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Ego Death

27 August 2020, 13:00

Porter Robinson talks Sophie Walker through the personal, musical and familial crises that led to his darkest moments and resulted in the transformation of a decade-long career.

All work and no play makes Porter Robinson a dull boy.

This might strike a strange chord as you remember the EDM supernova of the early 2010s: everything was a party with no hangover. With electro-house overlord Avicii and dubstep’s appointed antichrist Skrillex mopping the dancefloor with their sashimi-sharp production, every track was a new high. It was an era of kids who built accidental empires from their bedrooms, rising to staggering heights as producers – all while they were still teenagers. They found themselves trading these alternate worlds they created, the digital waves washing up on a pixelating shoreline, for the tropical ‘beach vibes’ of Ibiza residencies and headline slots at festivals across the globe. Porter Robinson was one of these kids, and like them, he grew up too fast.

“The first club night I ever went to was my own show”, he says. While his breakthrough hits “Language”and “Say My Name” carved him out as a bassface junkie, loaded with the “teenage male bravado” you’d expect of an 18-year-old, Porter Robinson is, in fact, calm and contemplative – and was perhaps, once upon a time, a little shy. His rise was meteoric, reaching its zenith with “Shelter” , the fizzy dance track made with friend and fellow producer Madeon which racked up hundreds of millions of streams. But Robinson was floored by the comedown. There was little wonder this boy from rural Northern Carolina felt out of his depth, dogged by the constant fear of being “caught as this imposter”. After years of creative drought, which proved to be one of the darkest periods of his life, we at last have Nurture, a testament to falling in love with work through play.

“You know when you hear the same word over and over and it starts to sound meaningless?” he asks. This was the feeling that caused his passion to dry up; looking down, there was a sharp drop. His debut album, Worlds, established him as a transportive, skyward-gazing producer, with a gift for capturing shimmering, cinematic textures in his work fit for a Miyazaki film. Brimming with sincerity in what otherwise proved to be an emotionally hollow genre, Robinson captured a certain alchemy, at last, with EDM which was rewarded both critically and commercially. “I became really consumed with trying to beat it, or make something new that I was proud of that felt different. I struggled.”

It was an ego death. His self-worth was bound up entirely in his creative output, and when he was faced with a blank slate and felt nothing, Robinson’s entire identity caved in like a house of cards. “I thought, ‘I need to work way harder, and I need to spend way more time doing this. I need to suffer for this more’”, he explains. “And that was a step in the wrong direction. It led to a pretty intense depressive episode that lasted a couple of years where I made essentially nothing. I was consumed with the task of making music. I was crying over it… I didn’t want anything else.”

As he chased after a never-ending mirage of greater success, music – or the lack thereof – monopolised his life. “I cut out all the normal aspects of my life,” he says, “like travelling for fun, maintaining friendships, watching movies and listening to albums. It was really unhealthy.” He would crush his ideas while they were still in their infancy – everything seemed mediocre in the shadow of what he had himself created. “Every few minutes, I was evaluating what I was writing through the lens of the meanest critic you can possibly imagine,” he explains. “How does music survive in that environment? It can’t.”

“I feel like I need to write a book”, Robinson laughs, as we talk about how he managed to survive such a bleak creative landscape. While he feels he still needs to “crystallise the language”, he speaks both carefully and eloquently, in a way only someone who has wrestled with their struggles and won could do. He had to take a step back and interrogate his purpose: “I had to ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this? What am I trying to achieve here, and why is this so all-consuming for me?’”

There are some plants that will survive, but not thrive, without darkness. As he was grappling with his chronic state of writer’s block, in November 2016, his younger brother, Mark, was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Mark has since gone into remission, a stroke of great fortune that Robinson celebrated by launching a charity for suffers to fight the illness in Malawi, which he funded through his self-curated festival Second Sky, selling out the event in less than an hour. One memory he recalls from that period was to lay the foundation of Nurture, and ultimately marked the beginning of turning everything around.

He remembers driving Mark back to the hospital, listening to “33 God” by Bon Iver. They were crying – but dancing, too – to the climatic wave of drums as they came crashing in. “When I listen to my favourite artists, when I listen to their music, it fills me with this pensive… like,” he struggles to find the words, “… it makes me feel like everything is okay in the world. I just feel so whole, and there’s so much possibility and I feel so inspired. I decided that giving that feeling through music is really worthwhile, to change people’s lives and remind them that life is worth living.”

It was then that he would have a breakthrough in the lyricism for Nurture’s lead single, “Get Your Wish”. 'Cause that's your role / The work that stirred your soul / You can make for someone else’, he writes. The comments made by his fans have confirmed his purpose, with many echoing the same sentiments he felt listening to Bon Iver.

Song-writing did not come naturally for Robinson, but, he says, “because I had already made music for ten years up to that point, I had this expectation that I should be able to do it, and that it should be easy, and that there was something wrong with me. It took a couple of years for me to learn how to write lyrics that moved my own heart.” In the end, he honed the skill out of necessity – he had something to express. It was through this propulsion that Robinson made the decision, for the first time, to let his own vocals take the reins.

“Bringing in a guest vocalist or bringing in somebody who has this gorgeous voice to sing my sentiments while not fully understanding them just felt so wrong to me,” he explains. While Robinson knew that his talents didn’t lie in that field, his mastery of production would prove that nothing was insurmountable. At first, many fans were speculating as to who the female vocalist was on the single releases for Nurture – it came as a shock to discover that it was, in fact, Robinson himself. Toying with the timbre of his voice through Vocaloid, a singing voice synthesiser that gave him the innocent, other-worldly quality he had been searching for, it allowed for a light relief on what would otherwise be a lyrically weighty album. “I’m not a great singer,” he acknowledges. “I’m wearing it on my sleeve that I edited the hell out of my voice: I pitched it up, did all this creative stuff with it, and I’m doing all of that because it needed to be me. I had to sing it. I want to stand on a stage and sing it.”

Robinson’s reinvention of his music opened his eyes to the importance of lyrics. “I don’t think I understood, before, how incredibly important lyrics were until I started writing this album,” he explains. Robinson comes from the world of electronica, where the lyrics barely factor as a priority – most being empty platitudes of the heart, falling in love or falling apart. But, he continues, “Writing this album, I realised that writing lyrics is something you can dedicate your entire life to and still improve. It's really satisfying to be able to express how I'm feeling in the exact way I hoped to, when that melody, that lyric, the moment and the instrumental all connect and start to convey the feeling I'm trying to give, there's nothing like it, which is why I think I'm so willing to put myself through it.”

“In a lot of ways, I was trying to write songs that sound like the J-pop and J-rock I listen to, but in English with more a dance flavour."

But some things don’t change. Since his emergence, Porter Robinson’s identity as an artist has been bound to his love of Japanese culture. As a teenager, all he aspired to do was create a sound fit for Dance Dance Revolution. The music video for “Shelter” was made in collaboration with Japanese animation studio, A-1 Pictures, and distributor, Crunchyroll; the short anime film would leave fans mesmerised and made disciples of many more, with views in excess of 54 million. One viewer left the comment: “weeb or not, you must admit that this is a masterpiece” - 14,000 others agreed.

Time and time again, Robinson would find his own shelter in the Land of The Rising Sun. While trying to seek inspiration to kickstart the genesis of Nurture, he and his girlfriend would travel around Japan for three months. It would come as little surprise that the very fibre of this album has Japanese culture interwoven within it. “A huge, huge inspiration for me is J-pop,” he says. “In a lot of ways, I was trying to write songs that sound like the J-pop and J-rock I listen to, but in English with more a dance flavour.” Much of Japanese music is largely tropes-based, with many recurring melodies and chord progressions. Its melodramatic flourishes stand centre-front on the album.

In the music videos for “Something Comforting” and “Get Your Wish” show a duality been artifice and nature. It’s the perfect visualisation of Robinson’s new record, as he brings raw instruments to stand side-by-side with synthetics. Reconnecting with something pure and natural has been essential for Nurture, and he feels he owes that to Bon Iver’s 2016 record 22, A Million. “It’s so deconstructed and honest”, Robinson says. “It has a darkness, but it’s beautiful and sincere. It feels kind of raw, like a first draft. That really moved me. I’m always trying to be the sum of all my favourite music. I want to take all the things I really love, run them through a filter of my own experience and habits as a musician, and what comes out on the other end should be unique.”

Porter Robinson

When I ask how, in the end, Robinson would overcome his chronic case of writer’s block and reconnect with his imagination, the answer is surprisingly simple: to cultivate a sense of play. “I think the best songs I've ever written have come, literally, from something I just wanted to show my brothers,” he says. Returning to this almost child-like sense of exploration, to look at everything with a newfound sense of wonder, allowed him to let go of his fixation on an outcome that was beyond his control. “It was almost like when you had a crush on somebody, and you're way, way, way too interested, and by doing that, you're kind of scaring them off,” he attempts to explain. “When you're looking for a certain outcome, you become rigid and inflexible, and the outcome I wanted was I wanted to write songs I'd be proud of. There's very little flexibility, there's very little room for fun there, you know?”

To achieve this, he started to take himself on “dates” with no creative expectation. He started to collect experiences, and from there, he would build a scrapbook of sounds that would reignite his passion. “While I was in Japan, I heard a song and thought, ‘Wow, that chord progression is really interesting, let me try that’, or I’d take a road trip with my brother just for fun, and then he would show me some amazing bossa nova song, and I’d think, ‘I can do that!’” he says. “Suddenly, I’m not trying to make a Porter Robinson song anymore. I’m playing around with the idea of bossa nova and I’m exploring what the parameters of that are, and from there, it would become a Porter Robinson song.”

"I think realising that even your heroes are struggling in the same way is really validating, and it makes it seem possible to overcome.”

But there was a little more to it than that. Robinson would have to confront his rapidly deteriorating mental health to make meaningful progress. “I had to learn a lot about shame, and that came through quite a bit of therapy,” he shares. “I had to learn to better address my OCD, anxiety and depression.” While he feels uncomfortable being the flag-bearer for mental health awareness, cautious about not wanting to “lecture” anyone, he remembers how he felt when he heard an interview with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. “One day, he found himself on his bathroom floor. He was so anxious he couldn’t move,” Robinson recalls. “I think realising that even your heroes are struggling in the same way is really validating, and it makes it seem possible to overcome.”

In a world fixated on the gloss and none of the graft, Robinson prefers to see a work-in-progress. “Something I’m obsessed with is seeing other artists’ project files and their their demos, or the work they throw away. I realise that everyone is kind of going through the same thing,” he explains. “Everyone makes loads and loads of mediocre work, by their own standard, and only shares their highlights.” It’s a direct projection of Instagram culture, where we rear our lives under hothouse lights. By that same token, Robinson has come to understand that we self-sabotage our work by comparing ourselves to an unfair metric. “If I was a fan of Porter Robinson,” he says, “I might, without this context, think that everything this guy makes is really good, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s both reassuring and scary to know that on every level, people who care about what they’re doing are struggling – and that’s okay.”

Something few will understand is what it’s like to grow up with everyone watching you. There are undoubtedly times, as an eighteen-year-old, that you welcome the chance to forget; choices you made which, at the time, felt right, but now seem as though they were made by another person entirely. “When I go back and watch myself at eighteen, I don’t recognise myself,” he says. “I was playing a role, trying really hard to be cool. But at the same time, I can go back and listen to a lot of that music and understand what I was excited about, where I was coming from and what I was trying to do. At times, I’ve been dismissive of my older music, but I don’t think I want to feel that way right now. I can stand behind pretty much everything I’ve made.”

Ten years down the line, he has at last come full circle. Porter Robinson has found contentment not in the endless pursuit of external success, but internally: not making music, but learning to play with it as he once did as a teenager, when everything was an experiment without judgement. “It’s hard for me to think about the reception”, he says, thinking about the looming release of Nurture. “I was so consumed with trying to make something I loved. I’ve come such a long way in terms of working on myself to do things that might seem pointless, creatively, and play music and make stupid, fun songs just to see where they take me.” That’s the point where he lands, at last, after rummaging for answers in the pages.

‘Success’, in a quantifiable sense, doesn’t shine quite so brightly anymore for Robinson. “I remember thinking I would be satisfied if I could just play this one venue, and then I played it and wanted something else, you know? I think humans are just naturally insatiable when it comes to achievement.” It’s a theme he wrestles with more than any other throughout this record. “If I hadn’t arrived at this magical destination of happiness with the current level of success I’d achieved, would this next point really do that for me? I think the answer a really obvious ‘no’.” Longing for achievement has jaded him, but his eyes are set firmly on something of greater worth than that – something that endures. “All I want is for this record to be life-giving. I want it to make people feel grateful to be alive and remind them of what’s important. Nurture stands for hope.”

"Mirror" is out now. A release date for Nurture will be announced later this year.
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