I first met Conan Gray last Monday but, embarrassingly enough, ever since I heard “Idle Town” that one time in the shower in college, I’ve felt like he’s my friend. There’s something about Conan’s tonality and candidness that makes him feel well acquainted with my life, even if it’s via YouTube and Spotify. While I don’t normally call up Conan to talk, he just seems like the type of person I would FT to procrastinate the workday away. He answers the phone and I’m met with a funny guy who likes the same things I do – not a pop star with 3.9 million Instagram followers.
Conan is a Texas native, hailing from suburbia, who is probably the most normal famous person I’ve ever met in my entire life. He speaks to me as any other 22-year-old would talk to my 23-year-old self. He says “we” not “I” when he speaks, I feel like we are sitting in a mutual friend’s apartment meeting each other for the first time and bonding over TikTok and pop music. Maybe it’s that southern charm, maybe it’s his humble aura, or maybe it’s just the comfort of knowing he just gets it.
His music varies from sadboy to dancing alone in my bedroom, but he gets it right every single time. If “songs to sing in the shower” was a genre of music, Conan would reign king. He has a rare gift of inciting emotions, whether vulnerable, sad, or mood-elevating. But what makes him so special is that he never lost that small town humbleness. Sure, he knows he makes good music, but he’s not going to walk down the street with a polished strut and ignore his pre-fame circle.
Most people know Conan from his pop anthems “Heather,” “Idle Town,” and “Maniac.” But many deep in the fandom remember him from his YouTube days of vlogs and Adele covers. His fame amassed at supersonic speed when he put out “Idle Town” on his YouTube channel back in 2017, and seemed to exponentially grow since. Now Conan boasts millions of fans and his songs fill our FM radio and For You Page.
Conan chatted with LADYGUNN about his songwriting process, how his newest single “Overdrive” serves as a catharsis for the times, and why he prefers to keep his friend group small.
So first things first, I’m obsessed with “Overdrive.” I literally can’t stop listening to it, So I was wondering what inspired such a high-energy pop song?
Honestly, it’s been a very boring, confusing year. And at the beginning of quarantine, I was listening to a lot of sad music – I was in my feels. But we’ve been in quarantine for so long now that it’s kind of become a way of life. All I really wanted to do is listen to fun music and dance around, so I wanted to release something that just kind of made me feel good and made me want to dance around my room and sing in the shower. Just something that hopefully could provide a little bit of catharsis at the moment.
Do you have a favorite song that you’ve created or does it change?
When I released ‘Kid Krow,’ “Heather” was my favorite song on the entire album because it was a song that I had been trying to write for a really long time – I just couldn’t get it right. I just kept trying over and over for years and I couldn’t get it. So once I finally wrote “Heather” I felt so much relief. It was the last song that I wrote on the album and I just loved it. And obviously, the album came out and it wasn’t a single and people ended up loving it seven months after it came out. I felt very much validated in my love for the song because I loved the song so much. It was my favorite song since the second I wrote it, and the fact that other people were able to relate made me feel so much less alone.
It’s helped so many people through things and I think that’s really awesome that it’s your favorite.
I remember writing it and thinking to myself, “Oh my gosh I don’t know if anyone’s going to relate this, maybe I’m insane for feeling this way.” But ultimately, so many people ended up telling me that they had an exact Heather situation in their life. So yeah, I think that everybody has a Heather in their life.
What is your songwriting process like? Or is it different every time?
It’s different every time, but it almost always starts the same way. It always happens in the shower or right before I’m about to fall asleep or at random times of the day. I’ll just randomly sing a line of a song that does not exist. I remember with “Maniac” I was in the shower, in New York on tour, and I started singing “tell all of your friends that I’m crazy.” Then I scrambled out of the shower naked, grabbed my phone, and then sang it into my phone. You could hear the shower going in the back [while] I’m trying to sing this weird, messed up version of what would become “Maniac.” So it’s always kind of weird, but it starts with a line and a melody.
Has it always been that way?
Yeah, it’s always been that way. I’ve always been singing little things since I was young. I remember when I was really young before I started writing full songs when I was 12, I would always make jingles. I’d always sing the packaging of like Goldfish and I’d always be making up songs about movie characters and the names of my friends and stuff like that. I’d always kind of written little things. I just didn’t understand that that could turn into full songs until I started writing music.
You said you started writing music at 12. Was there something in particular that made you start writing full songs or did it just kind of happen?
Yes, I distinctly remember I started writing music because I’d fallen in love with Adele, which, who isn’t in love with Adele? But I’d been listening to her music a lot and I’d been watching her interviews on YouTube. I was 12 years old and saw that she wrote a few songs in her bedroom and all of a sudden I realized that you could write music in your bedroom – I didn’t know that before I found out about Adele. So my 12-year-old brain told me, “I’m 12 and I can write songs like Adele.” So I started writing music from there, just kind of being inspired by the fact that she could do that on her own. And that’s where it all started.
Is that how “Idle Town” happened? Was that in your room?
Yeah, well, I actually made “Idle Town” when I was 17. I made it on Garageband. I taped a microphone onto a broken lamp and it was this song that I’d written about my friends and my hometown and I put it up on YouTube very impromptu, didn’t really think anything of it. I was just bored and sad and then it ended up completely changing my life. But it was very crappily made in my bedroom.
It’s funny because I remember in 2018 I was listening to my discover weekly and “Idle Town” came on and I was obsessed. Because I’m from suburban North Carolina, nothing happens, we’re all bored as hell. It’s funny because that wasn’t even that long ago and you found success pretty quickly. It’s awesome!
Thank you! It happened out of nowhere, I think it’s very ironic because I grew up in a small town in the middle of Texas and the song is about loving your hometown and coming to appreciate the small town that you live in and kind of romanticizing it. And then ultimately it was the song that took me out of my hometown. It was a very weird experience and so much changed so fast because of that song and so I’m very grateful but it’s also very nostalgic to me. It’s very bitter-sweet to me.
How have you been grappling with the fast-paced lifestyle change?
I mean it’s odd. I wake up every morning and just feel like somebody’s gonna be like, “ha ha ha you got pranked!” But I’m just very grateful, I still find it all very surprising and I don’t think it’ll ever really settle into my bones either. I’m just very very grateful, very surprised, and I’m just glad that I get to write songs. It’s my favorite thing.
It’s awesome! Also, I don’t know if you go on TikTok, I’m always on TikTok and your music is all over the app. Is that weird to you that someone created a trend around your song?
I love TikTok. I spend like three hours a day on TikTok, my screentime is really high.
Okay, cool me too…
The thing about TikTok that I think older people have a misconception of is that people think TikTok is just “TikTok” but in reality, it’s just the youth population, that’s it. It’s just a representation of what it’s like to be young and what it’s like to be Gen-Z, so it makes me really happy that my peers like my music. I wrote music from such a perspective of feeling very alone, I felt like maybe I was the only person who felt that way that I did, and to have so many people reach out and tell me that they related to what I’ve gone through definitely made me feel so much less alone. So the fact that my generation and Gen-Z likes my music makes me feel very seen. But yeah I love TikTok, I spend a lot of time there. It’s just where everyone our age goes.
It’s funny you say that because I think everyone’s kind of self-conscious about how much time they spend on TikTok, but I learn so much from it. It’s really kind of sad how little I knew, I guess.
Oh my god, I know! I learned so much about life through TikTok. I learned a lot of adulting things like how to cut onions without crying.
I love the “here’s how to properly cut a pomegranate.” Thank you!
It’s like, I’m so glad I know this information.
Yeah, why did I go to college? Wait, do you go to school?
I went to school for one month, I went to UCLA, and then I got signed and dropped out.
What was that like? How did that process happen?
Well, I really wanted to go to school. UCLA was my dream school, I worked so hard in school to get good grades, and I just worked really hard and then randomly my senior year “Idle Town” ended up really getting a lot of attention from labels and stuff and then I moved to LA thinking I would go to school. But then within a month I was Hannah Montana-ing my life and going to the studio, but trying to go to class, but also flying to New York for meetings. It was just a lot of confusion and I got to a point where I realized you don’t get given many opportunities in life to pursue something that you love. You’re really only given a few shots, so I figured college is so important, but I was going to college in order to make music and I was being given an opportunity to make music so I just took a risk.
I can’t imagine.
Yeah, I very much felt like I was living a double life for a long time because all of my friends in college really did not care at all that I was making music.
As you were making music and people started to notice you, did you have to be hypervigilant about who kept around?
To be completely honest, I’m not the kind of person who has a ton of friends in the first place. I’ve always had a few close friends and I feel like having a few great friends is so much better than having a lot of mediocre friends. So I have the same friends that I had since the seventh grade from my hometown in Texas. I just have a few friends and I’m very happy. I feel like it’s just so precious to be able to make a friend that’s genuine and you can just tell when it happens. Also, I think it’s always so nice when people reach out and tell me anything nice about the music or if I get noticed on the street – it’s just very kind. I have always just had a few friends, I’ve always been like that.
That’s good though! That’s how I am and it keeps things authentic.
Also, I think that good friends are so far and few and it has so little to do with whether people are bad people but much more whether that person is the right match for you. I think you have few soulmates in your life and if you do find them, don’t let them go.
Are those your high school friends?
Absolutely. My best friend since the seventh grade is a girl named Ashley and we’re very very close, we talk every single day. We facetime every day and we’ve just been close since the second we met.
That’s really rare too.
It’s so rare, which is why I think things like that, you just need to take care of them and work to make them stay alive.
What’s your first musical memory?
I do. My first musical memory would have probably been…I was singing in the car. My mom was playing the Dixie Chicks on the radio a lot at the time. My mom was on the phone with my aunt and I was sitting in the back seat singing “cowboy, take me away.” I was singing out the Dixie Chicks in the back seat and my aunt goes to my mom, “Oh, what’s that playing on the radio?” and my mom was like, “There’s nothing on the radio.” And she’s like, “What’s that music?” And my mom’s like, “That’s just Conan.” That’s kind of the first time that my mom was like, “Oh, Conan really thinks a lot more than the normal child.”
What kind of music do you personally listen to?
This month I weirdly had a massive deep dive into early 2000s and mid-2000s pop music that we listened to growing up. I think it’s just so nostalgic so I listen to a bunch of Kesha and a bunch of Britney and a bunch of older pop songs. I listen to early Miley, “Wrecking Ball,” all of those classic pop songs just because I’ve just been looking for that sense of pure unadulterated, easy joy.
That really shows in “Overdrive.”
Yeah, I was in the mood to dance around a bit. You bet that I’ll be back on my very sad hours quite soon.
What can we look forward to seeing from you this year?
I think my main goal this year is just to keep releasing music, keep releasing new songs. Releasing new music this year is kind of the only thing we can do so fans can expect me to keep releasing music.
CONNECT WITH CONAN GRAY
photos / courtesy of artist
story / Sam Berlin (@spberlin)