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.