Photo: Recording Academy
Conan Gray Talks "Checkmate," Feeling Inspired By Adele & What To Expect On His "Darker" Debut Album
20-year-old singer/songwriter/video director Conan Gray just released his first EP, Sunset Season, last year, but he's already making noise in the D.I.Y. pop world. Spending his teen years growing up in quiet Georgetown, Texas, he began writing and singing songs and uploading them to what swiftly became his popular YouTube channel, which now (at the time of this writing) has 1.4 million subscribers. In 2017, the creative teen left his small-town life for Los Angeles to purse undergraduate film studies at UCLA.
"I started making the EP the second I moved from my hometown in Texas to L.A. I was going to college at UCLA and I was going to classes and I was recording at the same time. I wasn't signed yet, either," Gray recently told the Recording Academy. It wasn't long after relocating to La La Land that he got signed to Republic Records, who released Sunset Season. Despite his fast-growing fan base and rise towards pop stardom, the charismatic artist is incredibly humble and remains in awe of where he is today.
The "Generation Why" singer recently stopped by the Recording Academy headquarters for our latest episode of Up Close & Personal to share what he's most looking forward to for his upcoming Comfort Crowd Tour, and how he tends to visualize music videos as he writes songs. He also explains how hearing Lorde's and Adele's music for the first time inspired his own songwriting, what fans can expect on his forthcoming debut album and more. You can watch a portion of the conversation above and read the full interview below. You can also visit on our YouTube page for a longer version of the video, as well as for other recent episodes.
Last time I saw you, you were making your Lollapalooza stage debut, your first festival show. How was that experience for you?
That was pretty crazy. I didn't really know what to expect. I think the seven-year-old, tiny, afraid me would have thought no one comes, but a lot of people came and it was really bizarre. I feel like I have moments every once in a while where I'm just like, this can't be real. That was definitely one of those moments.
And how was the crowd?
The crowd was great. I was like, oh maybe since it's like a festival they won't be as interactive, but they were wild and they did everything that I wanted them to do, their little hands and stuff. It was awesome. I was very much, "I don't know what's going on right now." I think this is just a glitch in the simulation or something.
Starting in October, you have a bunch of shows lined up for your Comfort Crowd tour. What are you most excited about performing in all these different places?
I feel like my favorite part about being on tour is just being busy all the time. I feel like you have this unique routine, like you wake up and you do a bunch of things, you meet a bunch of fans and you go to sleep, the whole entire day is packed. And I just love being able to go out there and see all the different kinds of people. I feel like touring kind of just made me realize how people are just so different but also like we're all kind of just exactly the same. Like no matter where you go. So it's pretty incredible. I think it's my favorite thing about being able to do this.
Let's talk a little about one of your most recent releases, "Checkmate." The video is amazingly creepy and hilarious; what's the backstory on that song?
"Checkmate" is a song I wrote about this person who was always playing games with my heart and I just needed to get a little revenge. So I figured, with the song and video, I was like if you're going to play with my heart all the time, if you're going to treat love like it's a game, then I'm going to win the game. So in the video I just tried to get as much of my cathartic revenge out as I possibly could and, you know, kidnapped the people who are cheating on me and sent them to a deserted island to starve to death because, I mean, what else am I supposed to do? I did what I had to.
Speaking of music videos, you edited and directed the one for "Crush Culture." What was your vision going into that video?
With "Crush Culture," I knew that I just wanted to ruin a bunch of couples' dates. That was my main intention. I'm the kind of person where like if I'm not happy, then no one's going to be happy. Or at least I used to be. I think I've gotten a little better hopefully, [I'm] growing up or whatever. But yeah, I just wanted to have a lot of wrecking.
I feel like everyone who's ever been single, especially when you're young, where like every one of your friends isn't single, you just kind of want to punch someone in the face. When they're like talking about, "Oh and then he did this and it was so cute." I don't want to know. I don't care. I don't relate. Like leave me alone, I'm going to punch you. That's kinda what that video is about and what that song is about.
Do you feel like when you're filming the video and creating a visual element for the song, that it kind of creates a new life for it or takes on a different form?
Absolutely. Every time I write a song I usually have an idea of what I want the visuals to be. It's all very much hand-in-hand to me. But I also feel like the second you put out the song or make the video, it's not really yours anymore. People can interpret it how they want to interpret it and everyone has interpreted every single one of the videos in completely different ways, which I feel like is kind of the point, you know, the song is what it means to you and I can only do so much by explaining. Also, that's what makes the song special to someone. I guarantee like all of my favorite songs don't actually mean what I think they mean. But I think they're special because I feel like they're written for me even though they're totally not.
When you were younger, was there an album or artist who really resonated with you?
Well I think the first person that kind of opened me up to songwriting was Adele. I was like 12 probably when that first album  came out. And I feel like that was when I first realized that you can actually write a whole song. And before that I was always kinda writing jingles and stuff like that. But I didn't really realize that you could express an emotion. And I feel like Adele was the first person that made me realize that humans have emotions that you can relate to. And then I think, you know, when I was a teenager, the older I got the more into like pop music, I really started to just like grow really fascinated with and I was just obsessed with it.
And then I think when Lorde's first album [Pure Heroine] came out it just blew my mind. Because it was the first pop music that I'd heard ever in my whole life that wasn't about, you know, like this wild fantasy life that I couldn't relate to. It was about being in suburbia and I grew up lower-middle class. So I, you know, I didn't relate to those other songs and that's the first time I was like, oh my God, this song is about me. Like I relate to this. All I do is sit in the car and that's what she wrote about. So yeah, she was a big point for me.
You started songwriting and putting your music online when you were 12. At that time, did you think you were going to be making music professionally in the future?
Honestly, I don't think I really knew what I was doing when I was putting songs up on the internet. I just really loved writing songs. And the second I started writing music, I didn't stop. I had a journal and I wrote a new song every single day. And I think by putting them up on the internet it was just kind of like my way of like spitting them into the void. I wasn't expecting to get signed and I wasn't expecting, you know, everything that happened. I was just really bored and I lived in a small town, and what else are you supposed to do, I guess? And I think, you know, I just was very surprised when people started to listen. It wasn't something that I was expecting or really even wanted. It just kind of happened and then I just kept doing it because it just was very interesting to see the way that people were reacting to these, you know, very weird songs that I was writing as a 12-year-old and just kind of snowballed into a career. But I had no clue, no.
What was your dream job when you were a kid?
I really wanted to be specifically a middle school biology teacher. My middle school biology teacher had a pet snake and I was like, if I'm going to be a teacher, I should be a biology teacher that way can have a pet snake. And I've always been really obsessed with science and I'm also such a nerd. I was definitely a big school kid, so that was the route for me. So I guess conceptually I failed at that career and I'm a failure.
I want to talk a bit about the Sunset Season EP, which "Crush Culture" was on. What was your main goal with that, your first EP and first project?
I started making the EP the second I moved from my hometown in Texas to L.A. I was going to college at UCLA and I was going to classes and I was recording at the same time. I wasn't signed yet either. I think that, you know, most of the songs on the album I wrote during my senior year of high school, so basically I wanted the whole EP to be like a time capsule of what my senior year felt like. All of the missing home and also just like not really knowing what's going on and having all these like extreme emotions that make no sense all the time, which I still feel. But I think when you're in high school it's this kind of like very specific feeling that you just never ever have ever again. I wanted to just get it all into a little package, that way I can remember it forever.
"For me, the best way to be good at songwriting is to just tell the truth… I think my goal always is just to be as honest as I possibly can."
Another of the songs on the EP, "Generation Why," stood out to me as kind of a statement on just being a young person and the uncertainty that comes with it. What is your biggest goal right now as a young artist representing other young people?
I feel like my main goal is just to be as honest as I can. You know, "Generation Why" was a song that I wrote literally about me and my friend. I wasn't like, "This is my generation." I was just me and my friend, like "Our parents don't believe that we're going to do anything good with our lives." And that's what I wrote about.
For me, the best way to be good at songwriting is to just tell the truth. Because people relate to the truth and people relate to problems. Sometimes you feel like you're the only person who has them, but you're not the only person who has those feelings. I think my goal always is just to be as honest as I possibly can. I feel like I say so much more in songs than I ever do to people in real life. And I feel like if I just keep my head on and try to be as genuine as possible, hopefully people will keep relating.
If I'm not mistaken, I don't think you've put out any collab songs yet. So if that's something that you're interested in doing in the future, do you have any dream collaborators in mind?
I mean, there's so many people, like all the people that I was raised on. I would like chop off my finger to make a song with Taylor Swift. Honestly, I'd chop off my hand just to sit in a room and write a song with her. She was my big pop music icon growing up. "Teardrops On My Guitar" was the first YouTube video I ever really watched of her. So yeah, that'd be really fun. But I mean, there's a ton of people. I feel like with my [upcoming] album, a lot of the writers that I've really wanted to work with and stuff I've had the opportunity to work with. So I feel like I'm satisfied, I'm happy.
In terms of your debut album, do you have anything that you want to tease about it? I'm sure your fans have already been asking about it a lot, but what can they expect?
I think they can definitely expect the music to get darker. The past year has been really chaotic and I feel like my album absolutely represents how chaotic it was. Also, I think they can expect a good cry and a good little riot. Just a good like package of chaos, is what my album sounds like so far.