You’d be hard-pressed to find a busier musician nowadays than Dev Hynes. Since moving to New York from London three years ago, Hynes has reinvented himself under the moniker Blood Orange, in the process turning in a new musical direction that is markedly different from his prior projects. This new sound channels the more seductive side of 80s pop with lush guitars, sensual melodies and lyrics that attest to living, loving and creating in the Big City.
2011 has been especially prodigious for the 25-year-old artist. Hynes has penned songs for Solange Knowles, produced and performed with the rapper Theophilus London, crafted countless remixes and is currently on tour with Grizzly Bear bassist Chris Taylor. In the midst of all these projects, Hynes has put together an impressive album, Coastal Grooves, released last month on Domino records. Despite his full schedule, Hynes took time out to discuss his album, his influences and his pre-tour jitters with us over tea in Williamsburg. He has also blessed the Arcade with a US exclusive podcast.
A44: For an album that was two years in the making, Coastal Grooves sounds incredibly tight and consistent from track to track , almost as if it were recorded over a couple of intense late night sessions. How did you remain focused on this project during that period?
It sounds narcissistic, but I really love the songs! Sometimes I’ll work on things and a couple years later I’m kind of over it. But I really liked these songs, so I could come back to them and work on them. I worked on them late at night at home. Then I was in LA for a while and decided to rework them there with a guy called Ariel Reichstag. But I was working on so much other stuff at the time, for me and other people, so it was nice to come back to it. Because a lot of the other stuff no one really knew what the end goal was, but this I knew exactly what I wanted it to be so I could just work on it and know exactly what to do.
You’ve been involved in a lot of collaborations lately, most notably with Solange Knowles and Theophilus London. How has your work as a songwriter and producer impacted your solo projects?
I tend not to think about myself [laughs]. I’m always way more interested in working on other people’s stuff. I like that there’s no real limit to it. It frees me up more when I work with other people. When I work on stuff and I know it’s going to be for myself I end up over-analyzing it. When I work with other people, I can have ideas that I wouldn’t necessarily put into practice. Working with friends always makes it way more interesting. I’m not really good in a band setting. I’ve never been good in that situation so [collaborating] it’s the closest I can get to that.
You’re about to go on tour with Chris Taylor’s band CANT for which you’re the support act and a member of the band. Do you ever worry about spreading yourself too thin?
Yeah like everyday! [Laughs] I’m trying to hone it in and focus a bit more. But I do worry about saturation of music. That’s the main reason I’m weird about tours. I feel like statistically it can’t be great every night. I work on songs so much to put a certain expression across. And I feel in the live setting you have one chance, in real time, to get across that same expression. Even if you do succeed in that, people may not take it how you want them to take it. It’s totally over-thinking the whole thing, but it worries me that you just have that one chance. Sometimes I just think, “why can’t we just listen to the recorded song?” [laughs]. But I understand, I go to see people live and I don’t over-think it when I see them live. So it’s an interesting catch-22.
Do you approach your songs differently when performing them live than when you initially record them?
I play a lot more guitar live than what is on the [recorded] songs. I try to make the songs a bit more upbeat, a bit more direct. It’s usually continuous. There’s usually no gap between songs. I don’t want to take [the audience] out of what is happening.
Your lyrics make quite a few references to NYC neighborhoods, streets and bars. What brought you to NY initially and what effect has it had on your songwriting?
What brought me here was nothing musical, actually. It was more [about] me trying to find where I’d feel most comfortable and it turned out to be here [New York City]. I personally can’t pinpoint direct influences, but I also know that no matter where you are, [it] will always influence you in whatever you’re creating. I walk around a lot and I ride my bike a lot, especially when I first moved here. And I kind of soak everything up, so that definitely influences me. A lot of the early Blood Orange songs, when I recorded them, I’d put them on mixes that I’d listen to when I was riding my bike around. So I felt they were both influencing each other in a way—I’d start writing more for things to hear when I was out riding.
What were you listening to while writing for this album?
A lot of the things I was listening to at the time were an 80s California type of thing. Like Teena Marie—a lot of that was on my mind. I write my lyrics on the spot, so when I was demo-ing in Brooklyn, in my bedroom, I’d have the vocal melodies and then just think of lines before I sang them, because I always try to finish songs quickly. So a lot of the lyrics I would write were just things that were on my mind while I was living here that I would just say straight away.
Now that the album is out and you’ve got a tour to support it, can Blood Orange fans expect more shows and new songs in the new year, or does Dev Hynes have something entirely new up his sleeve?
There’s gonna be new stuff, I’ve been working on some things as Blood Orange. Probably closer in sound to the first mixtape I did—which actually came out before the album, but was written after the songs for the album. It’s closer in sound to that.
Did you demo any of the Blood Orange material back in London? How was it received there?
I’ve played there three or four times in London and they’ve all been in the past few months. I think it’s been okay, I’m always really, really, really nervous about it. It’s just always so tricky, I feel that London is really judgmental in some ways. I still have loads of friends there so I feel supported at least.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to live?
No! I love London, but God no. [laughs]
What other music are you currently listening to that’s got you most excited?
I revisited [Nirvana’s] In Utero. I have been listening to Starchild by Teena Marie a lot. One of my best friends from London, Adam, put out a song called “Cyan” under the name Kindness. He’s one of my best friends and one of my influences too.
Blood Orange will be performing across North America this month on tour with the band CANT. Check Blood Orange Forever for tour listings.—Alex Barnes
- REM – “Beat A Drum”
- Suzanne Vega – “Iron Bound / Fancy Poultry”
- Bruce Hornsby – “Every Little Kiss”
- Molly Nilsson – “Won’t Somebody Take Me out Tonight”
- Malcolm McLaren – “Madame Butterfly”
- Terrence Trent D’arby – “Sign Your Name”
- Eddie Grant – “Come On Let Me Love Ya”
- Moondog – “Here’s To John Wesley Harding”
- Laurie Anderson – “From The Air”
- LL Cool J Feat. Boyz II Men – “Hey Lover”
“This is from my favourite REM album, “Reveal”. I was 15 when this record came out. and I was so stoked on it. The album felt nostalgic back then for some reason and still does now. The verses have them attempting some kind of Brian Wilson type thing.. that’s not as awful as that sounds. It’s actually incredible.”
“This song is just wonderful. It’s slightly hypnotic and shifts into the second half without you ever really noticing, and that voice. wow.”
“This entire album is melodically next level. This song is a fine example of that, as well as featuring Hornsby’s trademark piano sound.”
“This album really strongly reminds me of the last couple years that I lived in London between 2006 and 2008. I was touring pretty heavily and I would listen to this song in particular on late night drives throughout europe.”
“I hate to make brash statements… and I try never to say things like this. But i’m pretty sure this is one of my favourite songs of all time. I listen to it daily. It contains everything I could possibly ever want. Puccini, Slap Bass, Soul and Monologues.”
“Flawless. I could listen to this song forever. His voice is incredible on this track. The whole intro segment is completely wonderful.”
“Showing some love for the Guyanese. Eddie Grant is from the same town that my mum is from in Guyana in South America. This is a song that I would listen to a lot on walks in LA. Because I don’t drive. I have no choice most of the time. This song and album would keep me company.”
“One of my favourite Moondog tracks.. and possibly one of my favourite piano recordings. Moondog has such a silky way of writing. I can;t even really explain it, but it’s always so so so listenable, and makes a world of sense to my ears.”
“Track one from probably her most famous record. Another peace that I like to listen to whilst walking. But this time at home around New York.”
“This is more than a crushhhh. This song goesssss.”