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