You can find finesse in Freetown Sound, the third album under Devonté Hynes’ alias as Blood Orange, not only within the 17 carefully crafted tracks, but also the ambient sounds that connect each composition. Collected everywhere from solo afternoons spent at Washington Square Park to midnight skates downtown, and pensive daytime strolls in his home of New York City, an acute ear can pick up the deeper meaning in the middle of two songs.
“It really makes me happy you say that,” says Dev as we talk about the tactile quality of the record sat in a quiet bookshop in NY’s Soho neighbourhood. “I approached Freetown Sound, much like an old school hip-hop record, going in and finding samples and words and linking all the different parts together. It’s so much about the inspirations of these sounds; particularly in regards to moving cities; the things that creep into your ear, how they can mean one thing even if they are from another. I wanted it to have this feeling that the music is from another place and can have a dual meaning.”
30-year-old Hynes knows a thing or two about transplanting from one place to another. Born in Houston, Texas and raised on the fringes of London, before settling in New York ten years ago, being a musician wasn’t part of his plan. An avid footballer, Dev played the sport with enough fervour to consider going pro but his distaste for the people that played saw him leave it behind. He had always dabbled in music, muscling in on his sister’s piano lessons, teaching himself the cello, drums and bass guitar while mucking around in bands throughout school. “Music was just this thing I liked, that I could do and I cared about but it wasn’t like I grew up playing my guitar in my room,” he reflects. But his talent was self-evident and after a brief spell in dance-punk outfit Test Icicles in the mid 00s and an album release under the sobriquet Lightspeed Champion in 2008, he became Blood Orange, releasing 2011’s Coastal Grooves, followed by Cupid Deluxe in 2013 and in June this year, Freetown Sound, his most impressive work yet.
The album, named after the capital city of his father’s native Sierra Leone, is a cacophony of melodies that in its 58 minutes takes you on a heady journey. From imagining his father’s experience being born in 30s West Africa, to exploring racial tensions (Hands Up), gender (Desireé via Paris Is Burning’s Venus Xtravaganza), representation and identity (By Ourselves) and displacement (Augustine). And sure, Dev may have enlisted the help of acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, poet Ashlee Haze and filmmaker Marlon Riggs — all prominent voices in current black social issues — in the album’s creation, but Freetown Sound was not conceived as a response to America’s current fraught race relations. “It wasn’t written as a political statement. It was funny, when I first starting doing press for the album, the first question would always be, ‘so is this a ‘Black Lives Matter’ album?’ and I was like, ‘what’? When I think about Kendrick’s album, [To Pimp a Butterfly] it’s clear what he is saying. I’m obviously saying things that are intimate on the album but it’s interesting that people can create what they want to with the idea. I guess it’s the timing of when it was released too…”
The starting point of the album began two years prior with the track EVP, featuring close friend Bea1991 and Debbie Harry. “I actually worked on that song for an Eckhaus Latta show, and worked on it up until I mixed my album. I kept on finding things I needed to change, I have never had that in my life,” he explains. “I never go into a studio thinking I have to make an album. I just write every now and then and try to create a mood.” Hadron Collider, a dreamlike opus, was written collaboratively with its guest star Nelly Furtado, then By Ourselves and Hands Up were other tracks he crafted early on in the process of piecing the album together, putting pen to paper and writing down lyrics instead of his favoured freestyle approach to lyric writing, a response to the pressure he felt from the outside world. “It was the first time people were saying ‘oh you are making an album’ and I think, looking back, that really got to me. There was the paradox of something being highly personal but knowing there was an expectation.”
Born into the school of Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Dev is often, and rather indolently described as a bohemian. “It’s a narrow depiction,” he laughs. Yet he acknowledges that romantically listening to his musical greats and growing up outside of the United States has ingrained in him a sort of wide-eyed voyeurism and wonder about the country he now calls home, one that comes from being brought up somewhere else, “I think it was James Baldwin who talked about going away from a place to really be able to see it. I know I would feel differently and be a different person if I grew up here, I just couldn’t imagine all the ways…”
Definitively Freetown Sound is a sum of all the parts of Dev’s life in the past two years; some planned, he’s also revelled in what can come from the unintentional and the improvised, wrought from personal experience but bestowed upon the audience and left for you to draw your own interpretations. “I know music is my job now but I still make it exactly the same way as I did when I was 14. I don’t read reviews and the idea that anyone makes music for public critique is crazy to me. When people say that they like my music, it’s a genuine shock and interest on my part. I make my music so much for me, even with live shows, they aren’t the most natural thing to me… I have to put way more thought in than most. I think that’s why I haven’t toured in five years.”
A few days later, Dev brings an audience to a pin-drop silence at an impromptu yet intimate gig at Greenpoint’s Manhattan Inn. Whether he shies away from shows or not, it’s clear, he’s got everyone under his spell.