Blood On the Tracks

2.10.2014

By Jason Lamphier

How Blood Orange (a.k.a. Devonté Hynes) became an unlikely savior of pop music—and gave us a modern gay classic

Photography by Marley Kate | Styling by Grant Woolhead

In a pop world dominated by sneering EDM sexpots, roaring cartoon pinup girls, and self-aggrandizing hip-hop filthmasters, Devonté Hynes is an anomaly. The singer, songwriter, and producer’s music — a sleek, midtempo blend of R&B, funk, old-school hip-hop, and jazz — couldn’t be farther removed from the raunchy, calculated, club-bound singles currently ruling Top 40 radio. Instead, Cupid Deluxe, his latest album under the name Blood Orange, feels loose, warm, nostalgic, and lived-in. Many of its tracks conjure images of a flickering, late-night Times Square as seen from the backseat of a speeding taxi cab. And not the Times Square of today — rather, the seedy, gritty, sometimes dangerous Times Square of yesteryear, when the district was heaving with arcades, peep shows, hookers, cross-dressers, crooks, break dancers, and boom boxes.

Hynes’s sound is off-center, even anachronistic, but in the most refreshing way possible. When Cupid Deluxe dropped this past November, it quickly became one of the most widely adored releases of 2013. A project initially inspired by Michael Jackson’s Bad that placed Hynes front and center, the record eventually morphed into a soulful collaboration with friends and artists he admires, a love letter not only to the New York City he romanticized as a teenager but to the creative mecca the British transplant now calls home. After a few closer listens, it also reveals itself to be one of the most refined, subtly queer albums in recent history, an ambiguous, androgynous collection of songs about self-doubt, confusion, disillusion, desperation, and, ultimately, empowerment.

But if 2013 marked a watershed in Hynes’s career, the musician will also remember it as one of the most devastating years of his life. On December 16, while leaving a memorial for Lou Reed at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, he received a call notifying him that firemen were gathering outside his East Village apartment building. He raced downtown only to discover that his fourth-floor studio had burned down. The blaze, which Hynes says was caused by poor electrical wiring, ravaged his unit so badly that virtually nothing — not even its walls — remained. Hynes lost nearly all of his possessions, including clothes, compositions, his computer, his piano, his travel visa, and his two-month-old puppy, Cupid. “Everything from my life is gone,” he tweeted the following morning. Hynes had already been suffering from intense panic attacks before the tragedy, but then, two days before he turned 28, his girlfriend, Samantha Urbani (of the New York band Friends), rushed him to the hospital for exhaustion. “I actually can’t even recall most of what happened,” he says. “I just woke up with IVs attached to me and freaked out. That was when I realized. It was very surreal.” It was the first time in his life that Hynes forgot it was his birthday.

Hynes grew up in Essex, northeast of London, and began studying the cello and piano as a child. By age 12 he’d abandoned his formal studies and was teaching himself to play drums, guitar, and bass. At 18, he joined his first band, the dance-punk outfit Test Icicles. The move landed him a deal with Domino Records, but after one record and a U.S. tour, Hynes quit the group and formed Lightspeed Champion, a solo indie-folk act that brought him to Brooklyn in 2006. He recorded two albums under that moniker and collaborated with the Chemical Brothers (on their 2007 album, We Are the Night) and Basement Jaxx (on 2009’s Scars), but by 2011, Lightspeed Champion was on indefinite hiatus and Hynes had released Coastal Grooves, his Prince-flavored, new wave–inspired debut album as Blood Orange.

Call it a lack of discipline or a bad case of musical ADD; Hynes’s story is actually just the opposite. Much like another musical chameleon, David Bowie, he has an insatiable urge to experiment and evolve and isn’t afraid of failing. “You know, musically, you can’t actually go wrong,” Hynes says. “Nothing bad is ever gonna happen from anyone trying an idea. You can just maybe not like what you’ve done—so try something else or try again.”

It’s a freezing-cold Friday in mid-December — just three days before Hynes’s life will be turned upside down — and he has asked to meet at a corner outside a pet store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He’s just been there to purchase a carrier for Cupid, the Maltese-Chihuahua he named after the new record. Hynes is dressed in a dirt-colored wool trench coat, a dark blue, blouse-like shirt, skintight black pants, sporty sneakers, and a black baseball cap that reads “KING OF POP: MICHAEL JACKSON 1958-2009” in bright red letters. He hasn’t eaten lunch, so we make our way to his favorite juice bar in the neighborhood.

Hynes admits he isn’t exactly sure where he or his latest alter ego fit into the modern musical landscape, but he is certain of one thing: Though he’s written material for marquee divas like Grace Jones, Kylie Minogue, Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine, and even Britney Spears (sadly, the two songs he penned for Britney Jean were scrapped), he’s not interested in becoming a global pop star himself. “I don’t view myself as a singer,” he says, adding that he’d much rather stay behind the scenes, develop new sounds for other vocalists, and just lie low in general (he chucked his iPhone in late November because he was overwhelmed by all the attention he was getting). He hates touring and balks at the idea of playing more than two consecutive concerts at a time. In fact, he agreed to only four performances to promote Cupid Deluxe, one of which he booked mainly because it was at a venue right down the street from his apartment.

Tags: Music
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