Play It Forward: Devonté Hynes' Grammys Surprise And Biggest Inspirations

Mar 12, 2021
Originally published on March 13, 2021 11:22 am

With a new year comes a new season of "Play It Forward," All Things Considered's chain of artistic inspiration, where we ask musicians to tell us about their work and the people who inspire them, after which we ask the person mentioned for their own, and so it continues. This series often takes leaps from one genre to another, which makes Devonté Hynes a tricky and exciting place to jump back in.

Hynes doesn't hew to any one genre: under the name Blood Orange, he produces pop music; under his own name, he writes evocative scores for TV shows and movies. Now, he's also working at the forefront of classical music, collaborating with artists like Philip Glass. Hynes' latest album, Fields — a collaboration with the enchanting ensemble Third Coast Percussion — is up for two classical Grammy awards this Sunday, Best Engineered Album, Classical and Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.

It's a little cliché to say that he's broken the mold – when asked if there were any artists with similarly intersectional approaches who he aspired to emulate when he was younger, Hynes looks to the person as much as their work. "I've always taken a lot of inspiration from people who move in their own way and create their own paths," Hynes says. "Even if I don't necessarily enjoy, directly, the things that they make."

He names artists like Neil Young and Nina Simone, both known as much for who they are as for what they've done. Hynes relates to that. "Everything I do is so directly from me, and I do feel that it's almost more unnatural to be focused in one avenue," he says. "I think that takes a lot of self-discipline. With me, I tend to just indulge every whim that comes out."

Devonté Hynes spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro about how Fields came together and about an artist he's grateful for, the composer and multi-instrumentalist Angel Bat Dawid. Listen in the audio player above and read on for highlights of the conversation.


On music as a starting point for his artistic career

I have a lot of interests, and I have a lot things that mean a lot to me.I realized, when I was younger, I never really thought about music as a career. I'd say, not even until like five years ago. It never really was that thing because it was so natural and it so engulfed everything that I did. It was almost like being told that breathing would be a career. But then, once I found that as the center and as the root, I realized that I could sprawl off from it.

YouTube

On working with Emma Portner and Third Coast Percussion on Fields

It was a commission from Hubbard Street Dance, and Emma Portner — incredible, incredible, incredible choreographer — was commissioned and Third Coast Percussion was to be the musical accompaniment. Emma put forward the idea of me being the composer, and Third Coast put it into their repertoire. So, they started performing it live, and came to me with the idea of doing a recording of it. I mean, I never thought I'd ever get a Grammy nomination. I wasn't, like, holding out for it. But I also didn't think it would be the avant-garde classical album. So, you know, shocks all around, really.

YouTube

On an artist he's thankful for: Angel Bat Dawid

Angel Bat Dawid is an incredible composer, multi-instrumentalist, clarinet player. The album that I came to first was The Oracle ... I think it was all recorded on her phone, via overdubbing.

I love "London." It's so beautiful. I feel like it melds all the things I love together. [Laughs] The tone of the clarinet is really unreal to me ... and the runs are so imaginative and free and loose – but then, there's a structure to it. And there's a rhythmic feeling to it. So, basically this classicism, but this loose freeness and jazz freeness, with warm tones that still feel like you're listening to it outside. That's basically everything I strive for, really! It's all in this. And then, to top it off, this song's called "London." [Ed note: Hynes is originally from the U.K. capital.] I just want to express my gratitude and thanks for creating such wonderful, beautiful and inspiring music, and for being someone who I look up to, as a composer, as an artist, as a human.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It is time to launch a new season of our musical gratitude project, Play It Forward. It's a chain of artistic appreciation where musicians tell us about their work and the people who inspire them.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD ORANGE SONG, "AUGUSTINE")

SHAPIRO: Now, one of the things I love about this series is that it takes leaps from one genre to another, which makes Devonte Hynes a tricky and exciting place to start since he occupies basically every genre. Under the name Blood Orange, he produces pop music, like this track, "Augustine."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUGUSTINE")

DEVONTE HYNES: (Singing) See, Augustine.

SHAPIRO: Under his own name, Dev Hynes writes scores for TV shows and movies, like "Queen & Slim."

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVONTE HYNES' "KISSED ALL YOUR SCARS")

SHAPIRO: And he's also working at the forefront of classical music. His latest album, "Fields," is up for two classical Grammy Awards on Sunday night. "Fields" is a collaboration with the group Third Coast Percussion.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVONTE HYNES AND THIRD COAST PERCUSSION'S "PERFECTLY VOICELESS")

SHAPIRO: Dev Hynes, welcome. I'm so excited for you to kick off this new season of Play It Forward.

HYNES: Hi. Thanks for having me here. This is really, really cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD ORANGE SONG, "CHARCOAL BABY")

SHAPIRO: It's almost cliche at this point to say that you've broken the mold. And so I'm curious who you aspired to be when you were younger. Like, were there artists you looked up to who had that same kind of intersectional, boundary-breaking approach to their craft?

HYNES: I've always taken a lot of inspiration from people who move in their own way and create their own paths even if I don't necessarily enjoy directly the things that they make. I mean, I remember being young during discovering, like, Paul Bowles. Depending on who you spoke to, they would say that he was a different thing. They could be like, oh, the composer, or like, oh, the writer, you know? That was always really - something about that I always really enjoyed. And people like Neil Young and Nina Simone and - I was always really just drawn to that idea.

SHAPIRO: Well, the thing that strikes me about these people is that they are known as much for who they are as for what they do. Like, you can't separate Nina Simone from her music, her activism. They're not separate boxes. They're all one whole.

HYNES: Yeah. That's funny you brought that up because I think I do really relate to that because it's - everything I do is really so directly from me. And I do feel that it's almost more natural to be focused in one avenue because I think that takes work. That takes a lot of work. And...

SHAPIRO: It's hard to stay still.

HYNES: Yeah, I think that takes a lot of self-discipline. With me, I tend to just indulge every whim that comes out, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Skillfully indulge every whim.

HYNES: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: You're not just stuffing your face. You're, like, actually crafting beautiful things...

HYNES: Oh, thank you.

SHAPIRO: ...In many different ways.

HYNES: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHARCOAL BABY")

HYNES: (Singing) No one wants to be the odd one out at times. No one wants to be the negro swan.

HYNES: I have a lot of interests, and I have a lot of things that mean a lot to me. You know, when I was younger, I never really thought about music as a career. I'd say not even until, like, five years ago did I really think about it as a career. Like, it never really was that thing because it was so natural, and it also engulfed everything that I did. It was almost like being told that breathing would be a career because, you know, it wasn't something I...

SHAPIRO: Oh.

HYNES: ...Would really think about. I was focusing on different things. But then once I found that as the center, the roots, I realized I could kind of sprawl off from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVONTE HYNES AND THIRD COAST PERCUSSION'S "FOR ALL ITS FURY: VI. HUSH")

SHAPIRO: Tell us about your latest project, the album "Fields," which you created with Third Coast Percussion. It was written to accompany a dance piece. Is that right?

HYNES: Yeah. So it was a commission from Hubbard Street Dance and Emma Portner, an incredible choreographer who I'd worked with dancing. I'd been dancing with them.

SHAPIRO: You also are a dancer on top of everything else.

HYNES: (Laughter) Yeah, although not so much these days. My knees aren't what they used to be. But - so Emma was commissioned, and Third Coast Percussion was to be the musical accompaniment. And Emma put forward the idea of me being composer. And they came to me with the idea of doing a recording of it. And, I mean, I never thought I would ever get a Grammy nomination. I wasn't, like, holding out for it, you know? But I also didn't think it would be the, like, avant-garde, classical album.

SHAPIRO: The classical - right. Right.

(LAUGHTER)

HYNES: So, you know, shocks all around, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVONTE HYNES AND THIRD COAST PERCUSSION'S "FOR ALL ITS FURY: IX. CRADLE")

SHAPIRO: OK, well, Dev Hynes, it's your turn to play it forward and tell us about an artist whose music you are thankful for. And I'm so curious and excited to hear who you're going to choose. Who do you want to introduce us to?

HYNES: OK, so I want to choose Angel Bat Dawid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGEL BAT DAWID SONG, "THE ORACLE")

SHAPIRO: Tell us about her.

HYNES: OK, so Angel Bat Dawid is an incredible composer, multi-instrumentalist, clarinet player. The album that I came to first was an album called "The Oracle."

SHAPIRO: "The Oracle."

HYNES: So I came across her work, and it really blew me away. And the whole thing was recorded - I think it was all recorded on her phone via overdubbing.

SHAPIRO: Is there a track of hers that we can play for people who aren't familiar with her music?

HYNES: I love "London."

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGEL BAT DAWID'S "LONDON")

SHAPIRO: What do you hear when you listen to this?

HYNES: Oh, it's so beautiful. It feels like it melds all the things I love together. It really...

SHAPIRO: List them for us. What do you mean?

HYNES: (Laughter) Well, the tone of the clarinet is really unreal to me. I, like, love it so much. And the runs are so imaginative and free and loose. But then there's a structure to it, and there's a rhythmic feeling to it - so basically just, like, this, like, classicism but this, like, loose freeness and jazz freeness with warm tones that still feels like you're listening to it outside.

SHAPIRO: The rhythm makes me think of, like, walking through a park on a beautiful day.

HYNES: Exactly. Exactly. And that's basically everything I strive for, really.

(LAUGHTER)

HYNES: It's all in this. And then to top it off, the song's called "London," so, you know, it's real...

SHAPIRO: Where you grew up, if I'm not mistaken.

HYNES: Yes. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGEL BAT DAWID'S "LONDON")

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to Angel Bat Dawid next, so what would you like to say to her?

HYNES: Just - I just want to express my gratitude and thanks for creating such wonderful, beautiful and inspiring music and for just being someone who I look up to as a composer, as an artist, as a human. So, yeah, I really just want to give thanks.

SHAPIRO: Devonte Hynes, who records as Blood Orange. His latest album is "Fields."

Thank you so much for talking with us.

HYNES: Oh, no, thank you. Such a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGEL BAT DAWID'S "LONDON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.