In celebration of Black History Month, NYLON is running a spotlight series called UNAPOLOGETIC. Every day, we’ll celebrate different aspects of black culture through profiles, interviews, roundtables, reviews, videos, and op-eds. #Blacklivesmatter and we hold that truth to be self-evident.
London O'Connor is a meticulous man. Before he responds to a question, he takes long pauses because he wants to make sure he's communicating exactly what he wants to say. Right now, we're deep in a discussion about nail polish—his favorite is Butter London's Patent Shine 10x Nail Lacquer Vernis in Tea Time. The natural shade has become a part of his uniform, which consists of faded blue jeans, white Velcro Vans (which he's been wearing since he was a junior in high school), and his signature yellow O∆ sweater.
For the past two years, O'Connor has been wearing the same outfit every single day. It all started as a promise he made to himself when he was without a permanent address, couch-surfing and crashing with friends: to wear the sweater until his music makes more money than his parents made. "I know I won't wear it forever, but these days, I don't even think about it," he says. At this point, O'Connor doesn't even think about his appearance—it's almost like another layer of skin that he peels on and off. (He refers to it as a "human suit.") The same goes for his hair, which has naturally clumped into a cluster of dreads. "This is just what my hair does if I don't focus on it," he adds. For now, O'Connor is focused on the details and won't be distracted by anything else. He says:
I know myself enough to know that this expresses me and so when I wake up everyday, I just express myself based on how feel or I put it into whatever I'm designing that day... At some point when I was younger, I remember I got frustrated at first because there was like a really narrow set of things that boys could buy. I didn't like that because I wasn't any of the pieces. So that was part of why when I first started getting dressed, the balance of masculine and femininity felt more like me. I felt comfortable doing that for a while, and then I just got to a point where I think because I was creating more with sound and producing myself, I just wanted control over who I was. So I got the sweaters made and just started being very consistent, and it's invisible to me now—I don't even notice it anymore.
There's no point in trying to label O'Connor as anything specific because he transcends categorization. The only time that he has ever identified as anything is a skater. O'Connor has been skating since he was six years old.
"Growing up, I didn't really identify as a boy or a black boy. I just identified as a skater 'cause that was the first thing that I chose, so that was me," he says. "All I lived to do was skate, and people didn't look like me, but people didn't look like each other either. We all just looked different, and we all skated 'cause we were skaters."
Now, the 25-year-old considers himself to be androgynous. Before the uniform became a part of O'Connor's routine, he became well-known for wearing self-described "grandma dresses."
"I look back on previous generations, and I think it's weird how much boys and men limit themselves and how they express things," he says. "It just seems really unnecessary. I don't know, there are so many problems out there."
Within the mellow and minimal space of Paintbox in SoHo, we engaged in an honest conversation while we sat back for high-quality manicures. For the past few months, O'Connor has been locked in what he refers to as "the vault," working on his sophomore album. On occasion, he allows himself to explore the rabbit hole that is @sensualmemes on Instagram and texts random people from the internet.
"Kids will text me, and we'll talk every day, and it's different 'cause you having a real conversation with someone when you text," he says. "I feel like it's more sincere than social media."
During our time together, we covered everything from O'Connor's dysfunctional childhood in the suburbs of San Marcos, California, to the origins of his foray into making music and his current living situation. (He's now gone from couch-surfing to staying at an Airbnb in Brooklyn, New York.)
O'Connor's remastered O∆ album is out now on True Panther, followed by the official record release show at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, New York, on February 22. Learn more about him in the interview, below.
So what was your life like when you lived in Southern California?
I felt like I always had creative parents that understood something about why that mattered. My dad was into Queen and he loved The Beatles, and my mom was just always a very creative, free-spirited person. My parents were separated, though, so it wasn't like we were all in the same house together. They separated by the time I was four, but I always felt like they were open-minded. The suburb around me where I grew up though was the complete opposite. It's like the houses come in one of three colors and they alternate down the street, and everything is manicured in this very weird way and it's really stifling. I grew up skating, so I would just break into school on the weekend and skate by things that we would stare at during the school day and couldn't touch... My dad died by the time I was 10.
Growing up in an environment where everything is so calm, it makes you feel weird and out of place for having any passion for anything or believing in anything. It's weird because you see people get older and you see their dreams die, and you see them become less creative. Depression in the suburbs is a real thing, and people don't talk about it, but it's like you see how people respond and they are losing touch with their dreams. There are these things that you should fight for, but the suburbs are so calm and peaceful that you feel weird for fighting for anything. You feel weird about running toward anything—you feel weird about sprinting.
So that's the environment I grew up in, and it's so bizarre that that's what raised me. I think at some point it just made me louder as a person [and] experience that "I have to get out of here" response to that. The craziest thing about the suburbs when you're there [is] no one wants you to believe that you can do crazy things. Or people look at you funny for thinking that you can create anything.
How did you segue into making music?
I started writing lyrics and doing music when I was 10, and then I would write stories. But I wasn't musical as a kid. I didn't know how to play any instruments. I did produce myself—people would give me music, and I would write over it. When I was in Clive [Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University], I was like, "I'm going to work with a producer. I'm going to be this artist." But I started producing things and playing around with sounds on the side, but really wasn't doing it yet. I didn't have any musical training growing up. When I first started playing instruments and playing around on Ableton, I always saw sounds as shapes. I didn't know notes, so I didn't see them as notes. When you close your eyes and you listen to a guitar, I hear these dark green, warm shapes. That's what a guitar sounds like to me. Once I got serious about it, I locked myself in a room like every day. I hit a point in college where it just got really serious to me. I pretty much didn't go out. That was all I could do for a while.
Why did you end up picking NYU?
New York is about as far as you can get from where I grew up while staying in the country. It was that and my specific thinking at the time [which] was "I want to become the best artist on earth." It felt like a Hogwarts for music. That place changed my life for sure, but I think that if you're driven and you're determined, then you will learn from wherever.
What was your post-grad plan?
I did anything to not go home. I went on a naked road trip across the country one year. I worked on a vacation island... Whatever I could get. There's still some photos from that trip 'cause Ryan McGinley did it, so he just brought a bunch of us in a van and we all traveled and he photographed it. That was a really good summer.
Can you tell me about O∆? What mindset were you in when you were making the material?
In a lot of ways, I produced that album in regard to a specific season in my life with specific goals. I made it using only what I had in my backpack, kind of being in-between places. At the time, I had really ambitious goals for it. I wanted to make something with those tools and get it played on the radio. I wanted to make something that would be bigger than the internet. That's what I had at my disposal at the time. From the moment that I finished it, I already knew what the next album I wanted to make was. I immediately began to write songs for that. I'm excited that more people are about to hear this first album, but it's also funny to me working on it because it's representing a place that I haven't been in for years because I had been so focused on the next thing. I feel like the albums—because they're about my life—they work as a story. So I feel like you have to look at the first volume of the story to understand the second one. So I'm happy I'm about to have it.
When True Panther started talking [to me], and pretty early on in our conversations, I started realizing that they were different than a lot of the other labels I talked to. I think they could really understand the things that I wanted to do and the things that I was currently writing and where I saw things going, what I was working on. They were one of the first people who didn't just reach out to me because they liked "Guts." They felt like more people should get to hear the first album, and they were going to put it out on more resources on a larger platform. One of the first things they did was they got Vlado Meller to master it so I was like, "Ahhhh!" That's why I was so excited about the remastered version because when you listen to it, you can feel the difference. Now I kind of understand what changes when Kanye West finishes an album. Like, I knew that they had more tools, I knew that there was something they would do when they were done with it. Mastering is like color correcting a photo, but for sound, so you line up the photo, you shoot it, it's done, and then a person color corrects it at the end. That's mastering for an album. I think it really does make a difference. I'm happy that people are going to get to hear it this way because that was the way I always wanted them to hear it.
What does First Wave mean?
It's the First Wave of O∆. We're going to respond systematically to all the bullshit that I experienced growing up in my American youth. There's a lot of things that people put into place to create the suburban upbringing that I hated. It's a very comprehensive thing, and O∆ is not just about growing up in that space, but I'm going to comprehensively respond to everything that I've experienced and I'm going to equip people; First Wave is just the first wave of people that O∆ has equipped. They're the people who understand, and I show them new things first. I show them what we're working on, they get early access to things like the First Wave prototypes for those new cases. Everything that I make is a utility—every piece of sound, every album, every object. While I've been working on producing the next album, I've also been working on designing the case that all utilities will ship in. We did a really limited run of them. Those will scale up, and we'll have more of them ready by the time we're doing the next album.
I get really angry when people try to limit the scope of what young humans can do or think they should do. Sometimes it's frustrating when you have things inside of you that people don't really have words for yet. This happens every generation... When I say that I'm making utilities for people, I don't think older people understand the scope of what I mean yet. I think they just think I want to make an album. When they think of an album, they just think of a vinyl record. I just want people to understand the scope of what's coming—what kinds of things I'm working on and designing because it's going to take time to scale, but I didn't want them to feel alone or left out for having these ideas that are a little bigger.
Touching on the nature of your track "Love Song," has your dating life improved at all?
Real love is hard. I just want something real. Things got better since when I first wrote that song. I've definitely been in some real relationships, it's just hard for me to do things that are superficial. Last time I was in a relationship, it was really real, and I basically got my heart crushed, and I probably grew more than I ever have in my life. I haven't been able to find someone like that since, and part of it is also that I'm traveling so much now, so it's hard. I think it will just work out. I think I'll just be out somewhere and maybe I'll run into someone and my life will change. You can't really look for it, that's why I don't really use dating apps or anything like that. The one thing that is different is that when I meet people, I'm just myself now. I figured at least that much out, and either they like me or they don't. The last date that I went on, we just hung out and watched a Pixar movie together, and it was really sad, and I cried in the theater [laughs]. It was The Good Dinosaur... That was a good date. After that, we just danced around in our underwear and listened to The Strokes. I have hope it'll work out with someone if you can be a real person. And if not, we got @sensualmemes if it doesn't work out. [Laughs]
Any final words?
When I produced [O∆], I really wanted to show an honest description of what was around me and what I saw and what I felt. Part of why I didn't want anyone else to produce me at that time and I didn't want to put it out for the first time on a label or anything like that is because there are a lot of filters that get in the way of someone saying how they truly feel in pop music. I didn't want any of that. That album is just me looking and my surroundings and trying to express them in sounds. The album has no genre because I don’t really believe in genres. That's why each song sounds different. "Oatmeal" doesn't have a genre because "Oatmeal" is what my living room felt like—there's no genre for that. "Natural" is what it felt like to walk down the street—that's not a genre. I'm grateful that I did it that way, even though I really want to scale next. I want to be able to make a song and it plays in every bullshit shopping mall in every suburb on earth. I want that.
I'm really grateful to have a label partner now and that I get to execute [my ideas] on a larger level, and to do it with someone who believes in me, who's not trying to change me. I'm grateful to do it this way now because now I just get to produce myself with more resources. I'm still going to make the next album in my bedroom. I'm going to get a bedroom. I want a bedroom in New York, at least for the time being. I have a lot of friends out here. I also want my bedroom to be the kind of place where other creative people I know, who are going to need a couch, will have one. People can come through, and it can be that space. I'm not ready to live in the woods yet, but that's definitely going to happen at some point.