On Feb. 4, as over 100 million viewers tuned in for Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show, a young, buoyant crowd at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg instead focused its attention on English pop-soul singer Rex Orange County (born Alex O’Connor), who took the stage for his debut performance in the United States. Visibly moved by the throngs of attendees singing along, O’Connor briefly clasped his hands in prayer.
“I didn’t realize it until [my music] was out, but it’s actually how loads of people feel,” explains O’Connor. “People have cried at a couple of shows. To think that someone could do that for me… Jesus Christ. That’s a crazy sign.”
He has much to be thankful for. The 19-year-old sold out all four of his first U.S. shows, and O’Connor’s manager says tickets for the two Los Angeles gigs went in under three minutes. Ticket buyers knew they were in for a rare treat: the chance to catch a distinctive artist early in his career, one where he has already earned over 50 million Spotify streams of his sophomore independent album, Apricot Princess, released in 2017, and stand-alone singles. In addition to booking slots at festivals such as Panorama and Primavera Sound on top of his mini-tour, he started the year coming in second place in the BBC’s annual Sound of 2018 Poll alongside artists like Khalid and Sigrid.
Producer Ben Ash, who has crafted hits for Sam Smith as Two Inch Punch, calls O’Connor’s music “the most exciting thing I’ve heard in years.” “I had loads of sessions booked with artists on labels, paid sessions and paid productions,” continues Ash. “After I heard [O’Connor], I threw everything in the bin and was like, ‘I want to work with this guy.’”
That’s a common sentiment among artists who hear O’Connor’s music. He has just two self-released albums to his name, but in the last year he graced a pair of songs on Tyler, The Creator’s critically acclaimed Flower Boy, backed up unpredictable R&B star Frank Ocean on tour and most recently hit the studio with Paul Epworth, the songwriter-producer behind smash singles for Adele and Rihanna. Plus, he has another session in the pipeline with Mark Ronson.
Rex Orange County songs are grounded in early-1970s blue-eyed soul, but unlike many recent breakout artists with an interest in throwback styles (Smith, Leon Bridges), O’Connor’s music also reflects the wide-ranging taste that’s common among young performers in the streaming era. His songs feature energizing jolts of lo-fi indie rock and a slippery, conversational delivery indebted to hip-hop. The core of his music, though, is keyboard balladry and what he describes as “Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones-type chords.” “If you can make a song that sounds like that,” adds O’Connor, “people who may not know about Quincy Jones are like, ‘It just works.’”
Apricot Princess is dedicated to O’Connor’s first serious romantic partner, Thea Morgan-Murrell. The title is also her nickname, and she turns in a song-stealing verse on “Sycamore Girl,” a string-swathed ballad. Though the set captures the head-over-heels sensation of falling in love for the first time, O’Connor’s songs encompass other aspects of youthful romance: confusion, gaffes and fear of commitment. “What the fuck is a girlfriend?” he asks during a panic-stricken moment in “Television/So Far So Good.” “I’ma need advice.”
If O’Connor is uncertain in love, he’s self-assured in artistic ambition. He grew up in Haslemere, an hour outside London. His father played the piano, and his mother sang in a choir; he developed an interest in drums, bashing along to rock songs from Green Day and blink-182, and took singing lessons. When he was 15, his teachers encouraged him to apply to the BRIT School, a London institution that has also welcomed artists like Adele. “I’d rather go to school and do loads of music than anything else,” O’Connor remembers thinking. He was warned that only 5 percent of the people outside London got in, but he was accepted as a drummer.
The BRIT School widened his musical palette. “Partly because of where I lived and partly because of not having many young people around me [in Haslemere], I was learning about loads of artists that I probably should have known about all in one go,” he says. At the same time, he was becoming interested in helming his own project. “I realized that you can achieve so much at the front of a stage, releasing the music yourself and being something more selfish than just the drummer.”
He began writing and recording, which led to the album bcos u will never b free, a blast of teenage angst released on Bandcamp in 2015. While many teens struggle to articulate their feelings, O’Connor’s lyrics were forthright and unfiltered. Take “A Song About Being Sad”: “The months of obsession and crying for hours/I even started sitting down in the shower, girl.”
Songs from bcos u will never b free started to pick up traction on SoundCloud and found fans in artists like Tyler, The Creator, who flew the singer to Los Angeles during the Flower Boy sessions. “Seeing how he works was like, ‘I can make some shit happen as well,’” says O’Connor. “In my head, it was like, if [Flower Boy] is going to come out, I need something I’m super proud of that shows where I’m at now.” It led him to create the suave, confident Apricot Princess, which incorporated arrangements for an eight-person string section. “It felt great to be able to write songs that weren’t like, ‘Fuck this shit!’”
O’Connor is now slowly creating a follow-up album. He wants to write about “subjects that I haven’t covered as much, [because] some of the best songs aren’t actually love songs.”
“More people are going to listen to it,” he says, “so I do think about that shit — is this any good? Are people going to be like, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever heard’? But I’ve got the time to do it right.”
His Eclectic Inspirations
O’Connor breaks down a trio of albums that had a significant impact on his style.
Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder
The title track to Apricot Princess is an homage to “Another Star,” the closer of Wonder’s 1976 masterpiece. “It’s jazz and pop going together without it being ‘I love jazz’ or ‘I love pop,’” he explains. “Those songs are undeniably classic.”
Version by Mark Ronson
O’Connor singles out Ronson’s cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” which features an unhinged verse from rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard, for special praise. “It’s a wild ’60s brass version of ‘Toxic.’ I thought it was so amazing.”
Flower Boy by Tyler, The Creator
“He should have more credit for how things are today,” he says of Tyler, whom he credits for empowering other artists. “Anyone can put anything out at any point and make anything by themselves. He’s the ultimate example of that.”
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of Billboard.