The first song Conan Gray ever wrote was called “Those Days,” about a period he spent in a small Texas town called Rockdale. (Population: 5,505.) “The slogan was ‘an hour away from everything,’ and the main activity was going to Walmart,” he recalled in a recent video interview.
He summoned a few wistful lines from his apartment in Los Angeles, his long and bouncy hair pulled tight behind him, squinting as though he wasn’t quite sure he was getting it right: “And I know you really didn’t like the way I cried your name/But I hope you really didn’t mind the way I was those days.”
Then he paused to acknowledge the melodrama of the lyrics: Gray was 12 years old when he wrote them and 7 when he lived in Rockdale, and the idea that he’d adopted such a knowing perspective so quickly elicited some laughter.
“Back in the day, when I was 7,” he said with an exaggerated flourish.
That Gray, now 23, felt so deeply at such an early age isn’t so surprising. Over the last few years, he’s built a wide audience across social media platforms by talking candidly about his life and singing about the most torturous emotions known to young people — namely, unrequited love, and the particular angst of admiring a could-be lover from afar. (“Heather,” one of his more popular songs, is about his envy of a woman who’s dating his crush.) In this model, he’s not dissimilar from any number of Gen Z singer-songwriters who’ve utilized the internet to leapfrog the music industry’s traditional barriers to entry by baring their hearts.
But along with his ascendant tenor and boy-band looks, Gray has set himself apart from the pack with a reflective distance in his songwriting. Rather than solely marinating in his feelings, he has an instinct for perceiving the larger picture, as well as for accepting the melancholic cool-down that inevitably follows heartbreak. On a song called “Yours,” from his new album, “Superache,” which arrived on Friday, his voice hits a soaring, pained note when he sings about the détente forced by unbalanced romance: “I want more/But I’m not yours/And I can’t change your mind/But you’re still mine.”
“Part of what makes Conan is the way he’s connecting so directly to this entire generation of kids who grew up on the internet,” said Eddie Wintle, who, along with his partner Colette Patnaude, has been managing Gray since 2016. “As long as he continues to do that, I feel that the sky’s the limit in terms of what he can achieve.”
The intensity of his emotions is occasionally overwhelming, and Gray said that the new LP “wasn’t a fun album to make.”
“My first album, it was a lot easier because I was just introducing myself — ‘Hi, my name is Conan, I’m 19 years old and I’ve had my heart broken one time,’” he said. “But then the second album was like, ‘Oh God, now I actually have to tell people who I really am.’”
Born in Lemon Grove, Calif., to a white father and a Japanese mother who split when he was 3, Gray’s childhood was peripatetic; he spent a few early years in Japan, then stopped in several other small towns before finally landing in Georgetown, Texas. His existence there, as one of his middle school’s only Asian students, was often “brutal.” Music offered one avenue for self-expression: He wrote “Those Days” after watching a video of Adele singing in her bedroom, and wondering if he could also write a song from his bedroom. YouTube was another. As a teenager, he began recording videos about his life with titles like “50 Facts About Me !!!” and “School Routine,” alongside covers performed on his guitar.
“I was just doing it because what else are you supposed to do when you live in a random town in the middle of Texas?” Gray said. “I had no real gauge of the fact that real people were even watching these videos.”
Though he managed to amass a couple hundred thousand subscribers by his senior year, things changed drastically in 2017 when he self-released “Idle Town,” a gauzy pop song about anticipating nostalgia for his small-town life, which he’d come to appreciate. The accompanying video combined home footage of Gray and his friends with a shot of him running through the local retirement community, recorded from “a tripod duct-taped to the back of my mom’s Toyota.” It exploded online, and the ensuing success eventually led him to drop out of his freshman year at U.C.L.A. and sign a deal with Republic Records.
“They saw what we saw,” Wintle said, “which is the belief that he could be a huge star. And they were very open to making sure that they weren’t trying to mold him into something that he wasn’t.”
“Kid Krow,” Gray’s debut LP, was released in March 2020, right before the pandemic forced a global shutdown. A planned tour was canceled, and, like many others, Gray spent a lot of time by himself indoors. “It was two years of just thinking too much,” he said. “Superache” was recorded in bits and pieces over an 18-month period and culled from around 250 songs.
“It took a while to figure out what we were making,” said Dan Nigro, who produced “Superache” and has worked on nearly all of Gray’s post-YouTube music. One turning point came in February 2021, when they completed the singles “Astronomy” and “People Watching.” “This felt like a new iteration of Conan that was more mature than ‘Kid Krow,’” said Nigro, who also produced Olivia Rodrigo’s breakout album, “Sour.” “It gave us the confidence to be like, ‘OK, we have the beginnings of something really special.’”
“People Watching,” in which Gray admires and covets a happy couple’s relationship, was inspired by a real-life pair he used to eavesdrop on during his brief time in college. “I wanna feel all that love and emotion/Be that attached to the person I’m holding,” he sings, his voice reaching a breathless crescendo as the music swells behind him.
“I’ve always been much more of an observer of life than a participant,” he said. “I — especially in the past few years — live vicariously through other people living their lives, and being able to witness them.”
In the past few months, however, many listeners have surely been coveting his rapidly transforming life. As the music industry has emerged from pandemic lockdowns, Gray has stepped into the spotlight, performing at Coachella and attending the Met Gala in silver disco-ball pants and tall white platform shoes. A Taylor Swift superfan growing up, he’s now been personally called on to promote her music, and also enjoys a high-profile friendship with Rodrigo.
Nigro said both artists “do what they want to do with their music,” stressing that many other young artists are unnecessarily influenced by outside voices.
But Gray spoke openly about grappling with feelings of self-consciousness and doubt as he treads his path within the music industry. “In the past few years, I’ve really grown to see that I have to let myself make mistakes, if I want to grow and not be this stunted human being,” he said. “It took Dan and my friends being like, ‘Who cares?’ It’s better to be sad than feel nothing at all.”
“Superache” is a chronicle of that messy process. The title is meant to be a little funny, leaning into the feelings of grandeur that accompany obsessive heartbreak. “When it’s a genuine feeling, it can never be too dramatic because it’s just an accurate depiction of what’s going on,” Gray said. “That’s all I really want is for people to feel a little less crazy in all the emotions that they feel right now.”