chat room

Rex Orange County Just Wants You to Be Nice to Yourself

Rex Orange County Photo: Alexandra Waespi

Life is all about perspective, and for British singer-songwriter Rex Orange County, he’s still figuring out his favorite vantage point. Once called the world’s “new favorite sad boy” after his guest appearance on Tyler, the Creator’s 2017 album Flower Boy — and later building a larger fan base with his sullen melodies on his major-label debut, Pony — Rex has long since shed the labels he was given early in his career. He knows who he is, what he loves, and that industry-sanctioned career benchmarks can’t define him. Despite this, the reclusive singer still cares deeply about his music and how it resonates with his listeners.

The name of Rex’s fourth studio album, Who Cares? (out March 11), is a double entendre that reflects the duality of an artist who allows his emotions to dip and crescendo at the pace of life’s many ebbs and flows. In one regard, the title can be read as a question that shuns the outside opinions of critics and detractors — a mantra that Rex has fully embraced in the three years since his last major release. On the other hand, “who cares?” could be perceived as the singer searching to see if anyone else actually cares about the things that he does. It’s left up for interpretation by design. Rex recognizes that he, like all of us, is an amalgamation of contradicting thoughts and emotions.

Sonically, Who Cares? has the same peaks and valleys as a person grappling with the vast scope of their emotions. One moment, a song will be enveloped by a string orchestra; in the next, lone chords will carry a track’s entire weight. From the refreshing Tyler-assisted “Open a Window,” which emphasizes the importance of leaving stress-inducing spaces, to “Worth It,” where Rex croons about facing his problems head-on, Who Cares? is a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of thoughts that are equal parts bright and hopeful, foreboding and somber. Like life, the only constant that Rex highlights through 11 songs is change.

On a recent phone call, 23-year-old singer-songwriter discussed the never-ending pursuit of happiness and self-love, his new album, and the duality of being human.

You performed for the first time in two years at the beginning of March. How did the audience receive the new music?
It was great. It was really nice to be back, and people seemed to like it. It’s funny when you’re playing a song that no one’s heard before. It’s silent, so no one is singing along. I don’t mind that. It’s just cool to see how everyone authentically responds, and you see later someone put up a video of it. I guess we’ll see when it really gets released.

You’ve said on past albums like Pony, you thought of the title first, and then the music shaped itself around it. Was that the case with Who Cares? as well? I noticed you tweeted the title back in September 2020.
Yeah, this was the same deal. I had come up with the name a while ago and actually didn’t expect Who Cares? to be an actual album like this. I had the name and honestly just thought it was a great name for something, because it was kind of funny and could also even be super-depressing. Like, “Who cares, what’s the point?” kind of thing. Then it expanded on its own, and I’ve found that that’s usually the way it goes. When I went to write with [Dutch producer] Benny [Sings], I wasn’t expecting to make an album at all. And working with him felt so free, and it felt like I didn’t really want to think about too much, like what other people would be thinking of it. Just look at it like, “Who cares?” And then it’s revealed that the truth is that I absolutely care, and everybody really does at some point. I think most people do, and that’s just a cycle. I wouldn’t be putting music out if I didn’t care. So the question mark reflects who cares about me, because I want to know. But equally, I’m somebody who throws around “I don’t care a lot.”

Is there a specific meaning to the title that you hope listeners pick up on and gravitate toward?
I like it being open for interpretation, and I love the fact that it’s both, like everything in life. I was worried, like, “Man, maybe I just am sensitive,” and someone told me, “Well, you can’t just say that you are sensitive, because have you ever been insensitive? Have you ever said ‘fuck that shit’ about somebody or something, and it’s not been totally considerate?” And he carried on about every example of being both sides of the coin. We’re living on a scale; there’s no such thing as good or bad. You’re just always floating between the scale, and it’s okay to be one way or the other because it’s always changing. I think that’s like the title. It just means both at all times.

Tyler, the Creator is the only feature on the album. How has your relationship grown since being on Flower Boy?
Yeah, we’ve been good friends for a while now. He’s like a mentor for me. I remember once when I was struggling a lot to find inspiration, and was also very stressed about what other people were thinking, ironically. I was having a tough time making music freely, and he gave me a lot of great advice. He’s always just been there in that sense, but he’s also super-inspiring for me and I’ve been a fan from before we even met. So it’s amazing that we have a relationship. And with “Open a Window,” in all honesty, we weren’t together because of COVID, but I made that and didn’t really think much of it at the moment because we were making so much music. Then I went back to it and was like, “Man, this is exactly what I’m trying to do,” but I didn’t realize it at the time. It initially sounded like he should be on there. It just sounded legendary to me. I just sent him the song with the BPM, and then he got it done very quickly. I love what he did, too. He killed it.

Another song that stuck out to me was “7am” because of the hook where you still question if you’re “cut out for this.” How have you battled impostor syndrome as you’ve become a full-fledged star?
I feel like I’ve had to definitely accept certain things that I can and can’t control. I’ve done a lot of beating myself up in my life, and I still do every now and then, but I’ve also done a lot of work to look after myself. I’ve also had a lot of help from different therapists here and there, and I feel like certain things, to a degree, happen that you can’t control, and then there are other things that you can choose to change. And it’s about trying to be authentic to myself and always reminding myself why I’m here. I love what I do, and I’m here because I put my music out and people care. I don’t have to carry on and catastrophize everything. Really, life just isn’t easy. Life isn’t designed to be, it just is tough, and if I’m being realistic, sometimes I freak out and be like, “I’m not cut from this and I’m going to quit,” but really, that’s the last thing I ever want to do. I absolutely do care so much, and that’s why I’m here.

“Shoot Me Down” feels like the emotional centerpiece of the album. It sounds like the most serious track because it illustrates you fighting to regain what you’ve lost, while also accepting the way things are. Does that song have any extra impact or importance to you?
I definitely love that song. That probably has the most chords on the album. It has these James Bond–type of chords, and then it gets super-uplifting, and that means a lot to me just in the harmony. That’s what I grew up on, and the fact that the chords are going down as I’m talking about feeling shot down, and when it does turn positive with my lyrics, it feels super-epic. I don’t know how important it is, but it always feels really great to me, and I love those chords. Other than that, I love “Making Time.” That’s one of my favorite songs on the album.

The album cover features you between a bunch of Dalmatians, sitting on a rug made of grass. What’s the story behind that?
Some people thought it was my house, and I’m like, “Bruh, you think I live in a house with grass on the floor and a mattress?” It was not my house. I really wanted to do something super-surreal, and I love animals so much. I wanted to have a bunch of the same animal there, too. To tell you the truth, I was down with whatever. I saw this unbelievable photo of a Dalmatian and knew I needed them in the shot. After that, we decided that the cover should be me with a bunch of animals in this room that is kind of super-ugly. All the animals are just running around and not taking any notice of me, and I’m just sitting in the middle of the scene. That was just in my head with no context, and then my manager was like, “What about a Dalmatian?”, and then it happened like that. There were a few options, but Dalmatians had to be the one, so I was happy about it.

You were 21 when you released Pony. Now at 23, how do you feel you’ve grown as a person and artist?
As an artist, how I’ve grown between Pony and now is by dropping a lot of expectations I’ve had on myself and to stop telling myself there are all these industry things I need to be doing and not doing. Thinking there’s a certain way to do it. I just realized there is no particular way to do it. If you do it, and you love what you do, people are going to listen. As long as you love what you do, the other stuff doesn’t matter. And as a person, I feel like I’ve learned how to accept my feelings. I understand the things I can’t change, and I’m changing the things that I can. I’m being more authentic to who I really am and live by that and not feel guilty or ashamed if the person who I really am is someone that not everyone likes. I can’t please everyone.

Overall, what do you hope listeners take away from Who Cares?
There are a few deep messages on the album, one of which is the importance of self-love. I’ve done a lot of hating myself, and I know how easy it is to be mad at yourself. The worst thing I’ve ever said was to myself. I’m just trying to spread this message to let people know that it’s okay to be nice to yourself and that you don’t have to change anything about yourself. My biggest message to myself is that this is my time to be free and not be concerned about what people are going to think about it. We only have one life to live, so just be yourself and see how that goes.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rex Orange County Just Wants You to Be Nice to Yourself