Pop

Conan Gray Wants to Spread 'Joy' With 'Overdrive,' But Makes 'No Promises' After That

Conan Gray
Dillon Matthew

Conan Gray

"Some of it will be absolutely, horribly depressing," the singer-songwriter says of his in-the-works music. "And other things will make you want to dance around."

Nearly a year into quarantine life, Conan Gray is still in his Los Angeles bedroom, drinking too much coffee and writing ultra-emotional pop songs.

With the release of his debut album Kid Krow last March, the 22-year-old became one of the most promising new artists to emerge from a pandemic-stricken year: the full-length scored a top 10 bow on the Billboard 200 chart following its Republic Records release, and earned famous champions in Taylor Swift and Elton John, among others. Meanwhile, “Heather,” the album’s somber ode to unrequited love, became a viral hit, spinning off endless memes and reaching No. 46 on the Hot 100.

If Gray’s chart breakthrough was unrelentingly bleak, “Overdrive,” his first new single of 2021 released last Friday (Feb. 19), marks a hard left turn toward positivity. With Gray pointing his vocal yearning at an oversized hook, “Overdrive” pairs a need for reckless joy with maximalist synths and a charging rhythm, as its music video imagines a night of post-pandemic wonder. It’s the type of song that hints at the singer-songwriter’s pop ambition and could serve as a mainstream breakthrough as Gray chips away at his second full-length.

Taking a break from writing and binge-watching TV -- he’s going through Gossip Girl for the first time -- Gray chatted with Billboard about “Overdrive,” how he views his upcoming music, not being able to tour behind Kid Krow and watching that album’s main producer, Dan Nigro, helm the biggest song of the year so far in Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License.”

How did “Overdrive” come together?

So I wrote it with Tobias Jesso Jr., and to be completely honest, it was really a song that we just needed at the moment. Life has been very confusing, to say the least, and “Overdrive” was just what I needed to escape from reality for a bit. It’s a fantasy -- it’s a song I wrote about meeting somebody and getting in a car and moving to a different country, just kind of escaping from reality and living without inhibitions, which we have a lot of at the moment. It was a feel-good song, a song that I felt like I really just needed to make my soul feel a little better at the moment. And it came out of me really fast, and it was a very fun experience to write it with him.

Have you and Tobias worked together before?

No, we haven’t. It was actually our first time ever meeting, and we just hit it off, and we were very much in the mood to write something that would make us feel good and want to dance around. I think he and I both tend to be quite sad when it comes to music [laughs], so I think two negatives made a positive this time.

I’m curious why you thought “Overdrive” was the right song to kick off your year.

I wanted to start 2021 off with a positive note. I think all of us are starting to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to [the pandemic], and I kind of wanted to pep myself up and spread a little bit of joy, hopefully among the fans and people listening. It’s been a very long year, and it feels like this is never going to be over. So I wanted to give people something that would help them escape from reality a little bit, and that’s exactly what I did with the music video as well -- I wanted to reminisce about when we could go outside and hope for a better future as to what “Overdrive” portrays.

Also, I spent the entire year singing “Heather,” and I love that song so much and I wrote it from such a personal, painful spot of my heart. I think, after singing the song for the entire year, I was like, “You know what? I think I’ve made people cry enough this year! Maybe try to spread a little happiness at the beginning of the new year!” But I make no promises for the rest of the year.

Speaking of which, how indicative is “Overdrive” of the rest of the music you’ll be releasing this year?

I’m not the kind of person who only listens to one type of music, and I’m also not the kind of person who writes one type of music. So the rest of the stuff that’s going to come out the rest of this year is going to be all over the place. Some of it will be absolutely, horribly depressing. And other things will make you want to dance around.

It’s been almost a year since Kid Krow was released. What’s it been like watching people discover and interact with the album, but not yet being able to perform the songs in concert?

It was interesting, because I wrote Kid Krow alone in my bedroom, as I write all of my music, and it felt oddly fitting that I released it out of my bedroom and that people listened to it all in their bedrooms, very much in the same way that I wrote it. When I wrote Kid Krow, I felt very isolated and very lonely, and for the songs to have been able to have provided any comfort in these moments of discomfort in our world right now, it made me feel like it served a purpose.

I expected to be able to sing these songs for people and see their reactions in person, but instead I got to watch it all happen on the Internet. That’s one thing I love about the Internet -- I still feel like I got to experience this album with people, and experience it in a much more intimate way than I would have if it had had a more traditional release. It felt very much like it was just me and the fans, and felt very close. I got to be able to see their opinions right in front of me, so it felt quite special.

Dan Nigro, who produced the majority of Kid Krow, also co-wrote and produced the current biggest song in the country -- Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License.” How much have you talked to him over the past month about the wild ride of the song?

I see him every single day -- he’s one of my closest friends. All of our music that we’ve made is the way that it is, in the level of intimacy, because we’re very close. So I’m very happy for him, and I’m very happy for Olivia. They’re both extremely talented people who deserve it more than anything. It’s been very fun and exciting to watch it all happen, and I’m just very proud. I’m so happy that they are receiving the recognition that they deserve.

I have to imagine it’s been a surreal few weeks for Dan.

I mean, especially now more than ever, every single thing that happens just feels very surreal, because you can’t physically see it all. You see numbers, and small things on the Internet. So I think everyone’s feeling like, it’s hard to believe anything is even happening in the middle of quarantine. It’s surreal, but exciting.

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