Rock, pop, soul and synesthesia – and that’s just the start of it. Crack caught up with the kids’ chameleon Dev Hynes at a rare UK gig.
Devonte Hynes takes the stage. The lights are on him. It’s a Blood Orange show at an intimate venue and that’s how he likes it. Wading through the crowd with his mic and guitar, fans and friends sing along to tracks from his 2011 album Coastal Grooves. A one-man show with a synth and drum-machine as his only accomplices, he owns the room. You wouldn’t think this guy suffered stage fright. Adapting is what Dev does best.
Rewind to an hour earlier. A leather coated young man sits at the bar, immersed in conversation with a friend. Crack interrupts him, as it’s time for our interview. Dev Hynes greets us very politely but with distinct surprise; his agent forgot to tell him our interview was scheduled in. As we get ready to back away, Dev and his friend confer and decide that so long as they can both be in the interview, it’s cool – we’ll have a chat. Not the attitude we might have expected from one who rolls with Solange and Beyoncé Knowles and whose phonebook reads like a who’s who of contemporary music.
USA born, Essex bred, Dalston regular, Brooklyn dweller, teenaged popstar, alt-rock hero, now soul singer. There are many sides to Devonte Hynes. His arrival on the NME’s Cool List came in 2007 during his time in the lairy, neon-clad punk stars Test Icicles. After unexpected success, the band decided to call it a day after one album. A million other stars would fade gently into obscurity. Not our Dev. He turns up a year later in Omaha, recording music with Saddle Creek super producer Mike Moggis, now under the guise of Lightspeed Champion. After two albums and an EP, featuring collaborations with some extremely credible musical minds of alt-country such as Tim Kasher and Van Dyke Parks, Dev has done another Optimus Prime job and changed the game.
Now he is Blood Orange – his most recent album Coastal Grooves surprising many a listener with its complete stylistic departure. Sultry, synthy and soulful – did Coastal Grooves have to be released under a different guise? “Originally I didn’t really want to release it at all,” Dev explains. “I didn’t want to trick people. I was aware it was different to the other stuff I’d released but it’s still just me.” His image reloaded, with an appearance on the front of the Guardian Guide to boot, he confesses “it weirdly made people notice. If it was just another Lightspeed album people might not have cared. I feel like it shows there’s a thirst for new music.”
After his first Lightspeed Champion album Dev moved to America permanently as he was already an official American citizen. He spent some time in California before settling in Brooklyn. Could that explain this change in direction? He’s not sure that’s it. “There’s a lot of articles that talk about how I moved to New York and there’s been no Lightspeed Champion, but the last Lightspeed release was last year and I moved to New York about four years ago. It’s funny, there always has to be some justification behind why music exists. I have to do something or I’m just going to be playing basketball or watching TV.” But does he think his surroundings have influenced his music? “Oh yeah, they definitely do. The last Lightspeed album I wrote in New York, but it was really English sounding because I was looking back to London with rose-tinted glasses. And in this album there was a lot of LA influence, as I spent a lot of time there. I’m not really aware of the effect when it happens. No doubt the influence is there but it’s not instant.”
Coastal Grooves does sound very LA and is a fantastic bit of concept writing, penned from a women’s perspective and at points sung in falsetto. The decision to sing in this new way came part and parcel with the operation on his throat in 2010. “Your voice is, as I learnt, an instrument, and if you can’t play an instrument and keep hitting it, eventually it will break.” After some speech therapy and vocal lessons, inspired by Marvin Gaye, Todd Rundgren, Kate Bush and Cyndi Lauper; “my four ultimate voices”, Dev began writing new songs in his “head voice” as he relearned how to sing. The new album was not all he was working on though. His other work included drawing his own series of comics; appearing in Adam Green’s oddball movie The Wrong Ferrari (“Jesus Christ, you didn’t watch that did you?” Dev smiles); penning three soundtracks for independent films and writing songs for himself and numerous other artists – well it’s all in a year’s work.
As we talk he fidgets consistently with his chair and his phone, a nervous energy you rarely see; energy he has clearly harnessed. Diana Vickers, Florence Welch and now his muse and friend Solange Knowles have all been in receipt of his work. Why doesn’t he keep these songs for himself? “Writing for someone with a voice I like makes me extremely happy. And it’s easier for me to listen to. The only reason I write is to satisfy weird things I want to hear in music, so when someone else sings it, it’s great.” Not being able to sit still and being unstoppably productive do often go hand in hand. Less common and more interesting still though, is Dev’s synesthesia.
For those unfamiliar with the term, synesthesia is a condition that mixes the senses of sight and sound. Painters like David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky hear/d music as they compose/d their colours. Musicians like Franz Liszt, Duke Ellington and reportedly Pharell Williams experience sounds in blocks of colour. “Fuck, really?” asks Dev, impressed as Crack reels off his fellow synesthetes. He’s right; it’s a pretty cool club to be in. As a music lover, it’s one you want to join. It varies so much though that psychologists gave up studying it decades ago, as it’s just so hard to define. Dev explains it troubled him at first when, as a teenager in clubs, he’d be distracted by the colours zipping around the room. So much so that he struggled to concentrate on conversations – “people thought I was being fucking rude”. It’s an endearing image.
Does he think his synesthesia affected the overall sound of Coastal Grooves? Did he perfect one track and get the others in sync with that? “I probably did, it was probably the first time ever that I took that into account. There was definitely a vibe and mood I wanted to feel. I hate to use this word, but I wanted to ‘paint’ something that I would never get tired of. So far it’s worked. I wrote some of these songs over a year ago and I’m not tired of them yet. That’s not usually the case.” Cracks asks if his synesthesia has effected the way he writes. Dev explains: “I write really quickly because I usually know what I want the end picture to be, so I just do it for peace. Lately though I’ve been trying to slow down, experience it all and write piece by piece.” And we have to ask, what colours are the songs on Coastal Grooves? “Tones of pink” he surmises. Crack wishes we could see it.
Coastal Grooves clearly has many other influences beyond Dev’s synesthesia. He is a fan just like any other and draws inspiration from all corners of the musical stratosphere. “Yeah there’s some Angelo Badalamenti in there” he owns – and grimaces when we ask him to put a dream supergroup together: “I’m always wary of these questions.” After a pause he says, “I’d have Sebastian Tellier. That’s my first. And his keyboardist John Kirby; essentially Sebastian Tellier and his band. And Solange, she’s probably my favourite female singer in the world. Oh, Eddie Grant. Yes! This is sounding great right now. I’ll just keep it like that. Oh wait, and Todd Rundgren! He can play every instrument. I don’t think I’ll be in this band,” he smiles, “maybe I’d play bass occasionally.”
Crack also sympathises with the colossal amount of lazy comparisons between himself and Prince knocking about. “Yes it’s so lazy. I’d obviously reference maybe two of his albums out of his wide spanning career, but I’m hardly smooth funk.”
So what does 2012 hold? Aside from finishing off Solange Knowles’ album (something that he is clearly very excited and passionate about, beaming whenever we mention this project) he’s got some tour dates penciled in. “I’m going to put a band together for some shows next year. I’m going to do a tour in America in April, but that might be it. I’ll see. I just want to make music, that’s all I want to do.” Crack has no doubt in his sincerity. He probably composed a melody or two as we spoke.
- – - – - – - – - -
The new single from Blood Orange, Forget It, is released on March 12th on Domino.
Words: Lucie Grace