Hometown: New York NY
Tags: indie, chillwave, alternative rnb
Life moves pretty fast, and Devonte Hynes keeps busy. The ten tracks on Coastal Grooves cement his triumphant solo return this summer – as Blood Orange – to the world of popular music. Here, in an already long and bogglingly varied career, is the most exciting selection of songs that this celebrated polymath has ever assembled. Dev moves pretty fast, and Blood Orange gets busy.
Following the huge acclaim for his previous incarnation, the Houston-born, Essex-raised, 25 year-old indie bratpack posterboy Artist Formerly Known as Lightspeed Champion has completely lost his voice and crashed out of the scene spectacularly. He’s taken time out, had major surgery, not spoken a word for two months, disbanded his band, played in a bunch of new ones, re-learned to talk, re-learned to sing, struck out solo and lived and loved in London, New York and Los Angeles (mostly New York). Throughout these Fast Times at Devonte High, one thing has remained constant: he’s been writing an absolute shitload of amazing songs. Though he’s increasingly in demand as a songwriter and producer, it’s one-man DIY project Blood Orange that has grown to be his one true love.
“You’re always your own best critic,” says Dev, “so if you like it, then you must be doing something right. It took me a long time to get to this point, and now that I’ve got here, I’m really kind of relaxed about it all. I’m so content with the music I’ve done, because I know I like it, and I’m down with it.” It is difficult not to be down with the sultry and infectious teen-dreamy pop sound of Dev’s new direction in writing. Blood Orange songs are subtly layered, stripped-down, bedroomy-sounding electronic compositions. They thread a heartstring-tugging line from the angst and urgency of new wave, through eighties power-pop, to the bounce and sex of American swing and R&B. There’s a palpable new obsession with oriental melodies, much technical electric guitar shredding, and on top of it all, Dev’s gobsmacking new vocal style. He’s gone from ‘guy-singing-in-a-band’ to ‘virtuoso-soul-crooner-who-sounds-like-Prince’s-edgier-little-sister.’ The result is intoxicating and addictive; a moody and atmospheric pop alchemy that’s as at home on the nightclub dancefloor as it is on the nightbus comedown. Over a year ago, when Blood Orange was still in its infancy, Dev was referring to it as his “slightly disco Chris Isaak oriental thing.” That’s basically what it still is.
After the manic experimental noise of the Test-Icicles and the eloquent alt-folk of Lightspeed Champion, Dev’s new sound is the result of an overt attempt to finally just please himself. “As long ago as three years back,” he explains; “around the time I’d finished writing the last Lightspeed album, I was working on these songs that I’d just make into mixes for myself. They were things I would make to listen to when I was out riding my bike or on my skateboard or whatever. I didn’t play them to anyone for ages, and I came to realize that for the first time ever, really, I was trying to write the kind of music that I actually wanted to hear.”
This revelation about the music’s intention came to Dev around the same time that he started making a name for himself as a songwriter-for-hire. As well as producing and writing for renowned up-and-comer Theophilis London, he’s penned hits for a gloriously diverse spectrum of artists that covers everyone from The Chemical Brothers to the cast of Saturday Night Live. Writing with Florence + The Machine, X-Factor’s Diana Vickers and Beyonce’s little sister Solange Knowles, however, forced Dev’s writing to put itself through a kind of ideological sex change. Now, he proudly announces, he sings, thinks and writes like a girl. “The stories on the new record are nearly all told from female perspectives,” he points out; “…and I was really trying to make my voice sound properly androgynous. I think lot of that came from writing all those songs for girls, and having to make that girlish register become natural to me. Slowly, eventually; it has done. I’m at a point now where every single song I write; I’m thinking about a girl singing it. It comes natural to me now.”
From its transgender coverstar to the subject matter of the songs, a kind of romantic fogginess about gender hangs like a haze over much of Coastal Grooves. “Every song is a story” says Dev; “And I always knew what I wanted these stories to be about. It’s an album about escapism, and running away, and the idea of freedom. There’s a lot of people running away in these songs. A big influence was Octavia Laurent; the transgender model from New York in the eighties. She died two years ago from cancer and HIV. I was thinking about her a lot, writing this record, and the idea of having this one place that you can go to and really be yourself.” It was actually whilst researching Octavia that Dev came across pictures from Sally’s Hideaway, a club in Times Square from 1990-93. Dev messaged the site contact and began a conversation with the photographer, Brian Lance, who had taken these photos and had also appeared in one of the films that inspired Blood Orange, Paris Is Burning. Brian’s photos now adorn the album and single sleeves for the Blood Orange campaign.
So what do transgender models in eighties New York have to do with this Essex boy who did most of his growing up in the nineties? A bit like transgender models, there’s more to this than first appears on the surface: “I was living in New York,” Dev recalls, “…and I just kept thinking about how, at a certain point in the eighties it was really hard to be black, let alone gay and black, let alone transgender, gay and black. And I felt that kind of prejudice growing up, straight and black Romford. I mean I felt the effects of gay prejudice, against me directly, even though I’m straight. I grew up with people being homophobic to me, just because of the stuff I was into and how I looked. It’s weird, because I was into sports, and I played on the football and basketball teams, but I was also playing cello in the school orchestra, and I was in the Chess Club. I was into hip hop, and knew the words to every rap song out, but I was also heavily into Marylin Manson. That just didn’t really ever fly in Romford at the time. It didn’t go down well.”
To be honest, asking about Dev’s influences is like opening a can of worms about the size of an aircraft carrier. He’s a truly obsessive geek for music, and knows what he likes – and exactly what he likes – with an intimacy that veers into the arena of just plain weird. This album, he says, was most acutely inspired by “Cyndi Lauper…but a really specific period of her music, around the time of her second record, when she was co-writing songs with the rock guitarist Rick Derringer” and “Chris Isaak, Billy Idol, and the Belgian singer F.R. David.” Coastal Grooves also displays a heavy interest in distinctly oriental-sounding melodies. Dev recalls an epiphanic moment on his first visit to Tokyo, when the simple melody of a train system announcement tripped his synesthesia and blew his mind completely. “After that I started really delving in deep into more traditional eastern melodies – melodies that you don’t really hear too much in everyday western culture – and really trying to figure out what’s more pleasing to listen to. I’m a huge fan of Ryuichi Sakamoto, who’s in Yellow Magic Orchestra, and the Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi: they were both a huge influence on the album. There’s ideas from traditional oriental music all the way through. I just want to go for the most satisfying melodies now. More than anything, I want Blood Orange to be really satisfying to listen to.”
Blood Orange is definitely really satisfying to listen to. Devonte has got his groove back and hit his writing stride. His new one-man live show has been honed to near-perfection in the dive bars of New York City, and it is currently blowing minds all over the world. It consists of just a backing track and our Dev (new trademark hat: backwards baseball cap) shredding his Stratocaster like Prince and singing and dancing like a heartbroken gangster of love. He has sexed his whole shtick up, and it works a treat. “It was a real gradual change,” remembers Dev; “I just kept booking shows in Manhattan and in Brooklyn, and it’s funny because now I’m known to all my friends as the guy who won’t tell them that he’s playing shows. I’d just book the shows and turn up by myself and play them. But it was the only way I could practice! I’ve never had a practice space in my entire life. For the longest time I honestly just used to show up in a random bar, on a random night, on my own with just my laptop and my guitar.”
Young and free and out there on his own, the young Devonte Hynes has made a truly cutting-edge album of perfectly beautiful songs. Coastal Grooves sounds old, it sounds new, it sounds like nothing that anyone else has ever done before. It’s black and proud. It kills dancefloors. It breaks hearts. “I’m pretty sure that the next album I do is going to be a Blood Orange one…” says Dev (reassuringly!), “I’ve already got it finished, and I have to say – and am honestly never the person say this kind of thing normally – it is actually fucking awesome.” We believe him.
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