Nature Boy: Porter Robinson Interviewed

The electro-pop progressive talks us through nature and 'Nurture'...

Porter Robinson is quick to share his passions with the world. The 28 year old American producer has been seeking out ways to blend electronic music with his love of emotive songwriting and Japanese culture. Nurture, his second studio release, is the next foot forward on that path, though this one took years to plant. Like a farm tackling drought season, Robinson had to find relief before he could produce once again.

After his 2014 debut album 'Worlds' and eruptive 2016 single with Madeon ‘Shelter’, the alt-pop auteur was creatively drained. Those two projects did involve him voyaging away from his EDM past and collaborating with A-1 Studios on an extended anime music video respectively, both understandably exhausting undertakings, so when the next era came around, Robinson found himself stuck.

Searching for a new way of making music that got out of the way of himself, he was hindered by his inner critic and some heavy personal issues, including his brother dealing with an aggressive form of cancer. “But one of the amazing things about humans is that we can get used to anything,” he counters. “We’re incredibly adaptable and can endure great horrors to habituate good fortune.”

The key adaptation for him was to step away from the internet at large and step outside.

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Pulling back and seeing things day by day was the first step to mental recovery. With the help of his esteemed girlfriend, Robinson learned to better appreciate the smaller aspects of everyday life, ignorant of the theatrics of internet discourse that can rile up emotions with a new outrage each day. “If I see something online that hits me in a point of real insecurity, [I know that] it’s gonna affect me and fuck up my day” he says with no bother. “It’s like your sense of time and scale goes offline. You forget how long you’ve felt this way, and you tend to forget how bad it really is, and it seems so inescapable. I’ve always found it really difficult to have much perspective on how well I’m doing at all, but I think I’m doing pretty well.”

This afforded him a more relaxed relationship with music, in which ideas can come naturally and unbothered by the stress of inner doubt or external reception. He recalls the day his single “Look in the Sky” was released, alongside the details of his longed-desired second album. “I didn’t spend [that day] basking in the glory of having new music released. Rather, I spent it on Discord with my friends and wasn’t checking the internet much. There wasn’t any validation-seeking or anything like that. I just had an overall pretty pleasant day with my friends.”

Another big change was moving out of the family home. Having enjoyed a close relationship with his parents and three brothers, Robinson was reluctant to leave that happy setup. “Something that used to scare me when I was in my early 20s was the idea of moving out and my childhood being over. Most of the time in my life I’ve spent in this very happy family, and this rosy childhood, [and now] that’ll be over and I’ll have experienced 99.9999% of that familial warmth and comfort that I love so much. I’m lucky I have a really close family and so it was scary for me to think of giving that up, and what I found on the other side of it was like so many things you love, if you’re holding on to it too tightly, it can evaporate in your hand.” After moving out, he felt an even stronger bond with his family, and as a bonus, is immersed in the idyllic surroundings of North Carolina.

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Engaging with hiking regularly brought Robinson greater perspective on his life, particularly as he observed the sky, something that acted as a statement on the vastness of reality peppered with clouds. “People in my life make fun of me all the time for it, but I’ll be like ‘oh my god the clouds are just so beautiful right now’, no matter what state they’re in,” he gushes. “Even on a day with a completely grey or white sky, it can look incredibly amazing to me. I’m so in awe of reality, especially as someone who spent their entire adolescence and early adult life believing that the internet was the most important thing. [I felt that] finding glory there would be the way I could derive happiness and only recently I started to fall in love with real life.”

Early on in the creative process, the sky became an integral part of the artwork of Nurture. The photographs that are included on the single covers were simple iPhone photos he took on those hikes, unintended to visually define his new music. Whether it be in “serene, idealised green and blue landscapes” as he describes, or the contrails from a plane that disturb the pure blue, which also manifested themselves in the scribbles that declutter Nurture’s artwork. “The scribbles felt like a stand-in for some of the randomness and frustration of the creative process, but also raw, untapped potential”, he explained. “I think the big breakthrough was when I realised the scribble needed to be aliased, like when you’re using the pencil tool in MS paint, because I’ve always felt the sound of Nurture is like nature looking through a window, like a desktop wallpaper version of nature.”

Aiding the visual direction was Samuel Burgess-Johnson, known for being the chief art director for British art-pop band The 1975, and Robinson is eager to mention his prolific approach to design. “I would come to Sam with an idea, and he would try 450 different versions of it. I was [shocked], thanked Sam for the hard work and told him he could take a break, and he’s like ‘nah, I like doing this’.”

The final front cover underwent this same extreme process, however, the original untampered photo of the artist in question face-down in a grass field was the version that kept lighting their eyes up. “It just felt so tactile to me,” Robinson reflects further. “It has that thing I love about an album cover where it feels like a shape and a splash of colour that can be appreciated as a little thumbnail.”

Burgess-Johnson’s contributions also extended to the music videos, assisting Robinson in the creative direction of the miniature world sets seen in ‘Get Your Wish’ and ‘Something Comforting’. Placing the artist in a small, sensory slice of forestry and seas amidst a nebulous void, it follows in line as a 3D extension of the artwork and album concept, a curated version of nature.

On the treatment of natural visuals, Robinson ponders that “nature serves [as a] metaphor in my work [because] it’s a representation of things being as they should be. I’m not showing the swamps, I’m showing these beautiful, hospitable-looking pastures and blue skies, because I understand that that in itself is a simulation. I always put a little asterisk on it as well.”

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From the singles released so far, 'Nurture' reads like an endearingly scruffy colouring book that goes out of the lines and across pages, connecting influences as diverse as Anamanaguchi, Mat Zo, PC Music, Noughties pop, Eurodance, and Japanese video game and anime soundtracks. Two key influences were Bon Iver’s experimental opus '22, A Million', as well as the music of Japanese pianist Takagi Masakatsu. First hearing the composer’s work while watching the 2012 movie Wolf Children, in Robinson’s own words, “I was obsessed with beauty and emotion in music and this expressed it in a way that was completely novel to me. This is my go-to example of something that felt extremely intimate and small but still so beautiful.” Robinson actually had an interesting visit to Masakatsu’s house, but bit his tongue on it to save for a later date.

Sonically, the greatest breakthrough he had lied in the pitched-up vocals that allowed him to sing his own words. Toying with naming the technique a “digital falsetto”, he describes it as a real-time software that makes his voice eerie and novel, and “represents a negative inner voice or an idealised version of myself.” Upon its discovery, it became the initial gem of inspiration that formed after years spent under pressure. “Something I often find as a musician is [that] I could be sat there trying to write a melody for hours on a piano and nothing comes to me, and then I find a new sound or instrument and floodgates open”, he elaborates with a spark in his voice. “Once I gave myself permission to do that and realise it could be part of the core identity of the album, all hell broke loose and there was an infinite number of things I wanted to do with it.”

In unlocking this new potential, Robinson tells how he revelled in the joy that technology had brought him. “The idea of someone [who is] primarily a songwriter relying so heavily on technology to even be able to perform the songs was interesting to me. It made me envision a future of seeing songwriting who you may never hear their real voice, as things like AI-driven voice synthesis stuff take it so far beyond Vocaloid. I always love when a creative idea can only exist because of the time that the artist lives. If this was 30 years ago, I literally could not do this sound.”

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Although, he is quick to note that this vocal modulation is no original idea, citing the tempo-shifting voices on Tyler, the Creator’s 'IGOR', on top of the vocal modulations he heard in Bon Iver’s and Takagi Masakatsu’s aforementioned efforts. But Robinson never laments the fact that others got to the idea before him. Rather, he is excited that it is becoming a more popular tool for artists. “It feels like it’s bubbling in the zeitgeist, but that’s why I’m always so careful to put that asterisk there and say [that] I’m far from the inventor of this. All of music is this beautiful collaboration between all of humanity and it’s amazing to get to be a part of it and contribute.”

On the other hand, he keenly asserts that his spin on pitched vocal effects accommodates more vulnerability, something he feels it has lacked until now. “Sometimes it’s presented with a little bit of irony or humour or distance, like the chipmunk effect in soul sampling”, Robinson references back to 2000s-era hip-hop. “Or sometimes the pitched-up voices that you can hear in electronic music can sometimes feel a bit exaggerated. I wanted to do this pitched-up vocal effect in a way that felt really earnest and with no irony or humor, as a way to be more vulnerable. I try to make it still sound plausibly-deniably human.”

This dichotomy between the familiar and extra-terrestrial also informs Nurture’s use of bare piano. In lieu of the vast, otherworldly synths that coated Worlds, this favouring towards the organic counterpart feels like EDM deconstructed, a more up-close and personal portrait rather than the genre’s infamous pyrotechnics. “I knew I wanted this album to feel more real-life somehow”, Robinson recounts, “so I tried to avoid using synths as much as possible. I would add a super synthy sound, like how you imagine the 80s hardware synths to sound, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t blend it. So something I’m using much more on this album are sampled instruments, because they’re more like a photograph than a painting.”

A head-turning statement for sure, but as with a majority of his more cryptic thoughts, he delves deeper to give the full picture. “A piano instrument that you use on your computer is basically like 6,000 photographs of a piano. They take a recording of each key and play it at different velocities, and then the software is just playing back these little snippets of real, recorded audio.” If the multi-dimensional sounds of Worlds is his painting, Nurture, despite its hectic presentation, is more earthy and tangible like a photograph. It casts back on the artist behind it today; a more grounded person, enjoying the beauty of the real world and viewing it with fresh eyes.

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'Nurture' will be released on April 23rd.

Words: Nathan Evans

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