Almost two years ago, Rex Orange County—a gangly teen with a mop of hair and an affable, mustached grin—walked into lower Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom. The intimate venue fits just 600 ticket holders; it isn’t exactly a sports arena. But this was Rex's first-ever trip to New York City, a place he was more excited to visit than anywhere in the world, he told the Fader camera crews following him. Later, on a chilly, clear February evening, he'd headline his second-ever show in America there (the first, a day prior, happened at the Music Hall of Williamsburg). He and his bandmates wandered around the venue, taking it all in. Slowly, Rex approached the stage...and sniffed it. Inhaled it. Breathed the moment in as literally as one possibly could.
After changing out of a white hoodie (under a jean jacket) to an understated, loose-fitting, extra-long striped tee and jeans, Rex took the stage in front of a sold-out crowd. His enthusiasm hadn’t waned; he opted for a quick bow before taking his seat in front of the piano, itching to proceed. Behind him was his own name, spelled out in bubbly, colorful letters, matched by the hundreds of colorful balloons that later fell from the ceiling as the honey-voiced musician sang his appropriately titled song “Happiness.”
Eighteen months later, days before the release of his second studio album, Pony, Rex returned to Bowery Ballroom for another sold-out show—an underplay this time, considering his sold-out 2020 shows at New York’s iconic Radio City Music Hall. Since his first go-around on this stage, Rex’s trajectory—from bloggy hotshot to world-famous musician—had accelerated, though not necessarily as smoothly as he would’ve liked, which he was eager to tell the crowd about in his new songs. When he appeared at 9 p.m. on the dot, dressed in a long-sleeve plain white tee and blue jeans, still sporting that moppy haircut (and a bit more facial hair), the rowdy crowd of teens and early-twentysomethings welcomed him like he was the second coming of Paul McCartney. He held up two peace signs and did the Nixon—a name that he, a 21-year-old from the village of Grayshott in the United Kingdom (population: 2,400), may very well only know as "that floating head from Futurama."
For the entirety of his hour-long set, couples pressed themselves against each other, silent, rapt. One pair, who looked to be freshmen in college, were very obviously there on a first date; they went from standing nervously side by side, staring straight ahead, to singing at the top of their lungs while maintaining unbreakable eye contact with each other. All the while, onstage, Rex had ever so subtly altered his performance aesthetic: A small, hand-drawn horse served as his sole backdrop. No balloons dropped from the sky; props were so 2018. It didn't matter, though. His reception was just as electric. “He’s a manic pixie dream boy,” my plus-one said, turning to me, stars in his eyes.
A few weeks earlier, Rex is slumped over in a chair in a small photo studio in lower Manhattan, his face a few inches from his iPhone, watching a performance he’d just done on The Tonight Show. He’s hardly the wide-eyed, eternally boyish figure you’d expect, though that’s only because, at the moment, he has a splitting headache. But he’s 21. It’s nothing some pizza and Advil won’t fix.
And it does. Within minutes, that unbridled "manic pixie dream boy" energy returns. He cracks a toothy grin and sits up. The Fallon appearance actually went swimmingly, he says. He’s already a pro, after all.
Born Alex O’Connor, he grew up “between London and the bottom of the country,” he once told Vice. He hated school; there wasn’t much he was good at, or cared about, with a couple of notable exceptions: photography and music. “I always felt like the one friend who didn't do anything particularly well,” he says. “But none of my friends could do what I could on a piano.”
Nor could they do what he could on the drums. When Rex was 16, he was admitted as a percussionist at the prestigious BRIT School in London (notable fellow alums: Adele, Amy Winehouse, Jessie J, Leona Lewis, and…Tom Holland). The performing-arts program showed him that he might actually be better at something bigger than drumming. He started messing around on the guitar, and committed himself to strengthening his vocals. It wouldn’t be fair to say he’d never considered the singing route—he was involved in lots of “theater stuff” as a kid. But his past has been misrepresented, he says: “One time I made the mistake of saying in an interview that I was in a choir, and what I meant was that I was in an ensemble of people that sung together. We weren't, like, fucking choirboys in a church.”
So, that voice: Not a fucking choirboy in a church, but if you were otherwise unfamiliar, your guess would be as good as any. Read any number of Rex profiles and reviews, and you’ll see his vocals (and production skills; he’s had a hand in producing all his songs thus far) described in nebulous terms like “genre-bending.” To others, he’s a little indie-pop here, a little R&B there. That’s not to say he’s necessarily in the rarefied territory of, say, a Macy Gray, with a sound so distinct that comparisons are useless. Rex’s sonic charm is in his familiarity. There’s something about his voice you’ve heard before, even if you can’t totally place it. It’s Lyle Lovett–folksy meets Bobby Caldwell–jazzy with a healthy dose of adolescent yearning and unease. It drives the kids wild.
Rex’s career, like those of other young musicians who grew up with the Internet always just there, was drastically accelerated by SoundCloud. In 2015, he released his first (quasi) album, bcos u will never be free, on the platform; his voice was, in retrospect, fully formed at the age of 17. His main lyrical subjects and themes have stuck around for the long haul, too, namely: lovey-dovey songs about his girlfriend, Thea, whom he’s still dating and living with in south London.
A year passed. Rex, still unsigned, still a teenager, was riding home on the Tube one afternoon when he received a DM on Twitter: “Yo,” it said. The DM, Twitter promised, came from Tyler, the Creator. Rex and Tyler had swapped e-mails after the Odd Future leader came across Rex’s SoundCloud and said he liked what he heard. But Rex had no idea whether the e-mail had come from the real Tyler, so he’d asked for some sort of verifiable proof. Seeing the “yo” pop up on his phone was, in Rex’s own estimation, the “weirdest thing” that’s ever happened to him. It also, without a doubt, launched his career into a different stratosphere.
Rex isn’t sure exactly what it was about his SoundCloud that piqued Tyler’s interest. Bashfully, he posits that it could’ve been something about the chords on bcos u will never be free, or maybe it was the harmonies, or their shared interest in music theory. Tyler ended up flying Rex out to Los Angeles to work on his critically acclaimed 2017 album, Flower Boy, which spawned two beloved Rex features: “Foreword” and “Boredom.”
Rex once tweeted that the studio session with Tyler was the only time he’s been able to come up with lyrics in front of anyone else. “I've always found it hard to believe that anyone has the patience for me to sit there and think of something,” he says. “I can’t relax until I know there's no one there apart from me.” The writing process is “quite personal” to Rex. He admits he's had serious writer's block between then—following his efforts on Tyler’s album and his own 2017 debut studio album, Apricot Princess—and now. “I know that's boring,” he says. “People don't care.”
People do care: On Spotify, he has 7.6 million monthly listeners, and three of his songs—”Best Friend,” “Sunflower,” and “Loving Is Easy”—have eclipsed 150 million streams each. On Genius, unverified fan theories about the new album’s lyrics already abound. Pony still sports trademark Rex ballads intended for his girlfriend, but there are also references to his struggles with fame, especially on “It’s Not the Same Anymore,” the album’s final track. (Sample lyric: "I’m tired of taking stress / If only there could be another way / I’m tired of feeling suppressed.")
“I previously only ever wrote love songs, or close relationship songs,” he explains. “It was suddenly like, Oh, wait, there are other things to talk about. The album is essentially about looking at my life and how things change, and how that makes me feel. Everyone's got a little bit of anxiety in them at the moment. People my age seem like they’re slightly more aware of their mental health. The responsibilities pile up as you get older, and they don't stop when you get what you think is success.”
“New House,” Rex’s only 2019 single that didn’t make the album, offers additional insight into the musician’s recent headspace: “Everybody needs something all the fucking time,” Rex sings on its third verse. “I was just feeling all of that for the very first time,” he says, before catching himself and throwing in another qualifier. “But then again, all of this is a choice. So it's like, if I'm up for it, then you get the yin and the yang, and the yang is kind of long.”
Part of the yin of stardom is Rex’s relationship with Tyler, which he cherishes. Rex has called the rapper a big brother to him, a sentiment cemented in August 2018, when Tyler joined him onstage at L.A.'s Fonda Theatre. They chatted before the show. “Tyler was just very sweet about the fact that I’d gotten this far,” Rex recalls. “He was like, ‘Some kids came up to me the other day and asked me if I was going to your show.’ He was just proud of me.”
Rex is careful to note he doesn’t talk to Tyler all that often, but he’s grateful to have him in his corner. And Tyler’s not the only high-profile Rex Orange County supporter out there. When I mention one of the songs on Pony, “Stressed Out,” has some serious Frank Ocean vibes, Rex lights up and reveals an unbreakable grin. “Do you know what? He likes that song,” he says. “He said it was relatable for him when he first heard it. I would never intentionally make a song that was meant to sound like Frank, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't influenced by him.”
When Rex speaks about Tyler, or Frank, or André 3000 (arguably, he says, his all-time favorite rapper), the reverence and enthusiasm he has for them bubbles up to the surface. He’s geeking out, a fan again, dispensing of the qualifiers and caveats that couch his other responses. That isn’t to say he’s otherwise dour or evasive—in fact, he’s easygoing and charming, especially post-pizza and Advil. But Pony, and the framing around it, suggests that Rex has reached his first adulthood-defining fork in the road, and he’s still figuring out how to best explain this pivotal moment.
Others have taken notice. The week Pony came out, The Atlantic published a think piece called “When Music’s Sad Boys Chase Happiness,” which analyzed Rex’s lyrics and purported motives, linking him to the king of the sad boys, James Blake. The piece was largely complimentary of Rex’s discography and latest LP, but noted that “it’d be nice to hear him regard the other gender as something other than either betrayer or support blanket.” The Guardian, meanwhile, called Rex a “heart-bruised softboi,” a slightly more incendiary sentiment. A sad boy tells you he’s going to therapy to work on himself, and means it, but drops out after a few weeks and reverts to dumping all of his baggage on you; a soft boy tells you, after eight months of consistently dating, that he’s going through a lot and isn’t quite ready to put “labels” on the relationship. Neither is considered particularly high praise.
Sad boy, and especially soft boy, feel like oversimplified interpretations of Rex’s evolving identity. He’s a 21-year-old in a long-term relationship who, more recently, has very publicly been trying to get a grip on his rapidly developing personal and professional obligations. And unlike the most egregious of our sad and soft boy offenders, Rex presents as someone who’d actually hear out and be open to constructive criticisms about his clunkier lyrics. He’s reflective, often at his own expense, and jokingly admits that he doesn’t even like his stage name anymore, which originally came from a teacher who called him “The O.C.,” since his last name is O’Connor. “I like the Rex bit, but three words is too much,” he says. “Secondly, ‘Orange County’ is too misleading, 'cause I'm not from there. Everybody always hits me up like, ‘Yo bro, I'm in Orange County!’ It's probably the right name, because it was right at the time, but of course I resent it a bit.”
Rex’s one unwavering sentiment—his bread-and-butter, the non-negotiable deal breaker of the Rex Orange County narrative—is his commitment to the love song for all occasions. It’s an energy that permeates his shows, enthralls his fan base, perhaps even drew Tyler, the Creator to his SoundCloud. “To feel love and to be loved back, I’m in that right now, and I feel like I’m going to be in that forever,” Rex once said. Given the events of the past year and a half, I ask him: Do you still think it’s possible to love and be loved, romantically and otherwise, and feel that forever?
He pauses briefly, his face scrunched, lost in thought. “I feel the same way,” he says. “We mature a lot every year, and we grow up. We change. I think you can change with another person as well. So yeah, if it's like that between two people, whoever they are, I believe that it can stay that way forever.”
There’s obviously no way to quantify the accuracy of Rex’s assessment. Empirically speaking, for many twentysomethings, it simply doesn’t ring true. But Rex believes it wholeheartedly, and has since his debut as a 17-year-old—an eternity ago for a young adult. When he says it, you have no choice but to consider it. That’s Rex’s power at work: When you’re in his orbit, swaying to his songs, eyes glued on his every move, you’re transported. Your most angsty, heart-swelling crushes from young adulthood come flooding back. Forever love at least feels like a possibility. And forever young? That sounds pretty good, too.
Grooming Credit: Rachel Leidig
Style Credit: Jon Tietz-
Originally Appeared on GQ