Having attracted early attention from the likes of BadBadNotGood, Two Inch Punch, and Benny Blanco with his 'bcos u will never b free' mixtape, Alex O'Connor, aka Rex Orange County, can now also count Tyler, The Creator as a collaborator, having co-written 'Foreword' for new album 'Flower Boy' (as well as sung on 'Boredom' and provided background vocals for 'Garden Shed'). The 19-year-old Haslemere native even popped up recently as a member of Frank Ocean’s live-band during festival performances in Sweden and Finland last month.
With debut album 'Apricot Princess', Rex soundtracks his experiences of feeling like a "walking emotion" and wanting "the crowd in tears when they hear this," atop varied instrumentation, sometimes lush orchestration, and masterful key-changes. To be clear, this self-released record is one of 2017’s best albums - and that’s an understatement.
Coup De Main caught up with Rex recently in London to discuss self-producing his album, what love means to him, and his favourite top 40 pop songs...
...I’m lucky to have found the right love which is quite partly sensible, but also I’m super passionate about everything because I know how much I care about a person, and how much she cares about me - I can care about everything more passionately.
COUP DE MAIN: How does your songwriting process work?
REX ORANGE COUNTY: It’s generally different each time. I like to just make music, in terms of playing chords, playing piano and guitar, finding things that sound nice, before worrying too much about vocals. Lyrics and vocals tend to come later on, but I just make a load of stuff on keys and guitar, and then work with them.
CDM: Is there a particular instrument that you prefer to write on?
ROC: I don’t know if I prefer piano, but I work better with piano. Naturally, I can get something quicker on a keyboard, but I’d like to think that I can work with both guitar and keys, sort of equally, I think.
CDM: Do you write your lyrics specifically for the songs, or do you write poems or prose and then evolve them into song-form?
ROC: These days, I know I have to write some lyrics for a specific thing, so I’ll do that. The first couple things I did were initially poem form-ish, they were written down with no song behind them. So it worked for sure, and I feel like I could go back to that, but these days I know what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, with words.
CDM: Lyrically, what's your favourite song that you’ve written so far?
ROC: I like the song called ‘Happiness’ which finishes the new album I did. But that’s just because it sort of works as the last song, and I always knew-- it was probably one of the first songs I wrote for it, knowing that it was going to be the last one to sort of summarise everything else I’ve said. I think it’s just good at summarising, and I’m super happy with it.
CDM: I always laugh during, "Don’t call me daddy / 'Cause that’s just fucking weird" in 'Corduroy Dreams’. So on point!
ROC: Thank you very much. <laughs> That was the first song I ever wrote, actually.
CDM: What age were you when you wrote it?
ROC: Probably sixteen. I’ve just turned nineteen now.
CDM: Do you spend a lot of time on the wording of lyrics and constructing them? Or do you just write whatever comes to mind?
ROC: I think, to be honest, if I wrote everything that just came to mind, it wouldn’t sound right, I wouldn’t be happy with it. So I definitely take time, but I don’t even really go through the process of writing the bad thing. I’ll kind of just only put it down if it’s gonna stay there, probably. It might be changed a little bit, but most times I’ll just write it and know that if it’s good it’s staying there, but if it’s not good I probably wouldn’t even write it down. If it was just the first thing that came to my head, I don’t think it would be that great. I have to think for sure, on how the best way to say things.
CDM: You’re so good at writing relatable lyrics. I also really like, "I need insurance / On my emotions / I can’t get hurt again / Fuck the past, fuck them, they all made me sad," from 'Television / So Far So Good'.
ROC: Thank you very much.
CDM: In '4 Seasons' you say that you’re a "walking emotion" - do you tend to wear your heart-on-your-sleeve in real-life? Or just in song-form?
ROC: I guess. I think I’m fairly honest, and if I get stressed out, if I get worried about things, it’s pretty obvious. I don’t think I would try and play it cool, I would probably stress out and be like, ‘Oh god,’ and worry. And the other way round, if I’ve done something wrong where I feel unhappy, then it’s pretty obvious… I want everyone to know that I have a girlfriend and that I love her and stuff - I definitely am totally happy to be open about those kinds of things. I think, aside from the music, I would like to think that’s pretty-- that’s me, you can probably tell that from me as a guy.
MY FAVOURITE SONG ON 'APRICOT PRINCESS’ IS…
CDM: What do you think is the difference between a good song and a great song?
ROC: That’s a good question. I think a great song is a mix of where everything involved, everything that made it, every person and every thing that was involved in creating it is perfect - like the producer, the choices made to put vocals where they were put, in terms of constructing the song itself, and then the lyrics are great, the chords are great, the instrumentation’s great, it’s clean, and it’s a great song. Or you can have a song that has great lyrics but therefore it’s just a good song to me, because bits of it are good. But when I think all the boxes are ticked, then I’m like, ‘That’s a great song.’ There’s loads of good songs, thousands of good songs, but every now and then I’ll go through different cycles of what I think is a good song, and then come back to great songs. It’s simple things - having everything involved be a perfect version of what it is, and it doesn’t need to be changed at all, and I wouldn’t change it. It’s when I think it’s great, and I think, ‘I wish I wrote that,’ then that’s a great song.
CDM: Did you self-produce your new album?
ROC: Yeah, pretty much. I would work with the recording engineer and the mix engineer, a guy called Ben Baptie, he’s managed by the same company as me [September Management] - so I would produce the songs, and then he would bring them to life with me. He wouldn’t be playing things, but he’d be tuning certain things to sound a certain way, and he brought it to life with me.
CDM: Do you want to keep self-producing, or are you open to working with other producers?
ROC: Sure. I think recently, the last album ‘Apricot Princess’, I’m sure if I waited a year, or two years, and then did it again, I could do something which was some form of a level up from that, but I just think now that is the best representation of what I can do by myself - essentially by myself, with barely anyone involved. So I think now if I don’t let anyone else in, then it can’t grow, then I can’t learn more about me. I can do everything that I want to be able to do, but I need other people that can do other shit that I wouldn’t choose to do - to tell me to do that, to try that, and then I could grow with different people, I think. That’s the only way I’m going to be able to move on and grow as a musician as well as an artist. So now I’m ready. Before that, before ‘Apricot Princess’, I wasn’t ready to have someone write/make a song for me, I’ve really only done that a couple of times, and I still had a big input on the chords, I write all of it practically. But now, I’m ready for that, I think.
CDM: You opened your 2015 mixtape 'bcos u will never b free' with the song, 'Rex (Intro)', during which you asked of yourself, "But who am I? Who am I?" Two years on, do you think you have better sense of your own self now?
ROC: For sure. Definitely. I think everyone’s naive to an extent, and everyone has things to learn, and you genuinely do learn new things everyday, but in terms of those two years, I’ve probably come on as an individual more than ever before really. I just kind of know roughly what I should do, responsibility-wise, and how to treat different people, and what to prioritise. I think I know a little bit better.
CDM: In 'Apricot Princess' you sing, "This ain't a fantasy, she's my best fucking friend." Do you think it’s important to be best friends with your romantic partner?
ROC: It is for me - it is for us, for sure. I don’t know if that should be the case for everyone, everyone’s different, but I was best friends with her before it ever became anything romantic. That happened for like a year, and I don’t think either of us ever really-- neither of us really thought about it being a romantic thing for like a year. It was so totally natural that, maybe we’re just super lucky to have found each other, to be honest. It’s definitely important to me, because that’s how it’s worked. But it’s not like in the first place, I said, this is important that when I go into-- I didn’t even realise I was going to go into the relationship. Now I think about it, it’s good to have that, because you can sort of treat each other like friends, and if it’s any kind of disagreement, then it’s more of like friends disagreeing, than a ‘you did that as my boyfriend’ or ‘you did that as my girlfriend’, it’s more just like how we are as people.
CDM: You can agree to disagree.
ROC: Sure. Which is good, because then it doesn’t come into us being boyfriend and girlfriend, that’s just how we treat each other as friends, which I think is good.
CDM: In 'Sycamore Girl' you say, "I don't know how to be in love." What does 'love' mean to you?
ROC: Well, firstly, when I was saying that, it was kind of me talking as if I was in that stage of when we were like really close friends, and we’d just realised that it could be a romantic thing. So that was then, when I actually felt that I didn’t really know how to do it right. What does it mean to me now? At this moment in time, and the last year and seven months or so, it has become probably the most important because it taught me so much. You asked, do you think that I know myself now? Because of that, and being in love, and being obsessed with another person and learning responsibilities, is like, to me, such a great thing - and without that I wouldn’t have come on as an individual. So I think it’s a good thing. I have a great love. You can have any type of love, but I’m lucky to have found the right love which is quite partly sensible, but also I’m super passionate about everything because I know how much I care about a person, and how much she cares about me - I can care about everything more passionately. But it’s also sensible, so I can learn about what I need to do in the day as a normal person, and not become just a ‘smoke on my ass’ artist that’s going to start talking like they need to be-- I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, I’m still nineteen.
CDM: You say, "Me and myself wish you nothing but a happy new version of you," in 'Happiness'. Do you think it’s important that love be selfless?
ROC: I think, for me anyway, as selfless as it gets is... I would pretty much do anything for her really. I would never think twice about-- I think it’s important to be selfless, for sure, but also not forget about yourself. For me personally, yeah, I think it’s important.
CDM: Why did you decide to have Marco McKinnis sing on 'Nothing'?
ROC: Marco is a guy I was introduced to by my friend Mikey Alfred, who runs a company called Illegal Civilisation. He basically just sent me this song and was like, ‘You need to listen to this song,’ and I listened to it and was like, ‘This is fucking sick.’ He’s a great vocalist, an interesting vocalist. I don’t really end up listening to many singers as singers - I kind of listen to artists as artists, what they’ve chosen to do all round, but I totally heard his voice first, which I don’t really get with many things. I felt as if it needed someone, and he was sort of in the top handful of people that I was definitely set on trying to get, but he was also the most-- the options made sense the most because he was young, and he’s like me, with the same kind of following. Not that that should matter, but I felt like putting each other on somehow… Me reposting his song, him reposting my song, being on each other’s music, it could just be fun, there’s no way anyone’s going to judge it because we’re both just young, showing what we can do.
CDM: The change in rhythm midway through '4 Seasons' is so good! When you’re writing songs, what is running through your mind when you decide to completely change up a song like that midway?
ROC: That one in particular was initially like three different ideas that then became one thing. That’s a weird one - I usually don’t write songs like that but I happened to have three sections where the chords were super similar, or the vocal would work over the same chords. I kind of had to construct that one specifically, when I went in before we even recorded I had to be like, ‘Okay it’s going to go from this tempo to that tempo.’ I kind of just knew it was going to happen, because those lyrics over those chords at that point worked at that tempo, and I just realised that’s where I needed to be. I like how it sounds when things just change spontaneously.
WHAT ‘APRICOT PRINCESS’ MEANS TO ME…
CDM: When you played at London’s Peckham Liberal Club recently, you had a TV on-stage that played footage from 'The Wind In The Willows' animated film. Why did you decide to have that as a visual accompaniment to your show?
ROC: We basically had this TV, and on the day bought a DVD player and went to a shop to find DVDs. We had three different things, like ‘The Cat In The Hat’ with Mike Myers, ‘The Wind In The Willows’… To be honest, we just found three DVDs in a shop and were like, ‘This’ll work.’ So it was less thought out.
CDM: I know you like to listen to Capital FM when you’re in an Uber and discuss your opinions of what’s being played. What current pop songs are you feeling particularly opinionated about currently?
ROC: That’s a good one. I’m so bad at the names of those things! There’s this one called ‘Stay’ by Alessia Cara and Zedd, that one I always like. There’s one called ‘Issues’--
CDM: By Julia Michaels?
ROC: That one’s cool. I like that new Shawn Mendes song, weirdly. I quite like the DJ Khaled song with Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper [‘I’m The One’] - it’s so sick.
CDM: You said earlier this year that you were trying to write for other people. What kind of music do you want to write for other artists?
ROC: It’s been kind of less in my mind ever since focusing on that album, but since you brought it up I definitely still think about it. I think it’d just be nice to be able to adapt to someone else’s feelings and opinions on stuff, regardless of chords, and just kind of figure out how to write lyrics for someone else, which I think is something I wouldn’t know how to do right now. But I’d love to learn, and go and do it a few times, and figure out how to do that. Because I think I’d be fine to help ‘em out with playing shit, I’m fine with that, but would love to discuss writing lyrics with someone else. It’s difficult, I’ve never really written lyrics with anyone else apart from Thea, for ‘Sycamore Girl’. I think it would just be good to explore that.
CDM: Will you continue to keep making your own live show posters and cover art for your music?
ROC: Yeah! I would love to. I think that’s so fun. It’s naturally going to be progressive, because if I’m going to make it every time, if I have the time to make it every time - which I don’t know why I wouldn’t, but you know when people get other people to do shit for them, specific things - but I think it would be cool. There’d be continuity without me trying for it to be-- it would be me every time, so it would always work, I think.
CDM: If you were a country, which song would be your national anthem?
ROC: That’s such a good question. The first thing that came to mind was ‘Solo’ by Frank Ocean, but that might be a bit deep. Something that would sound sick in an arena - now the first thing that comes to mind is ‘Sign Of The Times’ by Harry Styles, so we’ll go with that. Let’s do that.
MY HAPPIEST MEMORY IS…
CDM: If R.E.X. were an acronym, what would each letter stand for?
ROC: No way! Fucking X’s. There’s only one, and it’s xylophone. I’m sure there’s more, but… Recklessly Enjoying Xylophones. It’s the first thing that came to my head.
CDM: And what’s on your bucket-list?
ROC: I would love to play all the venues in the world that I know that I love - I have a thing where I find venues worldwide, theatres, shows, amphitheatres. I love a great venue, so to play all the venues worldwide that I would love to play. I’d love to just travel the world for music, but also just to do it as an individual, see as much as I possibly can, and meet everyone that inspires me and be able to have conversations with everyone that’s inspired me. That really is all that matters to me now. I think if you asked me that in a few years once I’ve done those things, I may be saying some other shit like bungee jumping, but I don’t need to do that - I just want to meet everyone that inspires me, and play shows. That’s pretty much it.
CDM: And come to New Zealand, right?
ROC: And come to New Zealand, that’s right! It’s at the top.
IF I HAD A DAY OFF IN NEW ZEALAND, I WOULD GO…
Rex Orange County’s debut album 'Apricot Princess' is out now - click here to purchase.
+ ROC will play a sold-out show at London’s Village Underground on September 13th. Click here for more info.
Watch Rex Orange County’s 'Untitled' music video below...