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Photo: Dillon Matthew / @dillonmatthewc
Conan Gray is an American YouTuber turned singer-songwriter, most well-known for his songs about heartbreak and unrequited love. Throughout his career, Conan has written songs like “Crush Culture”, “Heather”, and “Maniac”, all of which passionately describe his past crushes and the grief that accompanied them. Although his lyrics of heartache and yearning are super relatable, the pop singer has never actually been in a relationship.
“You will probably be surprised to learn that I’ve never actually dated anyone. It’s embarrassing! Dating makes me nervous,” he confesses during an interview with GQ. “All my best friends are dating people, though, so I live vicariously through them”.
So, how does he do it? Despite being chronically single, how does the 23-year-old pull off writing these songs so well? How does he find a way to describe the growing pains of relationships - something he hasn’t experienced at 100%?
For Conan, songwriting has been his salvation during the pandemic. In an interview with Nylon, Conan talks about his latest album “Superache” and goes into detail about achieving vulnerability on this record. He says that writing at home has helped him write things matter-of-factly. “I don’t feel the need to create a ruse about who I am. I just write for my own sake and I had no intentions of becoming a singer”.
In his YouTube video ♪ how to write a song ♪, Conan talks about his own songwriting process. He describes songwriting as very abstract and complex, yet not necessarily a hard thing to do. He poses the rhetorical question:
“Like, conceptually, what is a song?”
Conan says he tends to write songs in a certain format, which usually goes like this:
Photo: Conan Gray / YouTube
This is a very basic model of a song, which is what most pop songs are like.
Conan uses “Idle Town”, his most popular song at the time of filming this video, to illustrate his own songwriting process.
He always starts out with a tune or jingle of some sort. It’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly this tune might come from, as this is usually something that just pops into his head. This is something he believes that everyone does, we just don’t realize that we do it. “When you do that weird thing where you just make a little jingle for something - that’s actually how you write a song. That’s the beginning parts of writing a whole song”. Whenever you have one of those little ideas or random tunes that pop into your head, he encourages songwriters or aspiring ones to record it on your phone. Turning this snippet into a whole song takes a lot of practice and faith in yourself.
Although coming up with a tune and structure for a song isn’t too time-consuming for him, writing the lyrics afterwards takes a long time. He describes it as the analytical part of the process. After he has the structure of the song, he goes back to the tune and thinks about what words would fit into it. All the lyrics have to fit perfectly— it’s like a puzzle to him. “That’s probably my favourite part of songwriting - is the part where I get to play with words,” he expresses in the video.
When getting stuck on a lyric, Conan recommends checking out RhymeZone. The site has various filters you can play around with, such as “near rhymes” and homophones. With music, he assures that perfect rhymes aren’t always necessary. Another source that Conan finds helpful are thesauruses. Anything can help with songwriting - it’s like poetry in a sense.
He started “Idle Town” on a verse, even though he typically starts out with choruses. Conan also emphasizes that songwriting isn’t going to be the same every time, nor is the process going to be the same for everyone.
He never sits down with a guitar in hand with the purpose of writing a song. It just doesn’t work for him. Doing it this way stifles his creativity because he’s limited to what chords progress right. When he does it this way, he just ends up with really boring and uninspired songs that aren’t special in the slightest. He simply starts singing something and adds instrumentals on top of it later.
Another piece of advice he shares is to know how to play an instrument. “Knowing how to play an instrument is really helpful because, then, you know what chords are supposed to go with certain notes that you’re singing”, he says. Even knowing just 3 or 4 chords on a guitar can help you write “thousands and thousands” of songs.
“The thing about songwriting is there’s really no cheatcodes and there’s no tricks. There’s no real ways to fake it and bypass the process of spending many many many years of your life trying to write songs.”
Other than talking about the technical side of his songwriting process, Conan also shares some pieces of wisdom that might speak to young, new, and flourishing artists. “Don’t expect yourself to write good songs right off the bat. Not everything you’ll come up with will be good”, he says.
He goes on to mention that nobody really listened to his music at first. So, it’s critical that you write music for you. You’ll end up being disappointed if you write songs with the intention of wanting people to listen to it. The music you write for yourself is what people end up relating to anyways.
Songwriting has always been Conan’s way of managing and processing his emotions. He doesn’t write songs with the sole intention of showing his music off to anybody or to make an album. He does it just because it’s something that he has to do— it’s like journaling for him. If he doesn’t write music, he can’t make sense of what’s going inside his brain.