you can find the full cover editorial in our printed Spring/Summer edition: “DSECTION “FOREVER VOL2”
“I think there’s a certain responsibility to tell the truth”: Conan Gray talks his most personal project yet. Pop’s most promising star on growing pains, turning stories into anthems and songwriting with Swedish super-producer Max Martin. Conan Gray is ready to see some fucking pumpkins. It’s not that he hates summer, the singer is quick to lament from his sofa on a serene August morning in LA, it’s just that, as an adult, it never quite scratches the itch of what it means to you as a kid: freedom, possibility, unimpeded late nights of entertainment binging, the prospect of travel to new and exciting places with your nearest and dearest. Lately, Gray has had his fill of all of that, returning home from a major world tour for his sophomore album Superache, fitting in appearances on the front row at Saint Laurent and the Met Gala red carpet, the latter with BFF Olivia Rodrigo as the pair dripped in Balmain & fangirled over Roger Federer, or even settling back into life in front of the camera as he executes his artistic visions. So while this may not have been the kind of thrillingly exciting summer promised by a Disney movie, Gray posits that it might’ve been just the summer we needed (he’s wrong, of course.)
words by Bailey Slater
photographer ELLIOTT MORGAN
fashion KAMRAN RAJPUT
grooming by Eliot McQueen using olaplex
It’s really no surprise Gray wants to dive headfirst into the flurry of Autumn, the singer is currently in the throws of embracing a new artistic era, shedding the cocoons of old in favour of something darker and leatherbound. Long gone are the days of the wistful and soft-spoken vlogger with bouncy hair – in fairness, his hair is just as voluminous (now a mop of dark, shaggy curls) – Gray is fully grown, and has traded in the twee sensibilities of his younger years for something spikier, more worn in. The California-born, Texas-raised Gray is an artist whose work is almost painfully aware of its coming of age, the agonies and the ecstasies, even the in-betweens. Beloved by fans for his revealing lyrics and penchant for angsty imagery, the singer that speaks to me today is far from all doom and gloom, the giggling he imposes between answers as his own hearty punctuation is testament to that.
We’re here to talk about new music, specifically a new single of Gray’s, which is out in a few days. “I think that people will be surprised by this new era,” he teases, sheepish and sincere. This new song is just a little piece of his life story, he says, the result of a more holistic approach to songwriting in recent months that has seen Gray briefly step back from the tales of heartbreak and infatuation that characterised the likes of Sunset Season & Kid Krow, his respective debut EP and album, to instead focus on the universalities of loneliness and family. Such a shift in perspective also brings with it a largely anthemic sound, a naturally deeper rasp and a yearning to explore the versions of himself hereto unseen by the world. These changes come as a pure necessity for Gray. Where previous projects have been written and rehearsed solely on guitar, for instance, the singer’s forthcoming project took shape entirely on piano, a circumstance of exhaustion and the fact that many of the venues on his lengthy American tour all hid iterations of the grand instrument in their basements. Which, as it turns out, made for some extremely productive downtime between shows.
Though he remains considerably tightlipped on what this new project actually entails (seriously, not a peep), a track called ‘Never Ending Song’ is our first glimpse of such spoils. Gray worked with Max Martin and Ilya Salmanzadeh, the Swedish super duo synonymous with the very best in contemporary pop, for the occasion, and does little to hide his starry eyes over the musical pinch-me-moment. “They’re the masters of pop and songwriting,” says Gray. “Every day that I worked with them, I feel like I learned something new. They’re so passionate and so detail-oriented, it just felt like going to pop boot camp or something.” Gray reveals the song is one of the first times he felt he created something truly new and exciting to him as an artist. It’s uptempo, lyrically harrowing – “I think that’s just who I am,” he counters – and the perfect introduction into a sound so sonically significant to Gray – the 80s. All too familiar with a kind of modern pop that tends to err on the side of caution, it was the era’s blend of ridiculous, kitsch and sometimes hideously uncool sonics that proved formative for not only pop music today, but also Gray’s next batch of deeply personal hits. And so that brings us to FoodHeaven, the kind of remote convenience store made for a cult movie, and presided over by a stone-faced butcher with fierce smoky eyes. In struts Gray, to the chagrin of shoppers and cashiers alike, the picture of Heathers (1988) bad-boy Jason ‘J.D.’ Dean, in a killer leather jacket emblazoned with a yellow, starry teardrop. The singer swishes through the blindingly fluorescent aisles with heady abandon, kicking past magazine stands, gyrating by the freezers, spewing lyrics atop a pile of lemons, and even leads his own hypnotic flashmob at the checkout counter.
The result is electrifying, a beaming neon spotlight with unforgettable hooks, and surely the singer’s most anthemic production yet. One wonders if Gray always knew if pulling together an ensemble like this was his destiny, having made it through the rising media star to major popstar pipeline like Troye Sivan and Justin Bieber before him. Gray was once known as ConanxCanon, some 10 years ago now, the face of a channel vlogging the life of a Texan high schooler. Embarking on cross-country road trips or jaunts to his local thrift shop, fans in their many adoring thousands would flock to his channel for a taste of something earnest, watching this familiar stranger settle into young adulthood as their youth, too, began trickling away. With hundreds and thousands of eyes on the singer as he graduated in 2017, Gray would embark on a well-documented move across the country that fall, with plans to study film at UCLA. Life, as it happens, would have other ideas. Gray would drop out of school two months into the year to sign a record deal with Republic Records, releasing the sublimely tender Sunset Season EP the following year. The project is a definitive soundtrack to extremely online adolescence, tinged with nostalgia and all the head-rushing that fledgling romance brings. Last month, breakout track ‘Crush Culture’ would get its full circle moment on the soundtrack to Netflix’s YA series Heartstopper, the heady yearning of lyrics like “And no, I don’t want your sympathy, all this love is suffocating/Just let me be sad and lonely“ understood and embraced by queer teens the world over.
Gray’s next single came to him in a dream, an experience he assures me is not exactly an irregular occurrence, but one that still remains somewhat prophetic. “I’m not like a superstitious person or anything,” he says, “but I do think that music kind of comes to you, rather than you looking for it.” This song in particular found him at 2AM, pouring out of his brain and onto the page in just a few minutes. Once completed, Gray fired over a rough draft to his best friend Ashley without so much as a word, then headed back to bed. “[It] was like my brain needed to get it out of me,” says Gray. ‘Winner’ begins with pained ruminations on the divorce of Gray’s parents, offering a tiny glimpse into the tumult of the singer’s life before pop stardom. Gray has spoken openly about his fractured family dynamic many times, dropping lyrical crumbs across past odes like Superache’s ‘Family Line’ (“God, I have my father’s eyes/But my sister’s when I cry”) and Kidd Krow’s ‘The Story’ that yearn to breakfree from the strife and heartache of blood ties. But ‘Winner’ is different. The track is balladic in the way of a Karaoke epic that should only be sung, or screamed, after two bottles of wine, kitted out with the ever-building orchestral fluorishes of Greg Kurstin (Grammy award-winning songwriter and producer to the likes of Lily Allen & Adele). The duo work in tandem to pull every last morsel from the deepest recesses of Gray’s heart and soul, telling a tale that relishes in the defeat after a lengthy struggle. “There’s no one who has ever done better, at making me feel worse/You really are the winner” he croons with force over sizzling guitar rips. Barely disguising his heartfelt platitudes on family and retribution, Gray amps up the codes of nostalgia tenfold in the track’s accompanying visuals. ‘Winner’ is a riff on a darker side of the American Dream, where the picket fence is smashed to smithereens and animosity lurks in the drains of a suburban cul de sac.