The pop star has barely been on stage for a few seconds before the screaming begins. At the front of the venue, diehard fans have cast off any prior nerves about seeing their idol in person; now all that tightly coiled energy is sprung into cheering, crying, jumping up and down, singing every word back to every song.
I close my eyes and picture the scene: BTS at Wembley, perhaps, or One Direction at the San Siro. When I open them again, the small stage is dominated by a slightly awkward young man, school tie wrapped around his head, occupying an early afternoon slot at Brighton’s 140-capacity Komedia Studio.
And it’s sensational.
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If there’s a sense of incongruity between Conan Gray’s well-established fanbase and his relatively low billing at this year’s The Great Escape, it arguably shows the extent to which young artists like him are circumventing mainstream media.
Growing up as a bored kid in Texas, Gray began uploading videos to YouTube at the age of nine; by 12 he’d started writing songs and immediately putting them out on his channel - which, at last count, has now clocked up over 100 million views. The attention was something he’s had to get used to pretty quickly.
“It was kind of bizarre, because by the time I did my first ever tour, which was about seven months ago, everything’s just been selling out immediately,” Gray tells me via phone a week later, halfway through moving into his new house in LA.
“I mean, about a year-and-a-half ago I was pretty normal: I was going to high school, living in a small town in the middle of Texas. I didn’t know the scope of everything that was happening.”
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In conversation with Gray, it’s apparent that he regards the online development of his craft as an organic process - something that perhaps only blindsides older critics - and that the success it yielded came as a surprise.
“I didn’t really think of it like, ‘Ah, here’s my way into the industry!’” he says. “I was just a bored kid, you know? I loved writing songs so much, and I loved being able to create something out of nothing. I had no idea that was going to snowball into a whole career.”
Sharing those thoughts and ideas with a community also provided the young Gray with an outlet for dealing with his own feelings of isolation. By the age of 14 he had moved 21 times, at least in part down to his parents’ divorce and what he describes as a “messy childhood” that caused a lot of instability.
“I think it influenced the way that I write a lot,” he explains. “When you move around a ton, and you lose a lot of people, you really want to hold on to absolutely everything that you possibly can.”
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Like all great pop music, the songs on 2018’s debut EP ‘Sunset Season’ arrive pre-loaded with a sucker-punch of sadness, even when they’re full of humour and charm. (Like practically all of his artistic output, the hilarious video for ‘Crush Culture’ was devised by Gray himself, a UCLA graduate in filmmaking.)
With an album fully written and being recorded this year, the 20-year-old is going to have to get used to being adored, even if it still blows his mind.
“I still find myself, these days, very much not able to understand what’s going on with my life and all the love that I’m getting,” he says. “So I’m still recording everything, and writing everything, and trying to keep this feeling in a way that I’ll be able to understand and look back on later.”
The pleasure for his fans, of course, is getting to watch that incredible story unfold before their starstruck eyes.
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Words: Matthew Neale
Photography: Nagib Chtaib
Fashion: Justin Hamilton
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