From “Idle Town” to “Heather,” Conan Gray Doesn’t Want to Sugar-coat Himself

Conan Gray’s debut album came out in March this year, when most of the world went into lockdown. But for the 21-year-old singer, who wrote and recorded the whole album, titled Kid Krow, in his home in Los Angeles, it wasn’t quite as out of place as it might have been for another musician. “Being locked in my bedroom when it came out didn’t feel out of character for me,” Gray tells American Songwriter. “The safety of everybody was, and is, my maximum priority and being able to release my album from the bedroom I wrote it in felt right.”

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But Gray does admit he was anxious about putting himself in public for the world to hear, and for his honest and pensive lyrics to travel beyond his social media following. “I was absolutely terrified to release my debut album, all my secrets being out there for people to listen to, I’m not sure being in the quarantine helped or worsened that,” he says.

Gray has been comfortable being indoors. In fact, it’s how his fans have come to know him — he started a YouTube channel when he was 15, posting vlogs about his life and acoustic cover songs, from Georgetown, Texas, where he was living at the time. He grew up in a multicultural family of Irish and Japanese heritage, and built a loyal following across social media. In 2015, he moved to LA and carried on building his online presence, while enrolled at UCLA.

Using a cheap microphone and Garageband, Gray recorded the track, “Idle Town,” an ode to the small town where he grew up, which went viral. He joined forces with LA-based producer Dan Nigro to release his Sunset Season EP and landed a deal with Republic Records. The way he made his first single, “Idle Town,” is, he says, the same way he made his full-length debut. “The process hasn’t changed at all,” he says. “I have always written my all songs by myself in my room, it’s what I know. I haven’t changed anything about the process of songwriting now that more people listen. I think music needs to be vulnerable and real to really connect with people, so I let myself overshare in my music.”

It’s an approach that has found fans in the likes of Sir Elton John, who lavished praise on Gray during an interview with BBC Radio 6, saying he’s the only person in the American Spotify Top 50 to actually write the song without anybody else.” Although Gray may be from a different generation, it’s applause he doesn’t take lightly. “Sir Elton John is an absolute songwriting icon, hearing him speak about my songs is truly such an honor,” he says. “I think it’s safe to say he has forever shaped the songwriting community for all of eternity, me included. I am extremely grateful.”

Gray has also found somewhat unexpected endorsement on TikTok too, by users who’ve given his song “Heather” a life of its own. He wrote the song about a girl from his high school who “barely knew that I even existed, and I was super jealous of her.” He thought that maybe nobody would relate to it, and that it wasn’t a very nice song, because in it, he essentially wants the title character to disappear. Gray almost didn’t put the track, which has peaked at No. 46 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, on his album. Now on TikTok, fans have been sharing their own moments of envy, using the song as a soundtrack to their short clips. “When I wrote Heather, I distinctly remember sitting there thinking ‘nobody is gonna relate to this.’ It was so specific, I truly thought I was alone in my experience, even ashamed of it,” says Gray. “But to hear millions of people understood helped me feel much less embarrassed and alone.”

There’s much Gray can feel proud of. Kid Krow earned him the distinction of being dubbed the biggest debut artist of 2020 on the Billboard 200 chart when it bowed at No. 5 in its first week, back in March. His brand of soulful melancholy pop songs make him relatable to fans. “I write my songs in the same way I speak to my friends; I never take things too seriously,” he says. “I tend to be a bit sarcastic in my writing, even if the subject is a bit dark for me. I cope with life through humor and writing, I don’t sugar-coat or filter myself.”

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