“My whole life I’ve been a massive outsider: I’m half Japanese, half white, but neither one of those groups of people accepted me,” says Gray, who grew up a military brat and had lived in California, Japan and Texas by the time he was 11. He says hearing Adele’s “Daydreamer” made him realize he could channel those emotions into songwriting. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can tell people how I feel and they will actually listen.’”
Gray wrote his first song at 12, developing his lo-fi sound on acoustic guitar and GarageBand. He joined YouTube in 2013 when he was 14 years old, initially using the platform as a comical vlog (even posting a video in 2014 serendipitously titled “How to Get YouTube Famous”). Two years later, Gray began posting covers and original songs, which he found to be as cathartic as creating music. “The internet was my safe space,” says Gray. “I didn’t [post my music] because I wanted attention, I loved the process.”
During his senior year of high school in March 2017, Gray uploaded a song called “Idle Town,” which he wrote about his Texas hometown. Within months, the video had millions of views. The song helped him earn a scholarship to UCLA, but Gray quickly found himself in the middle of a label bidding war as he began college. “I didn’t even know if [the offers] were real,” says Gray. “I was so naive, and it became so much more than I was expecting really fast.”
Republic Records stood out, he says, because of its roster including Post Malone, Lorde and Taylor Swift -- the latter two “nurtured me as a songwriter,” Gray says, adding that Swift is his favorite songwriter of all time. After signing in August 2018, he dropped out of college and released his debut EP Sunset Season in November that year.
Gray spent 2019 on the road, selling out two headlining tours in North America and one in Europe while simultaneously recording Kid Krow. The album sees Gray at his most vulnerable, talking about feelings he admits he’s “pretty ashamed to think or talk about.” But as he reflects on how people have related to his candid songs in the past, he declares, “Who gives a fuck?”
His raw lyrics have landed Gray the label “gen-z’s ascendant king of sad boy pop,” but as the 21-year-old recognizes himself, his peers are equally open about feelings. That relatability is proving to be impactful for Gray: Soon after Kid Krow’s release, he’ll embark on his biggest world tour yet, playing 1,500-person capacity venues in Europe this spring.
Before the end of 2020, Gray plans to release more new music that continues to embrace and normalize sadness. “People feed off the fact that I’m perfectly okay with being sad,” he says. “We all act like we’re so goddamn different, but in reality, we all have a lot of the same problems and feel a lot of the same things.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Feb. 29, 2020 issue of Billboard.