Conan Gray is the YouTuber-turned-popstar carving out space for Asian artists
09 May 2019
Photography courtesy of We Care A Lot PR
“Y’all better stay hydrated up here!” Conan Gray leans down and grins at the front row of his sold-out show at O2 Kentish Town, dark hair flopping boyishly into his face. He’s met by earth-shattering screams. Later in the set, he pauses to give his warm thanks to the crowd (“This is the biggest show I’ve ever played!”) and passes a bottle of water to a young girl in the third row. Perhaps this is the most adept way to introduce the music industry’s newest phenomenon – Conan Gray is the type of popstar who just really wants his young fans (some of whom have been queuing patiently for over six hours in the pouring rain) to stay hydrated.
Hailing from a tiny town in rural Texas, Conan’s rise to stardom is a quintessentially modern one – starting on YouTube with homemade vlogs, before progressing into guitar-accompanied covers, and then into original music. He wrote and produced his song ‘Idle Town’ in his bedroom when he was 17, it quickly went viral, and a few months later, whilst studying at UCLA, he signed to Republic Records (who represent clients such as Drake, Ariana Grande, and Lorde – Conan’s musical idol)
Now, at the still-tender age of 20, he’s embarked on a sold out European tour. But it wasn’t quite as smooth a journey as it sounds. “I was really lonely,” he says about high school, squeezed onto a sofa in his dressing room before the show, a bright orange fleece twisted around his hands. “My whole life I’ve been a very quiet kid. I wrote music because I had a lot to say and I didn’t know how to say it. It was the best way for me to be like – I have this emotion and I want to express it to you and I want to know if you relate too. And I’d put these songs online and people would be like ‘I’ve felt that before,’ and I’d be like, ‘What? I felt like a crazy person!’”
“I wrote music because I had a lot to say and I didn’t know how to say it. It was the best way for me to be like – I have this emotion and I want to express it to you and I want to know if you relate too”
And thus his debut EP, Sunset Season, was born. It’s a lush, swooning piece of work which feels like the sort of fantastic daydream you might have in class – sitting somewhere between the suburban ennui of Lorde’s first album, Pure Heroine, Lana del Rey’s swooping, lavish instrumentals, and the laidback wit of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. It’s remarkably self-assured and cohesive for a debut, especially considering that Conan wrote the entire EP whilst still a senior in high school. “I was just writing songs,” he says. “It’s all based around the emotions you have in high school – like falling in love for the first time, and having your heart broken for the first time, and what it’s like to be young and to grow up in the middle of nowhere. My whole life I felt stuck – my town was the kind of place where you feel like you’ll never get out and you’ll never create anything, just get married and die. Which is great, you know,” he interrupts himself, laughing. “Getting married and dying is fun too.”
And what about his upcoming album? His eyes light up. “I just got out of a massive session doing tonnes of stuff for it.” Was it daunting to begin work on something which already has so much hype around it? “I constantly write, like all the time. I write two songs a day, so the second I finished my EP I continued writing and I looked back and I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve written an entire album now.’ I feel like I’ve come into myself a lot more since the EP. Touring and the life I’m living now – it’s so different, but I think people will be able to relate because all my school and college friends are experiencing change too – it’s just on a different scale.” He enthuses earnestly about the internet’s connective powers. “It’s allowed us to understand that we all have pain and we all have love. The generations above us felt exactly how we feel but just didn’t know how to say it.”
We talk too about his mixed race background – Conan is of Japanese-American heritage, and has had people debating his ethnicity in the comments of his videos before. Google is peppered with questions like “What’s Conan Gray’s nationality?” Did it affect his sense of self growing up? He nods. “So much. When you’re mixed you just don’t feel like you belong anywhere. I already felt like that enough as a kid and then being mixed race just put the cherry on top. I think that’s what made me start songwriting and creating. But the older I get the more I realise that being mixed race is one of the reasons I’m all the good things that I am. It’s a unique experience. You have everyone guessing or telling you who you are and you have to decide for yourself.”
“I was able to wiggle my way into the music industry by being slightly white-passing. It’s not an Asian-friendly industry. It’s so lopsided, and it’s our duty for anyone who’s made it to be like ‘Get out of the way’ and spread our arms and make space for others”
He goes on, his voice rising a little. “I was the only Asian in my entire high school. I got every single racial slur you could get. I think in senior year another Asian student came in and I was like, ‘Welcome. Enjoy this shithole.’” And what about the American music industry – a place that has never been particularly welcoming towards Asian-American popstars? “I was able to wiggle my way in by being slightly white-passing. It’s not an Asian-friendly industry. It’s so lopsided, and it’s our duty for anyone who’s made it to be like ‘Get out of the way’ and spread our arms and make space for others.”
I ask him about his fanbase – mainly comprised of fiercely dedicated and intelligent teenage girls. He points to the window, where you can see a line stretching round the venue. “There’ll be Beatlemania if you open the window,” I say, and he laughs. He pulls out his phone and takes a video, murmuring, “This is insane.” (Later, Conan’s publicist will tell me that she’s only ever seen this kind of queue with Brockhampton – and there are 13 of them.)
I tell him I’m excited to see him perform and his eyes widen. “It’s me literally losing my mind. And everyone in the crowd is too. It’s like a massive bedroom dance party.” “Like an exorcism?” I ask. “Oh my gosh, totally. It’s like every single teenage and early twenties emotion coming out.” He smiles affectionately. “These kids in the queue, they love each other. They want to take care of each other and it gives me hope for the future and the planet – that they’ll take care of it.” I smile: “Teenage girls will save the world,” I say.
“Oh, absolutely,” he replies, nodding vigorously. “They already are.”