Conan Gray Is Finally Having Fun

conan gray found heaven interview

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Conan Gray is dancing to heal his broken heart. 

Known for being the leading sad-boy of the bedroom pop scene, the singer’s changed his tone on the new album Found Heaven. “I say this album is the first time I’m actually having fun making an album,” Conan tells me. “I’m smiling as I’m recording the vocals and I think you can hear it. I hope people can take this album and its joy and can make them feel a little bit of happiness.” 

He’s right. You can hear the joy, a large part of which stems from the album’s heavy ’80s influence — to me, Found Heaven is an exploration of the healing power of the dancefloor. And what better time to be on the dancefloor than the ’80s? “No time to mourn, I’m on the dancefloor,” Conan sings on the satirical synth-filled song ‘Bourgeoisieses’. When I first heard the album, I was transfixed by the new sound. Found Heaven sounds like a ’80s coming-of-age film. It’s worlds apart from Kid Krow or Superache. It’s vampy, fun, and makes you want to move regardless of how sad the lyrics might be. Standout songs from the album like ‘Found Heaven’, ‘Bourgeoisieses’, ‘Boys & Girls’, ‘Lonely Dancers’, and ‘Never Ending Story’ bring to mind ‘Smalltown Boy’ by Bronski Beat, ‘Girls On Film’ by Duran Duran, ‘Here Comes The Rain Again’ by Eurythmics, and other ’80s classics. The type of songs that infect your whole body. 

conan gray found heaven interview

Although the ’80s influences are clear, they come through in a style that suits Conan’s persona incredibly well. But what drew Conan, born in 1998, to the 80s?

“Do you want to hear the real story?” he asks.

(Of course.)

“I was staying in this house with my best friend and we made this gigantic bowl of chilli and also brownies and ice cream,” he says. “We sit down and we’re like, ‘What should we watch today?’ We click the movie Dirty Dancing. All of a sudden we were just bawling at this movie… I’d never seen it before which is crazy because I’ve seen other 80s classics.”

The inspiration behind Found Heaven suddenly became very clear. “I thought ‘Oh my God. I’d love to just live in this little world a little longer,” Conan says. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Conan grew up listening to ’80s music, given how well he adapts to the sound. But it’s only something he’s found later in his life. “I discovered ’70s and ’80s music a lot later than other people, which I find to be a privilege because I was raised on strictly Christian music,” Conan says. “I wasn’t allowed to listen to anything else. In my adulthood I discovered [’70s and ’80s music] and it’s been really special.” Above all else, however, Conan “was very inspired by Patrick Swayze”. 

A large part of Conan’s new sound was fostered by Max Martin, who co-wrote and co-produced much of the album. Max is responsible for some of the best pop songs ever, including ‘…Baby One More Time’, ‘I Kissed A Girl’, ‘Since U Been Gone’, ‘U + Ur Hand’, and ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, to name a few. While some might be intimidated working with someone as legendary as Max, Conan — who is best friends with Max’s daughter, Dorris — thought it was a “natural, fun, and super casual” process.

“Max is obviously the greatest of all time and it was a huge pleasure and privilege to work under him and see him do his thing,” Conan says. “We’d already known each other for a few years at that time so it was really natural.” Although Conan is known for his beautiful and sometimes soul-crushing songwriting, he struggles with writing in studios. “I’m not the kind of person who really loves to go into the studio and be like ‘Let’s write a song’. It’s actually really hard for me. I don’t do a very good job.” However, he says things felt different working with Max: “It was really fun because we were just hanging out. He’d be like ‘Oh I’ve had this melody in my head, can you think of some words for it?’ and I’d spend a few weeks going ‘Oh what if I said this’, and then I’d send it back. It ended up making the whole thing just really fun and easy going and light.” 

Don’t get him wrong, though. Conan is still very much recovering from his first heartbreak. Found Heaven still has pockets of Conan’s signature stinging sadness. ‘Alley Rose’, Conan tells me, wasn’t one of the songs he was smiling through when he recorded it, which makes sense; I don’t know how anyone can smile singing “Well, how the hell do you think I feel?/I waited all year at your feet/Like maybe you’d love me”. But this album’s different. Even the most melancholy filled song is worlds apart from his previous works like ‘Heather’, ‘The Cut That Always Bleeds’, or ‘Astronomy’. 

The difference probably lies somewhere in the fact that Conan has now experienced falling in love for the first time. On his previous records, love was something Conan was fighting to find in the wrong people. “I felt like I was floating with one foot off the ground for a solid six months of my life,” he says. “I felt deranged.” While that relationship is over now, Conan says he doesn’t want those feelings to go away: “I needed the music to reflect how different I felt. This album is such a beautiful little capsule of a really interesting, extreme time in my life that I never felt before.” It’s a sweet concept, to have a treasure trove of your first serious relationship. There’s something powerful in paying homage to such a formative experience. “That’s why I love this album,” Conan says. “It’s so different from anything I’ve ever done.”

conan gray found heaven interview

Conan’s music has always been a reference point for my own experiences. His music was the closest thing that explained my own turbulent dating life. That yearning to be loved deeply resonated. Now, Found Heaven explores Conan’s first relationship as I’m currently navigating my own. But the connection goes deeper than that. Growing up through the Catholic system, the concept of heaven and hell is emotionally charged for me. For Conan, who grew up in a strict Christian household, heaven has become his own personal paradise. “It’s a message to the listener saying ‘No matter what, you have to find what makes you happy in life’”, he says. “No matter if it’s not what your parents approve of or what you expected.” Hearing lyrics like “Don’t be scared, little child/You’re no demon … Don’t be scared, little child/Of that feeling/You’re in love/You found Heaven” would’ve done a lot for me growing up. It’s doing a lot for me now.

Not only was Found Heaven a way for Conan to find his happy place, it was a way for him to make peace with what his life currently looks like. “While I was writing [Found Heaven] I was realising I’d had this very specific idea of what I wanted out of my life,” Conan says. “I wanted to go to college and graduate, then get married and have a house with a white picket fence with a golden retriever because it wasn’t what I had growing up. I wanted that perfect happy family life. I didn’t get any of that, at least not yet.” While it might hurt to realise your life has taken shape in a way you didn’t expect, Conan doesn’t regret a thing. “I realised that I’m actually very happy with what I’ve got,” he says. “I’ve landed exactly where I think I should be … I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

One integral part of the world Conan has built for himself is his friendship with Olivia Rodrigo. “Olivia is Olivia. She’s just so wonderful. Truly one of the best people I’ve ever met,” Conan shares after I asked what their friendship means to him. “To watch her work and her career just grow and grow and grow is so fun and magical,” he adds, admitting, “I actually haven’t been able to watch the Guts tour yet which has been really heartbreaking for me so I hope I can go soon.” It’s one thing to see your own career prosper, but it would be a pretty cool experience to watch your best friend’s do the same. “There’s nobody else on earth who I can think of who deserves it more and I’m just really happy to watch her shine,” Conan says. “Other than that, it’s just a completely normal friendship. We just sit in the car and eat In ‘N’ Out.” When I assure Conan that their friendship feels authentic on the outside, he’s thankful: “Well I’m glad it feels authentic cause I have to pay her millions to do it. My pockets are dry.” 

Despite being such good friends, Conan and Olivia haven’t done a song together yet, and unfortunately for fans, a collab’s not front of mind right now. “Just because I have favourites doesn’t mean I want to be on them,” Conan says. “‘All American Bitch’ is my favourite but Conan Gray does not need to be on that song… I love ‘Lacy’. When she played that one for me I immediately said, ‘This is my song’.” But what song would Conan want Olivia to be on? “I think a song we bonded over was an old song of mine called ‘Lookalike’,” he says. “I wrote it when I was probably 17 but when I listen to it now I think of her.”

I make a suggestion — what if Olivia did the female side of ‘Heather’?

“I don’t think anyone wants to be Heather,” Conan laughs, “[but] she is an actress and she’s good.”

I think it’d be the role of a lifetime. 

Conan’s music is in heavy rotation on my sad, heartbreak playlists. But what music’s on Conan’s heartbreak playlist? “I was obsessed with ‘Crush’ [by Ethel Cain]. That one was really hitting. I had ‘White Flag’ by Dido on repeat when I was going through that breakup,” Conan says. One song, however, became Conan’s obsession. “I also had ‘Kaleidoscope’ by Chappell Roan, which is one of the best songs ever written. Every time I see Chappell I just go ‘Why isn’t that my song?’ I love it. So I would say these four songs: ‘Crush’, ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ [by Wolf Alice], ‘White Flag’ and ‘Kaleidoscope’”. It’s a playlist made in depression heaven, I tell Conan. “Or hell”, he counters. 

So what has all this heartbreak and soul-searching taught Conan? “I learned that vulnerability is always worth it,” he says. “I learn that fucking up is necessary”. 

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and writer at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

Image: Supplied