How Conan Gray Found Retro Heaven

How Conan Gray Found Retro Heaven

By Tobias HessApr 05, 2024

Conan Gray has never shied away from a big hook. On past hits like “Heather” and “Memories,” the 25-year-old megastar has secured his status as one of today’s go-to crooners, producing slices of big feelings pop music that work as well at a prom as they do blasting through a car’s speaker.

Today, he’s taking that anthemic sensibility through a bit of a time warp. His new album, Found Heaven, is a tour through vintage sounds, pulling on '80s synth-pop, '70s glam rock and new wave. It’s a fitting mode for Gray, whose epic sensibilities jibe well with a Bowie-esque swing. It doesn't hurt that he had Swedish pop superproducer Max Martin in tow on production.

“Working with Max and the rest of the MXM crew was like the most beautiful year of pop music boot camp,” Gray tells PAPER. One can hear the results of that master class in pop. On the album single “Never Ending Song,” his voice drops to the low register of an a-ha as he glides atop a swinging synth pulse. On album closer, “Winner,” he dons his Elton John jacket and belts out a timeless and sweeping plea for closure.

Blow, Gray chats with PAPER about how watching old movies inspired his new album, not needing privacy and prepping for his biggest tour yet.

There is a range of sonic references on “Found Heaven,” from glam rock to '80s synth pop. How did you find this album’s vintage sound?

It all started with a very formative night eating chili with my best friend. We absent-mindedly turned on Dirty Dancing …then of course by the end of the night we were in tears. Something about that night made me want to stay in that world a little longer. Crazy what Swayze can do to you.

Did you grow up listening to music from the '70s and '80s? Who are some of your biggest musical and visual inspirations from that time?

I did not. I was raised devoutly Christian and was not allowed to listen to “secular” music. I discovered all the great music of the past only now in my adulthood! Elton, Bowie, A-Ha, all favs.

The album is really open and vulnerable. How did you create an environment that was safe to explore those big emotions?

I’ve been writing music since I was 11. The thought of withholding information for privacy reasons is negligent since my entire life has been documented on the internet. Little too late to back away now!

You worked with the legendary Max Martin on this record. Tell me about that experience.
Working with Max and the rest of the MXM crew was like the most beautiful year of pop music boot camp. The swedes are genius, but more so just deeply passionate about making great music. That’s all it boils down to. It was an honor.

You’re gearing up for your biggest tour yet. What can you tease about the upcoming tour?
My main goal with Found Heaven on tour is to have everybody crying, screaming, laughing and dancing at one point in the night. Want it to feel like one big ridiculous slumber party.

Photography: Muriel Knudson