How Devonte Hynes of Blood Orange Saved Pop Music | Out Magazine

Blood On the Tracks

Blood On the Tracks

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.

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.”

Photography by Marley Kate

Did his parents wonder if he might be gay? “I think my parents definitely thought that for a while,” he says. They never asked him, which he interpreted as a form of acceptance — “their way of being like, ‘Well, if he is, that’s fine,’ ” he says. By now, Cupid is awake and Hynes is standing, teasing him with one of his toys. And did he ever wonder? “It definitely crossed my mind,” Hynes says. “You know, I experimented with my friends and stuff. I realized that I wasn’t.” Still, he continues, “I wouldn’t call myself straight. Samantha doesn’t call herself straight, either. She has had female lovers, and I have had transgender lovers. It’s a funny thing...because there are probably people out there that have no understanding of viewing sex in that way.” In an interview with the blog Slutever last year, he explained it further: “Maybe what I’m attracted to is the femininity of a woman, combined with the strong features and beauty of a man. I mean, I’m just guessing here! I’m not sure it’s good to try and dissect anything that you love, whether it be movies, music, or genders.”

Hynes’s frankness and his relaxed stance on the subject of labels call to mind Bowie’s widely publicized embrace of bisexuality some four decades ago.Hynes may be less playful (and surely less theatrical) in his treatment of his sexuality; unlike Bowie, he hasn’t used it as a sort of catnip for the media. But he does exhibit a similar unself-consciousness and mystique, not only in his honest accounts of his exploratory past, but in the way he moves. The video for “Chamakay,” the gorgeous, marimba-laced first single off Cupid Deluxe, found the singer traveling to Georgetown, Guyana, where his mother grew up, to film his first-ever meeting with several family members, including his 92-year-old grandfather. Its backstory makes the already beautiful clip all the more intriguing (heartbreaking, really), but Hynes’s fluid, unrehearsed, at times awkward choreography as he interacts with the locals may be the video’s real draw. His body twists, spins, stiffens, and undulates; it’s by turns limbless and architectural. His curious, flamboyant poses one minute resemble those of a meditating shaman, the next a young boy learning to moonwalk. He’s like an eel rippling through the waves, a flippant queen throwing the shadiest of shade. Whatever the hell Hynes is doing, it works.

His enlightened — and sadly, still quite radical — approach to sexuality stems from his early exposure to queer nightlife, when, in an attempt to flee the bigotry surrounding them, he and his friends would head into central London to gay bars and clubs. “Oh my God, it was just the best,” he says. “It’s still in the music I make, that feeling of being free in a city — liberated. It’s still a feeling I have, just being here.”

Hynes became infatuated with New York City at 17, particularly the 1980s Harlem ballroom and vogue scenes depicted in Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning. The stories of the now-legendary drag queens and trans performers like Octavia St. Laurent and Exotica, outcasts struggling to find their voices and be heard, struck a chord with Hynes, then an outcast himself. Later, when he released his first Blood Orange record, Coastal Grooves, he included a song, “Sutphin Boulevard,” which was based on both Paris Is Burning and his move to New York City; he wrote the demo for it while simultaneously editing together a video of his favorite scenes from the movie. He also reached out to photographer Brian Lantelme, who chronicled the trans and drag circuit at Sally’s Hideaway, a 1980s Times Square nightclub, to secure rare black-and-white archival shots for the artwork associated with the record.

If Coastal Grooves offered up a clear homage to a particular moment in queer history, Blood Orange’s follow-up, Cupid Deluxe, pays tributes to the queer experience in a more nuanced, poignant way. “Uncle ACE,” one of the album’s catchiest, most upbeat tracks, rides along a rollicking funk-disco beat with sultry sax and crisp guitars reminiscent of the deft fretwork of Chic’s Nile Rodgers, but its subject matter is the record’s most somber. Hynes wrote the song after reading “Netherland,” a 2012 New Yorker feature revealing that up to 40% of the nation’s homeless youth are LGBT. “Uncle ACE” is the nickname some of these youth living in New York have given the ACE, a trio of subway lines running from northern Manhattan to the outer reaches of Queens that many of them call home in the late hours of the night. “I’ve got a great idea / Losing my sense of where,” sings Hynes, the lyrics describing “a sense of not knowing who you are in general,” he explains, adding that he had brief experiences with homelessness himself, not knowing where he’d spend the night.

The song specifically addresses homeless youth who resort to prostitution to survive. “Not like the other girls / Go home and wait for me / I’ll be there after 5 / The others got that V” goes one couplet, “that V” being slang for HIV. “I have friends, sex workers and transgender sex workers, and I hear the stories they tell and the things they’ve been through,” says Hynes, who wrote “Uncle ACE” from the perspective of one these companions. “The rumors that get sprouted so they can go home with people are crazy and vicious. They say people have HIV who don’t.”

Yet it’s also the artist’s stylistic choices that imbue the album with a sort of sexual fluidity or genderlessness. Whether he considers himself a singer of not, Hynes’s voice is tender, vulnerable, and arresting. It moves from breathless gasps to hushed whispers to high falsetto coos, lending Cupid Deluxe the same sort of androgyny that helped make Prince’s Dirty Mind and Purple Rain queer touchstones. On an album full of slick, organic-sounding pairings — including some with his new favorite muse, his girlfriend, Urbani — the most alluring and sensual are Hynes’s duets with other men: On “No Right Thing,” he joins Dirty Projectors front man Dave Longstreth to deliver the line “But you look away, and I look to you…that’s where we are”; later, on the song “On the Line,” a call-and-response track between Hynes and his frequent collaborator Adam Bainbridge (of indie electronic act Kindness), Bainbridge pleads, “Tell me if we’re on the line,” with Hynes replying, “Are we through?” Meanwhile, the album’s literal centerpiece, “Chosen” — a seven-minute stunner stocked with choir vocals, a smoky saxophone, and a spoken-word intro read in a French female accent — finds Hynes achingly uttering the phrase, “It’s in the way that he moves, but I don’t want to choose.”

Cupid Deluxe’s most potent and sincere offering, however, might be its closer, “Time Will Tell,” which reprises lines from an earlier track, “It Is What It Is.” It’s the closest Hynes comes to expressing hope or resolution on the album, and its lyrics seem almost too perfect when considered from the point of view of an experienced narrator speaking to a confused, closeted teen: “Time will tell if you can figure this and work it out / No one’s waiting for you anyway so don’t be stressed now / Even if it’s something that you’ve had your eye on, it is what it is.”

In an era of what some of have called “gay-baiting pop,” in which chart-topping divas like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, and Pink (and even newcomer rapper Macklemore) almost seem to be cashing in on recent struggles for LGBT rights — pulling out increasingly outrageous, campy ensembles and releasing sloganeering gay anthems to advertise their open-mindedness and advocacy — a sophisticated, almost unintentional nod to queerness like Cupid Deluxe feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s a document of one artist’s struggle with anxiety, newfound fame, relationships, and his past, but it often sounds buoyant and liberating.

“It’s like a bat in the room fluttering around, and you’re confused as to what it’s doing,” Hynes says of the album. “But I like it that way. I am all over the place, and it sounds like someone who is all over the place. It’s definitely an accurate portrayal of me.” In aiming to present a deeply personal statement, Hynes has crafted a work that’s universal.

The day Hynes woke up in the hospital, he booked a show for that evening in Brooklyn, reviving his old persona Lightspeed Champion (he says he was still in the hospital an hour before the concert). A few nights later, he and Urbani performed as Gayer, a rap-metal band they formed recently that features Hynes shredding on the guitar while Urbani screams; they both rap. On New Year’s Eve, he gave a surprise solo performance as Blood Orange playing only songs that didn’t make the final cut of Cupid Deluxe, as well as one of the dance-pop songs he wrote for Britney Spears that never made it onto her new album. In response to the fire, his girlfriend’s mother set up a “Help Dev!” Go Fund Me site with a goal of $5,000. While he may not be a hitmaker quite yet, the $24,302 it raised before Hynes asked that it be closed shows that the artist clearly has a devoted fan base.

A lot of his music is gone, his Michael Jackson memorabilia is gone, his puppy is gone. But when we meet up again in the beginning of January, Hynes seems optimistic. He’s wearing a black turtleneck with a long-sleeved white T-shirt over it, washed-out jeans, and his token “New York”–emblazoned cap. He looks like a tourist beamed in from 1984. He’s still charming and full of laughter, and he interrupts our conversation at one point, when Nu Shooz’s post-disco classic “I Can’t Wait” comes on, so he can listen closely to its intro (the song sounds like it could be a B-side from Cupid Deluxe).

He’s been crashing at Urbani’s place in Brooklyn, but in three days they’ll both fly out to Los Angeles, where they’ll be staying for the next month. Hynes will spend some of his time in the studio with Jessie Ware, writing songs for and playing instruments on the U.K. singer’s upcoming album. He also plans to begin rewriting his score for a contemporary dance interpretation of Charlotte Perkins Gilmans’s 1892 feminist short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which he lost in the fire. Mainly, though, he’ll be “disappearing,” he says. He still doesn’t have a smartphone (just an iPod so he can listen to music), and though he could use the money, he won’t be adding many show dates to his schedule this year. He tells me he’s thinking about applying to the summer program at the Watermill Center, a laboratory for studies in the arts and humanities founded by Robert Wilson.

“I was already feeling very scared about mortality in general, and after this it was just like, Anything can happen — at any time. I could have been in that apartment. Luckily I wasn’t,” Hynes says. “I just have to do things to make me happy because… what else is there?”

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