Within the space of a few months last year, Rex Orange County performed alongside two of his musical heroes.
First the young British singer surprised his audience at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles by bringing out Randy Newman for the live debut of their Spotify-sponsored remake of Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Then he played the main stage at Tyler, the Creator’s annual Camp Flog Gnaw festival not long before Tyler himself, who’d given Rex his big break in 2017 when Tyler featured him on his album “Flower Boy.”
The contrasting moments — one involving a master of old-fashioned pop, the other hip-hop’s reigning enfant terrible — went some way toward illustrating Rex’s unique position as a heart-on-his-sleeve balladeer beloved by rowdy Gen Z rap fans.
“It’s quite a lonely group I’m in,” he acknowledged the other day with a dry little chuckle.
Yet to judge by his disarming new album, 2018 may have been the worst year of Rex Orange County’s life — “a year that nearly sent me off the edge,” as he puts it in the record’s opening track, “10/10.”
In each of the 10 songs on “Pony,” which entered the Billboard album chart this week at No. 3, the 21-year-old from the tiny village of Grayshott in East Hampshire describes the disorientation brought on by becoming a public figure. He sings about old friends seeking to trade on his name; he laments the phoniness of many of the new people he’s encountered. And over and over he looks back longingly to a time when music was his passion, not his meal ticket.
“I miss the days when I was someone else,” he croons in a high-ish voice tender enough to reveal every bruise, “I used to be so hungry / Right now my stomach’s full as hell.”
Seated on the patio of the Chateau Marmont, the singer — born Alex O’Connor; he got his stage name from a teacher who referred to him as “the O.C.” — sighed as he smoothed the mustache that keeps him from looking even more boyish than he does. “The whole experience, it just turned out differently than I expected,” he said.
Ironically, this record about the troubling reality of fame is poised to bring him only more. Rex’s first effort for a major label (following two albums he released himself online), “Pony” is slicker than his older, scrappier stuff, with lush horn and string arrangements and slinky yet muscular bass playing by Pino Palladino, who’s known for his work with John Mayer and D’Angelo.
Last month Rex performed “10/10” on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show, and he’s already sold out early 2020 dates at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium. After the latter, he’ll stick around town to play iHeartRadio’s Alter Ego concert at the Forum on Jan. 18 with Billie Eilish and the Black Keys — an indication of alternative radio’s embrace of the catchy “10/10,” which can suggest a more soulful, offbeat Ed Sheeran.
“This feels like a big move for him,” said iHeart’s Lisa Worden, who oversees the company’s alternative stations and programs L.A.’s Alt 98.7. Most of her listeners are probably unfamiliar with Rex, she figures. “But this song will grab their attention.”
Rex insists he’s OK with that prospect. Making “Pony” was the “therapy” he needed to work through his complicated feelings about success, he said; now, having removed unnamed shady folks from his life — “Sometimes you’ve got to cut a bitch out,” he sings — he’s trying to focus on the positive aspects of pop stardom, not least having a sizable audience for music born from a DIY impulse.
Indeed, the night before our talk, he played a hastily announced gig at the Roxy in West Hollywood, where several hundred fans hung on every word of his new tunes and sang along loudly with favorites like the jazzy “Sunflower” and “Loving Is Easy,” one of many songs he’s written about his girlfriend, Thea Morgan-Murrell, who contributes backup vocals on “Pony.”
“I can tell you all the bad things [about celebrity] — and I do on the album,” he said at the Chateau as a server delivered a tray of fancy breakfast sandwiches. “But without that stuff, I couldn’t have filled the Roxy with two days’ notice.” He shrugged. “And I definitely wouldn’t be staying at this hotel.”
What persuades you that he’s truly made peace with his situation is the fact that “Pony” isn’t a total downer. For all the anxieties he recounts — in person, he was reluctant to say more than he does in the songs — the album actually strikes a gently uplifting note thanks to Rex’s handsome melodies and the buoyant grooves he devised with producer Ben Baptie; there’s also the comfort he clearly takes in singing about Morgan-Murrell, as in “Face to Face,” in which he recalls how “she calmed me down that night I freaked out.”
“Pony” closes with a long, deliberately paced number called “It’s Not the Same Anymore,” and though it begins with Rex’s nostalgia for a simpler era, what you realize by the end of the song, as Newman-style old-Hollywood strings rev up, is that he’s also left behind the gloom that set in at some point last year.
“It’s not the same anymore,” he sings, before quietly adding: “It got better.”
None of this drama was foreseeable to the teenage Rex who left home to attend London’s Brit School, the prestigious performing-arts academy whose alumni include Adele and Amy Winehouse. Back then he was an aspiring drummer — Morgan-Murrell, with whom he now lives in London, was at the Brit School too, a year ahead of him — but soon he started writing songs and recording in his bedroom; Tyler, with whom he shares an obsession with mid-’70s Stevie Wonder, hit him up after discovering Rex’s music on SoundCloud and invited him to L.A. to collaborate.
Is he surprised that Tyler’s fans have embraced him the way they have? No, said Rex, “because Tyler is the ultimate crossover,” known for his wide-ranging enthusiasms. (At this year’s Camp Flog Gnaw, set to take place Saturday and Sunday at Dodger Stadium, the rapper will be part of a typically eclectic bill that also includes Solange, YG, Willow Smith, Blood Orange, Dominic Fike and DaBaby.) Despite the differences in their approaches, both Rex and Tyler write with a startling emotional candor that’s obviously resonating with teens and twentysomethings who’ve grown up confessing their secrets on social media.
Rex raps a bit on “Pony,” in a head-nodding track called “Laser Lights,” about being “caught up and confused about what matters to me.” He laughed and said, “I suppose I do, though I feel like there’s rapping and then there’s me just saying my ... in a spoken style.”
He seemed more comfortable taking credit for the album’s complex harmonic structures — a lot of great chords here — and for his singing, which has grown in expressiveness in the short amount of time he has been making records. In “Pluto Projector,” a stately slow jam with some beautiful vocal fillips, he echoes Frank Ocean, another of his inspirations, and Robin Thicke, an older star — and onetime hip-hop hook man — who’s gone a few years without a big hit.
“What, is he over there?” Rex replied, scanning the hotel patio, when I asked if he knew who Thicke was. I thought he might like Thicke’s song “The Stupid Things,” released when Rex was all of 4 years old. He called up the delicate piano ballad on his phone, then put the phone up to his ear as he listened.
“I see what you mean,” he said with a grin. “Yeah, I know what he’s doing.”