Dev Hynes on identity, collaboration, and the concept of home...

Dev Hynes, one of pop’s forward-thinking outliers and boundary-pushers, has found peace in knowing he doesn’t fit in anywhere... 

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Dev Hynes is a square peg in a round hole; it comes across in all of his artistic endeavours and in conversation. At first, difficult to pin down after a week of back and forth, our eventual conversation lasted a mere 30 minutes. I figured that would be the case: I always perceived Dev to be quite an enigmatic figure out of normalcy. 

The weekend that we finally manage to lock in a time to chat, it’s Paris Fashion Week and Dev is scheduled to appear in Louis Vuitton’s SS20 show, the latest under Virgil Abloh’s artistic direction since joining the fashion house in March 2018. As always, it was an illustrious event but this year - and pretty much every show since Abloh’s lead - it featured a who’s who of some of music’s most avant-garde figures: Octavian also strode down the catwalk, watched by the likes of Skepta and Swae Lee from the front row.

While Hynes has not only continuously crossed beyond the norms of gendered fashion in his own styling, he admitted that being a model was far from his calling, or dream. “He’s such a great person but it’s not something I get into,” he says of Abloh. “Fashion’s something I’ve always been into, but I don’t ever want to be a model or on the runway like that.”

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In the past year or so, the 33-year-old’s relationship with music has certainly changed somewhat, at least with his own work as Blood Orange. Since moving to New York in 2007, he’s worked with the likes of Solange Knowles, Britney Spears, Carly Rae Jepsen and Kylie Minogue.

“It’s strange but for the last few albums I didn’t really tour them but with ‘Negro Swan’ I felt like it was time. I had a bit more energy to tour,” he says of his superb 2018 release. The tour which began last year in Mayer, Arizona, was Hynes’ first. “It was more that I was somewhat amazed that people were still paying attention,” he explains. “Kind of that and this feeling where I had to acknowledge that there are people out there that want to listen to me perform live, regardless of what my thoughts on it were. I thought it was nice that people wanted to see me play.”

A year on since the release of ‘Negro Swan’, his fourth album as Blood Orange, Hynes is set to drop a mixtape - the compilation of which has become a tradition for him post-album release. Only this time, instead of playing those unofficial records only to those closest to him, for the first time he’s made the decision to make it public.

“In my mind, it was kind of an epilogue,” he says of ‘Angel’s Pulse’. “I tend to make these shorter records just after an album release but I don’t really put them out and just play them to friends or leave them on my hard drive. It feels like a decompression but it still came out melancholic - I somehow ended up there. I try and place it in my mind as a different record but it’s attached, in a sense that we were there and now we’re here.”

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It’s been a while since Dev has checked in with himself. When I asked how he was feeling, “I don’t know,” he earnestly replied. When do any of us ever really get the time to? Even when contemporary ideas of wellness are geared to advise us to slow down, Dev doesn’t pay heed. But like the rest of us, even when he knows that he should, he often doesn’t.

“The thing is I usually just keep going and I’m usually good at stopping and knowing when it’s finished,” he admits. “But at the same time, I do that and I keep going. Where I’m at now with ‘Angel’s Pulse’, I’m in the ‘keep going’ phase.”

“I guess I was feeling isolated,” he adds, “which is funny because there are a lot of people on the record but [‘Angel’s Pulse’] was made at a time where I was by myself a lot, whereas on ‘Negro Swan’ I was holed up in all of these places where people would come through a lot. I don’t know how I feel about it all yet, I’m unsure. It’s hard to tell.”

Dev is unsure as to whether he considers himself an artist, and he doesn’t know what box to put himself in creatively. He’s in a place where he often works backwards, partly due to working on so many different things. The music, though, is where Dev finds himself most at home and in his natural environment.

“For my music videos, I direct and edit them myself and I’ve been approached more recently to do more of that stuff for other people, like short film stuff,” he says. “In my mind it’s still music and a service to what I create. In that regard, I guess I do see myself as a musician because none of those things would exist if it wasn’t for the music.”

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But, like many others who operate across a number of disciplines, Dev’s desire comes from a place of self-curiosity. “The reason I produce music myself is because I’m interested to see what I can do.”

Not only that, he says that he wouldn’t consider work that he doesn’t produce or have a hand in producing as Blood Orange. There is a Blood Orange sound, though, which was significantly pronounced on Solange’s 2012 ‘True EP’. The opening track, ‘Losing You’, had the same ’80s-led fast tempo production and synths Hynes had already shown audiences on Blood Orange’s debut album, ‘Coastal Grooves’, the year previous.

In a way, Hynes’ approach also inspires artists such as Solange to explore their own curiosity, particularly as ‘True’ was sonically distant from her most recent records, ‘A Seat At The Table’ and ‘When I Get Home’. “I think it’s wonderful when an artist picks that up from what I do,” Dev admits, “because I look around and do the same.” 

By this point in our conversation, Dev’s short and uncertain responses became much more detailed and open. He was much more comfortable talking about the environment around him and his work, rather than himself. “It feels natural to have elements of my environment in my music and that’s because I work all over. On ‘Angel’s Pulse’, I made ‘Baby Florence’ when I was in Italy, but it’s hard to know precisely the effects they had on how I was feeling outside of those moments,” Hynes says.

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Environment has formed an important part of Blood Orange’s soundscape. Thematically, he’s travelled around the world: on ‘Cupid Deluxe’ he visited his hometown of Ilford, to Sierra Leone and Guyana on ‘Freetown Sound’ and back to Dagenham again on ‘Negro Swan’. There’s always a sense of home in Hynes’ music - some of that may be owing to the fact that he’s been living in the huge melting pot that is New York, the artist’s mecca that many have found to be a home away from home.

“I’m sure there’s an obvious effect it has on me,” he offers, “but I usually don’t see it until after I’m out of that moment.”

“I still have so much love for the UK, it’s my place of birth,” he says of his homeland, “but across Europe, there’s been this weird cloud which has been sparked by the political climate.”

Since Trump’s presidential victory, Dev asserts, the rise of right-wing conservatism has spread to his native continent. “It’s weird though, because there have always been instances in history where things have been left-leaning, but as we’ve seen there’s been this huge pushback and rebellion. There’s a cloak of conservatism, but this feels like the most in-tune young people have been.”

Despite the increasingly toxic environment in Britain, however, Dev remains a proud citizen. “It’s a humbling experience coming back home because you can never escape your childhood, it moulds you.”

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Identity was a prevalent theme on ‘Negro Swan’, a melancholic yet pensive expression of black pain. Throughout the album, Janet Mock provided commentary through the skits, appearing on five tracks, but the author’s presence added another layer of melancholy where much of the album’s tone was focused on death, given the disproportionate rate at which black trans people are assaulted and murdered.

There’s a delicateness in Dev’s voice that allows us to feel where he’s at more deeply, but in the moments where he’s more hopeful, there’s inspiration that he offers to listeners. And, despite the political, hostile climate it was created in, his music conveys a spiritual, ethereal essence. He himself blurs boundaries with his own identity, beyond the many places that he comes from. There’s more than a duality to Dev: he’s one thing and many at any given time.

Reflecting the fluidity of his sexuality, in his music there’s a level of crypticness and experimentalism that always feels purposeful yet unruly at the same time. To be himself means being subversive even when he doesn’t intend to be.

“In New York it’s been a bit strange,” he attests, “because I’ve noticed the reactions towards who I am as a black man and how it changes from initially seeing my appearance and then hearing my accent. There’s a curiosity people have but a lot of it’s informed by this level of exoticism.”

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Dev doesn’t dwell much on how he’s feeling about it all - he takes time to think about it, but returns to his answer from earlier in our conversation: “I don’t know.”

He’s been many things to many people, living a disjointed life, never quite belonging in one environment. I sense a desire in him to slow down, or at least there’s a need to, but for the time being Dev is living firmly in the present, and those times where he really gets to reflect end up being the music he gives to the world.

Perhaps in due time he’ll find moments to truly rest and switch off, but in the meantime, here’s to his relentless pursuit of self-expression.

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Words: Jesse Bernard
Photography: Michael Hemy
Fashion: Paul Maximillian Schlosser
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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