Conan Gray became one of pop’s newest success stories earlier this year, when his debut album, Kid Krow, was released in mid-March and scored a top 10 debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart. The following six months have continued the upward momentum for Gray — even as they have coincided with a pandemic that has scrapped his 2020 touring plans and kept him stuck in his Los Angeles home.
“My album came out the week that everyone went into lockdown,” he tells Billboard, “and it’s existed only in the lockdown, so I have no idea what kind of a world that it’s going to eventually return to.”
Whenever the world does open back up, the 21-year-old Gray is going to be one of the safest bets in modern pop, as he’s set himself up for a bright future beyond his debut album. Here are five reasons why.
1. He’s got his first real chart hit.
Although the magnetic synth-pop track “Maniac” served as Gray’s streaming breakthrough ahead of the release of Kid Krow, “Heather” has morphed from a TikTok phenomenon into a legitimate chart hit. Thus far the song has climbed to No. 46 on the Hot 100 and accrued 107.4 million on-demand streams in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data; it’s also gathering steam at radio, climbing to No. 32 on the Adult Pop Songs chart and eying the Pop Songs chart in the coming weeks.
“Heather” is not your typical TikTok-grown hit: instead of sporting a catchy hook that’s ripe for looping or inspiring a dance challenge, the somber acoustic ballad has somehow turned the story of unrequited love into meme fodder. With Gray singing about how he’s balled up his anger and directed it at Heather, the person his crush actually likes, social media users have adopted the concept of a “Heather” as the focus of posts both emotional and self-deprecating.
“To have millions of people make videos and explain their own situations,” explains Gray, “and also poke fun at the concept of Heather and coin it into a term now — where people will be like, ‘Oh, she’s such a Heather’ — it really took this traumatic experience for me, this experience of being in love with someone who didn’t love me back, and made it into something so fun for me. It’s helped heal over the scar.”
Gray says that “Heather” almost didn’t make the final track list for Kid Krow, but noticed fans reacting to the song soon after the album was released in March. “I was quite nervous to have people listen to the song, and pretty immediately, a lot of people reached out and said, ‘Oh, I’ve felt that way as well,’” he says. “And maybe three or four months after the album came out, I noticed a lot of little things — people making covers, things like that. I kept [mentioning] the song all the time in interviews, because it’s just my favorite song off the album. It’s hard to tell exactly when things flipped, but it was a little moment, maybe a month or two ago, where I was like, ‘Oh, this is actually happening.’”
2. He’s TikTok fluent.
Part of the reason why Gray was able to sniff out the TikTok success of “Heather”: he’s plugged in to the video-sharing platform more than most modern artists. “My screen time on TikTok is genuinely two to three hours a day — I wish I was kidding!” he says with a laugh.
Even as TikTok itself faces an uncertain future in the U.S., Gray — who also has 2.7 million Instagram followers 1 million Twitter followers — has developed an understanding of social media trends and culture that has endeared him to fans, especially considering how much he personally interacts with them. The singer-songwriter says that social media has been helpful for this mental health during the pandemic as well.
“Something about being on TikTok, and seeing all these people my age talking about their lives, makes me really feel like I can relate to them,” he says. “I think that ‘Heather’ having its moment on TikTok and on all social media made me feel like, ‘My life is very weird, but at least I can relate to my peers right now’ — which makes me feel like, maybe I’m not that weird.”
3. He’s got an album that holds up.
The No. 5 debut of Kid Krow on the Billboard 200 albums chart in March, with 49,000 equivalent album units, represented a significant win for Gray, who had developed an impressive fan base but had yet to score a Hot 100 hit at that point. Yet the fact that Kid Krow continues to perform well, half a year after its release — the album comes in at No. 52 on this week’s Billboard 200, and has reached 300,000 equivalent album units to date — is an indication that the album’s appeal has extended far beyond Gray’s most devoted supporters.
Kid Krow is informed by the music of Taylor Swift and Lorde, two songwriting influences that Gray has been proud to champion — songs like “Comfort Crowd” and “Checkmate” showcase the type of harmonic flourishes and emotional vulnerability that can be traced back to those two pop savants. Yet the album also feels fresh in Gray’s unflinching portrayal of himself and the world around him. He’s not afraid to be nasty, or bleak; even when he’s lashing out at the complications of young romance or his own ennui, he remains likable enough to make the listener immediately root for him to figure it out, and relatable enough to make the personal feel universal.
“When I was working on the album, I guess I didn’t realize in the moment how depressing it gets at times,” he says. Gray wrote the album having left his small hometown of Georgetown, Tex., and trying to navigate a hectic touring world that he never thought he’d enter so quickly.
“It was just really confusing to me, and I think you can hear in the album how confused I was about life,” he admits. “After the album came out and I started doing interviews and talking to fans, people were like, ‘Wow, this album is really sad,’ and I’m like, ‘Now that you mention it, it’s sad, isn’t it!’ But I didn’t realize that in the moment. Hearing people say that they found a lot of recovery and comfort in this album makes me feel really good, because that’s what I found while I was writing the album.”
4. He’s got some famous fans.
Speaking of Swift, Taylor herself shouted out Kid Krow and the song “Wish You Were Sober” on her Instagram story a few days after the album’s release: “Obsessed with this whole album, but THIS SONG RIGHT HERE is a masterpiece,” she wrote. “Not trying to be loud but this will be on repeat for my whole life.”
More recently, Gray received high praise from Sir Elton John on the pop legend’s Apple Music radio show, Rocket Hour. “You are such a young, brilliant songwriter with a huge future ahead of you,” John raved to Gray during the chat.
Gray admits that it’s hard to wrap his head around artists of that caliber recognizing his music at this point in his career. “It’s so surreal, above all, and such an honor,” he says. “I never want to be jaded of that. [When that happens], it’s time to fanboy and text all your friends and stuff like that.”
5. He’s already thinking about his next move.
As “Heather” has been climbing the Hot 100, Gray has been stuck at home like everyone else in the pandemic, binge-watching TV series in quarantine — so far he’s been riveted by Fleabag, as well as the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People after falling in love with the book — while also drawing upon his past and present for songwriting inspiration. At this point, Gray says he’s “mostly just sitting in my bedroom, working on whatever next thing I’m gonna be doing, whether it’s my second album or something else, I’m not really sure.
“I think everybody in quarantine right now is kind of frozen in time,” he continues. “And for me, it’s kind of been a moment of me having to, for the first time in a really long time, take in everything that’s happened, and also to comb through old memories that I hadn’t really had time to process yet. I’ve found myself writing a lot about the past, and also movie characters and book characters and things like that, because my social life is as dry as a bone right now. There’s nothing going on, I’m not dating anyone, I’m not in love or anything, so I kind of have been like, ‘What do I even have to say?’ But I have so much to say about my past and so many things that really took me by surprise in the quarantine.”
He’s also looking forward to heading back on the road, whenever he’s safely able to — not just because he misses seeing his fans, but also to see the impact that “Heather” has had on his career in person. “Everything that has happened over the past six months of quarantine, ‘Heather’ included, is hard for me to really visualize,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll really understand what’s happening with the song until maybe I get to see it on tour. It feels very surreal. But I’m so grateful.”