Words, London O’Connor says, are a “really low-res depiction of reality.” Most of the time, they just don’t do justice to the depth and complexity of his feelings. It’s why, when I ask him how he is at the start of our conversation, he tells me he’s “pink and, like, a warm red today.” He always answers that question with colours, he explains, “because I think it’s more sincere.” It’s also why he sends me a follow-up email the day after our conversation, because he’s been ruminating on his answers and wants to clarify and crystallize some of them. And it’s part of the reason that his new ambient music project, a collection of songs he wrote in cars and on other people’s sofa beds, doesn’t have any lyrics. “My albums will still – for now – all have words in them, but this project, this space, is not really about that.”
Instead, it’s about giving his fans a small window into how his life has been for the past few years. Since releasing his debut album O∆ two years ago (though it only got its label release, via True Panther Sounds, earlier this year), things have changed considerably for the 26-year-old Californian musician. His music, a genre-dodging hybrid of languid rap, buoyant pop and synthy hip hop, has been championed by the likes of Jaden Smith and Odd Future’s Hodgy; he made it onto this year’s Dazed 100; he carved out the space for himself that he wished existed when he was growing up. But he didn’t chronicle this journey in the traditional way. For one thing, he barely uses social media (Twitter is a trap in his eyes, but more on that later), so it’s harder for his fans to know what he’s up to – though they do have his phone number, which he gave out publicly along with the words, “If you’re from nowhere, I’m here until my cell phone explodes.” So he decided to tear a page out of his sonic diary and share a collection of ambient music, created as a space he could sit in when his nomadic lifestyle didn’t allow him any.
Over the phone from a New York City coffee shop, O’Connor spoke to Dazed about gender, youth, social media and why he wants to get off the planet.
What have you been up to since you released O∆?
London O’Connor: I’ve been writing the next album for over two years. I’m almost done travelling – I’m gonna play a festival in Moscow, and then when I’m done I’m going to get a home and a room, finally, and I want to just wall myself in there and finish the album. By the way, I don’t know what’s it’s going to be like to finally have a home of my own. It’s gonna feel like the end of an era. I know it’s going to have a name though – ‘Alpha’.
How did you end up making this ambient project?
London O’Connor: Sleeping on people’s floor and sleeping on people’s couches, it’s different than having your own home that you can fully let go in. And so sometimes I feel out of place, or the inner space that I feel is different than the outer space that I see around me. So I’ll render it in sound and then I can sit in it, and feel better, wherever I’m at. I know that people have been waiting on my next album for a while. People that know – and I know to other people I’m just a nobody in a yellow sweater, no-one’s waiting for anything – but for the people that know, I know they’ve been waiting for another album. I’m still working on it as I’m travelling and moving around, but this collection of music, this is more like a window. I just took specific pages out of my diary and wanted people to have them too.
Why did you upload the project to Soundcloud with the words ‘Don’t let them break you’?
London O’Connor: When we pressed (my debut album) on vinyl it had the utility number on the side, and on the back, instead of a track listing, we just put, ‘Don’t let them break you.’ It started from the verse on ‘Steal’, where I say, ‘This place’ll make you timid if you let it keep you still / Don’t let ’em break you.’ I’m just saying it directly to those kids who are like me. If you’re here to do what you love and make a life from it instead of just doing what people tell you to, you’re playing the same game. It’s that simple.
I’m making utilities for that kid. Not every person is that kid. Not every human is that human. That kid is always stressed out and overextended and doesn’t know if they are doing enough but can’t do anything else. That shit is not glamorous. That shit is awkward family dinners where your aunt asks you what you do and there’s no good answer and won’t be for five years. That shit is sleeping on floors if you have to. Sometimes that shit is a lot of dollar boxes of pasta for a while.
In our 20s, that shit is so difficult that it’s socially awkward to talk about it with each other. Talking about survival is not small talk. I can’t go through it and not talk about it. It’s my job to be fearless and make that music about our collective life so we all can use it. That person is going to be healing me in the future. I’m making the songs they are going to listen to when they get off work. I can’t not talk about my life. That’s why my music is honest and why I have been fired from every other job. That’s why I keep saying ‘Don’t let them break you.’ Because I know that kid is who’s listening to my music. I know I’m speaking directly to that kid.
You’ve said that Twitter is a trap. In what way?
London O’Connor: Before I say this, I do want to point out that Twitter has been useful in helping political revolutions in different countries, Twitter has benefited a lot of people like me who didn’t feel as connected to people around them if it wasn’t for the internet erasing borders, but Twitter is a trap if you’re working on trying to make the best art that you can.
When you look at a lot of the things that have shaped us as humans, things that we really value, whether it’s books or albums or films, a lot of those things are typically ahead of their time, or very disruptive to their time, and a lot of those things also are not made quickly or instantly. All of us growing up on the internet, Twitter as a system trains you to think things are valuable based on how they’re socially responded to the minute they’re put out. And Twitter is so ephemeral that if something is not exactly what people are thinking right now, then it doesn’t last on Twitter long enough to be ahead of its time.
So Twitter trains you to take all of your feeling and your emotion and your perspective, and to filter it into what will people agree with right now. And it trains you to think like that, every minute. That’s just how you live. And that is a trap.
“I just, I wanna get off the planet! I want us to figure out a lot more wild shit! I still want to get a real hoverboard, I still want to teleport, I want us to just do a lot more cool shit” – London O’Connor
Growing up, you said you didn’t identify with the hyper-masculinity of a lot of rappers. What do you think are the repercussions of a society that asks people to adhere to strict gender binaries?
London O’Connor: I think every human is masculine and feminine – and it’s not even related to gender. When you think about the traits of a full human, some of them are masculine and some of them are feminine, and when you start teaching a young person, ‘You’re a male, you can only be masculine,’ you can only be half of yourself. If you start teaching, ‘You’re a female, you can only be feminine,’ you can only be half of yourself. You start creating these half people, who will always feel insecure. You start creating males who are taught they’re only supposed to achieve and conquer and accomplish and do, and to never be in touch with what they feel. Or you train people to be aware and intuitive, but you teach them that they’re not supposed to do anything, that they’re not supposed to achieve or have any active nature. You almost teach them to understand their surroundings but never affect them, to be invisible eyes on a wall.
Without going too deep into detail, I just think it’s really dumb. When you teach a person to be half a person, you’re limiting humanity’s ability, period. I think a lot of us in our generation, we know that’s bullshit. We know from a young age that’s bullshit, even when we can’t articulate why at first. It took me a long time to articulate why.
I think what you say about only allowing people to be half a human is so true.
London O’Connor: I just feel like us as humans, we’re so young. The earth is so much older than we are. And we’re still on our first planet. We’re not a multi-planetary species yet. We have so far to grow. We have so much to learn, so much to understand, and I think we waste too much time holding each other back on really silly and insecure things like this. We still have human beings feeling insecure if the bottom part of their clothing has a space for one leg or two legs. It’s bush league. I just think that we’re still competing with ourselves, that’s the thing. Humans are still competing with humans. Humans are still trying to be better than other humans. We’re still developing hierarchies to show that we’re more this or more that than another human. It’s kind of wild.
Do you think we’re going to stop doing that at some point?
London O’Connor: I have no idea, but I hope so. I just hope that whatever we do that we all... I don’t know. I just, I wanna get off the planet! I want us to figure out a lot more wild shit! I still want to get a real hoverboard, I still want to teleport, I want us to just do a lot more cool shit. I really want my mind to be blown by new films that are nothing like what I’ve seen before, and I just feel like these things are not gonna happen unless we start pushing for different reasons that are separate from just being better than our peers.
Follow Alexandra Pollard on Twitter here @alexjpollard