The first Youtube video Conan Gray remembers seeing is “Teardrops On My Guitar” by Taylor Swift. It was Adele’s 19 that shaped his songwriting — he’s 20, now — and for him, Lorde was a gateway to pop music that wasn’t just about partying, sex, and drugs. “Lorde really, to me, was just that first person that made me realize that pop music can actually mean a lot more,” Gray told Paper when they interviewed him in April, and where he also mentions his obsession with Adele, and the impact Taylor. But it was Lorde’s Pure Heroine that influenced him the most: “It was the first time I’d heard pop music that I’d actually been able to relate to, and that was when my obsession with pop music began and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since.”
It’s not surprising that Conan found an anchor in such a relatable and universal artform. Born in San Diego in 1998 to an Irish father and a Japanese mother, Conan moved around a lot at a young age — including a two-year stint in Hiroshima, Japan as a toddler when his grandfather had cancer. After his parents eventual divorce, instability in his early life continued, due to both his parent’s financial struggles, remarriages, and moving between their two households.
Detailing all the minutia his young life in a “Draw My Life” video he created for his Youtube fans when the following hit 100,000, Gray notes how he turned to the internet for support and began his own Youtube channel for the first time in fourth grade. After moving through a couple different channels, Gray used the support that fanbase to begin making music. One those channels eventually became a million strong, giving Gray the kind audience that most young musicians dream finding.
While he was still in high school in 2017, he released his first-ever single “Idle Town,” a self-produced music video examining the sleepy Texas town he called home — a clip that went on to amass millions Spotify and Youtube streams. A practically perfect, super intimate pop song, the track was an instant hit, and only the first indication Gray’s songwriting abilities. After high school, Gray moved back to California to attend UCLA, but quickly took a break from college to focus on his musical career and began working with Republic Records in early 2018 following the surprise success his first single. Quickly revealing a penchant for making bedroom pop that sounds big enough to fill stadiums, and updates rote pop lyrics with funny, sometimes scathing assessments modern culture, Gray’s built-in following and the support Republic kicked his career into high gear.