If you’re even a little bit familiar with EDM music, you probably know about Porter Robinson. Or, at least you’ve probably heard some of his songs, like “Shelter,” which has upwards of 140 million streams on Spotify alone. First debuting in the late 2000s as an up and coming dance producer, Robinson’s break-away hit was his first — and thus far, only — album, Worlds. Dropping in 2014, that record helped define not only Robinson’s career, but the genre of EDM as a whole. Now, six years later, Robinson is following it up with his second studio album, Nurture, which does not have a release date yet. On September 9, Robinson dropped a new video for the record’s third single, “Mirror.”
Considering that Robinson has been active for over a decade, has become one of the more celebrated producers in the industry and is still only 28 years old, you’d think that he’d be on cloud nine. But, that’s not quite the case. You might be thinking “oh what, he isn’t satisfied with all of that accomplishment?” and, well… that’s what Robinson was thinking too.
For several years after the success of Worlds, Robinson grappled with an absence of fulfillment in his work. Bogged down by depression, anxiety and OCD induced struggles, music-making became a difficult task for the North Carolina-native. Frustrated — and a little frightened — by this, Robinson took some time off to fully analyze the person he had become after so many years in the spotlight.
In the end, what he ended up discovering was a new vocabulary, for himself, for his experience and for the music he wanted to make. That is to say, Robinson recognized that his drive for achievement was coming from an unhealthy place and was, in fact, hurting his musical output. The toxicity of that work-driven mindset ended up infringing on his mental stability as a whole. But, in being able to recognize that, Robinson has been able to adjust his aperture and focus less on those demons and more on the beauty of everyday life. It was with that newfound appreciation for living that he made Nurture, and it shows.
The record takes on a tonality of healthy living… which isn’t exactly what you’d expect from something like EDM, but Robinson pulls off the feat with utterly masterful precision. Marrying the juxtaposing symbols of nature and electronics, Nurture takes Robinson’s personal experience and illuminates it through a universal lens. “Mirror,” specifically, speaks to the themes of shame and fear that have been on the forefront of his mind and pairs them with a sonic atmosphere of solace. Last week, American Songwriter caught up with Robinson to take a deep dive on these themes, how they changed his music and how they changed his life.
When did you start working on Nurture? Where were you at in your artistic life?
Nurture began the year after I released my debut album, Worlds, which was a huge departure from what I had done previously.
The music I was known for at that point was what eventually became to be known as “EDM.” When I started out, it wasn’t really called that, but that’s the name it ended up with. After a few years of working in that scene, I realized that my tastes had shifted and the scene around me had shifted. I didn’t feel like I was able to express everything I needed to express while working within the confines of “EDM” and party music and stuff like that. So, I wrote the album Worlds. I wrote it pretty quickly, like over the course of two years. It came from this bout of inspiration where I felt really invincible and confident about what I was doing. I felt really ready to sacrifice anything and everything to share that album. I felt like there was a good chance that a lot of the people who were following me before weren’t really going to be interested in that record. So, I came off this high of inspiration and was left with that feeling of “well, now what?” I went from writing music from this place of defiance to just trying to follow up Worlds — especially since that album received a really positive reception and became the biggest thing I’ve done up to this point. I expected that it wasn’t going to be very popular because of how much of a departure it was.
So, yeah. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why writing music became so difficult after I put out Worlds, but it did. The short version of the story is that I reacted pretty negatively to the experience of struggling with music. I took the wrong cue from it. I thought I needed to be working harder, working more hours — I thought I needed to be suffering over it more. I felt that I wasn’t trying hard enough. But, the reality of the situation was that I became so obsessed with music and my career and the ways that other people perceived me that I didn’t really have a life anymore. I wasn’t cultivating new experiences. It was impossible for me to feel playful or have fun in the studio because I was so worried about how it was going to turn out.
So, it took this years-long reset for me. I spent a lot of time realizing what can be great about life outside of achievement and music. That allowed me to have a healthy relationship with it again, it allowed me to make music again. It’s still hard for me, it’s still incredibly difficult to write music — but, it’s not as hard anymore. It’s the right level of hard. It’s stimulating and really rewarding. But, it’s still really difficult!
You spent a lot of time in your home state, North Carolina, while working on this record — did you feel that you were able to tap into a certain sense of inspiration that you had when you were younger and first starting out? Did spending time in that setting connect you to your past-self?
That’s an interesting interpretation, but I don’t really see it that way. I never really left North Carolina — although I was on tour so much that you might as well say I left North Carolina. There were points where I was doing upwards of 200 dates a year, especially in the early days. The album, Worlds, captured a real sense of nostalgia. I was trying to give myself the feeling of my favorite childhood video games, tap into the escapism and fiction that I had when I was a teenager. On Nurture, however, I’m not really trying to express as much nostalgia — although, I certainly have a bias towards that melancholic and beautiful palette. I’m more so trying to find the beauty in the present moment, in everyday life as it is. So, I would say that it takes place more in the present and less in la-la-land, as opposed to some of my early work.
You seem to be the type of artist whose work is innately entwined with their personhood — how have these artistic realizations impacted your personal life? How have your personal realizations impacted your artistic life?
Things changed for me in a lot of ways personally. I had this sense that a lot of people have — and a lot of people think that they’re going to be the exception to this — that there would be some level of achievement that I could reach that would satisfy me. I thought that there was a certain level of success that I would reach and then I wouldn’t want any more. I always thought that people who got really addicted to achievement were somehow different than me. I thought they were superficial or in it for the wrong reasons and all that stuff. But, eventually, I came to a point where I realized that I couldn’t base my entire life around music. At that point, I had played the mainstage of Coachella and did a massive tour and, essentially, made all of my dreams a reality. But, when I got home, I still felt empty and unfulfilled, like something was missing. The thing that was ordinarily motivating for me was finding the next achievement, and I realized “well, if I’m not already satisfied, will I be satisfied if I reach double the level of success?” The answer was obviously “no.” If I haven’t arrived at that mythical destination already, then I probably never will.
So, I started thinking a lot harder about what is actually meaningful for me. I think everyone has to do their own analysis of what that means to them — but, for me, it was essential that I cultivated my strong friendships again and found new media to fall in love with. I know it seems obvious, but I needed new hobbies. I needed to see the things that were beautiful about ordinary life. After that, I was able to work on music again without needing it so much. I was able to relax and have fun with it. It really helped me remember what I loved about writing music in the first place.
I love that moment when you’re writing a song and you forget about your career, you forget about any other song you’ve ever written, you forget about how the song might be received — you just live in the world of the song that’s coming together in front of you. That’s so magical. You just want to stay there and make that world as vivid as possible. Those are the moments that I really cherish.
Another thing that really occurred to me was that it doesn’t have to be about me, it doesn’t have to be about how it makes me feel. I was looking for the answer to “where’s the meaning in my own feelings?” I was trying to find some internal feeling that would tell me if I was going in the right direction. But, I had this realization while I was listening to my favorite albums by other people, records that I really love and admire. Those songs give me a transcendent feeling. The world of those songs are so beautiful, and our world is better because those songs are in it. Thinking about that was really compelling to me. Not for a superficial sense of achievement or an increase in plays or anything like that, but I realized that I could provide that for other people. I could create that for listeners like me. A song can play a meaningful role in a listener’s life and can even make the world brighter to them — that’s really valuable. Those were the things bouncing around my head when I was working on Nurture.
What are some of those records that helped spur that realization?
I think the big one was Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. That album really, really changed my life. Also pretty much all of the works of Masakatsu Takagi, who is a Japanese ambient musician and pianist. Sometimes it’s just about an individual song too. Sometimes you hear something and it moves you in a way that the world seems brighter. I think that’s the feeling that I’m trying to give people. So much of our day-to-day experience is spent looking at media — especially social media. So much of the content there is designed to scare and enrage us. It’s really easy to lose sight of so many of the things that make the world beautiful. There’s no shortage of pain and despair, but there’s also so much beauty and kindness and incredible art and people. I only have so much time to be alive and I really want to cherish those things. So, Nurture is like a love-letter to all of those things that are good, although it tries to discuss the pain in the same breath.
In that regard, this record and the lightness it exudes almost juxtaposes the doom and gloom of current events in 2020 — is that something that you’re thinking about?
I know that my own experience of developing Nurture was that as I wrote it — and as I developed the visual aesthetic of it, in particular — the world started to look so much more beautiful. I was trying to figure out how to express the feelings I wanted through the visual art, so I started collecting inspiring images. A lot of those images were of nature, which, to me, is symbolic of things being as they should be, things being healthy. The more I started cultivating the imagery of nature, the more I took photographs and searched for those visuals, the more everything around me started to resemble this beautiful thing I was trying to cultivate. I started seeing things that moved me everywhere. Every time I looked at the sky I was like “that’s beautiful, that’s incredible.” If we lived on some bleak planet and had the opportunity to travel to Earth for the first time, we’d see this beautiful planet where fucking fire and lighting shoots out of the skies and rain falls from the heavens and there are these giant amorphous bodies of water. It’s so easy to take for granted, but there is an absurdity and beauty to life.
Those are just my own internal feelings, but I have no choice but to release the music I write. The fact that this is happening in 2020 — a time defined by cultural divisions, so much pain and a struggle for justice — there’s a lot to be unhappy about. I’m an internet-y person, so I’m aware of how this messaging is different from what you normally see. But, that’s just what’s coming out of me right now, it’s what I’m attracted to do. I’m pulling the thread of what makes me feel good. Maybe it’s because I find the experience of being online so unpleasant that the everyday world has become so beautiful. But, I don’t see anything I’m doing as “political,” so much as it’s personal and psychological. It’s just what I think is beautiful and it’s what’s helped me through my own suffering.
This is such an intimate and therapeutic record — how does it feel to be sharing that with your listeners after cultivating it behind-closed-doors for so long?
When I’m in the studio writing songs and lyrics, I’m just trying to move myself. I don’t stop with a lyric until I feel that “gut punch.” The things that move me are usually intensely vulnerable, stuff that hurts to read or say. So, by the time I finish a song, it’s too late for me to think twice. There’s a part of me that’ll be like “oh my God, am I really going to sing this in front of people?” But, it’s so hard to write these songs and it takes so much time that by the time they are done, I’m like “well, people are going to hear it now, for better or for worse.” I do have doubts, but I also know that there are moments where this can be really helpful to people. I want to be able to lend a voice to the things that people are maybe scared to say. I want to help people not feel so alone with their own internal dialogue.
To bring up Bon Iver again, I listened to an interview he did with Zane Lowe where he talked about trying SSRIs for anxiety in times when he felt like he couldn’t get up, like, lying on the bathroom floor, unable to move. In that moment, I realized that my heroes go through this stuff too. I think one of the worst things about that kind of psychological suffering is that the message often feels like “there is something uniquely wrong with me.” Like, “there’s something about me and my situation, in particular, that is impossible to come back from.” The more evidence I can put into people’s heads that they’re not alone with that stuff, the better. It was really helpful for me to know that one of my heroes was suffering in a similar way. It’s really easy to tell myself that the music I love and cherish was made through some magical process that’s inaccessible to me. When I was at my lowest points creatively, I was thinking to myself “this has gotten so bad and it’s taken me so long to make this music… this cannot be normal. There’s no way any of the artists I love make music in this way. Why am I still trying? It’s clearly over.” I thought that a lot. That was a frequent feeling I’d have when I was stuck or frustrated or depressed. So, if people love this music, I hope it’s helpful for them to know that I was really doubting it the entire time. I was really scared. I was thinking that it wasn’t meant to be, that I was just turning my wheels without making progress.
But, little by little, it came together. I showed it to my friends and the people I love — which was hard — and they all loved it and were moved by it. I guess I eventually came to realize that if I took it one step at a time, I could turn it all into an album.
So, you went into this record-making process while grappling with how to live a healthier life with a healthier mindset — do you feel that you were able to resolve some of the struggles that you were facing? Obviously, with mental health it’s not like there’s a fool-proof “cure,” but now that this record is done and you’re standing on the other side, do you feel any closer to that ideal vision of living?
Well, as always, I’m still writing music and it’s still difficult. I still have times of intense doubt. That imposter syndrome tends to find a way. But, I think part of the process of recovering from intense mental illness is, well… it’s like you’re building a ladder, in a way. You’re giving yourself an abundance of small tools. None of them on their own are particularly “life-changing,” but cumulatively they make a huge difference. They help you get through the various challenges you face. So, I’m so much better at dealing with a crisis now than I was before. That doesn’t mean that I don’t face them though. Ultimately, I think it would be really discouraging for me to say something like “I don’t struggle with creativity or depression or anxiety or OCD anymore” because that sets an unobtainable, unrealistic standard and it’s just not true. The process of making and finishing Nurture — as well as the process of developing the tools to help myself — allowed for me to tap into a more balanced and happy life. That’s well-integrated into the way I live now. The valleys are smaller and the peaks are longer. So, that’s how it’s been for me.
But, I guess… well, I can still remember the shittiest track I wrote, like, 10 years ago. The specific thought I had after finishing it was “that’s the best thing I’ll ever make. I’ll never, ever beat that — that’s the peak of my ability.” That’s something I wrote 10 years ago that I don’t think is so hot anymore. So, one thing that’s important for me to keep in mind is that a lot of this stuff is unchanging. It finds new ways to disguise itself from you. The various fallacies of negative thought tend to find new ways to present themselves, they find new vulnerabilities you have. One of the skills you have to develop is the ability to recognize those things for what they are and be aware of your own state.
I don’t really discuss it too much on Nurture, but something I struggle with is that when I get scared, I get really angry. I hate it so much. Like, if someone in my life puts themselves in danger, my gut reaction is to get super pissed. Or if I’m scared that I screwed something up or something, I get really angry. It’s the thing I’m most ashamed of. It’s my least favorite way to feel. A recent revelation I’ve had is that anger is an emotion which doesn’t habituate. Fear, for example, is an emotion that does habituate. That’s why dealing with a phobia through exposure is really effective. Anger, however, is an emotion that builds on itself and gets worse the more you focus on it. When something upsets you, the more time you spend thinking about it, the angrier you get. I was given this piece of advice recently: when you get pissed off, no matter how angry you get, you should do something really nice for somebody else. That’s something that you have to experience to believe — and, of course, your mileage may vary, so consult with your psychologist — but it was amazingly effective for me to go from a state of being pissed off to instantly feeling better. That’s just one example of that type of tool kit you can build for yourself. Is that one tip something life-changing? Not really. But, you develop an arsenal over time and that’s what leads to an overall sense of feeling better. You’re trained to deal with your own primitive, survival-oriented mind. So, that’s something that I know has helped me over the years.
So, you were working through all of these important philosophical concepts and finding ways to implement them into your life — how did you approach implementing them in your music?
It was a really intuitive process. What that means for me is finding what feels good, picking up the pieces and then later exploring why it resonates with me. A lot of it looks like me playing around with instruments or a new toy or something until it moves me. With lyrics, I’ll just sing random syllables or melodies into Auto-Tune until I hear something that catches my ear. If the melody’s nice, I’ll think about what words would sound best paired with that melodic line. There’s tons and tons of refinement until it feels like a real song. Later in the process, I’ll stare at what I made and think “huh, I guess that’s what was on my mind.” It definitely didn’t begin with me saying “I want to write an album about the search for hope and finding meaning.” In fact, I even resisted those themes at first. There were a couple of songs that I made back in 2017 where I tried to directly address my lack of inspiration by singing about it. The first attempts were clumsy and I didn’t even want to tell people what I was going through, so I hated what I had written. I was like “oh, this is super annoying to listen to. No one wants to hear that.”
So, if I allowed my intentions to steer the ship, this record probably wouldn’t have ended up like this at all. But, I am looking for that gut punch when I’m writing. When I feel it, I’m like “I guess this is where this song wants to go.” Then I try to connect the dots and make it all make sense later. That’s when I’ll think about what the message is. So, that’s how I work. It’s not a calculated process at all, it’s very intuitive and explorative. The way I ended up talking about things that are personal and psychological… when I would use those words, I felt something strong and that feeling was compelling enough for me to keep it.
So, this interview is going to be published on September 9, which is when the music video for your single “Mirror” comes out — what can you tell us about that song?
This is going to feel related to everything we’ve talked about thus far — “Mirror” is a song that is about shame and the critical inner voices that we have. When I wrote “Mirror,” I was fantasizing, like, “what if I felt no shame? What if I wasn’t afraid of what people said about me? What if I could get universally panned by fans and critics and feel nothing?” That would be so freeing. I was thinking about how incredible and creative I might feel if I could just disregard those voices. That sorta led to the realization that a lot of what got in my way, creatively, was imagining the worst thing that could be written about my song. So, I’d be listening to a song and working on it as normal when a critical voice would creep in and say “well, this sounds like ____ artist and they’re very uncool” or whatever. There are no ends to the thoughts I have that involuntarily attack whatever I’m working on.
But, “Mirror” was a song where I felt myself throwing all of that away. It’s almost like this childish voice saying “I already know what you’re going to say about my music and I don’t care. These criticisms are boring.” That led to this other thing I express in the song, which is: so much of the criticism I was facing was internal. So many of the painful experiences I was having with criticism or rejection or failure were imagined. They were projections that I was putting myself through. I realized that that was a lot of pain that was only getting in my way, it wasn’t helping my music at all. I don’t want to just be a cut-out of all the things that I think are acceptable to the public. If I shaved off everything that I thought might get criticized, I’d just become a tiny, hollow shell. So, I decided to take up some space and say what I’m thinking while trying to be as fearless as possible. I wanted to forget about any criticism. That’s a headspace that I’d love to get into more often, but it’s definitely how I was feeling when I wrote “Mirror.”
Watch the music video for “Mirror” by Porter Robinson below: