Conan Gray Keeps It Authentic

The 22-year-old singer-songwriter reflects on making music during a “deeply lonely phase” of his life and the importance of being vulnerable.

Conan Gray leaning against a piano in a white-black floral shirt with a blurred pastel color filter
Conan Gray wears Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Photographed by Dillon Matthew in Los Angeles in March 2021. Multimedia art by Annie Myron.

When Conan Gray was still a high school senior in Texas, he uploaded a self-produced video for his song “Idle Town” to YouTube, where it quickly went viral. Four years later, he’s a verifiable superstar in the making, with 4.2 million followers on Instagram and monthly listener stats on Spotify that surpass many household names. His song “Heather” has been streamed more than half a billion times on the app, and his debut album Kid Krow (Co-produced by Dan Nigro, who was also Olivia Rodrigo’s main collaborator on Sour) hit its one year anniversary in March. This year, he released the singles, “Overdrive” and “Astronomy”—and yet, there’s still a sense that he’s a tightly held secret amongst Gen Z fans. As part of a larger exploration of Spotify’s emerging Lorem playlist, we spoke with Gray about releasing an album at the start of the pandemic, the importance of authenticity, and “Snurch.”

Congratulations on the one-year anniversary of Kid Krow!

It's wild. The album really did come out the week that we went into quarantine. So it's a kind of a simultaneous realization that the album has been out for a year, but also that we've been in quarantine for an entire year.

The reaction seemed to have been great. Taylor Swift shouted it out. Elton John is a fan. It was a weird time for it to come out, but what was it like to finally have it out there?

I remember making the album, I was just so alone. I was in a very, very deeply lonely phase of my life. I just felt like I didn't understand anyone. I also felt like my problems weren’t very relatable and maybe I was the only one dealing with them. When the album came out, I guess all of a sudden I realized that there were millions of people who had gone through a lot of the same exact things that I had gone through. It's also been very, very strange now to see all these reactions and just have so many new people in my life, when in reality I spent the entire year alone.

Authenticity and maintaining a relationship with fans seem to be very important to younger listeners. Do you ever feel pressure in that sense?

With any relationship with anyone, there’s give and take. I’m extremely grateful for my fans. All of their ferocity and excitement for the music is just one of the most fulfilling things I could ever possibly feel. I’m so grateful for it. I think privacy is something that I really enjoy, so I kind of give them everything that they need to know through the music and take a step back. You can do what you want to do with that information. I do feel these days the internet has become a really kind of crazy world and it does need to be treated with respect. I feel like that’s something that my generation is slowly starting to learn: to use the internet for good and not to spread hate.

We’ve all just seen this Britney Spears documentary. She had a completely different sort of young fame than what you have. You can open up so much through what you share online, but you also have more direct control.

These days, we get to tell our story the way we want to tell it. Or maybe that’s still not true for everyone, but I think that that’s something that needs to be standard for all artists. I can’t speak for everyone else. I consciously try my best to have my own private world, but also to be able to share so much. Sometimes I reveal so much more than even my friends know about my life through the music.

There’s also been a sea change in how people discover music through Spotify playlists, through algorithms, through TikTok. Is that something you think about a lot as an artist?

I’m not the kind of person who only listens to one type of music, so why would I only make one type of music? I don’t think that’s how anyone listens to music. I just make whatever I think is right for me at that moment. People should just make music that they think is good and that they think is true. That's ultimately what ends up connecting with people.

“Heather” became such a standout hit on this album, but it wasn’t originally decided as the single. Even a couple of years ago, an artist could put out an album and most people probably wouldn’t hear anything but the singles.

I love that about music right now. I feel like there are so many songs that came out two, three, four years ago that are becoming hits now. Good music is being chosen for a moment in the spotlight because it’s connecting to people. It doesn't matter what genre it is. It doesn’t matter how long ago it came out or whether it’s been promoted or not.

Do you have any favorite TikToks at the moment?

TikToks that’s I’ve watched? Well, you know what, I’ll go into my text messages for you. Oh my God. I know: So there’s this TikTok by this person named Sartakespics. It’s “Take Me To Church” by Hozier, but it's a bunch of snails. It’s called “Take Me To Snurch.” It's really important to me. It's really affected me emotionally and spiritually. I think you should watch it.

I remember a lot of snail memes on Tumblr years ago.

I’m sure you’ve noticed, I feel like sometimes something will show up on my TikTok and certain trends come back and I’m like, “Oh baby, you are a little too young to understand that this will not end well. You weren’t back there on Tumblr in the days before.”

Conan Gray wears Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Photographed by Dillon Matthew in Los Angeles in March 2021. Multimedia art by Annie Myron.

Are you ever watching TikTok and clips with your own songs come up?

Every once in a while. It always throws me off guard. It’s so fun to see that the fans come up with so many interesting creative ways to use the music.

I’ve seen musicians try to engineer what Megan Thee Stallion had on TikTok, but it just doesn’t work. It’s actually very organic in that way.

It goes back to the trend of authenticity. You can’t control it. You can talk about algorithms and all that, but people like the song if they like the song. If a song gets more exposure, more people are gonna hear it. I feel like nowadays we’re kind of in the wild West of music. It’s like everyone has a chance to be able to create music that will be recognized, even if you’re making it out of your bedroom.