From The Magazine

Conan’s Way

By rewriting the rules of confessional pop, Conan Gray is bringing mystique back.

There are a dozen good places to be at 11:30 p.m. on the night of the 2024 Grammys in Los Angeles, but Bar Marmont is particularly star-studded. At the W Magazine and Gucci party, Selena Gomez and Benny Blanco whiz by hand-in-hand as Barry Keoghan and Sabrina Carpenter take photos of each other on a digital camera. Upstairs, at Lana Del Rey’s soiree, Taylor Swift is rumored to be holding court.

Still, in a room full of A-listers, Conan Gray shines, thanks to his baby blue tuxedo, and also: the hair. Gray’s glossy ringlets stand out in a crowd, staying miraculously voluminous while he traveled here from Billie Eilish’s private after-party through an atmospheric river weather event. I catch him at the bar long enough to introduce myself and confirm our breakfast date for the next morning before a blonde in a golden gown — his friend Doris Sandberg, daughter of famed pop producer Max Martin, I later learn — politely extracts him. Sandberg introduces Gray to Dua Lipa (hanging onto Callum Turner), and she seems thrilled to meet him.

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As I leave the bar, I spot Gray lingering near the door with a group that includes Troye Sivan and singer Blu DeTiger. Gray looks much more at ease than he did an hour earlier, but he is still slightly apart from the crowd. Which, I understand, is just how he likes it.

“I’m not very good at parties,” he says when we reconvene less than 10 hours later. I protest, and he clarifies. “At the core of myself, I’m more an observer of life. … I think as a songwriter, it’s actually quite important to live your life in as much of a normal way as you can, or else, you start to write music that people don’t relate to.”

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It’s still raining out, Gray’s hair is still perfect, and he looks every bit the off-duty pop star in a black AMI logo sweater and jeans. We’ve returned to Chateau Marmont, which is surprisingly quiet, although apparently we’ve just missed Kanye walking around playing his album at full volume. We are both worse for wear, but Gray is holding it together. It’s his breakfast order that betrays him: a cappuccino, toast, and a giant pile of sausage.

“I was home by 2:30,” he tells me. “It was nice to see Billie after such a great, important night for her. … But it really was a me-and- Doris night. We have other friends in town, but everyone was like, ‘I don’t want to go out in this rain.’ We still had fun.”

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There’s a reason to celebrate. The week prior, Gray, who is 25, announced his third album, Found Heaven, out on April 5. It’s a sharp turn from the Gen Z bedroom pop Gray helped define on Kid Krow and Superache, which were largely produced by his friend Olivia Rodrigo’s right-hand man, Dan Nigro. On Found Heaven, produced by Max Martin, Gray’s obsessions (romantic yearning, childhood trauma) are filtered through the jaded melodrama of ’80s pop production. These are sad songs you can dance to.

Rodrigo says it was inspiring to watch Gray push himself as an artist — once he let her listen to his music, that is. “Conan wouldn’t play me the new music for the longest time!” she writes in an email. “When I finally heard it, I was so pleasantly surprised. It’s so unlike anything I’ve ever heard him make before.”

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Equally impressive is how Gray, who has been famous since he was a 15-year-old vlogger, has managed to keep the human subjects of his love songs a mystery. When Gray’s not writing confessional ballads, he is being paparazzied at the airport with Rodrigo. Still, nobody knows who he dates. It’s as if, in addition to the music, he is bringing pre-internet fame back too.

Gray was raised on contemporary Christian music in Central Texas until an iPod touch with internet access kick-started his self-education. “I would deviously listen to music like, ‘Oh, I’m going to hell for this, but, You’re hot, then you’re cold… ’” He credits Sandberg with turning him on to the sounds of Found Heaven. “She’s my closest, closest friend, and I love her so much. And she’s also a huge inspiration for this album because she just showed me unbelievable amounts of ’80s music,” says Gray. “And when I started working with Ilya Salmanzadeh and Oscar Holter and Max Martin, I mean, they’re all ’80s lovers.”

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Sandberg and Gray met three years ago in Sweden, where he had traveled to work with Sandberg’s songwriter friends. “Conan has one of the greatest ‘ears’ in the music industry that I have ever encountered,” Sandberg says. “He thinks about music in a completely different way than anyone else I know.” As for his skill at parties, she admits, “at first I thought Conan was a little quiet and that he didn’t like me.” Now, though, “I think Conan thrives at a party when he’s with his close friends. Then he’s the life of the party.”

Gray has come to believe that the 1980s were “the last time that pop music was at its best.” He continues, “It was so unmitigated. There was no fabricated blasé about it. Everything was so intense, and they were not afraid to just do exactly what they wanted to do.” Plus, he adds, “I think maybe since I was so f*cking happy, I just wanted to listen to ’80s music all the time.”

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When Gray started writing Found Heaven, he was actually having the experiences he had previously written about longing for. “I was falling in love for the first time, and it was unbelievable,” he says. “I’m someone who very much just spent my whole life trying really hard to mute my emotions, like, ‘Get yourself together.’ And it was the first time that I was overwhelmingly just allowing myself to feel everything.” He was also touring, experiencing adulthood, making new friends. “Everything in my life was opening up and blossoming and it was just unbelievable happiness.” He pauses: “And then, of course, I went and got my heart absolutely destroyed and then spent the next six months writing the album, the most depressed I’ve ever been in my entire life.”

Gray barely posts on social media anymore, but he still speaks with a YouTuber’s nonspecific candor. He is open about his feelings around the heartbreak, but keeps this former partner’s identifying features vague. “It was one of those situations where you were just friends, and then we were together one day, and you know where you could just feel something in the air?” he says. “All of a sudden, everything was different, and it was just this unanimous understanding like, ‘Oh, we are in love with each other. Aren’t we?’” (Yes, they’re still in the same friend group, and yes, it’s awkward now.) Gray is never cagey when discussing his emotions, and you get the vibe that, even if he had never gotten famous, he’d still be this way, private yet vulnerable.

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Gray says contradictions like these can be a source of power and inspiration. Lately, he’s been giving himself permission to let the emotional highs and lows of the past two years express themselves not just as lyrics but as sounds. On Found Heaven, there are up-tempo bops about the most painful heartbreak and theatrical ballads spun from small revelations. “It was the first time I ever had fun making an album, which I hope people can hear,” he says.

What better way to let loose than to give up on explaining yourself? “I found a lot of freedom in not having to define who I am in such black-and-white terms,” he says. “As I kid, I was like, I’m this type of person, and I’m perfect. I get perfect grades, and I’m perfect, perfect, perfect. Now, I’m like, I’m just a person. Some nights I dance with my friends and have so much fun, and then other nights, I sit at home and I play Fortnite.”

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