Blood Orange is the newest moniker of prolific producer and multi-instrumentalist Devonté Hynes
His solo sets are minimal; he croons and shreds guitar while triggering sounds from his laptop.
by David Ma
In tight, ripped jeans, glasses, tank top, and backwards cap, Devonté Hynes records as Blood Orange, a recent handle for the twenty-five-year-old musician. His solo sets are minimal; he croons and shreds guitar while triggering sounds from his laptop. And for years, out of necessity and preference, lonely bars were his main practice space. “I literally had nowhere to just mess around, be loud, and play. I lived in small apartments, and the only time I could do whatever was on weeknights in random spots somewhere,” he remembers, laughing. “It’s funny, my friends say I’m the guy who won’t tell anyone about his gigs. [laughs] I’d just book a show and come alone to play. But, really, it was the only way I could practice, and I’m grateful I was able to take advantage of it.” Playing for slow-sippers indifferent to live music gave him room to breathe, to freely play without having to align or explain himself to anyone.
Originally published as “Escapism” in Wax Poetics Issue 50.
Dev’s persona isn’t entirely easy to depict. His musical training began early, but his inspirations are quite varied. “I started playing piano at seven, moving onto the cello, then drums, then bass; everything just fell around that. I don’t know what else to say,” he says, rather apologetically. In his mid-twenties, he’s young and has had lifelong musical training. He avoids the spotlight but moves easily beneath it. His favorites are completely wide-ranging, so much so, it’s difficult to tell what and who has bled into his work. He cites Janet Jackson, Pantera, Marilyn Manson, and Prince as leaving huge imprints—as did Arthur Russell, Phillip Glass, and Ryuichi Sakamoto of Yellow Magic Orchestra. He says further: “I could also recite the words to, like, every rap song while growing up.” Adding: “Oh yeah, and Marvin Gaye is one of the best singers ever.”
He’s foggy, scattered almost, when explaining his influences but speaks easily on finding strength in transgender culture and its history. Admittedly, all his new songs are written “from a female perspective,” he says. The inspiration derived from transgender and gay history is perhaps linked to his own dealings with intolerance. “I felt a lot prejudice growing up—a lot,” he reiterates. “Even though I’m not gay, I felt a lot of gay prejudice and homophobia from kids because of what I wore and what I was into. I mean, I played football when I was young, and I absolutely love the NBA. But I also played cello and was in the chess club. [laughs] Where I’m from, I guess I always stuck out for all sorts of reasons.”
Originally born in Houston, Texas, Dev and his family relocated early on to Essex, a non-metropolitan area in Eastern England where most of his childhood was spent. He left for the big city of London as a teenager, continuing all the way to Los Angeles. His wanderlust led him to Queens, New York, around 2006. He now lives in Brooklyn where Coastal Grooves, his newest, most distinct work, developed gradually in his bedroom through the last few years. Like most young musicians, Dev was in many bands with assorted styles, lobbing darts and seeing which ones stuck.
His first troupe, Test Icicles, made spastic rock with overtly thrashy sounds. It was a learning experience in working with others, says Dev. “We would all write by ourselves and come in the studio and record, then have someone come in and overdub certain parts and segments. People were in and out all the time. We would record, and rerecord, and rerecord. I know that’s normal, but it wasn’t my style. Sometimes it went well, sometimes it was absolutely painstaking.” The band released one official project before disbanding in 2006.
Moving away from group dynamics, Dev forged Lightspeed Champion, a more subdued, folk-driven solo effort with clangy guitars, handclaps, and pop melodies—much different from the raucous noise of Test Icicles. Reasonable success was had in both ventures; units sold moderately well and album reviews were pleasant. But it was Dev’s songwriting prowess that heads picked up on, asking him eventually to write for their own acts. His writing acumen gave him work for a diverse cast, a reflection perhaps of the range easily seen in his own songs. He quietly penned for a hodgepodge of artists: Basement Jaxx, Florence and the Machine (whose album hit number one on the U.K. music charts), and musical sketches for television’s Saturday Night Live. He also contributed to the Chemical Brothers’ We Are the Night, a hit Grammy winner that same year. He meanwhile scattered songs and compositions on the Internet via blogs and message boards on his own as well.
With projects on the upswing, Dev returned to recording by himself and for himself, explaining: “I’d write in the kitchen, record in the bedroom, and randomly play out all by myself.” He even reverted to playing small bars for practice, basking in the anonymity, especially since it was purely practice nevertheless. “There’s no pressure whatsoever, and people generally don’t know what to expect when they see me,” he says, adding: “I still wouldn’t tell anyone I was playing, because I wanted to be alone and just practice stuff I felt I liked. It was just some songs I started during [and a little after] the last Lightspeed Champion album. I was still trying things out—they weren’t even whole recordings yet.” These songs, essentially ideas and rough sketches, became the template for Blood Orange.
Around 2008, however, a persistent aching developed in Dev’s throat, leading to emergency surgery that put his career—and worse possibly, his voice—in jeopardy. Diagnosed with growths on his vocal chords, called nodules, it was unclear if he’d ever sing again, or sound as he did before surgery. It’s thought to have developed from overworking his voice through constant gigging, a condition that affected Elton John and other notable—but mostly longtime—vocalists. And while severity of the condition greatly varies, it was nonetheless a sobering time. Dev recalls, “I had to have them removed, and doctors didn’t even know exactly how it would alter my voice. It was pretty weird and scary but was fun sometimes too. [laughs] Overall, I couldn’t speak at all for two months and basically had to learn how to sing all over again. I’m so grateful it worked out; but at first, it was like running into a brick wall.”
With speech therapy that followed, Dev regained speech function and recovered while reworking the Blood Orange sketches that had sat dormant on his hard drive. He eventually ironed out enough tracks for a demo, an EP that he slid to friends and label affiliates. “They were just short bits of songs I’d listen to when I was on my skateboard or riding around the city on my bike. I didn’t play them to anyone, and I came to realize that for the first time ever, really, I was trying to write the kind of songs I actually wanted to hear.”
The demo made its rounds and was well received, especially since insiders were acquainted with his writing credits. The EP was eventually picked up by Domino Records, an indie label based in the U.K. The imprint wanted a longer, more fully realized project, and newer songs were added to flesh out the release; existing songs were rerecorded professionally in the studio.
The resulting Coastal Grooves is Dev’s debut, or rather, his newest incarnation as Blood Orange, a deviation from his existing works. The album has nods to new wave and R&B but also has the drive of ’80s power pop. Aesthetically, Asian melodies and timbres push up-tempo drums along with synth sounds. “I used my guitar, bass, keyboard, and laptop, and just basically put everything together at home,” he says of the album, which has predominately been labeled as indie-dance rock. But there are strong currents of disco and David Bowie throughout; a bit of Cyndi Lauper and Bohannon too. The vocals, soft and breathy, have been likened to Prince, an aforementioned favorite of Dev’s. “On face value, that’s an amazing compliment but also a million miles off the mark,” he laughs, adding to it: “Who could ever truly be compared to Prince? It’s mainly just a comparison to what he did on Purple Rain, not the million other records he made. I’m sure he’d be offended at the thought of my shitty plug-ins and Garage Band bullshit being compared to his production,” he says, laughing.
There is a sense of androgyny found on Coastal Grooves that merits some of the Prince talk, a fact Dev concedes to. Actually, it’s his new outlook that’s entirely bolstered his approach to songwriting. “I love androgyny in music—in general, I love androgyny. But somewhere along the way, the lines got blurred. I’m at a point now where every song I write, it just comes natural for me to think and sound androgynous. It’s a girlish register I’ve worked really hard at [in order] for it to sound properly when doing it. I probably did it most on this Blood Orange album.” He continues,“It’s all about escapism, about running away, and the idea of freedom. I guess the only real main inspiration was Octavia.”
Octavia St. Laurent was a transgender model from 1980s New York and was featured prominently in the revered film Paris Is Burning. The documentary examined gay Harlem and New York City “drag balls.” It was a subculture comprised primarily of transgender and gay men, most of them Latin and African American. “[St. Laurent] died two years ago from cancer and HIV-related causes. I was thinking about her the whole time while making Coastal Grooves. Just the basic idea of having a place to go hide, to feel comfortable, and just really be oneself spoke to me. You can see it in the film, and she really lived her life that way.”
The artwork for Coastal Grooves also affirms its sexual and emotional themes—a drag queen adorns the cover, posing in front of Sally’s Hideaway, a well-known nightclub that existed in Times Square between 1986 and 1992. It was a mecca for gay and transgender men and a fixture of the 1980s gay-power movement. The picture was taken by Brian Lance, a photographer who was also a part of Paris Is Burning. Dev selected the cover art after a chance meeting with Lance. “I made contact with Brian through the Internet while I was googling Octavia and found all these wonderful photos he took during that era.” Some of those images are now part of Coastal Grooves’ overall design aesthetic and media campaign. “I’m sure some people will see it and not know what to make if it,” says Dev. “But to me, it was the perfect fit. It’s probably the one thing the record directly relates to.”
Dev recently embarked on his first solo tour as Blood Orange, having just written and produced for Theophilus London’s newest project. He is also working with Beyoncé’s younger sibling, Solange Knowles, on her upcoming project. Through all the fogginess, it’s clear that Dev is a young artist whose career is in the ascendant—his next album could be a complete deviation from what he’s into at the moment of this writing. But he’s untrammeled by notions of sexuality and style, an outlook that seemingly—and refreshingly—underpins all his work regardless of genre.
“I was already in NewYork at the time and kept thinking about how difficult being Black must’ve been in the ’80s. Then I thought about how harder it must’ve been being Black and gay! But some people were, are, Black, gay, and transgender! How I was then, how I am now, basically, was always different for whatever reason. I get that feeling, and that’s what shows most on this record, on this whole Blood Orange thing, I think. There’s a lot of people running away in these songs.”
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