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Dev Hynes — autumn/winter 2018
Dev wears printed wool blouson Louis Vuitton, hat his ownPhotography Wolfgang Tillmans, styling Danny Reed

Dev Hynes: inner visions

Dev Hynes — autumn/winter 2018

Back with a vital new album as Blood Orange, Dev Hynes explains how it intimately explores black experiences, and how he turned vulnerability into power

Taken from the autumn/winter 2018 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

Dev Hynes records his music with the windows open. You can hear the dulled urgency of a siren and the promise of more sirens. You can hear the neighbours. An errant screech. Ghosts and those who came before. A mother. Sweet greetings and voices chatting about the day’s complaints. Or the way a woman’s inflection – when she’s among her women – warms, gets real, plots, and receives affection. How her laugh means, “I love you.” You can hear pavement; chronic, comic car horns. You can hear a basketball; it sounds like a bass drum that sounds like a basketball, and so on. You can hear a saxophone; how solo and unescorted the saxophone sounds. Its noise, like loneliness next door. Its noise, like companionship just next door. What is it about saxophones that make them sound like fire escapes?

You can hear the city in the summer, at dusk. Because you can hear that, too – heat that won’t relent even as the sun begins to set. The echoing rhythm of whatever thoughts we keep to ourselves, competing with thick, thick air. You can hear muffled bass, confined to a car. The way some songs sound especially – the most – familiar when they are once removed. When you encounter them through a car pulled up to a red light. The way bass awakens us to the tension we hold in our chests. Or the joy that can spring from it, too.

Returning with Negro Swan, Hynes’ fourth album as Blood Orange, the 32-year-old producer, composer, songwriter, vocalist and true blue collaborator has created a work of contemplative urgency. It’ll crack you open. And speak to what’s dead-tired inside. It feels clenched but also loose. It runs hot and pop-y, and poetic. Low and decelerated. It features A$AP Rocky, Puff Daddy, Ian Isiah, Steve Lacy, Onyx Collective, Kelsey Lu, Amandla Stenberg, and Janet Mock as the album’s narrator – the voice of Negro Swan’s interludes.

Mock, who was introduced to Hynes’ music through her hair colourist, quickly realised she was already familiar with his sound. “I just saw all these references to Paris is Burning and I started really engaging with (Hynes’) work and the music, and that’s how I fell in love with him,” the writer-director says. “He invited me to do some spoken word for the album and I was like, I don’t do spoken word poetry. And I definitely don’t sing, and he was like no, just try it.”

Mock met Hynes in his Chinatown studio and the two began trading ideas. “It started with him playing tracks for me, and he gave me a black leather-bound journal that said ‘Negro Swan’, and he’d give me a word, like ‘family’ or ‘jewellery’, and I’d start writing and then read it, and that was the process.” When I ask Mock about her initial hesitation and how Hynes was able to create a space for natural exchange – the opposite of overthinking – she notes: “With Dev, it’s just inherent. He’s an artist, he’s a writer, he’s black, he has a queer view of the world. He’s cradled female artists like Tinashe and Solange. I think there’s a newness that comes out of that level of vulnerability and openness. There’s an ease to him.”

Let’s talk about your new album, Negro Swan. The title.

Dev Hynes: It just kind of hit me a year or so ago. I have my titles pretty far ahead. There were two albums I was working on at the same time and one of them was this one. I didn’t know which was going to consume me more. And Negro Swan did, and I became quite obsessive working on it. With me, the titles are like pictures. I know the image, and I’m trying to fill up the image with a piece of music.

So the image comes to you and then you add the sonic elements and composition to it?

Dev Hynes: Yeah.

Funny. Maybe that’s why when I received the album, and I was reading the track list, I texted you that the sequence of the titles reminded me of a collection of short stories?

Dev Hynes: Yeah, that’s the best thing I’ve heard. I love that. Someone, a writer, told me once that they think I work on records as if I’m writing a book, which I thought was interesting.

You’ve said you got pretty obsessive working on this album. What was that period of obsession like?

Dev Hynes: The oldest song actually goes back to working on Freetown Sound. That’s “Saint”. It was really far back. I actually had imagery and then maybe 20 per cent into it, I had the title, and then I was just kind of filling it up. I travelled a lot to do it, which I hadn’t really done before. There were a couple of trips where I intentionally travelled in order to work on this. But it tended to be when I was going places. I did this residency in Florence, which I kind of used to work on the album. I worked on it in Tokyo a bit. And then LA actually, a few times, quite a few times. Various places: in people’s houses that I was crashing in, hotels, or a couple times I tried these experiments where I rented out studios and would go with nothing and see what could happen.

It was recorded in such crazy ways. For example, the song “Dagenham Dream” was recorded at the LINE Hotel in Koreatown. “Nappy Wonder” was recorded in A$AP Rocky’s kitchen when I was staying there. It was really a case of like, I’m just gonna live life, move around, do whatever, and then record while I’m doing it.

“There’s a lot of trash in the world and I don’t wanna add to it, you know? If I have to put something out there, I wanna be so certain of it” — Dev Hynes

Each song is a postcard. Dispatches from different places.

Dev Hynes: I listen to it now, and I can hear all of the pieces; the places. The guitar parts recorded in a room in Tokyo, the vocals in my bedroom. And it’s usually like that but usually it’s all New York, but this time it’s kind of all over the place.

You have your own little sonic Easter eggs.

Dev Hynes: I definitely do.

You’ve spoken before about being a fan first, and so much of fandom is about connecting. Because you’re an artist who is, in some ways, a perennial collaborator – always connecting – do you sometimes feel an urge to turn inwards, as strange as it sounds... an urge to not connect?

Dev Hynes: It’s weird you know, because I collaborate a lot – and especially in my music – but it tends to be with my own stuff, it tends mainly to be vocally. When I was working on Negro Swan, I walked to work, I mean I still do, but when I was working I walked around with the hard drive, like every day of this whole record. No matter where I was, something could happen. I had the hard drive and I had the notebook that said ‘Negro Swan’ on it. Those two things were continuously with me. I can only really collaborate if I’m holding on to something close. There was a period towards the end of working on the album where the energy mentally I could give was limited, because my brain was just exploding. But with me, it’s more friendship than anything else. I can count on half a hand the times in recent years I’ve worked with people that I didn’t know first. I’ll always help a friend.

This is going to be a bit off topic. Last time I saw you, we were at a dinner in Chinatown. You were talking about how you started rewatching films that you might not have liked at first watch. I think at the time you were rewatching Christopher Nolan films.

Dev Hynes: I was.

It’s interesting to challenge oneself to reconsider and audit why something didn’t really turn you on at first. More than that, it’s cool to honour how our taste changes. It’s humbling. In terms of your past work, do you ever feel alienated from it? Is yours a sequential project? Or is each new album its own thing? I felt a certain continuity between these two albums.

Dev Hynes: That’s cool you thought that. I feel like... Oh my God. Sorry, I was about to give a really weird answer.

No, do it!

Dev Hynes: I can’t remember which ones they are, but you know there’s like two Daniel Craig Bond films that are the first ever ones that somewhat continue a storyline. That’s kind of like these last two records. This is the first time I’ve made records that are somewhat connected. I actually recently listened to some old records, to get a better understanding of things. I’ve never been really ashamed of anything and I never want to change stuff, because essentially I would change everything. I like the fact that I can’t. It gives me a good picture of who I was and what was happening at that time. It’s funny. People that don’t really know me, that might be on the periphery of seeing my career, probably wouldn’t think this is the album that it is, because I think there is maybe a sense of what the trajectory should be. But I don’t really think like that. I try not to put anything out in the world that I’m not 100 per cent about. It’s part of the reason why I don’t play live a lot. And it’s kind of why, besides earlier this year when I put two songs up, you don’t ever hear Blood Orange until there’s an album.

Do you like to control how you’re perceived? Is that even possible? Does rationing your output help represent who you are?

Dev Hynes: There’s a lot of trash in the world and I don’t wanna add to it, you know? If I have to put something out there, I wanna be so certain of it, and feel so good about it. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters. There’s no other reason for it to exist. Essentially, nothing needs to exist. If it’s going to add to this pile of data, then I want to feel good about it.

You were saying you travelled a lot while making this album. Other than your hard drive and Negro Swan notebook, were there other things you carried with you? That you needed near to create? Tokens, books...

Dev Hynes: Usually each album is a collection of things, whether that’s photo books or actual writings, or a couple of films. (For this one), there was Ceremonies by Essex Hemphill, a book of essays, poetry. There was Sonatine, a film by (Takeshi) Kitano, a Japanese director. I watched that a lot. In the beginning, I was reading Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? I read it multiple times. I can’t tell you the last time I did that.

Have you seen her film, Losing Ground? I love it. Bill Gunn!

Dev Hynes: Oh God. Yes. That film, I wanna live inside that film.

Just now thinking about it, Losing Ground feels like you a little bit – if that makes sense.

Dev Hynes: It kind of does. That’s why I love (Kathleen Collins’) short stories so much. I can’t remember the last time I read something that I didn’t have to adjust my mind to feel like I was in it. Another book like that is Moise and the World of Reason, by Tennessee Williams. It takes place in the 60s in New York on Bleecker Street and the Bowery, and it’s about a guy that’s not like a failed writer, but he’s a writer in his 30s and he starts dating a black ice skater. A male black ice skater. There’s something in the book, in the world that’s created, that I felt connected to.

Both these books represent two instances where you didn’t have to adjust yourself. Let’s talk about that some more. If you spend your whole life adjusting, there’s the risk you might not notice it happening anymore. In relationships, in one’s relationship to art, at work. These moments when you don’t have to calibrate in order to connect, feel magical. Do you feel like you’re trying to carve out a world for yourself, or are you finding your world, your space, where you are adjusting yourself less and less?

Dev Hynes: For each of the Blood Orange albums, I somehow managed to create that space for myself. Which goes back to what I was trying to say about what I think someone would think this album is meant to be.

“I don’t know if it comes across in the album, but there are a lot of emotions about trying to feel comfortable with all the apathy in this world” — Dev Hynes

What do you mean?

Dev Hynes: I don’t know if it comes across in the album, but there are a lot of emotions about trying to feel comfortable with all the apathy in this world. When you texted me that you liked the song “Chewing Gum”...

Yeah...

Dev Hynes: Lyrically, it’s a weird one. That song is actually about how intense everything is right now. It’s kind of the only song on the album that pretty directly addresses being tired. Being so drained about outrage. That’s kind of why it’s like, “Tell me what you want from me...” But also, it’s about being so drained that you just kind of say, ‘fuck it’, and go so extreme. It’s relating that to sexual exploration. Chewing gum means getting head. The music is kind of referencing old Memphis stuff, which is why I had Project Pat on the song and Rocky was just like a modern incarnation. So the song is almost what happens when you’re so tired of being mad, you get to this point of combustion. Not giving up, but just letting it all out.

Because there are so many interpretations of who you are as an artist, partly because of your wide-ranging projects and sound, do you feel a heightened sense of responsibility in terms of your imagery, for instance? Or your references? Your influences?

Dev Hynes: I’m at a place now where I’ve gone back to the idea of taking influences from wherever. Because it’s being channelled through me. It’s my interpretation. I don’t fully agree that you always need to have representation in everything. You can create such beautiful things from everything. I know it’s a comment that would probably make some people really mad and I don’t really care. It’s the same way a gallery would take an art piece from a black artist about being black but wouldn’t take a piece by a black artist about space.

Coming first from my music world, I was into classical. I played the cello, the piano, and orchestral stuff. My first influences were white and were people that I knew if I was alive at the same time as them, they would hate me. But I had to. I just took what I could from them. I stole from them. That’s basically how I see it: I’m stealing what I need and then I’m gonna make it fit my own world. I hate to say what things are about, but in a general sense, that sentiment I just expressed is what Negro Swan is.

When you’re working on an album, are you talking to anyone in particular? Do you have someone who’s your touchstone, that you text to just say, “Hey, I had this moment of impact today, this idea, can I share it with you?”

Dev Hynes: The one person I probably do share that stuff with is Solange. We text each other somewhat daily about things like that, and questions, too. Solange and this guy called Nick Harwood, who when I direct my videos, he’s the producer. He’s also a director himself.

With both of them, is it a question of trust?

Dev Hynes: It’s trust. There are times when I do feel genuinely stuck on certain ideas, not necessarily music-based, but ideas that are maybe connected to the album. I’ll message Solange and she’ll do the same to me. We laugh about that relationship. We call each other up like it’s a consulting agency, and just run huge paragraphs by each other. If you’re around me when I’m working on music, whether it’s in my studio or wherever, it means I trust you in some capacity.

Do you ever get nervous recording around a friend?

Dev Hynes: No. If I’m actually friends with them, then I can just do it. It doesn’t affect me. I couldn’t perform live around them. That’s different. That makes me nervous.

Is there a refrain that you repeat to yourself, to help you get beyond creative blocks or even to create momentum in your work? For instance, sometimes I can’t seem to leave my apartment, even if I’m running late, so I have to put on a certain song that I know will get me out. Right before you go on stage, is there something that you say to yourself that launches you there?

Dev Hynes: I wish I had something like that. It’s gonna sound crazy but I tend to just think that I’m gonna be old soon. I have such anxiety about live performances. So I try and imagine this sense of like, reminiscing. That tends to let me enjoy it. 

Negro Swan is out now

Styling assistants Clémence Rose, Julie Velut