Rex Orange County doesn’t mind putting himself under the magnifying glass.
Early on, he realized he wasn’t the band type, finding it creatively nourishing to do it all himself. From writing deeply insular lyrics, to producing synthy, sunshine-soaked melodies to accompany them, it’s been the prerogative of the multi-instrumentalist to be the sole narrator of his own story.
While the reflective, insular nature of his work has worked in his favour—he boasts more than 8.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify and 1.1 million followers on Instagram—his artistry is an argument for the benefits of thriving in solitude. The only person Rex follows back on Instagram is his girlfriend of four years, Thea.
Rex Orange County hails a long way from his sunny west coast namesake. Born Alexander O’Connor in the Surrey village of Grayshott, England, the singer-songwriter spent his formative years in the suburbs, dreaming of escaping the school system and taking control of his life. At 16, O’Connor moved to London to attend The BRIT School, a highly selective performing arts institution notable for renowned alumni like Adele, Amy Winehouse, FKA Twigs, and Leona Lewis.
“I was dying to go, so I worked a little harder,” he says over the phone from the UK. Though notoriously difficult to get into for anyone outside of London, O’Connor managed to secure his spot at the school by committing himself to mastering the drums, his instrument of choice since his elementary school choir days. He turned out to be one of only four drummers in the class of 2016, which enabled him to work with a wide range of peers and genres – after all, everyone needs percussion. The variety exposed him to possibilities he hadn’t considered for his own music before, like taking up guitar, honing his singing skills and learning music production software.
“Everything I do to this day is thanks to [The BRIT school]. My friends there were doing all these different things, and I had nothing other than drums. I was like, ‘I should probably do something other than this.’” Of the school’s impressive roster, he was inspired by the level of ambition the school normalized. “I just think people are driven there,” he muses. “If I’m honest, I think they had a good run with a few people in the beginning, and that inspired others to go. I’m not going to lie, I think ultimately it’s the people who went there that made it for themselves, not necessarily the school itself.”
“I only have good things to say about my time there,” he continues. Some highlights? “Simon Cowell came in one time. He was giving a speech about music, but it didn’t last very long. I think he had somewhere else to be. And Ne-Yo came in! Do you know Ne-Yo? Of course you do; I just had to make sure.”
In 2015, before he had even graduated, O’Connor released his debut album, bcos u will never b free, an entirely self-produced, quintessential bedroom pop album. Tyler, the Creator found the mixtape on SoundCloud and, impressed, reached out to compliment O’Connor’s style. Then he flew him out to L.A. in late 2016 to collaborate on Flower Boy which resulted in O’Connor featuring on “Foreword,” and earning a writing credit for “Boredom,” with a writing credit for the former.
“I thought it was somebody else,” O’Connor remembers about receiving that first email from Tyler. “He had an email address that sounded like it would be him, but I thought it wasn’t. I was like, ‘Why on earth would he reach out to me right now, at this point in my life?’”
At the time, O’Connor had not completed Apricot Princess, his ultra-personal sophomore effort, but his work on Flower Boy had been revelatory. Wanting a similarly well-rounded portfolio of his own material, he continued working. Hard. And ended up releasing 2017’s Apricot Princess before Flower Boy had even come out. That’s one of the benefits of operating solo: you maintain total control not only of production, but also of when your work is released.
“On Apricot Princess, I produced pretty much all of it myself, other than a couple helping hands,” explains O’Connor. “The mixing was done by Ben Baptie,” who went on to play a heavy hand in not only the mixing but also the production, composition and lyrics for 2019’s Pony.“This time around, [on Pony], Ben and I actually got deeper. [He’s on] pretty much all the songs from the ground up. There were a couple other musicians as well, but no feature artists listed or anything like that.”
His introverted method of making music makes sense, considering the personal nature of each of his projects – he revels in getting to the core of universal experiences, which often feel lonely and isolating from the inside. Whereas Apricot Princess was an upbeat, rose-tinted ode to Thea, the subsequent two years of O’Connor’s life took him to parts of his soul that were previously unknown. On Pony, O’Connor delves even deeper into his own psyche through themes of love, longing, and growing distant from old friends.
On the first lines of the opening track, “10/10,” he muses, “I had a think about my oldest friends / Now I no longer hang with them.” The rest of the album takes its listeners on a journey through the poignant ups and downs of this period in O’Connor’s life – a sort of in-between phase, when he’s achieved what he’s always wanted and it came with some downsides he didn’t expect. When O’Connor turns inward, he wears his vulnerability on his sleeve. His lyrics are delivered with a confident cognizance of who he is, and what he stands for, and that self-assurance seems to stem from the ability to admit when he’s unsure.
“I still wanted to be the only one telling the story, and not relying on anyone else to make the song better. It’s a blessing and a curse: you’re the one that makes all the decisions, so you’re happy with it, but at the same time that’s a burden to take on.”
“There’s so much that’s happened to me that I hadn’t expected before,” he continues. “I’ve had a difficult time. The years from 18 to 21 are quite important for everyone, I imagine, and for me, there was a lot of negativity that I didn’t see coming. When I was making Apricot Princess and bcos u will never b free, [my relationship] was all I had to talk about and all I really wanted to talk about.”
As O’Connor’s position in the world has shifted, so have his ambitions as a songwriter. “This time around, there’s a lot I wanted to discuss rather than love so much,” he continues. “But songs like ‘Pluto Projector,’ ‘Everyway,’ and ‘It Gets Better’ celebrate the positive side, and having that relationship. We’ve made space to talk about me being on the other side of the world and missing her – which is still a massive part of my life – but there are all these other things I wanted to address. They were more pressing in my mind.”
When asked what exactly he went through, O’Connor deflects, brushing it off as “hard to explain right now.” But he’s never been one to dwell on the negatives, anyway – listen to Pony and you’ll hear that acceptance is more his speed. The result is an album drenched in emotion that evokes images of dancing in a flower-strewn field, alone except for the chirping birds. It’s the morning after a life-changing party, and now you’re reflecting on the night by yourself, glad it happened because you learned something about yourself.
“The whole album is actually about getting through that period of time and looking back at the end of the tunnel and being like, ‘That was very, very tough, but look at me now.’ I can talk about it and put it into a song, and it’s just a song. Things are better now.” That sentiment is actually how the album closes out – its final track, “It’s Not the Same Anymore,” ends with the line “It’s not the same anymore / It’s better.”
On top of the universal anxieties of growing up, O’Connor has the additional pressure of doing so on an international stage. Pony is his first major-label release, and the only album he’s recorded with the knowledge that, yes, people will definitely be listening.
“I spent a lot of time feeling scared in the last few months, just being nervous, because it’s a different feeling having more people listening,” he says. “It was harder for sure. I spent quite a bit more time looking at each of the things involved, whether it be lyrics or production, just me and Ben in a room for hours going over things more intensely than I did before. Saying the right thing, and not saying things, just to say them is very important to me. Right now, though, I’m excited.”
In fact, O’Connor says making Pony is the accomplishment he’s proudest of to date. He took his time with it, painstakingly contemplating each decision until he was absolutely sure it was the best it could be. Although his rise to fame seems sudden, the foundation has been laid for years, and O’Connor urges other artists to be mindful and deliberate with their work, too.
“If you go up very quickly, you come down very quickly,” he advises. “So try to take your time and make considerate decisions and don’t let other people run your career.”