BLOOD ORANGE with TOPS at the Danforth Music Hall (147 Danforth), Wednesday (July 30), 8 pm, $25-$33. RT, SS, TM.
Devonté Hynes is spending some quality time with his record collection, perusing his recent choice and almost-choice finds.
When NOW calls for an interview one morning earlier this month, he lists a four-vinyl-disc box set of a German production of Wagner's Ring Cycle, a five-record set of Laurie Anderson's United States Live and a lot of pioneering hip-hop/electro DJ Afrika Bambaataa among his most prized purchases.
He is also the kind of record shopper who can't resist a super-cute cover sleeve.
"I picked up a record yesterday - it's got a lot of Japanese writing on it and these drawings of new-wave-type girls with short hair singing into these 80s microphones," Hynes explains groggily over the phone. "I thought it was this crazy Japanese new wave band, and then I played it and realized one of the songs was Holiday, by Madonna, but all instrumental. Pretty sure it's an 80s karaoke vinyl."
The New York City-based Brit, who has found success in the guise of Blood Orange, lost nearly all his belongings - including his piano, computer, compositions and two-month-old puppy, Cupid - when his East Village apartment building burned down last December.
Gone too were his stacks of art books, movies and records he turned to as creative inspiration while working on his second album as Blood Orange, last year's Cupid Deluxe (Domino).
The album took him four years to make and is fuller in sound than its predecessor. It melds elements of R&B, new wave, synth-funk and pop into a wistful landscape. Hynes had composed bits and pieces of music over the years that blossomed into full songs last year after he invited friends, including Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth, Samantha Urbani of the band Friends, Kindness's Adam Bainbridge and Clams Casino, to collaborate.
The lyrics draw upon specific personal moments from his life as well as snapshots of New York City. Jaunty Uncle ACE nods to the nickname homeless queer and trans youth gave to the city's ACE subway line, while Chosen, with its spoken-word interlude, was inspired by the gritty and dreamy romance of Lou Reed's Street Hassle.
"[The album] is a slight roller coaster for me to listen to because it is deeply personal in ways," he explains. "Mainly it's about finding your home - whether that's an actual physical place or more of a mental home - and finding your feet in a city."
Blood Orange's debut, Coastal Grooves, on the other hand, was a solitary affair conceived during long walks at night and recorded alone. Its music was escapist and channelled the cinematic fantasies of big city life he had as a bullied teen reading Please Kill Me while growing up in Essex, UK.
Somewhat uncharacteristically, he stuck with the Blood Orange moniker for Cupid Deluxe, but he's considering releasing music under his own name, as he did for the soundtrack to the Gia Coppola-directed movie Palo Alto.
What's with the name game?
"It is what it is," he responds, quoting the title of one of Cupid Deluxe's best songs. "I have no loyalty to Blood Orange. I don't understand why anyone would do one thing all the time. It's not even intentional. I don't even view this album as the same thing as the last Blood Orange album. It's a completely different project with different ideas behind it."
In the months since the fire, Hynes's Instagram has been peppered with snaps of newly acquired vintage records and books, such as a biography of the American jazz musician Eric Dolphy, a book about avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson and a history of ballet and dance.
Meanwhile, East Village emporium Kim's Video & Music is shutting its doors this summer, and Hynes has been taking advantage of the 30 per cent discounts. He also dropped by Afrika Bambaataa's record sale.
Despite the shopping spree, Hynes's musical ideas aren't making it off the page the way they used to. Asked about the fire's impact on his creative process, his self-effacing tone grows uncertain and his sentences begin to wander.
"I've just been rebuilding everything," he says. "I definitely have been making a lot less music. I'm somewhat lost, like, as to how to do things. I'm trying to work on that. I have a lot of ideas, but I just don't do them any more. Before, I would jump in, and now I just have notebooks and notebooks of song ideas and other musical things, but they don't exist aside from the notebooks."
Hynes had settled into a comfortable groove in New York City when the fire occurred. Before moving there seven years ago, he was known in the UK for his bands Test Icicles and his albums as Lightspeed Champion. He initially focused on songwriting and producing for other acts in the U.S., such as Cassie and Solange Knowles, whose 2012 EP, True, raised his profile and propelled him into studio sessions with pop royals like Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears.
But Hynes is no longer actively pimping his songwriting services. His falling-out with Knowles from April 2013 went public on Twitter seven months later, sparking a dialogue in the press and on social media about male musicians who receive all the credit when they collaborate with female artists.
In response, Hynes scaled back that side of his career and is staying mum on current collaborations. Now he prefers to work with people who approach him directly - be it a pop diva or a dude on the street - to forge a personal connection.
"I've become very paranoid," he says. "I feel like my name is slightly slanderous and will ruin people. I'm trying to do things on the low because I'm maybe too overly aware of connotation. I don't want to fuck people over by tying them to my shitty name or something."
Knowles's Losing You single revived her career, and major label execs and managers took notice. But Hynes soon realized they didn't care about his style, but wanted a name-check for the press release announcing a guaranteed-to-sell single.
"I was going in the studio with people I don't really know. I quit all of that. Everyone is kind of annoying. It always ends with someone unhappy, whether it's me or them," he says. "What they really want is a critical reaction, but you can't recreate a critical reaction."
He finds soundtrack work like Palo Alto much more enjoyable. "I like working with material that already exists. There's already a theme and a mood and a story," he explains. "That's more fun for me to play about with than just starting from scratch with my own mind."
Performing live is another problematic area. The last time Hynes played Toronto as Blood Orange, the anticipation was contained to a handful of people. It was fall 2011, Coastal Grooves had received middling praise, and Hynes was doing double duty as the opener and guitarist for CANT, a project led by Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor.
When the tour swung through the Garrison, Hynes belted out R&B runs and wailed away on guitar solos with impressive, Prince-like flamboyance for a small crowd of delighted early arrivers gathered around him on the floor.
His energy was transfixing, but Hynes says he hates touring. Blood Orange's July 30 concert in Toronto is one of only four scheduled for this summer.
"The way it stands now, I remember every Blood Orange show for this album I've played," says Hynes. "I know the date of every show coming up, and I'm actually excited because I can focus and make each one special.
"At this point, every song I play I'm excited to play, so I just want to keep that feeling for as long as possible," he adds. "I don't ever want that feeling of politely phoning it in. I don't want to experience that second of like, ‘Okay we're singing that song again.' I don't even want that to touch me."