The Magnificent Nonchalance Of Mr Dev Hynes

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The Magnificent Nonchalance Of Mr Dev Hynes

Words by Mr Hanif Abdurraqib | Photography by Mr James Brodribb | Styling by Mr Jason Rider

29 October 2020

When Mr Dev Hynes appears on my computer screen, he is in motion. He’s cycling, he explains, but it’s an ideal time to talk. From the angle at which his phone is placed, there’s a perfect shot of New York City’s trees whizzing by, their leaves beginning to fade from green to yellow. On his face, Mr Hynes is wearing a mask with the word “LOVER” emblazoned across it. The view is a welcome shift from the now-normal glimpse into the corners of homes that video calls provide.

Mr Hynes is back in New York after spending the early months of the pandemic in Los Angeles. Of the reasons that brought him back, the most urgent is that he had to move out of his studio in Chinatown. He couldn’t afford it anymore and, more importantly, he says, he just didn’t need it. There’s also the fact that when he left New York for LA months ago, he packed only a suitcase. So, logistically, he had to come back. Now, he is basking in the comfort of the city, despite it being an uncomfortable time. “New York did take a bigger hit,” he says, while swaying on his bike at a traffic light. “But it feels good here. It feels like you’re in it with everybody.”

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There is something charming about chatting with Mr Hynes as he zips ecstatically through the city on his bike – a carefree, youthful exuberance that exists even in the most hellish of eras. As he swerves through lanes, the British singer, songwriter, composer and all-round musical maestro jokes that he’s not as young as he once was. He’s 34. He was born in London and relocated to the US in 2007. There, he released two albums under the name Lightspeed Champion (Falling Off The Lavender Bridge in 2008, and Life Is Sweet! Nice To Meet You in 2010.) Following that project, in 2011 Mr Hynes took up another name through which he could filter his musical creations: Blood Orange. It was as Blood Orange, in the 2010s, that Mr Hynes garnered more critical and commercial attention for his work. His dexterity as a multi-instrumentalist, his understanding of giving a song, or an artist, or a moment the exact set of sounds it needs: these qualities made him the one to work with.

Today, Mr Hynes is celebrating the release of the HBO drama We Are Who We Are, co-created and directed by Mr Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash). The series explores ideas of youth, focusing, largely, on a group of teenagers living on a military base in a quiet Italian town in 2016. The show’s soundscape, crafted by Mr Hynes, is integral to its movements. Quiet, patient piano explodes into loud, piercing synthesiser. The arrangements are as fluorescent and unpredictable as teenage life itself.

Mr Hynes, a big fan of Mr Guadagnino, started scoring the project before Covid-19 hit, completing the work in the early months of the pandemic. The two connected after Mr Guadagnino got in touch and discovered that he and Mr Hynes had a shared affinity for the director Mr Jonathan Demme (The Silence Of The Lambs, Philadelphia). From there, a friendship bloomed.

While the world began to show signs of collapse, Mr Hynes had to remain immersed in the sonic world he was building for the show. “Luca just kept urging me to put my stamp on it,” Mr Hynes tells me, a pharmacy and a food truck shrinking into the background as he pedals on. “To try and cut through, as he would put it. To try and have these compositional pieces and then try and push myself more.”

Mr Hynes pauses, briefly, as if considering the instruction again for the first time. “There’s times that I worry that a lot of my things can sound the same. So, I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about chording and classical music in this sense. How it can be somewhat strange. But, yeah, so he was kind of really pulling it out of me, to bring that sensibility out more.”

Mr Hynes insists, though, that pleasure was at the centre of the creation of the score. He was able to further explore his long-time passion for classical music composers such as Mr John Adams; to immerse himself in “The Goldberg Variations” by Mr Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Mr Glenn Gould. But he also tried to incorporate jazz, soul and electronic music to lay atop the classical variations.

It’s easy to see why Mr Hynes would be at home creating music for a visual world. His Blood Orange projects are immensely visual – not only because of the accompanying expansive and thoughtful music videos, but also thanks to the imagery that leaps out in the writing, and the conceptual narrative threads that weave through an album such as 2018’s Negro Swan, which considers blackness and depression from several angles. 

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“With Blood Orange, there’s times where I’ve made the video before the song was even finished,” says Mr Hynes. “Every album I’ve done, I’ve had the artwork before I could even say there’s an album. I want everything to feel cohesive. But I guess the key difference of the score is that I am reaching for a layer that can convey a complex level of emotions. Rarely are people just sad, or just happy. We’ve been all of those emotions, and it’s always more complex. Maybe you’re sad because you’re jealous. Maybe you’re angry because you miss someone. I just want to make music where people can pull those complexities from it.”

A propulsive score has the ability to bring a scene to life beyond what the viewer might have imagined the limits of that scene to be. This particular work also cements Mr Hynes’ reputation as an expert collaborator. The artist consistently brings the best out of the people he works with, even when his contributions are somewhat in the background: guitar work on a Ms Carly Rae Jepsen tune, piano on a Haim track or his unmistakeable vocals trembling beneath an Empress Of melody. Mr Hynes is unafraid to sacrifice the limelight in this way. His albums have all been produced under various aliases, and, as he tells me at the end of his ride, while searching for a place to secure his bike, he values the work that comes with being of service to his peers.

“Whatever someone wants to use me for, I want to help out with that,” he says, finally making his way up the flights of steps to his apartment. “When two or three people bring their talents together, that is such a special moment and that can never be recreated. It’s exciting to me, having someone else’s brain working in tangent with yours. I really love the idea of it being a friendship first. Because I’ve always felt that once that happens, it’s kind of foolproof. It’s just a whole different way of thinking with different goals.”

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We Are Who We Are and its musical score call to mind a kind of seasonal warmth. A summer bursting with the carefree nature of a slightly irresponsible childhood. The tones Mr Hynes conjures on the piano are welcoming; it’s the kind of music that might beckon someone outdoors, or into the arms of a stranger.

Consider yourself warned: this show might make the longing for the outdoors especially intense. It perhaps does not help that the show takes place in a past that is not distant by way of linear time, but feels like several eras ago.

While completing the score in February, Mr Hynes wandered through Europe, getting back in touch with some of the sensibilities that shaped his childhood. When he returned to the US, he found it challenging to get back into the mood for the work as the world began to lock down.

“In Europe I had the imagery, and the imagery was so beautiful,” he says. “It was a little crazy when I returned because I realised a big part of making music for me, whether it’s scoring or songwriting or Blood Orange stuff, is listening on headphones while riding a bike or walking around. Not being able to do that… I never realised quite how important that aspect is.”

Mr Hynes tells me he’s never gone somewhere to make an album – locked himself in a studio and just worked. But being able to wander seems rather less feasible in the immediate future. He laments the fact that he’s let some things slide work-wise, but balances that regret with the understanding that he’s taking care of himself, taking care of his people. And to that end, he is all parts celebratory, cautious, optimistic and anxious.

Amid the uprisings sweeping the US this year, Mr Hynes said that he felt his central task became reaching out to the black people in his life. “I was just messaging people,” he says. “The people you only see once every four months or so. I was calling, I was FaceTiming, I was seeing if we could make time for each other.” He takes a moment to think before landing on an idea that perfectly encapsulates everything we’ve been orbiting, about warmth, about collaboration. “There are so many tricks that make people feel like they’re closer than they actually are. But so many of us are actually far away from each other. To close that distance takes work. Real work.”

We Are Who We Are is out now