Conan Gray Hits a Small Town Crescendo

Conan Gray Hits a Small Town Crescendo

Story by Brendan Wetmore / Photography by Ryan Duffin

Prior to speaking with Conan Gray, the Gen Z vlogging sensation and venue-packing pop powerhouse, I found myself wondering what made me feel like I've known him for my entire life. Was it his personable YouTube presence, something he's cultivated for the better part of his teenage years? There's a chance fans feel so connected to him because of his unprovoked honesty, an ever-coveted quality in the low-privacy profession of "internet personality." His taste in music could also be a contributing factor — thumbing through his cover videos feels like scrolling through a comfortingly familiar, Urban Outfitters-curated, Spotify playlist from 2015.

"I always tell people that I grew up in Austin, but I grew up an hour away from Austin in a really small town called Georgetown," Gray tells me. Click. Conan Gray, the singer, listener, writer, artist, vlogger, and former child star snaps into focus. "I kind of grew up in your typical Texan town, but when you tell people you're from Georgetown, they're like, 'Where?'"

Jacket: Berluti, Tops: Versace

It's an explanation that young people longing for the thrills of some urban palace know all too well. During my freshman year of college, I would introduce myself to people and tell them I was from "right outside" Philadelphia, despite growing up in a small town about an hour north of the city. Explaining took too much time, and thus relating to students from bigger cities would become complicated from the outset. Qualifying and concealing are always more alluring options than having to map out what one feels is a comparatively dull origin story. Who wouldn't want to be part of something bigger?

"I think any small town kid doesn't really expect anything that great to happen to them, you know? Everyone back home, they just get married and have two kids and then die," Gray says. His first official release to streaming platforms, "Idle Town," reflects the core of this sentiment. "This town will never change/ People come and go, it's all the same," his breathy vocals open the track.

Jacket & Top: Versace, Jeans; Levi's, Shoes: Saint Laurent

Not one detail of Gray's backstory should be overlooked; the forced monotony of suburban life is vital to understanding his writing process and sound. "Writing music for me was my escape, and my way to get out of my town both physically and mentally. When I wrote 'Idle Town,' I was a senior in high school and I recorded it in my bedroom and I didn't have any idea what would happen," Gray recounts his entry into the music world. Despite having a consistent online following and prior original songs posted to his YouTube channel, Gray didn't think much of the song's potential impact. "I put it up online just kind of on a whim." The music video for the song currently has well over 12 million views.

"When that song blew up, it really was my ticket out of Georgetown, Texas," Gray remarks about the success of "Idle Town." The irony of a song about the stagnancy of suburbia becoming a hit, thus giving way to a full range of artistic motion, is fantastic — but not necessarily novel. When examining Gray's story, one might be reminded of Lorde's quick rise to fame, coupled of course with the opening verse of her chart topping single, "Royals." Lorde transitions into the pre-chorus of the track on a paining note, "And I'm not proud of my address/ In a torn up town, no post code envy."

Top: Jil Sanders, Shoes: John Fluevog

The Lorde comparison is not unfounded, I discover when talking with Gray. "I think when it comes to pop music, Lorde's first album, Pure Heroine, was the first album that I'd ever heard that was pop music that wasn't about sex, party, and drugs. It was about living in the middle of nowhere. She's from New Zealand, which is basically just a giant small town. It was the first time I'd heard pop music that I'd actually been able to relate to, and that was when my obsession with pop music began and I've been obsessed with it ever since." The inspirations from Lorde's debut album are clear throughout Gray's EP, Sunset Season. The video for "Idle Town" even contains a shot of Gray trailing along a tennis court, a standout motif of nostalgia from Pure Heroine. "Lorde really, to me, was just that first person that made me realize that pop music can actually mean a lot more."

None of this is to say that Gray is remaking a Lorde hit, or even simply trying to reimagine the themes explored in her albums. Gray is creating in a post-Pure Heroine pop landscape, a timeline he is acutely aware of in an experiential sense. Pop can now be downtempo or sad or even melodramatic, and is sometimes revered more heavily if it does check those boxes. Pure Heroine was the first inkling of commercial success for such a niche genre and ushered in an audience that had become inundated with the flashy dance pop of the early 2010s. The revival of this dream pop imprint has birthed a meta-pop generation on the internet in the same way that Justin Bieber created a timeline for kids to move from viral YouTube covers to record label fame. These two tracks to fame, combined, were vital to Gray's initial buildup of online traction, although he didn't realize it at the time.

"Writing, for me, was my only real way of speaking what I was thinking, and all of the emotions that I had, into existence."

"My first videos were so not videos that I really wanted people to watch," Gray says of his own growth on YouTube. "I think some of my first videos were like, videos of my geckos eating food. It was also in the beginning of YouTube, so people weren't using YouTube as a way to make money." Once Gray gained popularity, however, the dawn of a new YouTube had already arrive, but that was besides the point for him then. He enjoyed the platform for what it was and never really assumed it could be a tool to aid him, other than in his efforts to kill boredom.

Jacket & Top: Dior Men

"The first YouTube video that I ever watched was the music video for 'Teardrops on My Guitar' by Taylor Swift," Gray says with a smile. He cites Swift as having shaped his songwriting, but can actually trace his songwriting back to Adele. "[Adele's] first album, 19, really changed my whole life. I had found out that she'd been out from the middle of nowhere and she'd just written all of her own songs." While Adele did have collaborators on the album, the undeniable personal intimacy of 19 was what he connected to. "It clicked to me that you could write a song, a full song, and you don't just have to write weird jingles about sitting on the toilet and stuff like that."

It goes without saying that Gray's songwriting abilities far surpass a level required to come up with schoolyard jingles. His newest single, "The King," displays the full breadth of his writing skills, in addition to an eclectic musicality that taps straight into pop music's innateness. Gray ascribes this quality to being in-tune with the "mathematic" qualities of pop music, while also approaching it with all the ease of an elementary equation. "You like me, well obviously/ So why you trying to leave when you know that I'm the king?/ You'll see, 'Cause I'm supreme, Choose me," Gray's voice glides up and down, effortlessly matching the sliding frequencies of the bassline in "The King." These moments of exposed harmony are what send Gray's works flying above a pre-existing soundscape — his works are not as much inspired by his songwriting heroes as they are motivated by them.

Top: Fendi, Top (Underneath): Versace, Pants: Lanvin

Aside from his musical capabilities, his motivation is no more evident than in the theming of his tracks. Seeking to expand upon the lexicon of uncontrived emotion begun by his idols like Lorde and Adele, his tracks serve as musical Finsta posts, addressing everything he doesn't in everyday life. "Nobody at school knew that I sang, nobody at school knew that I was posting videos online," he states. "Writing, for me, was my only real way of speaking what I was thinking, and all of the emotions that I had, into existence." It should come as no surprise, then, that his most recent single concerns a topic that's not only tangible, but very fresh.

"I liked the same person for four years when I was in high school and all four of those years they never told me that they liked me back until literally the day before I moved to California. They texted me at three in the morning, they were like, 'I liked you this whole entire time, da da da dah.' I was like, 'Too fucking late, also I hate you! You left me hanging for four years,'" he recounts, frustrated. "I haven't told them that the song is about them, but I think they do know. It's super weird because I haven't texted them at all since I moved away, but I think every time I go back to Texas there's always a big flurry around, 'Oh, Conan's back.' I think they might know, I don't really want them to know, but I think they know. I think, also, all of my friends all know, too." Gray doesn't seem bothered about leaving himself exposed to the stoked flames of past flings. As long as he can express his innermost thoughts through song, that breach of privacy doesn't seem to matter all that much.

Top & Shoes: Saint Laurent, Jeans: Levi's

"The King" wasn't the first song to expose his innermost thoughts and feelings, since his previous release had unintended consequences as well. "I'm a super, naturally private person and I think I accidentally really exposed myself with my EP. Everyone found out the names of the people that I wrote the songs about," he says of Sunset Season. Storytelling is at the core of Gray's artistic ethos, though, and he'll be damned if he doesn't tell his full truth. "I just really can't help it, I write about what I'm experiencing and I get a little too specific sometimes, but oh well. Sometimes you've got to do it for the art!"

Of his upcoming works, Gray says, "Right now I'm working on an album, and I've been working on the album basically the second I stopped writing my EP because I never stop writing." As for any specificities about the album, fans will have to wait until it drops for any hints.

Jacket & Top: Versace, Jeans; Levi's

Gray did reveal, however, that the album will weave the same webs of structured storytelling as his EP, a style he thinks has gone missing from some more recent incarnations of pop. "I really loved the era of pop music that was like, very, very intense chronological storytelling. I think my favorite example of that is 'Sk8r Boi' by Avril Lavigne. It tells a storyline of a guy and a girl, and the guy's a loser and then he becomes really famous, the girl is popular and then she becomes a loser. It's very chronological," he muses about the hits of yesteryear, music videos of which were some of the first to appear on YouTube. "That's really what I would love to see back, and it's what I try to do a lot with my own songwriting."

While Gray emphasizes that he's "always written for himself," saying, "If something makes me happy, I leave it in," he does feel a certain duty to his listeners. "I think that what a songwriter's duty to do is to be able to be the voice for people who aren't writers. I'm just really excited to see the way that pop music really is actually being an accurate display of what our generation is like, you know? I think pop music now is about so much more."

Stream Sunset Season by Conan Gray, below, and follow him on Instagram (@conangray).

Photography: Ryan Duffin
Styling: Stella Evans
Styling Assistant: Kat Silva
Grooming: Amanda Wilson
Studio: Be Electric Studios