Conan Gray Opens Up About Taylor Swift, His TikTok Hit and Embracing His Japanese Heritage
"If you were to tell me that I've succeeded, I just wouldn't believe you," Conan Gray tells PEOPLE
But the 21-year-old musical sensation is more than a worthy candidate.
The singer is months into a career-defining year after the release of Kid Krow — the perfectly curated album for life in quarantine, we might add — in March. And his ballad "Heather" has surprisingly taken over TikTok, starting an online-culture-defining trend that he didn't even expect.
From his home in L.A, the heartbroken prince talks to PEOPLE about his year in isolation, his childhood as a mixed-race kid and his love for Taylor Swift.
"I've just been sitting at home lately," he says. "I've been writing songs in bed, as I've always done."
"To be completely honest, my life, when it comes to music and stuff, really hasn't changed that much," he adds. "I'm very much a homebody and very, very shy. So I've just been sitting in bed, as I've done my whole life."
(I guess 2020 really was made for him.)
If there hadn't been a pandemic this year, Gray would've hit the road to promote his new album; instead, he's chillin’ at home sharing the occasional TikTok while the rest of the world takes "an extremely personal song" like "Heather" and makes it into Gen Z slang. "You gave her your sweater / It's just polyester," he sings on the track. "But you like her better / Wish I were Heather."
"If someone would have told me six months ago that people would have coined the phrase, ‘Oh, you're such a Heather,’ I would have been like, ‘What does that even mean?'" he says.
Well, while his song is about a "person I was so jealous of because she was so perfect and wonderful" and whose guts "I f—ing hate," TikTok users have repurposed the term "Heather" to mean something a bit more empowering.
Heather (noun | heh·thr) refers to the person your crush is in love with. "When someone says that you're Heather, they mean that everybody can't help but like you," according to Urban Dictionary.
But who actually is Heather? It's literally someone named that, Gray says.
"There's been a lot of random people on the Internet being like, 'It's me. I'm the person that Conan wrote Heather about,'" he says. "I'm just like, 'You're from Idaho. How would I have written Heather about you?'"
But has the real Heather heard the song? "No," he says.
"Heather hasn't heard the song. I mean, maybe," he questions. "Maybe she has, but I wouldn't know. We're not like ... We don't have matching friendship bracelets or something."
In fact, Gray admits that maybe Heather didn't even know him: "Classic me, just watching someone from miles and miles away," he says.
Looking at the trend that his song started though — whose hashtag has 1.2 billion views on TikTok and has even been tapped into by the TikTok star Charli D'Amelio — Gray says it's "a fun thing."
"It's funny to think that something that was very personal to me has become some cultural moment, lingo and [internet] vernacular," he says. "Now, to hear that the word 'Heather' is being used as something to empower other women, and make them feel good, it just makes me feel like there's some good things happening in the world."
And there sure are, especially in Gray's life — even if he still can't believe it.
When PEOPLE asks him "When did you realize that you've made it?” Gray replies, "If you were to tell me that I've succeeded, I just wouldn't believe you," he says. "I have very deeply rooted imposter syndrome. I can't really fathom that this is actually happening."
But Conan, it is! Kid Krow debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart (the highest pop solo debut since Camila Cabello's in 2018), his tracks "Heather" and "Maniac" have more than 400 million plays combined on Spotify and Elton John stans him.
"I let it stay surreal, because I think the moment you let it sink in, it starts to become a little bit too much," he says. "So I'd rather just be kind of aloof, and realize that this is such a miraculous, incredible thing that happened."
A young, teenaged Gray — before TikTok was even a thing — got his start on YouTube, making vlogs and covering songs from his childhood bedroom in Georgetown, Texas, where, as a Japanese-American, he often felt like the odd one out.
"Being raised mixed race in a town that's primarily white mostly just made me feel so much like an outsider as a kid. I didn't know where I belonged," he says. "I didn't feel like I belonged with the white kids, because they were all like, 'You're Asian,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, I am Asian. What about it?'"
"But then also there were no other Asian kids in my school for me to find comfort in and relate with. I was just so confused about where I belonged, and because of that, I ended up becoming so, so, so, so shy," he adds. "I didn't know who to turn to. I was definitely the type of kid who was eating lunch in the library by himself, because I felt more comfortable there."
Gray, however, admits that his introspective, shy nature — propelled by his Japanese identity in the middle of white America — led him to become a songwriter.
"I think nowadays, I'm so, so grateful for the person that I am," he says. "But as a kid, I was so confused. All that confusion and all that time spent on the sidelines, watching people live their normal white, suburban lives, made me into a songwriter. I'm very grateful for that."
And, as a songwriter, Gray also had a different mentor: Taylor Swift's discography.
"Taylor was such and still is a very massive influence on my songwriting," he says. "I say this all the time, but she was really the person who taught me everything that I know about pop music and about songwriting."
"She knows how to tell a story. Anybody who listens to a Taylor Swift song knows that she's just the master of storytelling," he adds about the "Lover" singer. "She will always be my icon."
Oh, and Swift, 30, has even listened to his music — and she loves it.
Soon after the release of his album, the "Cardigan" queen praised Kid Krow, sharing a screengrab of the song "Wish You Were Sober" on Instagram.
"Obsessed with this whole album," she wrote. "But THIS SONG RIGHT HERE is a masterpiece. Not trying to be loud but this will be on repeat for my whole life."
For Gray, seeing his "icon" share his music was "an absolute mind-blowing moment," especially since the tracks are so personal to him.
"My main goal any time I write a song is just hope that people are able to relate or find any comfort in the songs," he says.
"It's oftentimes the songs that you think people will relate to the least that people end up relating to the most," he adds, "because a lot of our deepest, darkest secrets, we think that we're the only ones, but we all feel everything."
Kid Krow is available wherever you stream music. Catch Conan Gray in PEOPLE's Ones to Watch in the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere now.
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