HBO’s We Are Who We Are doesn’t have an opening credits sequence, but if it did, it would likely be set to Dev Hynes’s “Time Will Tell.” The swoon-worthy dance ballad from Hynes’s 2013 album, Cupid Deluxe (released under his Blood Orange moniker), has been a musical and thematic thread throughout the Luca Guadagnino–directed series. During episode six, for instance, breaking with the show’s narrative and immersing us in a dreamy fantasy sequence, We Are Who We Are offers a beat-by-beat re-creation of said song’s video, with Caitlin and Fraser (Jordan Kristine Seamón and Jack Dylan Grazer) executing Hynes’s one-take choreography with aplomb.
As the composer for We Are Who We Are, Hynes suffuses the Italy-set highbrow teen drama with a twinkling minimalist musicality that features heavily in the season finale. Set at a 2016 concert Hynes performed in Bologna, the chapter brings the show full circle in what is ostensibly a Blood Orange–scored bottle episode. The conclusion proves a fitting end to Guadagnino’s treatise on the messiness of coming of age, underscoring the message at the heart of Hynes’s music: “Time will tell if you can figure this and work it out,” he croons at one point to a packed crowd of eager young fans, all but speaking directly to the show’s dual protagonists.
Hynes spoke to Vulture ahead of the episode’s airing to talk all things We Are Who We Are, digging into the process of how his ethereal score came together, why he felt safe in Guadagnino’s hands for that concert set piece, and how he feels about a decade-old song of his getting a new lease on life.
How did you first get involved with the show?
Okay, so remember two episodes ago when they re-create one of my old videos? Someone had reached out to me from the production, kind of asking for permission but not really asking, you know? Sort of like, This is gonna happen. And it was really very confusing. I had no real context for the show. And I’m a big fan of Luca Guadagnino. So I’m just like, “What’s the reach out for? Like, a video, and it’s an HBO show?” I mean, my answer was yes, but I was very confused.
And then [Luca] sent me a couple of scripts. And in the couple of scripts he’d sent, I noticed Fraser would, like, talk about me. Or they would be listening to my song “Time Will Tell.” It was still very confusing. And then we spoke on the phone and then he was like, “Oh, also, in the final episode, I want them to go to your concert.” So I was asked to re-create this concert from 2016 that actually happened. That concert really did happen.
Yeah, so I got some musicians together and then I went down to Bologna for a couple of weeks. And from there, we just started talking more. He’d show me edits, and I’d visit the set. And then we started talking about the musical landscape of the show and composers that we love. And he’s used a lot of pieces of composers that are very influential to me — John Adams’s music in I Am Love, Verdi. He’s someone who’s very, very musically minded. That’s something I’ve always picked up on and really loved about his work. And one day, he asked if I could think of a couple of pieces that could be a thread that could connect certain characters. So I started doing that and then, throughout the next few months, we’d meet up in different places. And it really, just gradually and naturally, ended up becoming a score.
Now I’m curious: In those early conversations, did Guadagnino explain why he felt Fraser would respond to your music and why this concert would be so pivotal to the story?
I have no idea! I really don’t. It’s pretty wild! It’s a weird one for me because it’s almost like — I don’t really know how to explain it — it’s like a confrontation with myself, I guess, in the world, or something along those lines. Because I tend to coast by in a somewhat oblivious manner. I think it’s helped me make things continuously and not have nervous breakdowns. It’s kind of interesting because when I think about it now and I take a step back — so it’s 2016, he’s a kid who obviously shops at, like, Dover Street Market or whatever, and he’s been dragged away from New York to this Army base. I guess he probably would be into Blood Orange. And it’s weird for me to almost admit that, but it kind of works.
When you and Guadagnino were having these conversations — and I love thinking about the show’s “musical landscape” because it is such a sensory experience all around — did you talk about why “Time Will Tell” feels so appropriate to the story of Caitlin and Fraser?
Yeah, it’s interesting to me. It’s made me look at the song in this new way. My partner — we both love the show so much, like, besides me being part of it, like, I really love it — she was singing “Time Will Tell” around the house the other day. It was really funny. And then it got in my head, which is like, Wow, this is the first time in my entire life that one of my songs is in my head in a way that isn’t, like, when I’m working on it. And it really got me thinking about the show. And then it also made me think about time a lot because I wrote that song like, eight, nine years ago. I know where I was in that time, physically but also emotionally and mentally. So I started thinking about it more. Because now, when I look at it, the song is really about not stressing about figuring it out, which is essentially, I think, if you were to distill it, the point of the show. I think there’s kind of a real ethos in it, the idea that it’s fine to not really know anything and there’s not really a rush, you’ll get there. So I feel like maybe that’s what Luca picked up from this song.
I think a lot about the refrain, “It is what it is,” which becomes almost like an incantation in this final episode given how much we hear it. And I love how it echoes the title of the show; they’re like two sides of the same coin. “We are who we are” and “It is what it is” feel quite celebratory, but there’s also an acknowledgement of the messiness of it all. It’s all still sort of in process.
Exactly. Yeah, yeah. That’s a very beautiful message for anyone, really, but when you’re younger, that’s a good thing to keep in mind — to be told, “Shit’s always going to be messy, and that’s fine.”
So when you’re watching edits and Guadagnino says, “Would you mind writing a couple of pieces or themes for the show?,” what’s that process like?
Well, I think about the scenes, and I think about the characters. Luckily, I was on set, and I got to be around both Jordan [Kristine Seamón] and Jack [Dylan Grazer]. So I had that imagery. I think the first scenes I worked on were in episodes one and two: the bike ride out of town that Fraser follows Caitlin on, and Fraser when Caitlin is reading a poem and he’s kind of spying on her. So those beginning moments were really cool to work on because it really was the beginning of the music and the story. And from there, it progressed pretty naturally. It was just a case of, like, not so much letting the music go where it needed to go, but it expanded in this way that actually I was only afforded to do because it was a TV show and because Luca approached it as an eight-hour film. He said that to me. It allowed him to tell this kind of story in this pacing I’ve actually never seen anyone do before. It gave me that freedom and allowed me to, I guess, tell the story musically at a pace in a way that film doesn’t quite afford you to do. There were definitely edits, and we went back and forth. But it was the most freedom, artistically, I feel like I’ve had in a scoring process.
I’m glad you mentioned the pace of the show, because it has really intrigued me throughout. The show sort of exists in its own little world, and we end, of course, with this concert that I didn’t even know had been a real thing. What was it like to go back and try to re-create it for the small screen?
Yeah, I mean it was pretty wild. I was hoping to remember what really happened back then. One thing that was cool was that I actually ended up playing songs that I’ve never played before. Because up until maybe the album I did called Negro Swan, a couple years ago, up until then I never really toured that heavily. Like, if a record came out, I’d do a run or two that was not that detailed, and that was kind of it. What that means is that there were a lot of songs in 2016 that I know I’d never played, or if I did, it was like once or twice. It was really cool to put that together and perform and actually play live.
That was an early conversation. While I was there, that was something Luca and I connected on because we discussed a video I’d directed for myself called “Saint,” and I was super-inspired by Jonathan Demme during that video. And I’ve always loved, especially, his music videos or, like, music things with the Talking Heads, or he did this music video with New Order for “The Perfect Kiss.” And Luca said he’d written a thesis on Jonathan Demme when he was younger. So he was already thinking about that style of shooting for that episode, where it’s like you’re really just shooting a concert.
So that was really cool for me. I felt like I was in safe hands because I’ve been asked to do things like this, where it’s, like, performing on a show or whatever. I say no to all of them because they all sound terrifying, or they could be awful or something. But Luca really understood it, so it was really cool. And it seems like the kids were actually kind of into it. Unless they were all, like, incredible actors. It seems like they were into it.
Considering that the show forced you to look back but then also to work on some new music, I’m curious, as you come out of this experience, about what you feel you’re taking away from it.
I mean, it really is funny. Like, I don’t want to say that a fictional character made me realize that people listen to my music, but it’s somewhat true. I think it’s also a nice reminder that you never know where something you make may land, whether that’s emotionally or even quite literally. Like, I remember going to see I Am Love at IFC, like, twice in one week because I was so enamored with that film. I would never have imagined, like, come the end of the decade, that I would work with Luca on something. The whole thing is a reminder that you can never know what can really happen.