The meeting of minds between pop polymath Devonté Hynes and Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino makes perfect sense. Both make work that’s rich in vulnerability and fragility, that is visceral yet tender, explores gender fluidity and identity, and evokes the awkward anguish of youth. They are so simpatico, in fact, that what started off as a small cameo by Hynes in Guadagnino’s new eight-part HBO/BBC Three series soon turned into a full-blown collaboration.
Hynes was cast in a brief role as himself in Guadagnino’s forthcoming show We Are Who We Are, about two American teenagers, Fraser and Caitlin, who meet on a US army base in Italy. He ended up providing the entire score, too. Like the characters, Hynes and Guadagnino encountered each other in Bologna, on set. “We just started talking about modern and classical music we were both interested in,” says Hynes casually. “He would show me some of the edits at night, in between takes. There wasn't ever a conversation insinuating that I would be composing music for the whole show. It was, weirdly, a very fluid and organic process.”
Organic and fluid is how Hynes prefers to work. The Essex-born, LA-based musician is by now one of the most influential artists and producers working today. His gauzy, undone funk, pop and indie sensibilities have defined the sound of alternative R&B, and yet he makes it all sound effortless as he glides between guises. Under the alias Blood Orange, he’s released four acclaimed albums that have marked him out as a unique musical voice, but he has also worked behind the scenes on pop records with the likes of Solange, Carly Rae Jepsen, Mariah Carey and Sky Ferreira. And he has serious chops as a film composer, having soundtracked last year’s hit drama Queen & Slim and two Gia Coppola movies, 2013’s Palo Alto and 2020’s Mainstream.
Despite these consistent successes, it sounds like We Are Who We Are was a bit of a personal breakthrough for Hynes. The 34-year-old is speaking over Zoom, dressed in his trademark look: a relaxed short-sleeved, button-up pattern shirt and a black leather cap covering the top of his shoulder-length dreads, which are styled in bunches. He is affable and laughs easily, even despite just having had a root canal done. And yet he suggests that the TV show work was the first time he allowed himself to recognise that his music as Blood Orange has been influential.
“My relationship to Blood Orange was a little weird and a little fractured,” he says. “I’ve never read a Blood Orange review. I just can’t do it. And I didn’t tour that much, where you're faced with people that clearly are listening to your music. I wasn't completely blind, I was aware that people were gradually liking it more,” but a disconnect was still there in his mind.
Guadagnino’s series changed all that. It focuses on Fraser and Caitlin as they explore love, friendship and identity, and the director ended up making the music of Blood Orange a large part of their affinity too. The show features a scene in which they recreate his “Time Will Tell” video and – here comes the cameo bit – the two sneak off to a Blood Orange gig and Caitlin gets to meet him afterwards.
“We Are Who We Are is the first time I’ve had to confront myself as someone who makes something,” says Hynes, reflecting on what it means to be a popular artist. “The show takes place in 2016, and Fraser is into a song I wrote that came out in 2013. A 17-year-old was nine when I wrote that song. All of this got things turning into my head. It was very touching and emotional. I'm turning 35 next month so, you know, I’m thinking about these things a lot lately.”
Hynes is the youngest of three siblings, born to a Guyanese mother and Sierra Leonean father. His own coming-of-age story starts in east London, in the dingy bars of Shoreditch and Dalston, where he started playing with his rowdy, short-lived dance-punk band Test Icicles. They were in the middle of the scrappy, DIY indie scene, where genres like “nu rave” were thrown about with wild abandon. The band released one album and broke up in 2006, and Hynes unexpectedly reinvented himself as a solo indie-folk project, Lightspeed Champion, associated with the Bright Eyes scene over in Omaha, Nebraska.
"When I was younger, I definitely had a more reactionary aversion to the idea of being pinned down to something,” he says. “I wanted to explore the whole time. Even in Test Icicles. It took us so long to make an album because we would make different albums with different genres." He became a fan of pseudonyms as a way to allow him to “explore every idea” without restriction, while also distancing himself from any inaccurately personal readings of his music. “I always felt that as soon as you use your name,” he continues, what you’re saying in your music “gets seen as the real you.”
By the time of his second Lightspeed Champion album, Hynes had relocated to New York in search of creative freedom. He found the UK music industry, and the neat genre labels favoured by the magazines of the time, stifling. “I'm not sure if the music press would have allowed it,” he says of whether his career would have blossomed in the same way if he’d stayed in London. “Everything started to feel very narrow and closed off. I recall seeing the game that needed to be played, and maybe it's different now but back then it felt like there were clubs that you needed to get memberships to in order to do anything.”
“I've never been invited to play on Jools Holland ever in my life,” he continues. He suggests that the UK didn’t know what to do with a black man who made experimental music that wasn’t easy to pin down. “I was performing music about coming of age, about my life, but I wasn't, you know, an MC." Not only that but he wasn’t singing about his life to fit in with a white, middle class idea of blackness. “It wasn't trauma porn in the way that I think that the industry would like it to be,” he says, “and I could feel that energy.” If he’d have stayed, “honestly, I'm not sure if I'd be making music”.
Hynes’s world opened up in New York, where he began to perform late-night sets as Blood Orange in half-empty clubs around the city. Despite the change of scenery, he again began to feel disheartened with the music industry and the idea of fame. He decided to only commit himself to something where he could be 100 per cent himself, uncompromising in his integrity. An admirable outlook, but Hynes jokingly adds: “It sounds like a very simple thing in regards to how you should probably live life but it's very difficult if you're an artist of colour. It’s just committing to being broke, essentially.”
He wasn’t broke for long. After a chance meeting with Solange Knowles during a writing session for rapper Theophilus London, Hynes became the main collaborator on her 2012 EP True. It was a breakthrough moment for Solange as an artist and brought Hynes’s sleek take on Eighties R&B and lo-fi pop to the mainstream. He found himself part of an emerging group of black creatives, like The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, and Janelle Monae who, thanks to the boundary crumbling power of the internet, claimed indie and alternative influences as much as they drew on genres like funk and soul. His music as Blood Orange especially seemed to sum up this era, as he created albums that had no fixed genre: songs seem to emerge and collapse out of nowhere, folding in on themselves or opening up to a musical clearing.
Thematically, meanwhile, his music usually centred around inner battles of the self. His first two releases as Blood Orange, Coastal Grooves (2011) and Cupid Deluxe (2013), explored his move to New York and his identity as an immigrant. The history of his parents and heritage on Freetown Sound (2016) led to the critically acclaimed 2018 release Negro Swan, where Hynes considered black identity and how he navigated the world. Even his 2019 mixtape Angel’s Pulse dealt with themes of remorse and battling one’s ego.
Hynes’s collage-like approach to albums is where the shared sensibilities in his pop work and scoring can be seen. In We Are Who We Are, his stirring piano, synth and cello-laden compositions becomes the unseen narrator of the show, creating an emotional mimic that takes the audience where they need to go as much as the characters. In a scene where Fraser and Caitlin first cross paths cycling through the streets, a piano score undercuts their journey building in intensity as the scene progresses until layers and layers of stark notes blend into one another.
He says he felt no pressure to follow Sufjan Stevens, who won a Grammy for his Call Me By Your Name soundtrack. Rather, he was just happy to work with a like-minded person who appreciates good tunes as much as he does. “He's such a musical person,” says Hynes of Guadagnino. “You watch his films and you take note of the music. It feels like it's really come from his taste. I used that as motivation.”
Back in the music world, Hynes is his usual prolific self, keeping himself busy by working on remixes for other artists for the first time. His version of Tame Impala’s “Borderline” is out now and a remix of a song by the Canadian New Age innovator Beverly Glenn-Copeland is forthcoming. Don’t expect him to be making any commercial-sounding music any time soon, though – for every genre Hynes has worked in and every pop star he’s collaborated with, he still views himself as the bedroom guitarist playing at 2am in an empty New York club. “I do view myself as an indie artist. I'm not, like, bothering the charts,” he laughs. If he ever does get super-famous, “it's not gonna go down like that.”
‘We Are Who We Are’ is on BBC iPlayer from 22 November