Dev Hynes is trying to get grounded. On a warm and dewy April afternoon, the musician also known as Blood Orange is seated in the corner of a health food store café. It’s one of the only nooks in New York City where he can get things done in peace. For the past few months, he’d been finding solace in places across the globe including Jamaica, Tokyo, London, Florence and Los Angeles. In a post-Brexit world, it’s felt important for Hynes to spend more time in Europe to reconnect with the founding pieces of his identity and sensibilities. Places yield their own lessons and energy, providing backdrops to his constant flow of creativity and self-understanding. Outside the café’s window, horns and sirens blare through lower Manhattan, but Hynes is unruffled. With a disarming smile flashing a jewel-studded tooth, he says, “I’m pretty much here now.”
And now that he’s back in New York, he’s working on something, or many things—feeding new ideas while coming down off the momentum of Blood Orange’s 2018 opus Negro Swan. The album was celebrated as an intentionally hopeful portrait of what he calls “black depression,” textured with the voices of cultural beacons like Puff Daddy and Janet Mock. On the cover, a photograph of Kai The Black Angel embodies the heavenly, yet burdensome life that Hynes and so many others who share his sensibility traverse. Looking back, he describes Negro Swan as a “zoomed in” take on his identity that’s pushed him to see his pain and continue to make his truest art. But it took him some time and a bit of collaboration to get there.
Composing beautiful sounds comes naturally to Hynes. He’s delicate, a quality that allows him to tap into a distinct sound and special kind of emotional honesty, resulting in songwriting credits for artists like Solange, Haim and Mariah Carey. “I don’t know if it’s naive but I feel that everyone is the constant at the thing that they do, so I feel like it’s impossible for me to be involved in something and have it not sound like me,” he says. With Blood Orange albums Cupid Deluxe (2013), Freetown Sound (2016), and Negro Swan, he’s at the helm while employing a brilliant roster of co-creators to elevate and enrich the art. Ironically, as a master of solitude, Hynes is always open to working with others who often turn out as friends, if they weren’t already. “If I’m around you it means I like your taste or sensibility. You’re more than welcome to try,” he says. “I know when I’m working on stuff and I have people around, they’re surprised that I’m open to it.”
Born Devonté Hynes as the youngest of three children, the Essex England native spent a lot of time on his own. A non-conformist deemed a misfit in a town full of social and racial repression, Hynes dealt with years of violence and bullying. “I remember when I first went to my school, people were insanely confused by me. I was this cello-playing kid, painting my nails and wearing makeup, and playing drums and in metal bands and I was the best on the football [soccer] team,” he recalls.
Early on, Hynes learned to respond to isolation by crafting the safe and freeing realms he built for himself. In addition to his interests in reading, writing, film and playing sports, he always played music, albeit very passively. Growing up, he preferred to make it in his bedroom—lo-fi and intimate. Not much has changed in that sense and it wasn’t until he turned 18, joined the short-lived London hardcore rock trio Test Icicles, and moved to New York to figure it all out that he saw music as crucial to his self-preservation and survival. “Now, I’m confident that music was the root of all of it,” he says.“I listened to music non-stop. I made music non-stop.”
As an orchestra kid, Hynes has always viewed his practice with an integrative lens. He’s inspired by seeing his peers transform an idea or the direction of a track. “I trust people,” he explains. “I can do my ideas any day. I’m by myself 24/7. If there’s someone else in the room, I want to hear what they’re thinking,” he says. Not honoring that possibility could mean a song doesn’t reach its potential, and for Hynes, making sure that it does is paramount. “I have real faith in my ability to start and end things,” he says. “The middle is where you can take flight.”
He calls on a circuit of ultra-bright artists like Onyx Collective drummer Austin Williamson, Adam Bainbridge, also known as Kindness, and vocalists like Zuri Marley, Eva Tolkin and Ian Isiah. Working with the same people keeps things familiar to Hynes, a chemistry he values. In production mode, the artist likens himself to a director, describing his focus on carrying out the big picture. It isn’t always clear exactly which role Hynes takes in regards to his music, but that’s partly because he balances so many. “In everything I’ve created, whether it’s packaging, putting the album together, stage design, footage—I’ve rendered it. I do all of those things, but I’m fully aware that it’s in service to the music. I see myself as a musician because that’s the thread. Those other things wouldn’t exist without music,” he says. For someone who admittedly does everything, Hynes doesn’t move from a place of ego; it’s more about “getting the point across.”
With a highly active mind, his stream of ideas is steady. Usually, he has the concept for a new project while finishing the current one, which, he admits, can be overwhelming. There’s never a moment of stillness. By the end of Negro Swan, Hynes had already envisioned his fifth album. It features appearances from his “usual” crew along with others and an under-the-radar rapper named Benny Revival, about whom Hynes is thrilled. He casually blurts out the secret news in the midst of our chat, laughing at his outlandish level of creative execution and productivity. He knew the length, the vibe, and mission of the intro and closing tracks before retreating to his quasi-utopia in LA to go full steam. Making an album cracks open a new emotional dimension for Hynes, getting him closer to a sense of openness and the core of his existential quandaries. For the new album, he’s leaving hope in the dust and plunging into the pits of black angst that he first mentioned on Negro Swan. “That was the first time I looked at it and the new one is like living in the guts,” he says.
Hynes is all for revisiting a method in order to get his ideas across. With so many pieces constantly in-progress, he finds stability in his familiar orbit of artists and emotions. “A lot of people constantly try to out-do themselves. They innovate and try things and go against something. I don’t think like that at all,” he says. “I’ve never had that thing. That need to one-up something or I did something once so I can’t do it again. I reuse chord strips or chord progressions, instruments, or people. I’m just trying to do in that moment what works or what is of service to the idea. That’s how you create a world.”