'The Internet's Favourite Sadboi' Conan Gray is paving the way for more Asian representation in the USA's music industry
Meet Conan Gray: The Internet’s Favourite Sadboi. Known for his candid lyrics, the singer-songwriter has made a considerable mark both on and off social media with the release of his debut album, Kid Krow earlier this year.
Since his debut, the Texas-based pop sensation has garnered an impressive following, claiming the likes of BTS, Brendon Urie, Billie Eilish and The 1975 as ardent fans. You’re likely to recognise his hit single 'Maniac'—a high-energy bop that has made rounds on TikTok and earned Gray a gold certification.
Don’t let his unofficial title fool you, though—he’s not actually very sad. In fact, he’s quite the contrary! Behind the sombre words penned to catchy tunes is a bubbly personality with a disarming disposition. So, where do the lyrics come from?
According to Gray, his more morose lyrics are born as a “coping mechanism”—they reflect the most pertinent emotions he’s feeling at the time. It’s been the same since he was twelve years old: “I grew up very fast; I moved around a lot as a kid so there were a lot of friends that I’d lost at that point. So, I’d been through a lot by twelve. I thought I was very deep, and I had a lot that I wanted to say.”
“I just try to write about what I’m going through, and apparently, if you listen to Kid Krow I’ve been through a lot of sad things the past couple of years. I’m perfectly fine, though! I wrote a song about it so now I’m over it,” he laughs.
His songwriting journey started a lot earlier than his 12th birthday, though. In fact, Gray has always had a knack for composition, with the first song he wrote actually having been about losing all of his save progress on a beloved Pokémon game (a feeling we can all empathise with). And if he couldn’t think of a melody? He’d simply “change the words to other songs” to make them more relatable to him.
Can you blame him, though? Indeed, as a mixed-race kid it’s difficult to connect with lyrics when you don't identify with the songwriter; when you don't see yourself ever sharing their experiences. It comes as no surprise that Gray had turned to improvisation then and that he continues to find inspiration for many of his lyrical ventures in his personal experiences now.
If you ask him to describe his experiences growing up mixed, the word he'd use is “difficult”. “I grew up in an area that was predominantly white, so it was just confusing for a long time. I didn’t know where I belonged—it’s hard to really understand where your place is when you’re growing up. I always felt like a bit of an outsider—it’s like I spent my whole childhood observing people and cliques while not really participating.”
It’s all in the silver linings, though. Gray credits his growing passion for songwriting to his complicated background. In fact, he reckons that if not for the hardships he faced as one of the only Japanese kids in Texas, he may never have started writing music in the first place.
So, you’ll have heard him sing about the feeling of isolation, or even the savage feeling of losing a love you never even had. However, one thing you won’t have heard him describe in his music are the blissful highs of actually being in love. The way he describes it, it actually explains a lot about why his music sounds the way it does; he’s “never fallen in love before”, so as he puts it, ”prior to falling in love, a lot of the strongest emotions you feel are along the lines of pain, or sadness.”
That’s not to say that he thinks he won’t ever experience love, though. In fact, he’s banking on it: “One day when I do [fall in love], it’ll probably be all I ever write about because love seems incredible.”
It’s these candid, relatable stories within his music that have resonated with his large, international following: “I just want to be as real as possible. I think people relate to real problems, and a lot of us have the same problems in life.”
However, the very candour that makes his music so distinctive and appealing, is also the same thing that has gotten Gray into trouble: “I say a little too much at times”. That won’t stop him, though—he’s passionate about sharing his truth because he “thinks people deserve to hear it.”
But how does a Conan Gray song actually come into fruition? According to him, it’s sort of up to chance. “The ideas come out of nowhere, then I’ll rush to record it into my phone or else I’ll forget. I have a really short-term memory and everything just goes in and falls out. Once I have it, I usually finish it out on guitar,” he explains.
“It usually starts out with me sitting somewhere, anywhere; alone in my bedroom, or in the shower, or at two in the morning where I’m about to fall asleep. A random line will come into my head, or a friend will say something to me and I'll be like, ‘That’s actually kind of a good song idea’,” he continues.
From there, it’s all about getting the draft over to his producer so they can finish it up. Getting a second opinion is enough to help Gray pick out the hits from the filler, however nerve-wracking the process might be.
The important part is simply being about to get his music out there. In fact, he reckons that the American music industry could use more Asian representation—as one of the very few Asian-American artists in the industry, Gray is determined to be the worthy Asian role-model he never had growing up.
“It’s ridiculous how few Asian artists there are in the industry. It’s practically non-existent. I hope that the music that I make and my presence in the American music industry right now can open the doors for other Asian artists.”
When prompted to recall his favourite Asian artists right now, his eyes light up. To our surprise, even an international superstar has a guilty pleasure—or, rather, just a pleasure. Gray apparently spends an alarming amount of time watching Blackpink compilation videos on YouTube. In his words, “I just love Blackpink, they’re so perfect. I love them!” As for whether there’s a Conan Gray and Blackpink collaboration on the horizon? He’s certainly keen on it!
Conan Gray has made his debut in the midst of a pandemic; an odd setting for a budding star. Despite the ongoing lockdown, he’s coping with the setback well and is keeping busy. Most recently, he’s released the sun-soaked music video for 'Heather', a slow-paced ballad in which he shares his experiences with unrequited love.
He lets us in on a little behind-the-scenes trivia: "For anyone who is curious—the sweater I sing about in 'Heather' is a real sweater that I wanted to wear! If you watch the acoustic video of me singing 'Heather' on YouTube, then you can see it in the background."
So how does a small town boy cope with the sudden skyrocket towards stardom? With relative ease, as it would appear. Sure, the stage fright kicks in before every show, but once he steps foot on the stage, it all begins to feel natural.
He describes it as ‘stage mode’, a mystical mindset in which he can ignore the crowd of thousands and simply be present and have fun. Gray likens the experience to being in a “video game”, an alternate reality of sorts on stage in which he’d do "literally every ridiculous thing" he’d never dare to do in normal life.
“People are just there to have fun, no one is going to judge you. I’m just up there, singing my songs and having the time of my life.”