Dev Hynes on creating the dreamy soundscape of We Are Who We Are
The Grammy-nominated artist, who scored Luca Guadagnino’s new HBO series, tells us about his evolution as a composer.
“I'm a little too self aware,” Devonté Hynes tells us. “I need to put a filter in front, or something.” The English songwriter and music producer best known for his work as Blood Orange — but also for his former Myspace-era projects Lightspeed Champion and Test Icicles — feels, as many anxious creatives do, like he thinks too much. In this particular instance, Dev is grappling with the moderately-fictional version of himself that exists in We Are Who We Are, a queer coming-of-age drama by Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino.
The show follows Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), two American teenagers living on an Italian army base in 2016, parsing the push-pull of their desires and impulses as they get to know themselves and each other through lunchroom conversations, languid beach trips and raucous house parties. As i-D contributing editor Douglas Greenwood so aptly put it: “It's like Euphoria on Valium."
Dev’s involvement in the show began casually, in mid-2019: “Initially, they contacted me because they were recreating one of my music videos. I didn't have much context,” he says. “I was a little confused, but obviously into it because I was such a fan.” Finding himself besotted with Luca’s 2009 film I Am Love as a 20-something, Dev couldn’t quite believe that one of his artistic idols wanted to interface with his work in such an intimate way.
Consulting on the video evolved into a conversation about Dev making an appearance as Blood Orange in a concert in the show’s finale, and shooting that appearance begot further creative discussions regarding the show’s score. “It slowly progressed into the idea of me maybe writing a couple pieces in regards to Fraser and Caitlin: their relationship and their connection,” explains Dev. “And it kind of just bloomed from there — there was never a point where anything felt like a job, or that anything was assigned.” It’s perhaps why the pairing seems like such a natural fit.
Here, Dev tells us more about his evolution to composer, shares stories from the set of We Are Who We Are and explains that he’s never quite come to terms with people actually listening to his music.
How did you feel about Luca before you got involved with this project? Were you a big Call Me By Your Name fan?
Yeah, but I Am Love was really big for me. That film was life changing. When it came out, I saw it twice in the same week. So I do really like Call Me By Your Name, but I Am Love speaks more to me, I think. Luca's just so good at taking you to a world you want to exist in. I feel like you could say that that’s what he nailed in CMBYN, which is maybe why it drew in such a wide audience. He captured a place that people kind of wanted to go live inside.
Do you find you have to put on a different hat when composing for TV and film? How different is that process to your regular studio work?
It's more that it's just a different part of my brain. It's a little bit like going back to a default in some ways because the very first music I ever played was compositional, like on the cello and piano, so it's kind of like the grounding of it all. But then it's a little different because there's a bit more of a purpose, and I mean that in a very literal way. Like if I'm doing Blood Orange or something — those are the moments where I'm switched off. I mean, it sounds pretty eye-roll-y, but I think it exists as a form of expressionism. Like, there's no real reason for Blood Orange to ever exist. There's no deadline, there's no reason for it to be out there. It just kind of happens when I turn off and I just need something to let emotions out into.
And I put emotions into scoring work, but the scoring work is a team of people trying to make a film or a TV show, you know: director, writer, set-designer, makeup artist, all trying to make this thing that's whole and has a place out there in the world. So it's a very different way of my brain working in regards to doing Blood Orange and my own stuff. But I kind of need both of those things. They both occupy very important places within me.
What was being on set like? Jack and Jordan seem like a lot of fun.
They're both so sweet. I really, really, really loved meeting them, and then watching the show you grow so attached to them. Jack, the very first thing that he asked me — it wasn't a question really, it was more that he heard that I skated. I was somewhat impressed because I feel like not a lot of people know that. He was skating in between takes. They're both just so excitable and so dedicated and such crazy-talented actors.
Tell me about your favourite character on the show.
This is a slightly esoteric answer, but my favourite character is essentially the relationship between Jordan's character and Jack's character. I view that as a character unto itself. I’ve never seen a relationship like theirs explored anywhere before, and you really get to see it develop — it feels super natural and unforced. The reality and specificity of it is so touching, and I feel like it really deeply ingrains itself in you while you're watching. Like most things, I think, when you're that age, it feels both entirely world-consuming and also entirely out of this world. That really speaks to me.
Your Blood Orange song “Time Will Tell” plays a relatively prominent role in the characterisation of that relationship — it’s almost Fraser and Caitlin’s theme. What does that track mean to you?
It's weird because, to be honest, I didn't think about it until the show. And even then I didn't really think about it until the show was airing in America. I guess my brain didn't really think about how much of a presence that song had in the show until I watched it as a whole. It's got me thinking a lot about time now because it's such a specific landmark, in my mind, of a period of time in my life. I wrote it in 2012, and it came out in 2013. I guess something I've never fully reckoned is that people listen to my music, which sounds crazy, but it's a real thing. The last couple years, I've definitely noticed it more — because of social media, it's hard not to know [what people think]. But I've never read a review of Blood Orange music in my life.
I guess what I'm saying is that I love the idea of Fraser, this character who was written to exist in 2016, listening to this song from 2013. He's also meant to be a kid from New York who's into fashion and all that kind of stuff. There's just something about that specificity that really lands as a form of reality. It makes me think about people listening to my music and then whatever domino effect that may have. And myself, as a fan, I know how I relate to music and other forms of art. It's just very interesting to think that there's people out there relating to something I've made in the same way.
What’s next for you?
Oh, I'm doing a lot more scoring actually. Gia Coppola has a new film called Mainstream which I wrote the score for. And then Rebecca Hall has a directorial debut film called Passing — I worked on that. At some point, I should make an album. I don't know when though! But at some point, I should probably do it. We'll see what happens.
We Are Who We Are is available to stream on BBC Three via BBC iPlayer now.