Porter Robinson continues to be a beacon of creativity and originality in music with his project ‘Nurture’
March 5, 2021
March 5, 2021
Nurture is the act of tending something frail into blossom; of patiently caring for something so it may grow. No wonder acclaimed producer/songwriter Porter Robinson turned to this word for the title of his second album. A joyous, brave explosion of electronic ideas, introspection and melody, Robinson’s Nurture took six long years of care amid crisis to flower into existence. Nursing it to life meant overcoming existential panic, creative drought, depression and family illness. “It really was an extensive period of just total emotional struggle,” says the North Carolina-based artist, who recounts “literally crying in the studio and in therapy sessions, thinking my life was over.” Nurture is made up of songs he found on the other side: catchy, adventurous, uplifting diaries of his own path back to happiness, each one imploring listeners suffering their own periods of hardship to hold on, to battle through. “I want this music to be helpful to those people,” says the 28-year-old, who evolves his musical style on Nurture, rewiring his epic electro-pop fantasias of old into something intimate, raw and for the first time, driven by the producer’s own vocals. It’s a remarkable sound – one that took a remarkable journey to get here.
It was supposed to be easy. That’s what Robinson had every reason to believe. In 2010, aged 18, he’d exploded onto the dance scene with frenetic, fist-pumping productions meant for electro-house basement raves. Four years later, in 2014, came his debut album. Worlds established him as one of the most restlessly creative new names in electronic pop: a visionary crafter of “gorgeous textures, contemplative storytelling and remarkably sharp melodies,” as the New York Times put it. This album transcended his boisterous beginnings, expanding his sound to incorporate giant, emotive hooks, video game textures and shimmery, cinematic synths. It was a critical and commercial smash, earning the star 1.3bn global streams, a spot on Billboard’s best dance albums of the decade list and eventually, the chance to create his own festival: Oakland, California’s Second Sky, a sell-out two-day event that launched in 2019.
All this success should have left Robinson feeling confident about creating a follow-up album. On the surface, everything appeared fine: in 2016, he released the acclaimed single ‘Shelter’ with Madeon, backed by an anime music video created in collaboration with A-1 Pictures and Crunchyroll that’s since amassed 50m views. A Shelter Live Tour spanning 43 dates and five continents followed. Then, in October 2017, a new chapter of Robinson’s career launched, with a new moniker and new scope: ‘Eon Break’, his first single under the alias Virtual Self, signaled a growing interest in interdisciplinary art and Y2K trance. The project was another hit: another single, ‘Ghost Voices’, earned the producer his first ever Grammy nomination.
Behind the scenes, though, Robinson was floundering. The songwriter fell into a state of creative paralysis that soon mutated into depression and despair. “I was so incredibly hard on myself and had such impossible expectations,” he explains. “After the first album, I felt respected – like I had proved myself. I thought I should be able to write the next thing easily. But starting over is like staring into the void. You have nothing again. A blank slate.” He started writing but nothing stuck. For each idea he began that went nowhere, he became more convinced he was “a failure and a fraud. I got more and more desperate to prove to myself that I could still do it, thrashing around trying to force something that worked. There was no aspect of play or exploration, which is a really terrible way to make music.” The problem, he thinks, “was all tied up in my ego. I was identifying way too much with the work I was doing.” The success of Worlds had given him a sense of self-worth: “I finally felt that people were proud of me,” he says. The more he struggled to write, the more that sense of self-worth grew more and more unstable. Robinson began to unravel. “I stopped going to the movies. I stopped listening to new music. I cut a lot of things off. The only thing I had in my life was my music, so when I felt like I was failing… well, it was devastating.”
There were other challenges. In November 2016, his younger brother, Mark, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as Burkitt lymphoma. “He was so, so sick. The chemotherapy they use to treat it is brutal because that particular form of cancer is so aggressive,” he recalls. Mark has since gone into remission – good news that Porter recently marked by launching a charity raising money for sufferers of the illness in Malawi – but one memory from that time stands out for Robinson. “I remember driving him back to the hospital one day and listening to the song ‘33 God’ by Bon Iver, my favourite artist of all time. We were crying – but dancing too, to the drums as they came crashing in… It was just this transcendent moment with music that we got to share,” he says. It reminded him that “music has the potential to be so transformative and meaningful that way. Sometimes you can be listening to music and have something just move you in the most unbelievably blissful way. Suddenly, the sky seems so blue and the world feels so full of possibility. You’re excited about everything and you want to do everything all at once.”
It was moments like this that helped him “claw myself out of that dark spot” as he describes it. Eventually he started writing music in the hope of soundtracking moments like that in the lives of others. “Once I realised it’s not about me, once I balanced my life more and just started writing music that I wanted to hear without so much analysis and pressure, something lifted. It became so much easier to move forward. I picked a direction based on what my soul and my gut were telling me and just moved towards it with purpose.”
The direction he picked was a unique one. “I wanted it to feel more intimate and close-up, less epic. I didn’t want it to feel so vast and fantastical and imaginary. I wanted it to feel mindful and real-life. That manifested itself in a lot of different ways in my routine. I tried to record instruments up close and softly, without big wide spaces in the mix. I also realised quickly it had to be me singing and writing the lyrics. Part of the reason it took so long was that I needed to develop that skill set – I didn’t know how to sing at all really,” he laughs.
On Nurture, that decision pays off in spectacular ways. Tracks like the glitchy, gorgeous ‘Unfold’ and ‘Something Comforting’ – an acoustic, finger-picked slow dance full of starry wonder – find Robinson layering ghostly melodies and evocative poetry over sheets of synthy ambience, constantly toying with the timbre of his voice using computer software. “A big part of this album is me pitching my voice up in a way that feels alien, robotic, feminine and childlike. I wanted a little bit of a cute quality, for it to be light – because lyrically the album is so heavy. I’d begin with very sweet sounding instrumentals, then I’d sing over it these lyrics made of almost pure pain,” he says. “Producing the album, I reached for sounds that had the aesthetic of real drum kits, real pianos. A lot of my old music was about escapism, whereas this is about mindfulness, presence and realness… until the augmented voice comes in,” he says. “I really like how that injects some weirdness. It’s this little lightning strike of the digital, the synthetic, the artificial.”
That dynamic comes thrillingly to life on songs like ‘Look At The Sky’, which The FADER says “might be the best song Porter Robinson’s ever written” and Entertainment Weekly calls “victory pop at its finest,” featuring devastatingly human lyrics take on inhuman hues: “I’m still here, I’ll be alive next year, I can make something good,” Robinson sings atop J-pop-inspired keys. Which makes sense: the 28-year-old wrote that particular track and portions of the rest of the album while in Japan. “We stayed in an Airbnb and I would take the train to the studio each day. That was really cool. But a lot of the rest of Nurture was written just at home, surrounded by my dog and a million cups of half-drunk coffee.”
The resulting album is somehow both Robinson’s most accessible and most experimental work to date. For every song like ‘Wind Tempos’ – an ambient wall of glimmering melody that eventually gives way to solo piano that sounds like it could be taken from a Miyazaki movie – there’s a big anthem like lead single ‘Get Your Wish’, a song that “I’m really in love with. I started with that little piano riff at the beginning and noodled around it till it was finished in one week. Which is really rare for me!” Taking risks, blending styles and never settling on style is part of his musical DNA, he’s come to realise. “I don’t like the idea of just trying to please my existing fanbase – of being the kind of artist that people feel they can come to for one consistent thing. I can’t stay in one place for very long.”
Since its long-awaited release, Nurture continues to receive a steady stream of critical acclaim, with Billboard revering it as “soft, gentle, sweet and painfully honest” album, while Pitchfork praises Porter for the “newfound clarity” that he uses to write “directly about his struggles and the ecstatic realizations that have come from hard times.” The day following Nurture’s release, Porter’s refocused vision came to further fruition when he hosted the second installment of his Secret Sky livestream festival, which took place in a state of the art digital auditorium and found Porter give a stunning first performance of material from the album. Soon after, Porter announced the return of Second Sky to California’s Bay Area in September of 2021, an in-person festival that will feature sets from some of Porter’s favorite artists including Toro y Moi, Jacob Collier and Madeon as well as Porter’s first performance of a brand new live show of songs from Nurture.
Its creation wasn’t easy, but Nurture is worth the wait, and then some. “I’ve figured out that with my music, my number one goal is to be understood, to make people feel the same things that I feel,” explains the songwriter. Prepare to feel plenty of emotion when you listen to Nurture – an album that makes the sky seem blue, the world full of possibility. Porter Robinson is back and blossoming.