The heartfelt crusader’s Clash 113 cover story in full

We’re deep in the bowels of Rex Orange County’s East London studio, and he’s trying to get to the heart of the matter. A tangerine hoodie offsets his black jeans, a cigarette permanently being lit, smoked, and replaced during our conversation, as he chases down the smoke trails of inspiration that took him to his latest endeavour.

‘Pony’ is the first Rex Orange County project that he has dared to refer to - openly, at least - as an album. It’s a potent collection of songwriting, one in which his trademark innocence is pushed to the brink before being retained, reinforced. If those opening mixtapes stamped out ground for others to follow, then ‘Pony’ is perhaps the purest distillation of his ethos and approach, epitomising the interlinked relationship between his music and his life.

“These days, I don’t find myself having to look at anyone. I don’t compare myself to anyone if I can help it because I did used to quite a lot more when I started,” he reflects. “You would worry a lot. It’s easy to worry that you should be busier than you are.”

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Rex wears jumper by Marni
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So how do you move past that?

“I kind of just ignored a lot of stuff,” he shrugs, lighting another cigarette. He takes the first draw, exhales, then continues: “For me, I didn’t really have to look at anyone too much. I had to go and sit in a room by myself for a while, and learn what I wanted. Like, there are no features on the album. That’s a credit to what I’m saying. I just felt so strongly about doing it by myself. Or at least on my own terms.”

It’s a sense of freedom that was hard earned. His breakout mixtape, ‘Apricot Princess’, was followed by a lingering period of stasis, when Rex began to loosen his grip, to lessen his control. “I think I was very out of inspiration,” he admits. “Happily, though. I’d written two full-length albums - whether it was called a mixtape or an album or whatever - that was me working hard.”

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Rex wears jumper by Ralph Lauren, jeans by Aries
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“And I was 19 or something. I didn’t have lots to say afterwards. I think I was ready to wait for the next thing to come in, to give me something to say. I was playing shows, and I wasn’t writing, really, whilst doing that. I was floating around, meeting people… things got bigger and better for Rex Orange County, but for me as a person I was letting it happen, and maybe not working as hard as I thought I should be.”

Rex Orange County talks in this hyper-accentuated, ultra-staccato, rat-a-tat-tat flow; this flood of information that tumbles back on itself, corrects, and then moves forward. He’s open, though; the conversation turns towards an extended spell in the States, the moment his slackening of control began to take on darker permutations.

“It was someone who I thought I trusted for a really long time, basically,” he says, anxiously stubbing out a cigarette and then staring intensely at the floor. “It was just a situation that was really unfortunate where me and another person worked together and I trusted them until I realised that I shouldn’t have. And there was so many things about it that were shocking, really.”

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Rex wears hoodie by Carhartt, shirt by Dickies
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“I had to learn that the hard way,” he reflects. “There is something about young musicians and the industry as it is - whether you’re a musician taking advantage of another musician, or a producer taking advantage of a musician, or a musician taking advantage of a label - I think it’s a pretty fucking strange industry where everyone is a bit dog-eat-dog, and you see that after a while. You realise which bits of it you want to avoid. I think that was it, really. I luckily learnt that I wanted more control than I had.”

‘Pony’ is about taking back control. It’s a focused, nuanced, beautifully exact record, controlled in its musicality when explicit in its emotional impact. It’s the result of a series of definitive decisions - ignoring the United States to return to London, Rex Orange County hooked up with old collaborator Ben Baptie, using a space at East London’s Strongroom Studios. Each day he would drive up from his home in South London, and each night he would drive back, ideas ringing in the back of his mind.

“We could have used a massive studio with every option of every guitar, every cable, every pedal, every keyboard that’s ever made, that you’ve never heard of. But that’s actually incredibly destructive to your creativity,” he insists. “That means there’s no ceiling, and you don’t know where to start, and you don’t know where to end. When there’s just every fucking option. But here, I like the idea of it being self-contained and you have maybe 20 things to make the sound palette of the whole album. It felt very quickly that it was the right place to do it.”

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Rex wears shirt by A.P.C. from Mr Porter, sweater and jeans by Aries, shoes by Converse
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Looking round, the key components of ‘Pony’ are littered on the floor. There’s a shelf of effects pedals, some covered in fading stickers. In the vocal room the ceiling dips down low - you have to almost dip your head to retrace their steps, imagining Rex burrowed up close to his keyboard. “For me, personally, I would say it’s so beneficial to limit yourself, and not have every choice. And know when to stop as well.”

Working intensely with Baptie, the two would pore over each and every idea, from the boldest vocal down to the subtlest drum beat. “Each thing was considered until it was right,” Rex nods. “But not to the point where I wanted to drive myself crazy, because I wanted to satisfy myself. That’s my point. It’s like, I didn’t want to go to the very end, to make myself artistically question everything; I just wanted to question everything that I had until it was really great.”

Pushing outwards, ‘Pony’ is a beautifully pointed experience - there are shades of R&B and neo-soul, interlinked with the naivety, the unabashed innocence that makes Rex Orange County’s songwriting so loved, so enriching. “There’s certain things I can’t help but gravitate towards: certain sounds, certain chords. Mainly in the harmony, actually: which notes are played with which ones,” he says. “I don’t always have the most positive stuff to say, but I find it easier to pair those kind of not-so-positive things with really positive sounding music. I’ve never loved dark sounding music, really.”

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Rex wears jacket by Carhartt, joggers by Carhartt from Mr Porter, shoes by Clarks
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This light-dark dichotomy reaches its apogee on album cut ‘Face To Face’. It’s a love letter and a song of despair - penned during that disastrous time in America when Rex lost control, it’s perhaps the most straight-forwardly revealing thing he’s ever written.

“I was somewhere else in the world - not in London - and my girlfriend was at home, and I was ill in the evening, and I was calling her on FaceTime. The song is about FaceTime. It’s actually about me and her speaking,” he says. “I just wished that I was there. In that time and that situation I wished I was in that bed, in a completely different zone.”

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“The rest of the song is about how I was in this situation where I felt like I was being taken advantage of. I wasn’t happy,” he says, reaching for another cigarette. “It’s all basically about how there’s someone you really love who is on your side, and you’re just imprisoned in this thing that you don’t want to be in and there’s no way of getting back. Where I’m so desperate to be with someone I love, and so unfortunate to be with someone I don’t.”

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Rex wears jacket by Prada, T-shirt by Ralph Lauren, trousers by Dickies, shoes by Converse
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It’s the path back that frames ‘Pony’ - each song, explicitly or not, feels like it contains a fragment of this trauma. It’s a frame for the record, but it doesn’t dominate it - it’s also a statement of escape, and a testament to Rex Orange County’s innate musicality. Hell, at one point they even worked with Pino Palladino, the man who played bass on those seminal D’Angelo and Erykah Badu records. “He’s literally the God of the bass,” Rex explains, breaking out into this long, lasting smile. “Somehow me and Ben got him in. And after that we realised that a bar had been set. We’d spent so much time honing in things that we had to do that with everything.”

At one point in our conversation Rex Orange County makes the point that “to this day I’m not the happiest person”. Right then, we’re discussing America, the loss of control, the impinging of innocence. We close, though, by looking once more into his studio, and asking if this is a place where he feels truly happy.

“I think that happiness as a feeling is temporary for everyone,” he returns. “There’s a difference between being happy and satisfied. Truly. Inside of you. And it’s my choice to be satisfied. It’s not my choice to be happy or not.”

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Rex wears hoodie and trousers by Carhartt, shoes by Converse
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“I think happiness comes - or doesn’t - but you can do what you can to help it get there. Waking up and feeling unhappy is about as natural as it raining or not raining. I think it’s irrational to think ‘I always want to be happy,’ or ‘I never want to be sad.’ I think they will both happen when they do, and I don’t know if you always have control over that.”

The thing he does have control over, though, is Rex Orange County - secure in the subject matter, the process, and secure in the people he chooses he have around him.

“As long as I love it, I think there’s a chance people will believe it,” he remarks. “This is exactly the sort of music that I would listen to if somebody else put it out. It’s my favourite type of songs. Each one. I could listen to this all the way through, and be like, ‘I love it!’”

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Luc Coiffait
Fashion: Harry Clements
Grooming: Johnnie Biles
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

‘Pony’ is out now. Check it out HERE.

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