“I’m just a regular person, struggling as much as everyone else, having a great time every now and then, and trying my best,” Rex Orange County says with a helpless shrug. It wasn’t so long ago that Rex remembers being a teenage fan, looking up at his favourite artists on stage and thinking, ‘You are God.’ Cut back to the present day and the Hampshire-born singer now knows the truth about the flipside of that scene: those people we idolise on stage aren’t deities, they’re just humans, who may well have been thinking about curfew times or what they’re having for dinner. When I tell him I was at one of his last shows before the pandemic, at the O2 Academy Brixton in 2019, and the floors were shaking so violently I thought the balcony might collapse, he laughs nostalgically.
Rex Orange County, real name Alex O’Connor, is pretty much the walking embodiment of the ‘bedroom pop’ genre. Dressed casually in an oversized purple Supreme hoodie, slouchy black skater trousers and a limited-edition pair of Nikes that would probably sell for a lot on The Basement, he has a quiet, introspective energy. Blending in easily as he slinks around the office of his management company where we meet, there’s no fanfare or pretense around him. If anything, he has the strangely familiar air of someone you might have met before.
The 23-year-old singer was originally a Brit School kid, studying percussion before discovering his love of songwriting. Excavating his romantic woes and teenage angst to the tune of acoustic guitars, pianos and eventually synths, he tapped directly into the anxiety of his generation. It wasn’t long before he became something of an internet teen cult favourite, known for his earworm musicality and lyrical outpourings. And by 2017, he’d risen to hitmaker status with singles such as “Best Friend”, “Sunflower” and “Loving Is Easy”, whose total streams sit comfortably in the billions by now. Going on to collaborate with the likes of pop producer Benny Sings, Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator, his reach has become truly global in the years since, to the point where it surprises many to learn that he was born and raised in a village called Grayshott (also the birthplace of actor Colin Firth) in the bucolic surrounds of Hampshire, about 50 miles outside of London. “I’ve been many times but I’ve actually never even lived in LA,” he says, almost apologetically. “I think people think that because of my name and my accent maybe, there’s this strange twang for whatever reason.”
Today, Rex exudes an endearing, stoner-esque chill – blunt ends stashed in the corner of the office courtyard suggest the haze is legit – but there’s a slight underlying restlessness, too, that pokes through in the tiniest of tells. After years of practice chatting politely to strangers about the most intimate parts of his life, he reckons he’s grown more comfortable with interviews, especially when it comes to passing on difficult or invasive questions. But as we chat and joke around, or he pulls faces and apologises for what he perceives to be bad answers, he might tug at his hoodie sleeves subconsciously, or put his feet up and sit cross-legged, only to change his mind a minute later and rearrange himself again, and repeat. It’s a little reminder that although he’s an artist who sells out venues globally and has enough monthly listeners on Spotify to fill a couple of major cities, he’s still a 23-year-old guy firmly in the midst of growing into himself. The artist is at a stage of his life that makes the existential angst of his new project’s name, Who Cares?, all the more fitting.
Despite its mildly nihilistic – or maybe genuinely curious – title, Who Cares? opens with an unmistakably romantic and optimistic string section. Once you’re in, it breaks into a recognisably Rex, immediate and upbeat melody, switching back and forth between the two for optimal dopamine levels. The lyrics that follow are a straightforward, no-frills positivity anthem, as he assures you, the listener, and presumably himself too, that “You no longer owe the strangers, it’s enough, keep it up.” It’s the audio equivalent of a vitamin C boost, unconcerned with hiding its ulterior motive to uplift and support behind flowery language or complex structural intrigue. Rex even admits he’d sometimes listen to it to start his own days during the pandemic. “It kind of arrived out of nowhere,” he says. “It wasn’t even super-conscious, but I think [with] what everyone was going through in ,there was a part of me that just wanted to make this positive, motivational song, I don’t know. I make a lot of sad songs!”
Like most of us, Rex’s motivation and confidence took a hit over the last few years while living through a pandemic that stopped the music world – as well as everything else – squarely in its tracks. After being in a near-perpetual state of touring for the years before that, Rex decided to move back in with his parents in Hampshire when the pandemic hit, leaving his London flat to spend his time oscillating between loving life and questioning everything. “There were times in the summer that were really very cool when the sun was out and I’d be having a little blueberry hot cross bun from M&S for breakfast with some orange outside and it was so fire,” he says. “I’d be like, this is amazing! Then I’d wake up the next day and think, ‘What is my purpose? What am I doing? I don’t know where to start.’” To hoist himself out of that rut, he started making music with the explicit purpose of keeping it to himself, taking inspiration from Prince and his infamous vault. “I said I’m gonna write music that’s just for me, that no one is ever going to hear. That kind of sparked the experimentation and the feeling of ‘who cares?’, I guess. Basically, how would my music sound if I didn’t think about it coming out?”
The first single, “Keep It Up”, along with the rest of the new record that succeeded that creative detox, was written and produced alongside Rex’s friend, fellow artist, and longtime collaborator Benny Sings, with whom he created “Loving Is Easy” back in 2017. “I remember being 16 and listening to his music on YouTube and thinking this is what I want my music to sound like… his process inspires me a lot. He’s such a force, he makes, like, four or five songs a day and by the end of the week we would have all these ideas to work through.” It was that carefree method of creation he had with Benny that gave Rex, by his own admission prone to overthinking, permission to continue following his instincts. “I’d been caught in a storm of wondering what other people would think and hoping to please everyone else. Before I would often spend a long, long time thinking of all the ways [a song] could sound. And I did the same in my own life, too. I struggled, to be honest – I struggled to be authentic and selfish and not feel bad about it, you know? I think it took like three albums and four or five years of doing this to finally be like, I’ve earned the right to say whatever [I want], and not have to explain myself, and just feel a little bit freer in music and in real life as well.” All in all, Rex spent about two weeks with the Dutch producer in Amsterdam creating the new album (12 days plus tweaking). For comparison, his previous record Pony was in the works for about a year and a half.
What Rex stripped away in terms of the formation process doesn’t seem to affect the range of sounds explored on Who Cares? There are key changes, tempo shifts and genre flips in abundance. When I ask which artists Rex had on rotation during the process, he gets a little bashful, conscious that other than Benny Sings the names he’d name might seem too far-flung. “I have to say a lot of what I listen to doesn’t sound like what I make,” he says. “Sometimes my taste is pretty far from what I believe is true to what I do.” Later, when we’re filming, he lets slip that Gunna’s “Pushin P” is one of his favourite songs right now, and he namechecks Playboi Carti as someone whose live performances and visual creativity stand out to him, as well as Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean.
It’s no surprise then that after the album opener comes “Open a Window”, an ode to emotional claustrophobia with a distinctly 90s R&B lilt. A self-assured bassline rumbles beneath its surface and leads effortlessly into its hero feature verse from longtime collaborator and friend Tyler, the Creator. The pair’s working relationship sparked more than five years ago when the LA rapper flew O’Connor out to grace his Grammy-nominated album Flower Boy – in many ways launching him on that side of the Atlantic. It’s a full-circle moment that hits home how much both artists have morphed and grown in the last half-decade. “Even looking at how I looked back then – shaved head, chubby, always wearing XL clothes – I had a… different swag, and I was very insecure,” he says, crossing his legs. “Not that I’m not still!” And the same goes for Tyler, he explains. “[In 2017] he was just wearing white tees every day and shorts and a green cap and now he’s like a cardigan, shirt, tie, fucking bejewelled brooches, furry hat and loafer. We’ve definitely both grown and the best thing about it was just that he liked the song and our instincts were aligned on that. He heard it and was just like ‘Yeah, cool, what’s the BPM?’”
When it comes to the inspiration behind the songs, Who Cares? marks the first time in Rex’s career he decided not to pull directly from his own life. So much of what came before was autobiographical: from dealing with his mental health on Bcos U Will Never B Free to a blooming relationship on Apricot Princess and grappling with fame on Pony, his lived experiences tracked intimately alongside his musical output up until now. But on this project, the emotional journey feels more expansive: there are moments of triumph, despair, empowerment, contentment, solitude and infatuation all rolled up into 11 songs. “I wanted to be able to write things without having to relate it to a particular thing going on in my life at the time,” he explains. “The things I’m saying and feeling are taken from all over the place. We experimented a lot.”
The penultimate track, “Shoot Me Down”, is a standout in this regard. Dramatic, supersized drums announce themselves from the start of the track and the keys that follow are uncharacteristically minor and ominous. When we finally hear Rex, his voice sounds urgent but distant as he pleads, “Don’t lose me now, don’t shoot me down / I’ll stick around, we’ll do it somehow.“ It’s Rex at his most abstract, cinematic and epic, in a way. “My friend Joe was there [in the studio] playing bass and he put me on to this Hunter S Thompson book. We’d try and write songs based on how these things [in the book] felt… The drums have this feeling of desperation, and then the chorus is this feeling of being free and everything’s great.” When he was in Amsterdam, he was able to immerse himself in a lot of films for the first time too, most notably Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey. The list goes on with lots of Scorsese, Andy Kaufman, Orson Welles and a sprinkle of Tarantino.
Relishing the challenge of flexing different creative muscles and embracing new kinds of inspiration for his craft, Rex is reluctant to unpack much more in terms of the hidden meanings of the songs. “Once [the song] is out there, your ‘reason why’ kind of goes out the window,” he says. “Because at that point, it’s up to everyone else.” Rather than focusing on which elements are true or false or reflect the intricacies of his personal life, Who Cares? is music for you to draw your own meaning from if you want to. “I’ve just been channeling that inspiration, expressing how these songs made me feel and thinking if anyone tries to ask me what this means, I get to say, ‘Who fucking cares?’” he says, laughing.
By the time we finish our chat, there’s a level of ease that has crept into the room – Rex’s newfound nonchalance has challenged his youthful anxieties and conquered. “Sometimes I’ve felt really quite old… but then at other times, I feel so out of place and like a child, that imposter syndrome of ‘I don’t deserve this, what am I doing here?’” he admits plainly. “But to be fair, I think everyone’s a child. You don’t get to wake up one day and be like, ‘Ah, I’m an adult now, I understand!’ We just muddle through.” And in figuring that out and rejecting the pressure to have all the answers, to put others first, to care so deeply it becomes a hindrance, Rex Orange County is reclaiming his own artistic autonomy, his love for the work, for the fun of music and the catharsis that comes with it – the very thing that made him fall in love with it, and us with him, in the first place.
Since this project was made in 2020, Rex has been writing more music. “There’s still some of that heart on my sleeve music to come,” he says, “but I’ve also linked with a few people recently who are way different to what I’ve done before sonically.” Nudging him back into real life, playing shows, doing promo and generally dealing with the weighty demands of a career where your passion and your hobby have become your work and your life, Who Cares? has served as a huge refresh for Rex. For an artist still in his early 20s but having lived a few different lives already, it’s been a reminder to nurture playfulness, protect freedom and be the best kind of reckless, both in life and in music.