angeles for 20,000 people, opening for Panic! At The Disco. It was just like really, really quick, complete overhaul,” he says. “The biggest difference, I think, is when you’re playing for 250 people you can really see the people, their faces, every minute detail. When you’re playing for 20,000 people, it feels like a video game. Kind of like a simulation, like you’re standing in front of this black abyss and it’s just screaming at you. I do love playing the bigger venues because I feel more comfortable in front of people these days because I think it helps me feel like we’re all united.”
As Gray reflects on this past year, he can’t help but laugh. “A year ago I was in college, living a pretty normal college student life. After I got signed, I started touring and within seconds my whole life turned upside down. I couldn’t have expected that at all, but here we are. So I have absolutely no idea what the future is going to be like. I have no idea how my album is going to do, if people are going to love it or hate it, and that’s something that I can’t control.”
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