Rex Orange County: The Emotionally Visual Mastermind of the Next Generation
At 19 he has appeared on Tyler, the Creator’s ‘Flower Boy’ album, perfectly setting the stage for his own vision.
All photos by Jake Lewis
Rex Orange County is carrying a large, recently purchased bag of shopping. Inside are a pair of shoes – some Birkenstocks, but a slipper version covered with some "ridiculous crushed corduroy velvet shit" – and a Carhartt sweatshirt. It's his girlfriend's birthday tomorrow and he's used the morning before we meet to pick up a few bits and bobs ahead of their dinner at Benihana.
At 19 years old, Rex – real name Alex O'Connor – sits at a unique advantage point: he's still of the age where raw, guttural feelings are like a rollercoaster for the heart, yet he garners a talent that's allowed him express these emotions with a broadly cinematic, colourful vision. His debut Apricot Princess is the kind of uniquely coming-of-age album that could only come from a certain point in life but it's delivered with the expansive tonal palette of an established artist – the kind that, like Frank Ocean or Mac DeMarco, is the figurehead of something bigger, a kind of Harmony Korine-type character dealing in emotion rather than drugs.
"The idea of being a ringleader was totally new to me," he says when we meet on an early afternoon in London's Hyde Park, sitting on a patch of grass beside the Serpentine, smoking our way through far too many cigarettes. "Growing up I would be loving bands like Green Day or Weezer or whatever – which is cool. Then I realised you could create a band but be the guy – the one who makes all the music." The result is an elastic collection of songs, all of which are of O'Connor's making – written and produced by him, taking in strings, piano and all the usual shit like drums and guitar, bending around and capturing the shifting poles of sensitive thoughts (with the extra addition of pal Joe Macc on bass).
In the time since the release of Apricot Princess, O'Connor has been thrust into the limelight – partly because of his work and also because he features on two tracks from Tyler, the Creator's recent Flower Boy album. How does one teen, who grew up in the relative middle of nowhere – a place called Haslemere in Surrey – reach the point where he's become so much the master of a singular vision he's being sought out by one of modern music's premier artists? "Well… at 16 I went to a school in London – called the Brit School," O'Connor says, sarcastically raising his eyebrows, elongating the last part of the sentence with knowing irony. He shrugs. "But I did go there. And I wouldn't be doing what I was doing if I didn't to be honest."
It's a fair point. The school may primarily be associated as an easy gateway to mild fame (and sometimes a Brit Critic's Choice Award), its importance as a creative space can't be understated – especially for those who grew up in the countryside where there's little in the way of a music scene. If you're not based in London, getting into the school is hard. But O'Connor saw that as his route. He couldn't focus in academic lessons and instead spent his time studying music. His primary instrument is the drums and he practiced until he could play at a level where the school couldn't ignore his talent, reaching grade eight – the highest level and the entry requirement for music college.
Though you might not think it, drummers are something of a rare presence in music school, a stick-wielding unicorn. O'Connor says he was one of four percussionists in his year – as a result he played in several different groups' practical sessions, performing everything from African jazz to some "dry shit" like Arctic Monkeys. So far, so music school. He was reluctant to pick up the guitar, thinking it had "always been kind of whack." But being around people who were playing music everyday pushed him to open up, to see it was possible to combine his skills on the drums and his knack for singing (he had lessons at school) with the guitar, ultimately creating his own project. "I learned four shapes and from there sort of knew what I was doing. Then I played piano, started producing on Logic and brought the drums in. I had everything I knew how to do it."
In the space of a year he uploaded his first full-length release bcos u will never be free to Soundcloud. Though similar in sound to Apricot Princess, it's slightly more lo-fi and rough around the edges. "I think it's good and I love it but I wouldn't make those same decisions to say what I was saying," he says, reflecting on bcos u will never be free. However it's this album that Tyler the Creator picked up on, reaching out to O'Connor through Soundcloud and eventually bringing him out to Los Angeles. O'Connor was put up in a hotel: on the first night him and Tyler went to see Alabama Shakes; over the next two days they recorded and wrote songs; on the last night they hung out again – and in between they ate a whole load of junk food from Roscoe's Chicken and Waffle.
O'Connor appears on the opening track on Tyler the Creator's Flower Boy and another called "Boredom". The collaboration makes sense because there's a distinct parallel between Tyler's record and Apricot Princess: one of sunny, reflective synths, the golden hour (that time when the sun hasn't set yet and everything is bathed in orange and yellow), a sense of positive thinking couched in a sad flipside that's as much a part of any happy feeling you've ever going to get. The difference, however, is that while Tyler is outside, bombing his way down LA freeways and BMXing through the woods, O'Connor is looking out the window at the world's beauty from a distance.
"Precisely, that's what I was going to say," O'Connor says when I put the idea to him. "I love nature, I love being outside. But Apricot is quite introverted. It's an inside album." He sees Apricot Princess as being about "a huge party but you feel the ups and downs of the night in one go – in 50 minutes", then reflected back over a longer period of several months. Tracks like "Television / So Far So Good" speak to the eagerness of young love ("what about me and you together, something that could really last forever") while "Happiness" is seeped in a soft romantic sadness ("will you still love me when nobody wants me around?"). The record is big on grandiose yet pure feeling; as O'Connor says on one track – "I'm a walking emotion". Ultimately it's a rare and special listen.
O'Connor's ability to serve up undiluted, emotional scenarios have lead to publications like i-D and the Fader describing him as "teenage joy personified". On the one hand that's true – there are some happy tracks here. Yet it feels like O'Connor goes deeper than simple joy, excavating that once-in-a-lifetime experience with all the rougher edges it is made from: the moments of anxiety and awkwardness, the intense, overbearing need to seek something out from all the unknown, the declarations of love and light self-loathing. With Apricot Princess under his belt, O'Connor is building his vivid exploration with a selection of new and yet to be released tracks, the first of which is called "Edition" and showcases how emotionally visual his next piece of work will be – easily sitting in the same arena as say, a Blonded radio cut (Frank Ocean's radio station) or the kind of thing you should find sliding across the next cult TV series to hit your Netflix.
It's this distinct, impossible-to-teach ability of O'Connor's that's led to most every label reaching out to him with record deals. For now he's open to whatever the future holds, wanting nothing more than "to get some of my favourite artists on songs, play big venues, do everything I saw people do when I was growing up". As we pack ourselves up from the grass, moving back toward the Serpentine Cafe for the photo shoot, we discuss the position O'Connor finds himself in at 19 – having not just played on the Tyler, the Creator record but also been involved in a bunch of things we've been asked not to mention here, yet would have most readers salivating.
"I get to experience the world by doing what I love doing – which in itself is pretty fucking nuts, that I'm allowed to do that," he says, grinning. Except the real truth is no one has allowed O'Connor to do these things, he's simply doing them as all artists do, everyone else catching up later. He's the master of his own story – one which has the strong feeling of only just beginning, a novella barely even past the first chapter.
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