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

Twenty minutes later, we’re at Hynes’s East Village apartment near St. Mark’s Church, a storied quarter of the city once home to downtown legends Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Russell, the latter of whom Hynes considers a key influence in his work.

Dimly lit except for the fading afternoon sun streaming in from the window and the glow of the Christmas lights he’s strewn around it, the space exudes as much character and inspiration and soul as the music on Cupid Deluxe. Stacks of art books, old copies of Vogue, and boxes of worn-out cassettes cover the floor. Shelves mounted on one of the room’s exposed brick walls showcase what is essentially a shrine to his other musical idols — one holds three vintage magazines whose covers feature musician-svengali Malcolm McLaren, Philip Glass, and Michael Jackson; another sports an assortment of still-packaged Jackson trading cards and buttons of the singer from the ’80s next to a plastic-covered 1965 John Lennon book that Hynes says is written in “Spanglish.” Kitty-corner from the shelves is a couch covered with a blanket embroidered with the artwork from Taylor Swift’s Red album, perhaps the one ironic piece of decor in the apartment (he says he’s not really a fan).

While Cupid naps in his new carrier, we huddle over Hynes’s laptop in the corner of the room by the window so he can share some excerpts from the score he’s composed and produced for writer-director Gia Coppola’s first feature film, Palo Alto, a moody drama based on James Franco’s short story collection of the same name. He recently used the music in a lecture he gave at New York University on how his songwriting is influenced by synesthesia, a condition that links the senses, so that he associates every sound he hears with a color (while composing for Palo Alto, he saw a lot of red).

The score, which Hynes will release this spring when the movie comes out, is a hypnotic blend of oboes, cellos, saxophones, and synthesizers, with Hynes singing on three of the tracks. It’s the dreamiest, most brooding stuff he’s written. “I kind of went deep for the soundtrack — I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he says with a chuckle. Hynes punctuates much of what he says with warm laughter and talks about his art with such humility, passion, and casualness that you get the impression you’ve known him for years.

“Producing, having a goal you want to accomplish with other people — I feel like I thrive in that environment,” Hynes continues. “You’re all working together and people come back to you with things they need.” Indeed, it’s his work on a pair of winning collaborations in late 2012 that goosed Hynes’s career and cemented a sound that would become Blood Orange’s trademark: heady, shimmering, ’80s-inspired pop anchored by wistful minor chords. The first was “Everything Is Embarrassing,” a rueful breakup anthem with a blunt, Control-era Janet Jackson beat that Hynes wrote about an ex-girlfriend, and, along with Ariel Rechtshaid, produced for Sky Ferreira. The track helped rescue the then-20-year-old singer, who’d been ping-ponging between genres for a few years, from career purgatory. The second was the single “Losing You,” a shuffling, click-clacking, blissfully melancholic slab of R&B-funk he wrote and produced with Solange that finally propelled her out of her big sis Beyoncé’s shadow, earning her cred among indie-pop heads and radio lovers alike.

Both songs evoke the dizzying rush of a young crush and the disastrous heartache that follows when things fall apart — a theme Hynes finds himself returning to again and again. The heightened growing pains explored in Palo Alto were a major reason he was attracted to the project. “Something I love and am always trying to do musically and lyrically is add in a sense of teenage melodrama, where it’s life or death,” Hynes says. “It might be my arrested development, but I feel like it’s good to allow yourself to feel that way sometimes — that sense of ‘everything and nothing is important and amazing.’ ” (The title for “Everything is Embarrassing” came from a tweet he posted on a frustrated, reflective 4 a.m. walk home in early 2012.)

But Hynes’s fascination with adolescent woes runs deeper than that. Growing up in Essex, which he describes as “the Jersey of England,” Hynes was repeatedly bullied. “I wasn’t like the other kids,” he says. “All of my friends were the more openly gay kids in my area. I remember just being outsiders in this really crazy town we were living in.” He would paint his nails and wear makeup and get called a “faggot” for it. Though he says his classmates generally accepted him, he was spat on “literally daily” while riding city buses, and was beaten so badly by strangers on the street that he was hospitalized multiple times. “Everyone was wearing, like, tracksuits, you know? Me and my friends would dress differently, and they just hated it,” he recalls. “It was a crazy time, and it left me with a lot of issues to do with race, gender, and sexuality. It wasn’t really white people bullying me — it was black people. Which really took a long time to get over...I mean, I’m almost positive the people bullying us were closeted.”

He tried to hide the attacks from his parents — his mother emigrated to England from Guyana to become a nurse, and his father is from Sierra Leone and was a manager at a Marks & Spencer department store — but he couldn’t conceal the evidence on his body. When he was 15, his mother enrolled him in karate classes so he could defend himself. He despised having to go and considers that period one of the worst moments of his adolescence. “I was like, ‘I’m living in hell,’” he remembers. “I was so depressed and distraught about my existence.”

Tags: Music
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