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Dev Hynes' Blood Orange: 'Freetown Sound' Interview

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Josh Brasted/WireImage

Dev Hynes’ new album couldn’t be coming at a better time. The British-born, New York-based musician is beloved for the gorgeous, ‘80s-evoking pop songs he’s written for the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, Solange, and Sky Ferreira. Yet the subject matter of Freetown Sound, his third album under the name Blood Orange that’s due July 1, is urgently of the moment with references to the killings of unarmed black teens like Trayvon Martin and meditations on what it means to be queer in America today.

“I think of this record as [being] fully aware of, ‘Yeah, my life is in danger on a daily basis,’ but using that as strength to rise up and stand tall and be proud of who you are and accept who you are,” he tells EW in the new issue on stands now. Or, as he put it in an Instagram post announcing the record: “My album is for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way … it’s a clapback.”

Below, Hynes details his new album, his feelings about the Orlando shooting and why he loves working with pop stars.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This record is steeped in history: the title refers to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where your father was born. But the album also feels really current, too. Songs like “Hands Up” reference the killings of unarmed black teenagers, and you have that Ta-Nehisi Coates audio clip in one song.

That’s definitely intentional. The record is slightly A.D.D.. It’s funny, because a lot of the inspirations for that aesthetic are from the past, but it’s interesting that people in movies and in music are trying to make long things. Movies are so long. I’m not even bashing that, because some of them are perfect—you watch them and realize it’s been three and a half hours.

[Freetown Sound] is 17 songs, but I think it’s only four minutes longer than my last album, which is 11 songs. So I was really intentionally trying to make things move quickly to keep [people’s] attention. That’s how I am, and that’s how a lot of people are now, especially with looking for clips on YouTube. I wanted it to feel like that. Being online and doing that stuff is the modern equivalent of recording songs off the radio or even recording stuff off TV. I used to do that stuff when I was younger, like on VHS. You’d cut out the commercials and press record again. It was such a mixture of different things. But the more you did that over a month period, just trying to make a perfect tape of some kind, [the more] you realized it created such a real sense of you and where you’re at. That’s what I was trying to do musically with the album.

Like creating a time capsule of sorts?

Yeah. With this record more than others I was trying to capture a particular moment in my life. There’s no real answers on the record. Usually when topics like race or history or sexuality are discussed, there’s a question or an answer or something. But I’m really just thinking on this record. Most people, as you get older and you’re thinking about yourself, [you realize] you don’t have answers. You may find them at some point, but I’m not really giving them. I’m just trying to going through these things. I guess what I should say is raising questions but not asking them. [Laughs]

When you announced the record on Instagram, you said it was for “everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way … it’s a clapback.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that after the events in Orlando.

The timing is really crazy. The last few days were f—king insane. I still can’t quite even believe that it happened. I’m still in shock about it. But it’s really weird. For the video that I was finishing this morning and shot yesterday—I’m really last minute when I do the videos, I planned it four days ago—I was going to be outside Stonewall and shooting in the garden where the statues are, around Christopher Street and Village Cigars. That was a huge part of the treatment. Obviously we didn’t shoot any of that yesterday. And then the night before [the shooting] happened, I got weirdly cyberattacked.

You got hacked? Or got a lot of Twitter abuse?

A mixture. I usually get the abuse. But there was this one guy being crazy. I opened my Instagram and saw the notifications, all these homophobic things, saying he’s going to kill me.

Out of nowhere?

Yeah. And then this person hacked my Snapchat and started messaging people and asking for nudes and pretending to be me. It was deranged fan s—. I didn’t think I’d ever have anything like that. Then he hacked my Tumblr. He managed to lock down and change all the passwords and verifications. We spoke to Snapchat, and they were like, “The only thing you can do is delete your Snapchat.” I had to change all my passwords to everything, bank accounts. That was really on my mind. And then I woke up to the news from Orlando.

It doesn’t compare—I would obviously take someone shutting down my Snapchat any day over what happened. [But] I remember going to bed that night scared. I hadn’t had that feeling in a while. I had it growing up a lot. Being attacked for your gender, race, sexuality—I live with those things daily. But it was just that night before, just being scared. It was a reminder that people are f—ing crazy, and you don’t know what they’re going to do. Right now is a very strange time in the world, especially in America.

Tell me about why you wanted to film “Augustine” at Stonewall. Does the song have a particularly queer message to you?

Yeah, it does. That song is a really strange journey. It talks about St. Augustine of Hippo, who denounced his Catholicism and went to West Africa, and Nontetha Nkwenkwe, who was a South African prophet who made a church for black people to worship in. The government was so scared that they put her in a mental institution. But what I did in that song was I took a lot of lines from St. Augustine’s writing and tried to twist the words.

There’s a large sect of Christianity that’s against homosexuality, which I’ve found interesting in the later half of my life because the whole thing is about this worshipping of trying to feel a warmth and flesh. [“Augustine” is about] the idea that this religion based on the idea of finding this love and comfort so within the body would then shut out this very large aspect of love. There are a lot of moments on the album, and “Augustine” in particular, where I was taking some of the writing that I view as pretty religious and making [the lyrics] more homoerotic.

It was interesting seeing that Instagram announcement, because I got the sense that your sexuality wasn’t something you invited conversation about. Last year you tweeted about your discomfort with people discussing it online.

It’s funny, it’s more that no one would ever really ask. When things would trickle out, people would be very confused. There’s a song on my last album called “Chosen,” and it has this monologue about seeing a beautiful boy and falling in love in that moment as a teenager. I wrote that. And on the demo, it was me saying it. The hook is like, [singing], “It’s in the way that he moves, but I don’t want to choose.” But in the studio, when I was recording “Chamakay” and Caroline [Polachek of Chairlift] was singing it, she started doing a fake French accent as a joke. I was like, That could sound really good with this monologue. So she did the monologue, but it’s funny that people haven’t even noticed that. All the stuff I’m singing is an ode to a boy! If I maybe fit more into a picture of what people imagined someone more queer to be, then they would notice that “Chosen” was singing to them. I’m just who I am, but there is something that I think makes it hard for people get or see.

You were talking earlier about sometimes feeling like you’re in danger because of who you are. With song like “Hands Up”—which has that line about not walking down the street with your hood on—do you think of this record as celebratory? Or as one rooted in fear?

Both, really. A bit of fear, but also trying to stand up within it. It’s finding strength in the realization of how dangerous it is out there. I feel like there are people that are pretty oblivious to what’s happening in the world. I don’t know if those people have any real strength in anything. Like, I think about even yesterday, the idea of people posting selfies? [Laughs] I don’t even mean to bash those people. But the idea of right now—literally right now, like today—using social media in a way that isn’t shook from what happened in Orlando, I personally can’t imagine that. There are people out there who obviously heard about Orlando and are sad about it, but it hasn’t stopped their day or affected them. I think of this record as [being] fully aware of, “Yeah, my life is in danger on a daily basis,” but using that as strength to rise up and stand tall and be proud of who you are and accept who you are.

Because you’re known for making songs like “Sandra’s Smile,” which references the death of Sandra Bland, do you ever feel a kind of pressure where people are waiting on you to respond to all the horrible things injustices of the world?

Oh yeah. Well, it’s not so much a pressure, it’s more like I couldn’t imagine intentionally putting something out that wasn’t exactly what I’m thinking about. And that’s not to say that I wouldn’t do score work and soundtracks or produce other people. But Blood Orange is the only thing that I choose to put put in the world in all of the music. That’s not to say I don’t want [the other projects] out. Blood Orange is the only thing where it’s just me. For me, I feel like I can’t be noise—I always use the term noise. There’s a lot of stuff in the world. If I’m going to put something out on my own accord, it has to be this honest and have some depth to it.

So on one hand, you’re writing these great pop songs like Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “All That.” And then you have Blood Orange, which feels like a whole other thing. How do you feel about that separation? I mean, I don’t think anybody is expecting, or necessarily wants, a Black Lives Matter anthem from Carly Rae Jepsen.

Although she might be on one on this album! [Laughs]

Really?

She sings on “Better Than Me” on the album. That song is not really about that. That song is about a weird jealousy with being—kind of what I said [about feeling] not black enough or not queer enough. That song is about that dark moment when you look around. You can visualize the person. It’s the moment when you slip into that doubt and that weird jealousy. She sings on that song, but I don’t know if she knows that’s what it’s about.

Do you wish that you could bring more of Blood Orange into the pop work that you do?

I don’t really think about it, because it’s all very enjoyable for me. I really love making music with other people. The Blood Orange stuff is more like… Let me see if I can think of a good metaphor for this. This might be awful, but I play soccer a lot. [Laughs] My main position is midfield. I love to set up the plays. That’s the most enjoyable for me. And then every now and then I enjoy running up and playing striker and shooting and playing up front. I’ll do that, and then come back and play midfield. And that’s what Blood Orange and making music with Sky and those people is. It’s still playing soccer, so I enjoy the whole experience the same. Sometimes I run up and shoot a goal, and then I’m like, “Let’s get back to midfield and creating plays for other people.”

What other songwriting are you doing at the moment? You’re writing more with Carly, according to Instagram.

Yes.

Do you still work with Solange at all?

No. We’re really good friends, but she’s been doing her album herself. It’s amazing. I think it’s album of the year. Like, I’m not even just saying that, because I didn’t even work on it. It’s on another f—king level. I can’t wait for people to hear that.

You work with a lot of female pop vocalists.

Pretty much all females.

Is there a particular reason for that?

I guess I just view women higher. [Laughs] I don’t know what it is. I think women are so powerful. Not just in the fact that I genuinely prefer female voices—that is a big part of it—but there’s also a particular power that women can put across that men just can’t.

With songs like “You’re Not Good Enough” from your last album, I think having different voices on one song adds extra layers of meaning and points of entry.

I feel the same way. It’s very hard for me to relate to a guy singing a song. [Laughs] It really is. That kind of stuff I learned from Prince, honestly. The way he would have female voices singing with his at the same time, sometimes singing the main chunk of the song. He would even do things like speed his voice up so it sounded more effeminate. It just widens the scope. It makes the song so much more than it is.

This year, especially in the wake of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, I’ve seen a lot of conversation online about whether certain music is “for” certain groups of people, and who’s allowed to take away what from it. Do you think about that at all?

I think about it a lot. It’s cool. I intentionally tried to make most of this record enjoyable because I understand that not everyone thinks that deep into what the song’s about lyrically. I’m still such a fan of music that I want people to enjoy it, you know? I don’t ever view my music as inclusive or exclusive of anything. I think if I thought that way, a lot of my influences, especially classical stuff—I would have had to cut that off. A lot of the deeper meanings of some classical music are kind of f—ed up if you trace the history of it. I truly believe everyone is allowed to enjoy and take as much as they want from things. Maybe the world doesn’t need your opinion broadcast on “Formation,” but it’s for you to enjoy and relate to in your own way and take from it what you can.

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