In an alternative timeline, 20-year-old Conan Gray would be in class right now. In 2017, he was a high school senior in Texas who had just come off UCLA’s waitlist. Then, his music video for “Idle Town,” a homemade folk-pop ode to his coming-of-age in Georgetown, Texas—the visuals show Gray singing into a plastic water bottle, suburban streets, a friend blowing out the candles on a heart-shaped birthday cake—started amassing millions of views on YouTube.
At the time, it had seemed like just another upload to Gray—one video among the many, in which he usually sat in a plant-filled bedroom and talked about bullying, or shared thrift-store hauls and the contents of his sketchbook. But it changed his life, he tells me in a boba shop in Manhattan’s East Village, garnering fans and music label attention. Now, his channel is more likely to offer music videos and tour vlogs.
Still, even after Gray signed with a major label, his online presence maintains that DIY feel, honest and unpolished. The singer-songwriter still does it all himself, because that’s how he likes it. When it comes to songwriting, Gray prefers his bedroom over studio sessions: “I met with a bunch of people I’d looked up to since I was a kid. But in the end, it was the stuff that I wrote on my own and the stuff that was personal that ended up being the best [fit],” he says. His merch and single covers feature his own handwriting and drawings. Until recently, he also wrote and directed his music videos—though he’s still coming up with all the concepts.
Gray kept both hands on the wheel for the release of his 2018 EP Sunset Season, as well as in preparation for his debut album, which is coming out next year. As more people got involved with the new music, he was worried that his vision would be lost. But looking through the tracklist recently, he realized that wouldn’t be the case. “It’s just me. Every single one of the songs, I literally recorded on my phone at one point,” he says.
Right now, Gray isn’t in class—he’s been on the road since last fall. In fact, he’s deep into his 26-date Comfort Crowd tour. But between the backpack and oversized cardigan, he blends in with every other student walking around Saint Marks Place. “I miss being around people my age,” he says. “I miss being around people who I feel like understand me, and I understand them.”
He doesn’t necessarily need school for that, though. His desire to be understood and form connections is why he writes music and goes on tour. According to him, pop music makes feelings easy to understand, even the hard-to-explain ones. “It was just like a spark in my head,” he said. “No one ever understood what I was going through until I was telling them in songs.” That doesn’t mean the life that goes along with songwriting has been easy to adjust to. “The past year has been a lot of me figuring out how to understand my life with people watching it,” he says. “I’ve always been a chameleon; you just have to figure out how to be in certain situations. I always shoved myself into new roles—with going on stage and doing all these things I’d never done before, I had to do that as well.”
He talks openly of his younger self—in our interview, on his YouTube channel, even on stage—his loneliness, having to adapt to a constantly shifting childhood, and the constant feeling that he was out of place. Gray says he’s from Texas, because that’s the longest he’s ever spent in one place, but as a child, because of divorces and money and life, he moved around a lot, always adjusting to new homes, schools, and friends.
In his songs, Gray tells small-town stories of loneliness: of two boys who fall in love, friends who promise each other they’ll one day have more, or exes who say one thing and do another (as in his latest single, “Maniac”). “I was just a really lonely kid, and I really wanted a family, because mine was a mess,” he said. When he realized his songs were striking a chord in people, he thought there might be something in it, and that he could build a community of his own. “I think that’s a big goal of mine, to not be so lonely, ultimately.”
Perhaps, he says, he attracts people who have gone through a lot too. “Things happen to us that we feel have only happened to us, and that’s how I felt until people started listening to my music,” Gray says. “We’re all human, and we all have something in common, no matter how different we may feel.” Those who grew up watching him iron patches onto his backpack and drinking Keurig coffee while chatting to the camera won’t find as much of that content on his channel these days. But Gray still holds tightly to the ethos that drew them all in to begin with. He’s created a little world that serves both him and his fans: He plays hangman with them on Twitter; they create inside jokes.
During his fall shows, he’s been playing an unreleased song called “The Story,” which will be on the forthcoming album. At New York’s Terminal 5, he introduces the song with a little preamble: “I didn’t have much of a family, and I kind of felt like I was alone out there,” he says softly. “And there were a lot of times growing up, when I was little, that I just didn’t really think that I was gonna make it past 12 or 13, you know?”
It’s not exactly the same as his art-tea videos, but watching him treat a gaggle of thousands like confidants is equally special. “I’d like to think that people are able to listen to my music and know exactly what I’ve gone through, and also know that I am telling them the truth—that I’m telling them a secret,” he says. He is honest—sometimes unglamorously so. To him, there’s no point in being anything less.
Originally Appeared on Vogue