The emotional complexities of Rex Orange County’s exquisite pop songs have earned him the second place in the BBC Music Sound of the 2018 list, which aims to find music’s Next Big Things.
Born Alex O’connor, he grew up in the dream in Haslemere, in Surrey, singing in the choir of the school and disturbing the peace with your drum practice.
He briefly attended the Brit School, whose alumni include Adele, Amy Winehouse and Katy B, but released his first self-produced album before he graduated.
Recorded in his bedroom, bcos u will never be free showed off her sweet voice and honest lyrics, while hinting at his ability as a composer.
That came to fruition in the last year of Apricot Princess, a breezy, laid-back album of love songs that gently glides between pop, rock, hip-hop, jazz and R&B.
“It’s so easy”, says Annie Mac, who has defended the 19-year-old on his BBC Radio 1 show. “Each song sounds like a classic.”
She is not his only fan: US rapper Tyler, The Creator put O’connor on his last album, Flower Boy, Frank Ocean, hired him for his touring band; and a copy of Skepta last year in the Mercury Prize.
“I’ve been able to do a lot of interesting things,” he tells the BBC. “That is always the dream of any artist.”
How does it feel to be in the Sound of 2018?
It’s cool. I am very honored to have been chosen. The BBC has shown me much love in the past-so that’s great. I’m excited.
Do you remember the first time that it is played on the radio?
Sure! The first person in the BBC who played me was Huw Stephens. I was sitting around my laptop with my girlfriend and my family and it was super exciting. It felt weird and sounded weirder, but it was great.
How was it growing up in Haslemere?
I always played music, I was in a choir when I was very young. I took piano lessons and I wanted to play the drums when I was six years old. Luckily, my parents let me have a drum kit in my room – that is kind of crazy.
It is assumed that the field is a good place to practice the drums, because the neighbors are not too close.
It was very strong now I can look back – but the neighbors were very good. My mom always said, “I’m so glad that it was better because the first couple of years that ranged attacks until there was hard!”
The school was good, too. I had a teacher who really got me into the music. And I went on to study music for sixth in London.
This is at the Brits School?
That is correct. The truth does not matter to me that people know that I was there, but I don’t feel it defined me or anything.
What led you to leave the battery behind and become a leader?
Half way through college, I was discovering a lot of artists who played the guitar. Before that, I was still in the study of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder songs [and] I don’t think that the guitar was an instrument that interested me, in any way.
But when I started to listen to those songs – the chords and the melodies and the lyrics – I realized that I would prefer to be doing, because, in that school, the people playing the drums were amazing.
I mean, I am fully competent and I have played the drums on all my music, but there are people who were born to play, and I was just not that. I knew that I had talent in other fields, so I have only used.
Rex Orange County
In Paradise, is sung: “Who needs academic career, when you’re the one with all the ideas?” Did he grow disillusioned with the school?
Kind of … I’m a typical artist: I didn’t do very well with science and math. School did stress me, like a lot of young people. I don’t like having to do the work that I did not care.
Their second album, Apricot Princess, is very optimistic in comparison with the first. What has changed?
Just before the album was written, I found myself in a relationship and I’m super-positive about it and wanted to flip what I had done previously. I made the first album when I was angry and upset – and now I’m nowhere near that.
Is that your girlfriend singing in the Sycamore?
Yes, his name is Thea.
So she has a starring role in his own story.
Of course! But it can be any of the story -I think that’s why people like it. People are always messaging me to talk about their own experiences with a girl or a boy.
Rex Orange County
Apricot Princess makes a great leap forward in terms of arrangements and instrumentation. Everything was recorded live?
It is mainly produced by myself, and a recording engineer named Ben Baptie. He helped me get the sounds I wanted from the [computer] files I had, which all sounded like fake instruments. But the real expense was having an eight-piece string section. That was massively overwhelming.
You’ve already followed up that album with a solo single, Love Is Easy. They are pretty prolific writer?
I try to write as much as I can. But I don’t have a song a day or something like that. I just do the best you can. I mean, I’m not very good at anything else.
How did you come to Tyler, The Creator album?
His friend found me on YouTube and showed her the video – and then he sent me personally. I was quite out of the blue.
Do you believe it was him?
Not really. It wasn’t like I had people hit me all the time, so it was a kind of confusion.
Rex Orange County
So, what did you do?
I said, “I know that this is probably not really you, but if you want to try it you can just call me right now!”
Instead of doing that, he sent me a message on Twitter, so you could say that it was your account verified. We began to talk about the songs you both liked it – Stevie Wonder and Amy Winehouse – and ended with him having a song that I wanted to do, and I did!
It was one of those situations where I sent an e-mail through an instrument that allows you to add voice in your bedroom?
That happened, but only so that he knew it was worth having me come all the way to THE to do it in the studio with him.
When he sent for the first time, he was like, “don’t get your hopes up too much, because I still don’t know that I want to get in it.”
Then, we ended up in two songs!
It worked pretty well. I love the album, regardless of my songs. It is his best album, for sure.
What does the next year? Album number three?
I’m going to tour this album as much as I can, and the next one is going to be worked in the year as a whole.
It is strange to have a lot of pressure to deliver, now that I’ve handed to you once or twice. So that is going to come when it does. That is all I can say.
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