On O∆ , inventive beats and textures provide the foundation over which London O’Connor reflects on his upbringing, delivering lyrics that channel suburban boredom, the ups-and-downs of friendship, budding romance, and the pains of growing up. A kaleidoscope of tones and moods, O∆ never limits itself to a singular style or genre. Laid-back rhymes and hip-hop rhythms are flanked by ballads and easy-going electronic tracks. And even when he’s at his most heartfelt and vulnerable, O’Connor exudes an aura of cool. He’s been wearing the same yellow sweater for months now, which he says he plans to do until his music makes more money than his parents. It’s an outward representation of his commitment to his dreams.
O’Connor created O∆ in his bedroom after relocating from his hometown outside San Diego to the bustle of New York City. It took O’Connor two years to realize his vision for what O∆ should be: a sonic account of his coming of age.
We spoke with O’Connor about his work methods, his creative aims, and why he doesn’t write songs—he’s just trying to render his surroundings.
Where, exactly, are you right now? Are you in New York? Or are you travelling?
Right now I’m staying at a friend’s flat in New York.
I asked because I saw your tweet about airbnb, and moving to Portland. Was that you planning for tour?
It’s really been an ongoing thing for the last couple years, I made this album out of materials that could fit in my backpack, and I produced it by myself using what could fit in my backpack. I’ve been kind of nomadic for a while. I get to get airbnbs and things, but I don’t really have a spot of my own yet.
Is that an aspiration for you?
Yeah, I’d love to have a bedroom.
How do you create when you’re crashing with friends?I know that you have your kit that fits in a backpack, but when you don’t have your own space. Is it difficult to create?
I’ve been making a lot of what I would call spatial music, ambient music. I’ve done a lot more of that recently, just because I haven’t had a lot of personal space. So I think, making that and having something that I can have, helps me. I’ve been doing that a lot more. For the new thing that I’ve been working on, I’ve been writing a lot of it on piano, so that’s been a little strange—trying to play wherever you can get access to one for a night, or a day.
O∆ has been complete for two years now, yet in a way, its journey is about to begin. When you were creating it, did you anticipate this long journey for the album? Or did you think that by this point you’d be moving on to something else?
As an artist, a funny thing that people don’t always realize, is that you’re always working on new music. Usually, by the time any artist you love is showing you new music, they’re actually showing you the process of something they turned on and reconciled with emotionally a while ago.
It’s like a star—they’ve already burned out, but we’re just seeing the light from them now.
Right, and that light still travels. So an artist will release a new thing, but then they’ll go back to their home—if they have a home—and they’ll be playing something utterly different and utterly new and, eventually, you’ll get to hear that. From the moment that I finished that album, I was moving forward. I was already seeking out pianos and working on the next album. I was already in that space.
I think as an artist, I never want to repeat myself—anything I wanna do, I just want to say it the best that I can the first time and then move forward. I would say, as I’ve been working on new material, it has been really special to see people’s reaction to it. To see “Guts” get played on the radio… I grew up listening to the radio. Just seeing more and more people respond to it… I’ve always wanted the resources to tell things on the largest platform I can, I always just work with tools I have at the time.
Is it at all something that you feel you have to process, the reviews, the interviews, the positive attention?
I don’t read any of the interviews.
But even people texting you after you gave your number out on Twitter, knowing that you’re having this impact on people—do you feel like that’s something you have to process, or does it just feel completely natural?
I feel really grateful that it’s working, that it’s useful. I’m a self-produced American songwriter, but if someone asks me what I think I do, I make utilities. Whether it’s a song or physical object that I’m working on—a flag, or a sweater—if that’s something that a kid wears every day and it helps him or her get toward their goals, they’re all utilities to me. If we take a step back and look back at it logically, there are a lot more people than me who are gonna do a lot more important things for earth. We all start off young, and we all start off living in these various nowheres. We are basically the people that shape the world and that shape culture. All these people. I’m ultimately a glorified cheerleader for all of the people who will take this music and use it in their life to do something that they care about,—as a tool to get towards what they care about. When people text me, “I listen to this when I paint,” or “I listened to this on this road trip and got out of where I’m from,” or “I listen to this shit when I’m creating things,” it’s really exciting to me, because that’s the point. So I think there was definitely a moment where I started getting messages like that from people before I had a label partner, and getting messages from kids at that time was really helpful to me. It really helped me to be determined.
From what I read, you worked to get your skill level up to where it needed to be on order to create this record. What kept you going? Was there just this innate sense that you knew you were doing something important? Because sometimes you can get deterred, if the progress isn’t coming in the way you think it should.
I just thought I would die if I didn’t.
Also you talked about how you’re moving forward, but at the same time, you have your “uniform”—the yellow sweater—that you wear each day, and you’re committed to not changing. How would you describe the difference between moving forward and growing, versus not changing your ideals?
I think when people have these dreams of things they wanna do, they can sometimes give up on that dream. They say, ‘Well maybe this other thing is more practical,’ and they change in that way. Music, art—this is what I am doing. This is what I am here to do. So I started wearing the sweater as a promise to myself, that I wasn’t going to take this off until my music made me more income than my parents. I just decided that for myself. The outlook is looking better now—at the time I was saying it, I was saying it to myself and really no one else.
I do wear the same uniform every day, and outside of that promise, it helps me because it simplifies my life to a degree. When I wake up, I just get to think about how I feel. My clothes to me at this point are invisible—I don’t notice them anymore. That just makes things easier for me to focus on.
In the other sense, change is inevitable. Change is constant. I change every day, you probably change every day. It’s impossible not to. I think a lot of that change is growth. I think a lot of the things that I’ve experienced, even since leaving the suburbs for the first time—I was the kid who wanted more than anything to get out. Even where I’m here now, I’m continuing to change. I look at my albums as stories or even movies in my head, just sonic ones. The movie for the next album is definitely different to the last album, because my life was very different. I think that’s how art should be, ‘cause that’s more how life is.
A lot of what you create seems to be linked to color and Pantone shades. Has that always been with you, or was that something that just developed?
I always saw sounds, I didn’t grow up playing instruments, even when I was younger. I didn’t know how to produce at all. I always felt sound was space. It was a very spatial thing to me. I don’t mean outer space—I mean just physical space. Even when I eventually did start learning to produce, I would interpret sounds as shapes. The first time I was trying produce things with drums on it, the drums didn’t work because they weren’t rhythmic at all. I just saw them as pillars, like, architectural. I trying to build the space, but they weren’t rhythmic. It was a little weird to me, just because of how I interpret sound.
But I think that’s part of why, with this first album, when people listen to it and they close their eyes, it feels very visual. When people listen to “Natural,” they really feel like they’re walking outside in a suburb. That’s just how my mind works. I’m trying to show you something. I’m trying to render my surroundings. That’s just how my mind works in the medium of sound. The friends that I have hung out with in the last couple years have helped me develop visually, and helped me understand how to express myself in terms of visuals. Sarah Fasbro who art-directed the “Nobody Hangs” music video that’s coming out this month, she’s an amazing painter and an amazing artist. Even just her influence on me as an innately visual person, her exposing me to things where I didn’t understand what the vocabulary was until I started hanging out with her more. My friend Olivia B who’s an amazing photographer, I see her photos of Portland, her photos of everything are amazing.
And so with a lot of my friends, the visual form of art is their primary form of communication. And I think that just being around people like that all the time has helped me understand the vocabulary, and now I’m understanding more and more how to say the things that are in me, visually—understanding how a song of mine would look if I couldn’t say it with sound.
How did you connect with the True Panther label?
When I first put out “Oatmeal,” there was already some response from labels. I made a fake manager and a fake email. Her name was Dylan Clampett, which is Bob Dylan and Bob Clampett mixed together—Bob Clampett is the guy who made Bugs Bunny. A&Rs then would write Clampett, ‘Hey we love “Oatmeal.” We wanna…’ I would just [put it] straight into the trash, because I knew they hadn’t seen enough of me to understand what I was yet. And so whatever they were excited about, it wasn’t about me—it couldn’t be me, because no one could understand after one song. Whatever they were excited about at that stage, they were just gonna try to control it, and they weren’t gonna let me be what I am. And so I wasn’t even trying to listen.
Because you start having these dinners with labels, you go and have a nice seafood dinner, and they offer you something. And you have to politely tell them that’s not nearly enough, and then you go and sleep on your friend’s couch. And you do that until everything lines up, and until you find someone that has the time and resources to invest in you is necessary, and who you trust with your art. Once you find that, it’s no small thing. I really feel at home with who I’m at right now.
It was really important for me to get this first album out and have it sound exactly the way I wanted to sound. The first album has no genre—I don’t think of music in genre. I’m rendering my surroundings. One song feels like my friend’s house, one song feels like walking around in the suburb. Each song feels like a different space. I just wanted to make sure that I got to put out an accurate description of how I felt, living through that environment growing up. I was very stubborn about that. I wanted to make sure it got to the internet and that people saw it in that form. After that, there are certain things I want to do.
I want to make music for hospitals. I want to make apps we can hold that interact with us, and the music is deployed as a tool in a very unique way. I don’t actually wanna say this to someone before I do it, so I apologize for being a little vague. There are films I want to score. I really wanna make the music that SpaceX uses on the trip for the first people who are going to be interplanetary.