Few artists capture the imagination like Rex Orange County. Despite relatively little chart success, he is revered by critics, fans and other artists as a strikingly adept musician with a refreshingly new, genre-transcending approach to songwriting. When I saw him at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom in 2019, I was struck by the mechanics of his stage show. Despite the presence of a horn section and occassional strings, swathes of supporting musicians dotted around the stage, the whole time your eyes are rooted to his relatively static keyboard that he seems to cling to as if he’s going to fly off.
At only 22 years old, his career so far is seriously impressive. Off the back of entirely self-taught playing, recording and producing techniques, he attended the BRIT school where he studied drumming. One thing I’m often told as a drummer is that we’re in high demand, and that means we get the opportunity to be involved in a lot of different projects – I can only dream of reach the stratospheric heights this propelled Rex Orange County, colloquially known as Alex O’Connor, to in such a short space of time.
A lot of people give the products of music and acting schools a rough ride when they do make it to the big time – Ed Sheeran is one, as is the 1975’s Matty Healy. Common criticisms are that they bought their way to the top or were foisted into a position of privilege that has allowed them to reap the rewards of the world of celebrity. But here’s why we shouldn’t punish people who want to make art that the world connects with. I’m not a particular fan of Ed Sheeran or The 1975 but if the people are loving it, more power to them. Elton John went to the Royal Academy of Music. Paul McCartney opened the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. They did alright out of it. It’s not 1950 anymore and the sad reality of music today is that a lot of talented people don’t have the contacts, money or social media savvy to make their music heard. So, if a few manage to slip over the paywalls of the music industry, why shouldn’t we amplify them?
Back to Rex Orange County. His debut album, Bcos U Will Never Be Free, was self-released on SoundCloud and Bandcamp. It takes some serious effort to make a career out of those websites – like I said, there is a sea of pure talent out there, but probably 0.00000001% of it makes its creator into a successful musician. It was so striking that it attracted the attention of US rapper Tyler the Creator who invited Rex to collaborate on the album Flower Boy. This was closely followed by the single Best Friend and the second Rex Orange County LP, Apricot Princess. This too was self-released and represented a mix of cleanly-produced upbeat pop rock and a sense of self-deprecation that marked him out as honest and identifiable with.
His most well-known single is Loving Is Easy, probably the perfect embodiment of a low-fi pop song dedicated to the ease of a relationship in its honeymoon phase – but it is of rather less substance than the remainder of his discography. Make no mistake, it is an utterly fantastic song – easily one of the best pop songs recorded in the last 25 years. But the best representation of – yep, I’m gonna say it – his genius is his 2019 album, Pony.
His music transcends genres. It’s at once modern lo-fi hip-hop/pop crossover as it is post-Beatles experimental rock. It plays with time signatures, isn’t afraid of experimenting with alternative instruments and different kinds of vocal augmentation and is overwhelmingly honest about O’Connor’s personal struggles. While Paul McCartney’s strand of innovation was of course different, I truly believe that Rex Orange County (rivalled perhaps by Declan McKenna) is one of the next great figures of popular music. Long after he fades from stardom, critics and musicians will look back to him as a source of inspiration.
Especially in a state of perpetual lockdown where we have celebrities relentlessly badgering us to ‘stay positive,’ ‘it’ll be over soon,’ it’s deeply refreshing to listen to a singer who is honest about coping with mental health struggles whilst simulatenously appreciating the transformative nature of the latest 5-6 years of his life.