Coachella 2014: Devonte Hynes hits a creative groove as Blood Orange

Devonté Hynes was probably the only person at last weekend's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival to sing about the troubles of homeless New Yorkers and pose for a backstage photo with the pop star Katy Perry.

But for Hynes, such contrast is the norm.

Beloved by tastemakers for his work in a series of disparate indie bands — including the punky Test Icicles and the folky Lightspeed Champion — the 28-year-old musician has also affected the pop mainstream through collaborations with Solange, Kylie Minogue and Florence & the Machine. He even wrote songs for Britney Spears' most recent album, though they didn't make the final cut.

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Hynes performed at Coachella, as he will again Sunday during the festival's encore weekend, with his latest project, the experimental R&B; outfit Blood Orange. It's a well-oiled groove machine, complete with saxophone and slap bass, that can trigger memories of '80s-era hits by Sade and Luther Vandross. 

Yet he uses those slick arrangements to deliver deeply personal thoughts about heartbreak and alienation.

In "Uncle ACE," from Blood Orange's excellent 2013 album "Cupid Deluxe," he sings from the perspective of a kid looking for a place to sleep on the A-C-E line of the New York City subway. And on Coachella's outdoor stage he regularly disrupted the music's smooth surfaces with harsh, scrubbing electric-guitar solos.

"I never think of these things as separate," Hynes said of his varied creative pursuits while smoking a cigarette on the balcony of his temporary digs overlooking Hollywood (he's living here while in California for Coachella and a show earlier this week that sold out at the El Rey). 

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Though it wasn't yet noon, he was dressed with characteristic flair: red dress shirt opened nearly to his navel, snug black trousers, long dreadlocks tucked beneath a leather cap. "It's kind of all happening at the same time," he said.

The appealingly jumbled quality of Hynes' music might be the natural result of his background. Born in Texas, he grew up in London, where he studied cello and piano before teaching himself guitar.

In 2007, after Test Icicles broke up, he moved to New York; he still lives there, though he says he regularly finds himself in L.A. for work. (Last week, following the death of his friend Peaches Geldof, Hynes wrote tenderly on his blog about time he spent here with her.) 

But Hynes seems driven as well by an artistic idea, which is to take familiar styles and textures — elements we think we know — and refresh them with hard-to-place sounds, disarming lyrics and unexpected juxtapositions. Like many small-batch types, he's devoted to strangeness, but mostly when it's happening against a backdrop of perceived normalcy.

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"Yesterday I was listening to the Jacksons' 'Dancing Machine,'" he said, referring to the family band's 1974 album that spawned the hit title track. "It's completely insane. I mean, at that time, this was like the biggest group in the world. And the first song, 'I Am Love,' is nearly eight minutes long."

That approach has attracted other pop-conscious oddballs such as David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors and the hip-hop producer Clams Casino, both of whom appear on "Cupid Deluxe."

It's also made Hynes a go-to songwriter and producer for bigger stars looking to get a little weird — particularly women, like Solange, who've unhappily experienced the record industry's attempts to streamline them. In 2012 Sky Ferreira enlisted Hynes to co-write "Everything Is Embarrassing," which became her breakout single after a series of more generic songs that failed to catch on.

Though his full-bodied dancing suggests otherwise, Hynes claims he's happier working behind the scenes than he is as frontman, one reason Blood Orange is scheduled to play only a handful of concerts this year (including Lollapalooza in Chicago). He's wary too of the dulling effect that the day-to-day grind of touring could have on his obsessive quality control.

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"I don't ever want to have a second where I'm even slightly phoning it in," he said. "I know the dates of every single show I'm playing, and I want every single show to be something — to be exciting." 

He achieved that both at Coachella and at the El Rey, where Blood Orange performed most of "Cupid Deluxe" — including the percussive funk tune "No Right Thing" and the gorgeously hazy "Chosen" — to the vocal delight of a full house. ("That was the best show I've ever played in my life," Hynes tweeted afterward.)

But the success of those concerts is just gratification of one kind; he's also into making more songs for other artists and scoring films, as he did Gia Coppola's adaptation of James Franco's book "Palo Alto," set to open next month. His ambition can seem as diffuse as his music.

"I haven't thought about another Blood Orange album, but there'll probably be one," he said with a laugh. "There's no real plan." 


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