Lightspeed Champion

First part of article written by Dr Leah Kelly from The Rockefeller University from a discussion we had based on the subject of Synesthesia.

“I do a lot at the same time “.This is a massive understatement coming from Devonté Hynes. The 23 year old, probably best known as musical artist Lightspeed Champion also vents his talents by writing short stories, comics and other musical side projects, the latest of which is called Blood Orange.

Indeed, superficially Dev does ‘do a lot’ in managing to juggle these creative projects simultaneously but he also multitasks on a whole other level. He is a synesthete. He sees sounds. Not ever talking about his experience before for fear of sounding mental or pretentious, I convinced him to try and describe how synesthesia affects his daily life and how, if at all, it influences his creative process.

He recounts his earliest memory of synesthesia: watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a small child. ‘It blew my mind’ even though at the time he had no idea what it was about. ‘It was a brutal assault – but a good one’. He also remembers phrases of the song ‘Walking on Broken Glass’ as being imprinted on his mind as the ‘most beautiful thing’. Hynes describes his experiences as ‘seeing layers’ like staring at ‘moving pictures’ with rhythm, pitch, instrument, the spoken voice and volume all having their separate color qualities

He recently relived that initial experience by watching Rocky Horror Picture Show again. Exactly the same thing happened. So is this sensory cross-wiring repeatable? Indeed, the same songs evoke the same colors and same images over again. Dev claims however that he never gets tired of songs. Depending on the song or even the phase within a song, the images he sees can evoke feelings ranging from euphoria to discomfort even. “I learned to stop talking about it because people think I’m being ironic but I’m not! For instance, the new Mariah Carey song: I like it! I’m going to listen to it - a lot!

Dev, like other synesthetes, has a phenomenal memory. Having very little formal training in music, he is able to teach himself any instrument. He learns by “trying to get to the colour. I can play anything because I see it, because I just recreate it. I don’t have to think. I’m just reading it.”
Music is such a part of him that he doesn’t even view it as a profession or something worth mentioning. “I used to paint but could never really physically get what I wanted. I can only do it through music. It’s so overly natural I almost blank it out. It’s not a chore and I find it weird that people are interested. It’s like breathing.” He writes music visually “doing whatever he can to get the picture” seeing it as layers ‘its almost like painting, mixing colours”

Composing comes so naturally to him that he has begun to impose restrictions and mini challenges on himself while writing to keep interested. For instance, the album he’s working on currently he’s trying to incorporate eastern melodies. Usually he likes to layer but this time he’s stopping himself ”sprinkling eastern melodies over a base color with a solid color for the vocal. One straight journey with no turns”. When talking to his label he describes his albums through color but worries that he sounds pretentious.

He writes and records everyday and even on his last ‘day off’ thought it would be fun to record an Ike and Tina Turner album. Hynes is often too distracted to eat and the intensity of his dreams means that sleep is limited. “My girlfriend worries that I do too much. I fill myself up with tasks and projects and there are so many – I get them done but it’s never enough.” It’s not only music but words and even taste cross the sensory boundaries “especially when I write myself”. He usually has about 10 books on the go dipping in and out of them with ease depending on “what mood I want washed over me”.

So would he like to compose soundtracks? ”I write essentially in the form of soundtracks. I write in track listings which is quite unusual. Every album I write has themes that come back. I have such a clear idea of how I want each piece to be. Each piece just works when it’s there as a whole. When certain things can’t happen it changes the whole pattern. Because I write in track listings it makes things difficult for everyone else – and me.

So I guess collaborations are impossible? Apparently not. Dev actually likes collaborating because he doesn’t know what the end product will be. Three songs on the new album were in intended to be collaborations. Dev would compose the skeleton and then this gets ‘decorated’ by another composer. Unfortunately this finished product did not go down well and Dev was forced to complete the piece himself. Something he’s not used to and “was very hard”.


I can’t begin to empathise with the sensory bombardment he must have to deal with on a daily basis. “I notice every bit of music in the day. I notice it all. I have to be really selective about what live performances I see.” But apparently seeing a live orchestra is always a joy “it’s like someone writing so many different patterns to create one huge pattern that moves in a pack. It’s phenomenal. I’m in awe”. Dev recently purchased a bike “If I take my ipod out on my bike I will kill myself”. While talking, Dev frequently uses the phrase “it blows my mind” and I wonder how apt he realises this description actually is.

Leah Kelly Phd.

Tags: kelly, leah, rockefeller, synesthesia, university

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Joel Huber Comment by Joel Huber on February 8, 2010 at 2:24pm
that is fantastic :]
John Comment by John on October 6, 2009 at 8:39am
I would just like to point out that reading this and about you having it has made me go on and educate myself a little more on it, and before where I was ignorant to it I now understand it at least a bit better, which is always good :)
Devonté Hynes Comment by Devonté Hynes on September 9, 2009 at 3:26pm
Captain Beefheart? Amazing!
Natasha Kyte Comment by Natasha Kyte on September 2, 2009 at 5:11pm
i just find this so interesting
i hadn't heard about synesthesia before reading your blog and it really is just so interesting to read about. i think it's quite endearing and it makes me appreciate you as an artist even more.
Patrick Singer Comment by Patrick Singer on August 22, 2009 at 4:45pm
I never would have guessed but then I suppose it'd be impossible to. Do you wish you didn't have synesthesia? You don't sound pretentious either. Your music is amazing.
Kevin Chan Comment by Kevin Chan on August 17, 2009 at 10:21am
This makes me appreciate your music in a totally different way now, thank you for being so open!
Jacob Forde Comment by Jacob Forde on August 17, 2009 at 9:42am
do you like every tipe of music then?
Josh Nielsen Comment by Josh Nielsen on August 14, 2009 at 10:57am
This is amazing dude, possibly an evolutionary leap forward, if a bald guy in a wheel chair approaches you just go with him Dev.
Also, I recall a good while ago you posted that you'd lost your laptop with a load of your work on. I now know how you feel, as a virus has wiped my hard drive of near a year's worth of recordings :(
Christopher D G Ricketts Comment by Christopher D G Ricketts on August 12, 2009 at 7:44pm
I'm jealous...
Sherlock Homeslice III Jr. Comment by Sherlock Homeslice III Jr. on August 12, 2009 at 7:17pm
This is probably why you are such an amazing musician and why every time you create a song, you also create a perfect picture... a setting and a feeling. "it blows my mind"

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