Rex Orange County, despite his meteoric glow-up, is keeping it DIY
He’s had an incredible few years, and it’s only getting better: we spoke to singer-songwriter Rex Orange County about tour, travel, independence and Alicia Keys.
‘Rex Orange County’ sounds like the kind of thing you’d Google when trying to remember Adam Brody’s name on The O.C. – not that you’d ever forget.
It rings with a fusion of new-age cool and sunkissed surfing, the kind of label that suggests both hippie sensibilities and the lifestyles of the rich and famous; the push and pull of prestige and the pre-roll. In a way, the moniker betrays Alex O’Connor, a mild-mannered and soft-spoken 21-year-old from the UK: he’s known for his earnest and confessional lyricism and across-the-board musical influences, two artistic bents that fold into his expressly down-to-earth presence. He profusely thanks his fans for their impressively devoted support, shares uncommon insights into achievement and fatigue, and exclusively follows his girlfriend and collaborator, Thea, on Instagram. None of this you’d expect from an Orange County native named Rex.
O’Connor earned the nickname in school, derived from those very initials, and though it might’ve seemed a deliberate mismatch, it holds some semblance of a personal truth. There’s something aspirational about the name; something the pushes beyond the green hamlets of East Hampshire, where the singer was raised in a two-thousand strong village. The O.C. must’ve seemed a distant fiction at the time, but as Rex takes Pony – his third album and major-label debut – on the road, Californian beaches are just the start of it.
“There's so much you can see travelling and you can explore a lot, and a lot of these places I've never ever ever been, so I look up the most interesting stuff going on and I try to explore,” he explains, framing the oft-harsh realities of tour life as an ever-ensuing global adventure. “It kind of just depends on where we go, and because of that we end up usually just figuring it out at the last minute… it'll be like ‘oh there's a certain thing in a certain place,’ like the Great Salt Lakes just came up... I think the day before, someone was like, ‘Oh, we're gonna go to the actual Salt Lake,’ I was like ‘Cool, let's go!’ It was the most amazing thing to see.”
That’s probably hyperbole, but it’s not his fault: having burst forth from the bedroom pop wave of the mid-2010s, Rex has gone from strength to strength, singing alongside Tyler, The Creator on Flower Boy, dueting with idols Benny Sings and Randy Newman, signing with Sony and graduating to major-label tastemaker with Pony, a culmination of his ever-expanding sound. He’s living in an amazing moment, one of his own devising, and the payoff to his once-thankless passion is as remarkable to him as it would be anyone else.
If exploration is “one of [his] favourite parts” of tour, then gigging itself is the equally-exciting flipside, an opportunity to explore the spaces, play the places and see the faces of fans. “Oh man, it was just absolutely the most amazing thing I've done,” he gushed, reflecting on his two-night tenure at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall. “I felt just so privileged... the venue itself has a life of its own, and playing it was an honour for me and I think something about just the vibe and the fact that I felt it was such a big deal that I filled up the room.”
“Me and my band, we just dressed up for the occasion” – that’s shorthand for Blues Brothers sans hats – “and I just put all my energy into it, I think we just all tried our hardest… you know, it was a stressful day as well, the crew and everyone had a lot going on, and that's a big venue, they're very specific in how they run things.” If it’s the endless technical minutiae and constant demand that drives some artists to reclusivity or self-imposed studio exile, it’s those same qualities that offer Rex both a challenge and a reward. “I think everyone felt like it was big, we all tried to get it right, and I was just really stoked with how it went,” he waxed, palpably grateful for his band. “It was just two nights, but I had the most amazing time of my life.”
There’s that dizzying enthusiasm again, reserved not only for his own excursions, but the shows he’s travelling in aid of. It’s an excitement that’s brimming with earnestness, the fresh-faced vigour uncommon in any line of work, let alone the kind that ties you to a restless cross-country itinerary. The realities of tour life are enough to turn a dream to a nightmare, at least for some, and Rex’s unbridled honesty – in this case, a glowing reflection – is more than just a facet of his person: it’s a cornerstone of his artistic identity.
On Pony opener 10/10, Rex assembles a happy ending from a trying time, reflecting on the year that “nearly sent [him] off the edge” and “his oldest friends,” now little more than memories. That grief makes his perspective all the more striking, and Pony stands as a testament to his hard-earned happiness: “now, I'm safe and sound where I belong / It took all my strength to carry on / And though it's still hard work to find the words / I'm still gonna write this fuckin' song.”
It’s a sobering take that undercuts his oft-upbeat arrangements: the next cut, Always, pairs his delicate croon with falsetto harmonies and brass embellishments, all supporting a similarly melancholy memory. “It's hard to make yourself believe / That it'll get better when you feel defeated,” he opines, adding that he “never planned to feel this way.” Face to Face is, in his own words, “about being away from home, feeling trapped in an undesirable situation & finding it difficult to trust people,” whilst Stressed Out deals with fame-hungry opportunists. An arrival though it may be, Pony is steeped in the records that came before it, the processes that informed them and the life Rex lived off the wax, coming of age in the midst of sudden and ever-growing international acclaim. Teenage life is hard enough without a fledgling music career.
Those trials, ever courted in his music, came to the fore with the album itself. “Thank you for making me feel so loved in a time where I have really struggled to enjoy life,” he wrote in a release-day note. “I’m in a good place now but the last couple of years were really hard. That’s why I’m crying. Beyond happy to be out of that period but equally sad looking back at it.”
“This album will change my life,” he predicted. “I can’t wait to see you and sing it with you. Whoever you are, wherever [you] are. Thank you for everything.”
In a way, the tour and the thanks are one and the same, steeped in that singular appreciation. It’s found him taking those honest appraisals worldwide, traversing the States before segueing through Europe, filing down throughout South America and hopping from island to inlet in Oceania. There’s much to see and even more to play, and for the latter, Rex has fallen in with a particularly unlikely crowd-pleaser: Alicia Keys’ classic No One, a staple ballad from the youth of his audience. Almost a decade on, he says, it still holds up surprisingly well. “The first few times I played it, people sang along to it. People sing it incredibly loud along with you... I think they sung even louder for her song, and I was like, ‘Man, everyone knows!’”
His surprise mirrors my own, as it would be easy for someone of Rex’s age to plead ignorance – he would’ve been just nine-years-old when No One took over, and though it may have made an impression, the leap from passing familiarity to a consistent live staple is a big one. “I can play in Australia, New Zealand, I could play it in America, I could play it in the UK, Ireland, Europe, you know what I mean? People know that song. It's hard to find songs that everybody knows, and that's one of them.” That’s not to ignore his initial fondness for the “beautiful song… I love the intention behind the lyrics,” he says, passionately. “When I sing it live it's very different to how her version is, but I love her version!”
He’s found another fan-favourite in Olivia Newton John’s Hopelessly Devoted To You, a fleeting hit from a movie musical released twenty-one years before he – and, almost certainly, his audience – were even born. “I love Grease, and I love that song particularly. That was one that people knew,” he says, mentioning it as a great equaliser for the “parents who came along... so it's a nice thing.” It’s probably more parsable to that set than his own tracks, which illustrate his youthful angst and deep depression as a product of an ever-insistent information age. Even amongst his own projects, Pony feels particularly light on any similarly anthemic refrains and catchy relatability: there’s no Sunflower to set inner-city café’s alight, nor a Loving Is Easy to inspire irrepressible singalongs.
If anything, Rex’s alliance with Sony has resulted in his frankest record yet, one that plumbs the depths of his overactive mind. It’s almost the opposite of what you’d expect for a new pop-adjacent act – a leaner, more digestible record with a handful of radio singles – but as Rex tells it, he’s having no trouble keeping that DIY spirit alive. “My mentality is just that every choice I'm making is my own, and I've never been forced into a corner by anyone. I've never been A&Red by someone who says who I should or shouldn't work with, no one's ever told me to change who I am or anything like that. Everything I've done, I've just tried my best to be coming from this independent mindset when making music.”
It’s hard to imagine Rex as anything but independent in a creative sense, and Pony leans into that independence in a surprising way: by eschewing big-name guests in favour of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances from his girlfriend Thea, who contributes a fleeting vocal on the confessionally-titled Never Had The Balls. Even now, Rex has a fairly impressive internal rolodex, and there’s amazing potential in getting Tyler, Randy Newman and Benny Sings in the booth, but his reluctance to engage them was – at least at first – a happy accident.
“You know, it's kind of both,” he says, fusing a conscious decision with a consequence of his creative approach. “I think it was maybe originally a product of how I would make things, but it became very clear that I was like, ‘You know what, this could be the moment where I bring all the people on, reach out to crazy artists and we could try and get crazy duets and stuff,’ but actually, the only thing that's maybe more impressive than that is putting out an album that I think is great without the help of anyone else featuring on it, to prove that I can do it without them.”
It’s nothing he hasn’t proved before, but the decision hyper-focuses the LP on Rex’s own perspective, allowing him to better sketch the intricate corners of his mind, detailing grief and outlining change in a long and musical take on self-confrontation. Pony is more a record of personality than theme, and whilst the total lack of featured guests sidelines a key piece of his popular ascension, it also turns the spotlight away from his collaborators, offering new fans a strong showing of his unique sensibilities. “Sometimes you go look at someone's album and you're like ‘Oh, like Andre 3000 featuring on the song,’ like, ‘Oh, Andre 3000, I love him, I'm gonna listen to that song,’ but if you didn't know he was on it, would you listen to it and have gotten through to the part where he's on it?” A question you never need ask: say what you will of Pony, but your enjoyment of the album hinges on your love for the artist himself.
It’s true of both his unique style and the project’s narrative, which slowly comes together as a chronicle of maturation, belonging and – least likely of all – optimism. It Gets Better explores the ways in which his relationship with Thea has changed his life, spinning four years of connection into a reflection on change. “She changed the world I know / And it's better for it,” he sings, headstrong. “'Cause even when my worst traits get in the way / You're here to help me feel safe / I don't need to be with anyone else / I don't need to explain…”. Record closer It’s Not The Same Anymore dwells on his familiar heartache and pain, only to tie a bow about the memories with a soft-spoken sentiment: “It's up to me, no one else / I'm doing this for myself / It's not the same anymore / It's better / It got better…”
The record marks Rex’s mainstream arrival, buoyed by buzz and single after single, one that refines the angst and ambitions he’s long explored. It’s a portrait of a socially-intimidated shoegazer; the diary of a smitten teenaged troubadour; the vision of a child born to a genreless world; and, most importantly, the sound of a man on the mend. In the same way as Pony itself, Rex finds peace in time, and though the record ends with a hanging ellipsis, the b-side promises a break from the past and a pass at a brighter future.
Who’s to say what that future will bring? If by some chance they read Pilerats, then Rex has a handful of ideas: “Stevie Wonder's my favourite artist of all time… I love Justin Bieber, I love Tyler – I wanna make more songs with Tyler – I love rap music, I love Young Thug, I love Kendrick, I love Andre 3000, I love Kanye, I love Jay-Z, you know... I love Beyoncé.” It’s the kind of wishlist you wrote for an early Christmas – awe-inspiring and seemingly impossible – but in the last few years, Rex has seen his dreams turned realities. In this case, as in that one, it’s less about tying a hope to a shooting star and more about taking steps to substantiate his talents. “I'd wanna have a song with Beyoncé, it's just when... I think I just have to prove myself to get to a certain point before those things maybe happen. I just don't want to force anything ever,” he adds, “and I think it can happen if you don't force it.”
It’s been working out so far, but he’s still yet to meet Lil Uzi Vert. “I wanna meet him! I don't think anyone gets to meet him, he's just like elusive, he finds himself everywhere and no one gets to meet him. I will one day, I hope.”
All in good time.
Rex Orange County's latest album, Pony, is out now via Sony Music Australia. Catch him touring Australia this Winter, more information and tickets here.
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