BLOOD ORANGE

Q (UK) - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy: Colin Lane

With a stun­ning new al­bum and a ca­reer as the go-to pro­ducer, Devonté Hynes has left the Es­sex bul­lies a long way be­hind him.

Dev Hynes is the Il­ford-raised out­sider whose sonic wiz­ardry has earned him a set of A-list pro­duc­tion cred­its. But it’s as Blood Orange that he truly ex­presses him­self. Eve Bar­low meets him in New York to hear about his in­cred­i­ble new al­bum Ne­gro Swan, and about an artist grap­pling with teenage wounds and iden­tity.

You can’t imag­ine many mu­sic­mak­ers of Dev Hynes’s stature hang­ing out in­con­spic­u­ously in a city-cen­tre su­per­mar­ket. But the man who records as Blood Orange does so. He sits in the cor­ner of a New York branch of Whole Foods against the win­dow. In Che Gue­vara colours (khaki green T-shirt and beret), it’s hard not to pick him out. That’s a du­al­ity he’s dealt with for 32 years. He likes to hide but he likes to show. He per­forms mu­sic but he’s rarely front-and-cen­tre. He’s proudly black, but he doesn’t want to as­sert his black­ness 24/7. He’s not straight, he’s not gay. He’s a light talker but his mind weighs heavy. Hynes is English by way of im­mi­grant par­ents (his dad is from Sierra Leone, his mum from Guyana). Since 2007 he’s lived on the Lower East Side. He speaks with an up­wards change in in­to­na­tion. He waits alone, with only a book he’s cur­rently thumb­ing as sus­te­nance. Weight Of The Earth: The Tape Jour­nals of David Wo­j­narow­icz con­tains the tran­scribed jour­nals of an artist who died from Aids. Hynes is not read­ing it front to back. He doesn’t do that with books, pre­fer­ring to keep sev­eral on the go at once. “I treat them like records,” he says. “I can’t just read one book. It doesn’t make sense to me.” On the back of his iPhone in glit­tery block let­ters, it reads: “NE­GRO SWAN” – the ti­tle of the fourth Blood Orange record. It’s been on his phone for years. For Hynes, mu­sic is the last el­e­ment in a cre­ative un­der­tak­ing. “It’s weird,” he ad­mits. Ne­gro Swan is the cul­mi­na­tion of 24 months dur­ing which he’s filled a scrap­book with words, im­ages and ideas be­fore so much as writ­ing a beat. “All my beats start with fake Dilla shit or fake Arthur Rus­sell shit,” he says dis­mis­sively. He also col­lected con­ver­sa­tions with peers – the trans­gen­der ac­tivist Janet Mock nar­rates through­out. Sim­i­lar to his ap­proach to read­ing, the record un­folds as a mix­tape of snip­pets and mo­tifs. Some songs end abruptly, or fade into the dis­tance like Frank Ocean’s Blond. There are dozens of col­lab­o­ra­tors cred­ited, in­clud­ing ac­tress Amandla Sten­berg, A$AP Rocky and Diddy. Some songs sound in­con­clu­sive, like we might re­visit them later. The ti­tle evokes the tale of the ugly duck­ling. It’s un­com­fort­able and em­pow­er­ing. On the cover, a black man hangs out of a white car’s win­dow, dressed with an­gel wings and a do-rag. Hynes says this is his “black de­pres­sion” record but he doesn’t want to join the men­tal health aware­ness cho­rus. “Men­tal health is the new gen­der is­sue is the new sex­ism is the new

racism,” he laughs. “We’re done with gen­der flu­id­ity. Now we’re at men­tal health.” He finds it cu­ri­ous. “It’s pos­i­tive in dis­man­tling hi­er­ar­chies,” he of­fers. “But even if some­one metaphor­i­cally opens a door, you still have to go through it.” Ne­gro Swan is about a spe­cific de­pres­sion: his own. “There’s so much static in the world,” he says. Hynes’s re­ac­tion is to re­treat. He deleted his Twit­ter ac­count. “I’ve be­come way more in­ward. There’s so many con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen­ing. I de­cided I’m only go­ing to have con­ver­sa­tions with my­self. There’s a lot there to un­der­stand.” It’s through fo­cus­ing on his in­di­vid­u­al­ism that he can com­ment on a shared ex­pe­ri­ence. Take first sin­gle Char­coal Baby (a nod to black­face). “No one wants to be the odd one out at times/No one wants to be the Ne­gro Swan/Can you break some­times?” he sings. Sirens sound in the back­ground but they’re flushed out by gor­geous Cur­tis May­field­style gui­tar. Through­out the al­bum there are mo­ments where the cur­tains open and the sun­shine bursts through. It’s a work that re­claims his op­ti­mism and iden­tity. He’s been think­ing about iden­tity stereo­types re­cently. “I’m ob­sessed,” he says. Out­side the su­per­mar­ket where we meet is the New York park where Hynes wrote his last al­bum, Free­town Sound, in 2016. To­day stereo­types swarm. There’s a gather­ing of old men play­ing chess; a group of black youths shoot hoops; a scruffy kid skate­boards past; a cab whizzes by sport­ing an ad for a strip club – New York Dolls. All grist to his mill. “I’m in­ter­ested in the idea of re­claim­ing,” he says. He brings up this sum­mer’s World Cup. In­ter­na­tional sport events fas­ci­nate him be­cause of the way coun­tries will­ingly adopt tropes they’d or­di­nar­ily be of­fended by. “I watched the World Cup in four coun­tries,” he of­fers – an un­in­ten­tional brag. In Eng­land, France, New York and Tokyo, he wit­nessed as­sim­i­lated Brits pan­der to cliché. “Peo­ple sud­denly in­her­ited this English­ness,” he laughs. When ready­ing his record he saw par­al­lels. Ne­gro Swan is rooted in black stereo­types: black youths’ re­la­tion­ship to jew­ellery and ideals of black suc­cess in mu­sic. Look­ing at Hynes, you’d guess he doesn’t re­late to the lat­ter. There are no de­signer la­bels, no en­tourage, no girls. De­spite cred­its span­ning huge pop names (Carly Rae Jepsen, Solange, Sky Fer­reira), he doesn’t have that over­pow­er­ing rich smell. “Well, that’s the thing,” he chuck­les. “I do re­late. There’s joy in the stereo­type.” He ref­er­ences a Kanye lyric (Can’t Tell Me Noth­ing): “I feel the pres­sure un­der more scru­tiny/And what do I do/Act more stupidly, bought more jew­ellery, more Louis V.” “Here’s the guy from a Chicago sub­urb,” he says, sug­gest­ing West be­came some­thing non-gen­uine. Hynes re­lates to that iden­tity cri­sis. He’s been through sev­eral of his own.

Men­tal health is the new gen­der is­sue is the new sex­ism is the new racism. We’re done with gen­der flu­id­ity. Now we’re at men­tal health.

Be­fore Blood Orange, Hynes was indie trou­ba­dour Light­speed Cham­pion for two al­bums. Prior to that he was gui­tarist in cool­erthan-thou teen punk out­fit Test Ici­cles un­til 2006. He has al­ways been on a scene, al­beit the shrink­ing vi­o­let in the room. Ten years ago, he brushed shoul­ders with Alex Turner and Florence Welch. He dated hip­ster artiste Saman­tha Ur­bani. He en­tered a pro­duc­tion pur­ple patch in 2012, scor­ing hits with Sky Fer­reira and Solange. He even be­came the hired gun to help re­launch the Su­gababes in 2013. At one point, SoundCloud sounded like a Dev Hynes trib­ute page. Wind back to Christ­mas 1985, how­ever, and the boy born David Hynes in Il­ford, met with a far more hos­tile world. For the first time, he can re­visit this pe­riod in his mu­sic in or­der to nar­rate his black ex­pe­ri­ence. “I’ve reached a place where I don’t have an­swers but I can dis­sect,” he says. On Ne­gro Swan’s open­ing track Or­lando, Hynes sings: “The first kiss was the floor.” The song is named af­ter the shoot­ings at LGBTQ night­club Pulse in 2016, but it’s about his ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing bul­lied as a kid. “Out of all the fucked-up sit­u­a­tions, Pulse re­ally fucked me up,” he says of the trig­ger. These child­hood as­saults were un­ex­pected and be­yond his con­trol, like per­sonal acts of ter­ror­ism. “The first time I got beaten so badly I had to go to hos­pi­tal. I re­ally didn’t see it com­ing,” he says. “I was bul­lied for not be­ing very Es­sex. I was so open: wear­ing make-up, dy­ing my hair, paint­ing my nails. I was 13. It wasn’t even pro­grammed in my brain that I was be­ing ‘weird’.” The beat­ing that in­formed the song Da­gen­ham Dream was es­pe­cially trau­matic. Af­ter­wards, he cut his hair and his English teacher cried. She re­alised what had hap­pened, and she couldn’t bear to see him shrink him­self. “That’s stuck with me for­ever,” he says. “She was the cool teacher that would go to Glas­ton­bury. One day I was wear­ing an Ash T-shirt and she’d seen them play.” Be­fore Hynes pur­sued mu­sic he played foot­ball to as­sim­i­late. He was great at it. He was scouted. “That was my way of prov­ing my Bri­tish­ness,” he says. “It’s sad but peo­ple ac­cepted the way I looked be­cause I was one of the best foot­ball play­ers in Es­sex.” When teenage Hynes wasn’t play­ing sport or mu­sic, he was skat­ing. When he joined Test Ici­cles – his friend Sam Mehran’s band – mu­sic be­came pri­or­ity by de­fault. “I only stopped skat­ing be­cause I in­jured my­self at a Test Ici­cles show,” he laughs. Mehran and Hynes met danc­ing at indie club night Af­ter Skool. They went there as lon­ers and emerged best friends. Test Ici­cles blew up fast. Signed to Domino with four loose tracks, they didn’t know how to make mu­sic. “We were con­sis­tently baf­fled. We had no idea what peo­ple saw,” he says. “We didn’t know what an al­bum was.” He re­calls the art­work – a pic­ture of their Dal­ston flat with a Domino’s pizza box, un­der which they’d thrown their Domino con­tract. “It’s in­sane how much we didn’t care.” He smiles at the me­mory.

When Hynes re­leased Free­town Sound, he was put out by jour­nal­ists declar­ing it his “Black Lives Mat­ters record”. “I can only talk about be­ing a teenager in Es­sex,” he says now. “I can only talk about my 20s in New York. It’s so sin­gu­lar.” He wound up in New York hap­haz­ardly (he’d only been twice be­fore for Test Ici­cles gigs). He built a new fam­ily. It be­gan with ball­room dancers – the first to take him in (“there was no judge­ment”). To­day he counts A$AP Rocky as a close friend. He made a lot of this record in a bed­room in Rocky’s LA man­sion. Solange is his clos­est friend and con­fi­dante, mak­ing him al­most Bey­oncé’s brother. He grins. “I speak to Solange ev­ery day. She’s a sis­ter. We ask each other a mil­lion ques­tions. ‘Should I buy this T-shirt? Should I do this in­ter­view? Should I cut this song?’ I rely on her.” His de­fault po­si­tion is as a recluse: “It’s a lit­tle too easy for me to not be around.” It’s some­what sur­pris­ing, given that his records are such gate­ways for col­lab­o­ra­tion. “I’ve al­ways had this the­ory that the per­son who starts a song isn’t the per­son who fin­ishes it,” he says. “I don’t feel a par­tic­u­lar own­er­ship of what I do in that re­gard.” One such ex­am­ple is stand­out track Hope, fea­tur­ing P Diddy, who was Snapchat­ting one day and a Hynes song was play­ing in the back­ground. “That shit was crazy,” he re­calls. “Some­one gave him my num­ber. He called

The first time I got beaten so badly I had to go to hos­pi­tal.

me. We’d hang out.” What did they dis­cuss? “All kinds of things. He sent me a case of Cîroc vodka. I don’t even re­ally drink!” He was writ­ing Hope with Cana­dian singer Tei Shi. It re­called ’ 90s Puff Daddy. “So I thought, ‘Shit, should I mes­sage him?’” Diddy replied straight­away. “The next day by noon he’d sent over tons of takes. Way more than needed. He didn’t ac­cept any pay­ment.” Among the takes was a huge mono­logue. Hynes never asked Diddy what it was about. Clearly, he had shit to get off his chest: “Some­times I ask my­self…” be­gins Diddy, “what is it go­ing to take for me to not be afraid, to be loved the way I re­ally wanna be loved?” “Fuck­ing crazy, huh?” says Hynes. “I bought Mo Money Mo Prob­lems on CD sin­gle from Our Price in Il­ford. I prob­a­bly stole it, to be hon­est.” Maybe Hynes was pay­ing it for­ward.

On 29 July this year, Sam Mehran was found dead from sui­cide in his LA home. In a state­ment, Hynes wrote: “Ev­ery time I was with you we were 17 again. The floor has gone and I don’t know where to stand.” “He loved to joke around,” he re­calls of their spark. Hynes last saw Mehran in 2017. These past weeks have been filled with new en­coun­ters – peo­ple Mehran touched. One told Hynes that Mehran in­tro­duced them to the movie Air­heads. “I can­not tell you how many times we watched that movie. Un­fath­omable,” he says. Rather than mourn Mehran’s fu­ture, it has felt more op­ti­mistic to cel­e­brate the years he sur­vived. “It’s wild to see all the peo­ple one life can af­fect. It’s af­fected me. I’ve had sui­ci­dal thoughts in my life and I can say now that I would never do that.” It’s af­fected his ap­proach to suc­cess, too. “I’m only ever try­ing to please my­self,” he says. “There’s noth­ing else. I’ve been a ‘best new thing’ three times. I’ve been trashed a mil­lion times. All I’m try­ing to do is make my­self feel good.” De­spite the re­volv­ing door of harsh re­al­i­ties he’s in a good place. “I find com­fort in sit­u­a­tions where you have to make the best of it. If I missed my flight there’s a com­fort be­cause I don’t have to race to the air­port any more. That’s my place of hope. I have my mind, I have my friends, we look af­ter each other, we make each other happy.” As for the fu­ture, Hynes is think­ing academia. “I could be wrong, I have no idea, but I feel like I’m not gonna be mak­ing Blood Orange records for­ever. Maybe teach­ing is a way where I can change things,” he says. NYU is around the cor­ner from here. Per­haps a door will open for him there. Will he walk through it, though? “My God, yes,” he says.

Blood Orange, Big Ap­ple: Dev Hynes, New York, 17 Au­gust, 2018.

V for vic­tory: Hynes goes from strength to strength in his third in­car­na­tion.

Formerly known as: (above) Hynes in Test Ici­cles, with Sam Mehran; (right) as Light­speed Cham­pion.

In full flight: (above) fourth Blood Orange al­bum, Ne­gro Swan; (right) Dev Hynes, Hud­son River, New York, 2018.

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