"This town will never change / People come and go, it's all the same," observes Conan Gray in 'Idle Town', his debut single written about the tumbleweed experiences of growing up in the small-town retirement community of Georgetown, Texas. Gray says about his childhood, "I think every small-town kid is just really bored. And I was just a lonely, bored kid," so at the age of twelve, he started writing songs.
Enter a New Zealand connection: "Hearing the Lorde album was a cataclysmic experience for me," says Gray. "It was the first time I’d heard pop music that was about normal suburban life." And that sharp real-world influence can be heard all throughout Gray's debut 'Sunset Season' EP (which he wrote every song of himself), from the anthemic 'Generation Why' in which he addresses the woes of Generation Y ("'Cause we are the helpless, selfish, one of a kind / Millennium kids, that all wanna die / Walking in the street with no light inside our eyes / We are the worthless, cursed with too much time / We get into trouble and lose our minds"), to 'Greek God' which criticises bullying culture ("You and all your friends have to walk in a squad / 'Cause y'all are so insecure / Oh, overcompensate 'cause you're sizing me up / The oldest trick in the book").
Now 20, Gray continues to foster familial feelings between him and his peers, hoping to bring comfort to the lives of online followers and hometown friends alike, after having survived a troubled home-life during his teenage years, with nothing more than Garageband and a cheap microphone taped to a lamp to help him fulfil his musical aspirations. "I didn’t have a home or money, but I knew that I was going to be okay,” says Conan. "I want people to know that kids from small towns can do great things."
MUST-LISTEN: 'Crush Culture', 'Idle Town', 'Generation Why'.
YOU WILL LIKE, IF YOU LIKE: Lorde, Troye Sivan, Thomston, LANY, The Aces, Allie X, Lauv... and any nostalgic movie with a high school prom in it.
COUP DE MAIN: Your EP ‘Sunset Season’ is set at a school called Sunset High. What made you want to create this world which the EP lives in?
CONAN GRAY: 'Sunset High' is a fictitious high school that I created to represent the world that I was living in when I wrote this EP. I went to your typical American high school and was living in your typical tiny Texan town when I wrote all of the songs off of 'Sunset Season', so it just seemed fitting. I think everyone can immediately recognise that typical small town that I grew up in, and I think when I was writing this EP alone in my bedroom, I was really trying to stick my teenage years into a time capsule so I could listen back to these songs later and remember exactly what it was like to be 18-years-old.
CDM: You’re so involved in every part of your career - writing every song on the EP, and you also directed and edited your video for ‘Crush Culture’. Is it important for you to be involved in every part of your music?
CONAN: Honestly, I think I’m so involved in everything mostly because I’m an insane control freak haha! When I’m writing a song, I instantly know exactly what it’s going to sound like, what the music video will be, what it’ll sound like live, everything. I’m a perfectionist, so I’m extremely hands on to make sure that the final product is exactly what I envisioned when I first write the songs. Even if it means writing all the songs myself, directing all the video shoots with huge staffs myself, editing all the music videos myself, I just want to make sure it’s right. Plus, I adore creating, so the more fun creative work I can do, the better!!
CDM: In ‘Generation Why’ you sing, "'Cause we are the helpless, selfish, one of a kind / Millennium kids, that all wanna die,” which is a really apt commentary on a generation. What was running through your mind while writing those lines?
CONAN: Growing up, I always heard my generation of kids get talked down on. Being from a small town, nobody really ever expected me and my friends to do anything with our lives. Older generations all thought we were lazy, helpless, and worthless citizens, but I think the fact that me and all of my friends moved out of our small town the second we could to go to college and have brighter futures proves how FALSE that assumption is.
CDM: What is it about the imagery of sunrise (that you refer to in ‘Idle Town’) and sunset that you’re so attracted to?
CONAN: My senior year of high school really felt like the “sunset” of my childhood. The ending of an era, the end of those years where I was young and didn’t really have much to do. Still too young to move out, but just on the cusp of venturing into the real world. Most of my fondest memories from high school were staring at the sunset after school, nothing to do, just me and my friends wasting time and dreaming about getting out - 'Sunset Season' to me is a term that encompasses that season of my life.
CDM: How does your songwriting process work?
CONAN: It’s very strange. Different. Every. Single. Time. It always starts with some kind of random word or line that pops into my head for NO REASON, and then all of a sudden a whole song just pours out of me, usually pretty quickly. Most only take a couple minutes to write. When I’m writing, it’s like saying something that I’d been wanting to say for so, so long, but didn’t have the words to say it. Writing music is my way of processing all the chaos that’s in my head, that’s why I’m constantly writing, usually a couple songs a day. Songwriting is, without a doubt, my favourite part of what I do. I think that’s why I’m so stubborn to write all my music myself, because I love the process and I want it all to myself hahaha.
CDM: Do you write your lyrics specifically for the songs, or do you write poems or prose and then evolve them into song-form?
CONAN: Lyrics start in song-form always. Just pops into my head, totally unexpectedly. Usually when I'm just sitting around. I swear I’ve written hundreds of songs on the toilet. I wrote 'Idle Town' in the shower!
CDM: Lyrically, what's your favourite song that you’ve written?
CONAN: 'Lookalike' off of my EP is probably one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written. I’ve heard it hundreds of times, sing it every night during tour, but it almost always makes me cry. I think everybody in life has that one love that you know you’ll never truly be over. That one love that was so big and crazy and beautiful, that you’ll always look for little pieces of them in your future loves. The way that they look, the way they act and talk. I definitely have that person - I wrote an entire EP about them.
CDM: What do you hope for people to take away from listening to your music?
CONAN: My one goal with my music is to make a connection with the people who listen. I was a very lonely kid, I think that’s what drove me to music. Music is the truest way to know that the feelings you feel are completely normal, and that the rest of the world is feeling them too. I hope that when people listen to my music, they know what I’m feeling. I hope they relate.
CDM: If C.O.N.A.N. was an acronym, what would each letter stand for?
C - constantly.
O - overthinking.
N - noodle head.
CDM: You’re one of our 'must-know’ artist picks for 2019… who are yours?
CONAN: Girl In Red. Love her music to death, so much so that I’m taking her to open on tour with me! SO STOKED. Makes my songwriter head explode - extremely talented, and something new. Not that same old tired songwriter trope. Very special.
CDM: If you could steal one thing without consequence what would it be?
CONAN: Weapons of mass destruction, and hide them so nobody can use them. Nobody needs that much power.
CDM: If you were a country, what would be your national anthem?
CONAN: This is a silly question when we all know that 'National Anthem' by Lana Del Rey is already the national anthem of the world??? Next.
Watch the music video for 'Crush Culture' below...