Blood Orange aka Devonté Hynes has been living in America for almost a decade. The thing that ultimately keeps him here is New York. That potent passion for the city is no stranger to Blood Orange fans; it seeps through Hynes’s funky haze of a discography. On his latest record, Negro Swan, NYC makes itself known through samples and stories of Dev’s interactions with the people who define it, including author and trans activist, Janet Mock.
On Negro Swan, Hynes aims to expand the more vulnerable parts of himself. Shifting in tone from the anger and sadness at injustice directed at black people in America that dominated previous record, Freetown Sound, the new album emphasizes the importance of love in all its forms — platonic, romantic, and self. It isn’t a cheesy “All You Need Is Love” message, though. There’s a thread that connects you to the grim nature of reality and the hardship involved in maintaining relationships of any kind.
Hynes spoke with Entertainment Weekly to peel back the layers of the record, his collaboration process, and dexterity as a multi-hyphenate singer-songwriter-producer-mixer.
You’ve said the record unpacks black depression and the anxieties of queer people and people of color, and you have Janet Mock on here talking about her experiences. Do you consider the other songs purely autobiographical?
It’s autobiographical because my albums are really just diaries and journal entries; it’s kind of a natural way for me to talk about creating. With Janet, it was a similar relationship to what I had with Ashlee Haze on my last album, Freetown Sound. When I was doing the record and working through things, her work was kind of present and speaking to me. I met her for lunch last year, and I knew I wanted her involved but I didn’t know how. We kept trying to talk about it and I couldn’t work out what it was until towards the end of the mixing process. She came over to my studio and just started talking and I started explaining songs to her. I have this reference book that I keep of pictures and things that would go into the album. I gave it to her and she started writing all sorts of things and I recorded the whole experience.
“Hope” is one of the strongest tracks off the album. What stood out was Diddy conveying and professing his emotional vulnerability with regards to love. Talk to me a bit about that collaboration.
I have this theory that I’m the best person to start a song, but not the best person to finish it, and that it could be finished by anyone. It doesn’t have to be someone who collaborated on the recording, like it could just be someone 10 years later, you know? Which sort of just reflects back to the Puff stuff. He just did that, there was no like, cue to do it. It was just an instrumental section with the piano. I feel like that completely changed the direction of the song. There are so many moments on this album in particular where that happened.
Do you talk about the general direction of the record or the emotional state you’re in before you work with an artist?
You can probably sense the place I’m in… sometimes. Steve Lacy is someone I’m quite friendly with. The only other exception with this record is Project Pat. I’ve gotten to know him off-the-grid. And to a certain extent, the same with Steve. It was sort of just like, “Hey, see you around sometime!” because we had a lot of mutual friends. Most of the [other artists] are kinda around in my life and I just show them what I’m making.
Traffic sirens and general chatter are scattered throughout the record. What attracts you to these sounds?
At this point, I don’t know how to make music without [them]. Around 60 percent of those are natural due to my old studio space in Midtown. Even though I was on the third floor with my windows shut, the recording would pick up street sounds. The rest are edited in for texture.
You posted on Instagram that many of your songs start out as piano pieces. Do you have a particular process that takes these abstract ideas and turns them into fully fleshed tracks?
I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve sat down and written one song. It’s usually a mix of things. Like lyrically, it’s writing which is just happening, and then melodies, which are usually made at the piano. I’m always fiddling production-wise. Then I throw in certain melodies I have from the piano pieces and morph them into these pieces of music. Usually, everything ends up finishing around the same time. It’s really rare that there’s a song that’s finished, ‘cause I’m always looking at things as a whole album. I’m tweaking every little thing across the whole record ‘til the final month, where they all tend to hit the finish line around the same time.
How do you know when to let go and stop tinkering?
I guess I get to a point where I know that if I keep going, it won’t make sense to me. As in it won’t relate to me. I can always, from a physical standpoint, keep tweaking ‘til I have Chinese Democracy. I could easily be that person, and luckily, because I view it from a diary standpoint, I just stop. Because, well, it’s not gonna change anything. You don’t sit down at your diary thinking that this is gonna be the best thing of the century, you know? Maybe because I view it like that, I can get over it and let it go.
How do you feel you’ve evolved since Freetown Sound?
I think that the ways I have grown are more from a production standpoint. I mixed half of [Negro Swan] by myself and then the rest is mixed by Blue, who has mixed every album I’ve produced.
Were you hesitant about mixing it yourself?
I pretty much knew what I wanted. That was maybe the most fun part. With anything that happens before that, I’m never really aware that I’m making an album, and then when I start writing and group together something, I get anxious. However, once I start getting into the mix and it becomes fun to just nerd out and study.
Are you producing or mixing for any other artists this year?
No, I’m done with my stuff, thank God. I have a few scoring jobs that I have to get a crack on, but one thing I’ve been doing a lot lately is that rather than producing as a musician, I’ve been going into the studio as a musician on people’s records. I’m a hired hand to play an instrument. That’s been really fun and I think I’ll do more of it later this year.
Do you enjoy taking a step back vocally and acting as a backing musician or producer? Or do you prefer working on something wholly your own?
I would happily never sing again! That would be easiest thing for me. I sing as a way to get the point across. If someone said they wanted to come in and sing, they’re more than welcome!