For the better part of the last decade, Dev Hynes has been one of the most prolific artists in the kind of taste-making pop and R&B that tops critics’ best-of lists and soundtracks five-course meals at your favorite restaurant. In addition to his five albums as Blood Orange, Hynes’ dance card as a writer-producer includes Solange, Sky Ferreira, Carly Rae Jepsen, A$AP Rocky, Mariah Carey and many others.
And in the past year alone, he’s released his latest Blood Orange project (the star-studded mixtape “Angel’s Pulse”), a collaborative classical album with the quartet Third Coast Percussion and his score for Melina Matsoukas’ “Queen & Slim.”
But even the most hyper-productive minds in music are not immune to the creativity blackhole that is 2020. While Hynes kept busy during the first few weeks of quarantine finishing a few scoring projects he began pre-lockdown, he hasn’t been able to start much of anything since.
“It’s a weird time — I don’t really know what I’m doing,” Hynes says over Zoom from his New York apartment, surrounded by instruments in his makeshift home-studio setup. “I just got back to New York to move out of my studio, so I’m kind of surrounded by equipment now. I think I’ll start making music soon, but It’s strange. I do think as I’m getting older and my energy is definitely not in its twenties, maybe the separation is good.”
Still, the fruits of his early quarantine productivity will be rolling out for months to come. His first TV series score, for “Call Me By Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age-in-Italy drama “We Are Who We Are,” premiered last night on HBO. In addition to performing the series’ piano, synth and cello-laden score, Hynes will play himself in a concert scene as Blood Orange for the series’ first-season finale later this fall. Another film score, for the Andrew Garfield-starring social-media satire “Mainstream,” recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival and reunites him with “Palo Alto” director Gia Coppola. A third project, the film score for Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut “Passing,” is expected in 2021.
Songs for Screens caught up with Hynes to learn more about his “natural” collaboration with Guadagnino on the score for “We Are Who We Are,” including how he composed its “emotional themes” and how he hopes to resume making music again soon.
Songs for Screens: How did you get involved with the show?
Dev Hynes: I was a very big fan of [Luca’s] films, and so I guess he had reached out about using my Blood Orange music in the show. Then I went to Bologna when they were shooting and we just started talking, hanging out on the set and talking about how we have quite similar tastes in more contemporary classical music and older stuff.
What kinds of music did you bond over?
I was talking to him about how much I loved how he used music, like all the John Adams pieces he uses in his work. I’m influence by all of Adams’ operas and how he always uses that festive, percussive woodwind type of instrumentation. And I loved the Verdi piece in “A Bigger Splash.” We just started talking about stuff like that, and it kind of led to talking about scenes in the show. I would go and watch edits at night and I just tried out a couple piano pieces and that’s how it started.
There was a back and forth, but really natural. There was no cue sheet or anything like that. I tried some stuff while I was darting all over the place, so we met back up in Paris and we went through the entire show together and I was writing some notes down. Some of the most enjoyable forms of collaboration for me have essentially come from conversations about what could work.
What’s Luca like as a collaborator?
He is very specific, but it was cool because I would do a bunch of stuff and talk about it and then he would push me to lean in. I think in the beginning I was more influenced by what people would call minimalist composers. So, I was doing something more in that vein and I think he was pushing for me to put more of myself in and pull that out.
What appealed to you about the script – did you identify with any of the characters?
I guess so. I kind of feel that when stories are really specific, they become more universal in this weird way. So, I don’t relate to being an army brat, but I relate to the waves of emotions that everyone goes through. That was very easy to tap into for me. I think at some point in people’s lives, everyone’s been the new kids. I relate to that a lot. I always feel like the best shows are just really good character development. The surrounding aesthetic or choices of location tend to play a part. Like, I don’t think a lot of people are watching “Sopranos” because they’re into the mob. Strong character development becomes instantly relatable.
How did you approach the score instrumentally?
There’s a lot of piano, some synth stuff that I made, some synth patches that are not necessarily specifically for it but things through my work I’ve been tweaking and trying to hone in on. I played some cello on it, and a little bit of clarinet on it too. But for the most part that’s like as expansive as it goes. It’s really honed in. There’s actually a lot of textures which may even sound like synth but are actually piano or tweaked to sound a little like cello. I always like taking organic sounds and making them sound inorganic.
Since you were collaborating with Luca during the filming, were you able to finish your score before quarantine kicked in?
Nearly all of it was made before, but I was finishing it at the beginning of quarantine. In the first couple months I was mixing and tweaking and doing amendments. I managed to basically finish the writing process before quarantine kicked in. That’s the honing of it.
Have you made other music since then?
I haven’t really been able to do that. Maybe it’s the same for most people, but I used to have loads of motivation and there’s just none of that. It’s been back and forth, I think my ideas have been building maybe. But it’s been hard to create.
Going back to the show, how did you use the score to create a musical motif for each character. I noticed Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) is introduced with more whimsical music in the premiere vs. Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamon) who has a more orchestral, stirring tone in the second episode.
I try to think of it more as the emotions of characters, so it’s not as distinct. Because the show is eight episodes, it really allows more room for different themes to develop and grow, and the same way as for writing or directing it allows you more space to tell the story. I feel like I had a similar thing with the music. Especially because Luca doesn’t shy away from longer scenes and longer takes, so it allowed the themes to be a bit more subtle. You probably noticed the subtle differences in each of those characters. If it was a film, it might have been harder to do something like that. So there’s themes, but again, it’s more like emotional themes.
Songs for Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Hampp on Twitter at @ahampp.