“Nothing has to be perfect,” claims 18 year-old singer, songwriter and drummer Rex Orange County. “Why take it so seriously when anyone in the fucking world can make music? Make it obvious you did it.”
That’s the kind of response you’ll receive following any attempt to reduce the teen artist’s bedroom-born sound to a single label. You’d struggle, anyhow. Rex Orange County’s catalogue is a wheezy hybrid of influence, maundering between contemporary jazz, rap, stoned R&B and surf rock, refusing to stick to a single, sonic template. With apparent nonchalance, Rex (real name Alex O’Connor), fluctuates between genre and mood at his own pensive will.
With his scatter-brained approach to making music, Rex has quickly come to embody a detached, unrepresented cohort of young people in modern Britain. He grew up in Haslemere, a made-for-postcards town in Surrey. Beautiful? Most certainly. But with that came shelter, and a feeling of existing on the cultural periphery. “I needed to get away from people and situations I was bored of,” he admits. That very boredom led him to write and rexcord his self-produced debut EP, bcos u will never b free, a bedroom album that propelled him into many a musical consciousness following its online release on his Bandcamp page. You can count Two Inch Punch and BadBadNotGood as fans. “Thank god for the Internet,” he concludes.
The sounds of his debut speak to a very specific moment and feeling in modern youth; it’s a bittersweet ode to the cyclical nature of small town living, with Rex’s ponderings capturing the imagination of fellow tedium-dwellers. Its joy is in its apathy, a feeling which Rex relays through a number of different approaches; he jumps from singing, to rapping, to spoken word and back again with unwavering fluidity, as if it’s a method of entertaining himself within the confines of the same four walls. The result, though, is a joy. It’s a joyous, carefree exercise in the mundane act of not really giving a shit. Inadvertently, Rex Orange County seems to have successfully spoken for an entire generation.
Influences include Thundercat and Toro Y Moi, while Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange remains a representation of his musical ambition. “If I could do anything close to that musically, then that’s it,” he beams. As an artist who moves exclusively to the beat of his own drum, he admires those who refrain from adhering to singular categorisation. Labels are reductive. Genres are boring. It’s a subtle rebellion against the mainstream sphere – and it makes for great music.
New material looks set to continue in such a vein, although the songwriter’s move to London looks set to play a part in what comes next. According to the man himself, it’ll be moving his focus slightly, choosing to immerse himself in “general positivity”.
“Lyrically, it’s moved on,” he explains. “It’s levelled up, but I’m not showing everything yet.” New single UNO does a good job of providing a glimpse, though. Much like his earlier work, there’s an inherent ambivalence that underpins everything he’s saying, although now, his ideas are much bigger – and grander in the way that they’re shared. It’s jazzy, stoned and littered with synths, horns and vocal manipulation. It feels a little more liberated, a little more playful, showcasing an artist with nothing to prove.
Rex Orange County is a name to watch out for in 2017. He’s a young artist completely of his moment, with a confidence that exceeds his 18 years. Catch him in London on January 26th, or elsewhere after that. He’s not going anywhere. We’ll be better for it.
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Words by Niall Flynn