Porter Robinson: creator of highly listenable electronic pop music. Sawer of logs (see Something Comforting video for details). Thoughtful fellow. Interesting Talker. Name thief.
To be totally frank this was only supposed to be a twenty minute chat about the Something Comforting video and it ended up getting a bit out of control and going on forever but it’s all staying in the piece because what he says is a) interesting in its own right due to the above-mentioned Interesting Talker factor, and b) solid gold advice for anyone, be they popstar or non-popstar, struggling with creativity.
Warning: this article contains the phrase “vortex of negative emotion”. 🙁
Your new stuff is very beautiful.
I’m not really sure how that happened. It took a long, long time to make that music. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m feeling really good now.
Was there a point where you felt that it simply wouldn’t happen?
Yes. There were times, especially in 2015 and 2016, when I was pretty much convinced I couldn’t do it any more. Once I became concerned that creativity was going to be an issue for me, and that I wasn’t going to be able to make music any more, it became an obsession for me. Every single session, every single work day, which normally is supposed to be a fun, creative, explorative thing, became something else. I was checking myself at every moment. It’s a horrible, negative way to be approaching art which [ideally] requires a great deal of vulnerability and risk and excitement. I still haven’t processed why it all was. I was so scared about not being able to do it and that made it enormously difficult for me.
What was the turning point?
It would be great for me to say there was one particular thing, because that would help a lot of people! It would have been great for me to hear a simple solution. But I can talk about a few things that were constructive for me. The first place my mind goes is that I left my parents’ house. I was really attached to my childhood in a lot of ways and I didn’t want that stage in my life to be over, so it was a step I was scared of taking. Once I did that, and once I moved away from home and met this amazing woman called Rika who’s just unbelievable… Well, it was about being able to leave something I was holding onto really tightly.
Another thing I was clutching onto for dear life was that my entire identity had to be ‘being a musician’. When I was 18 years old and started touring that gave me a great sense of pride because I just hadn’t done anything like that before: suddenly people were proud of me, and it’s sort of intoxicating. In order to relax, I had to accept the possibility that maybe I couldn’t do it any more.
During that really tough period I was pretty much unwilling to do anything beyond making music. I wouldn’t go to movies, I wouldn’t listen to new albums. I thought, ‘the problem must be that I’m not working hard enough’. I didn’t realise how much that was contributing to the problem. It should be so obvious. It’s stupid in retrospect. If you’re not taking in influences, you can’t just conjure art out of thin air through sheer force of will. You need to have new stimulating ideas in your mind. The turning point for me, I think, was that I accepted that whatever I was doing wasn’t working, and that I had to not work on music. I had to try other things, and see movies, and listen to albums, and travel, and meet new people, and catch up with friendships. That was incredibly important for me.
So you accepted that ideas couldn’t be created from nothing, and that they have to grow from somewhere. Which brings is to the album title Nurture, right?
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I love that and I’m going to use it. Thank you. I worked on this album for four years without a working title in my head and there was only one other working title I entertained, which I’m not going to mention, but when I thought of this one it was instantaneous for me. In a way I can’t explain.
But if you had to explain…
If I try to explain it… I do think a large component of this album is trying to sort of claw back some sense of intent and control in one’s life. I was very obsessed with determinism 1 when I was younger. Once I thought about the idea that free will might not exist, it really obsessed me. In a negative way. I hated it. It’s something I try to put out of my head these days, and it’s easy for me to forget now. But the things that make people who they are are their nature and their nurture.
Your nature is the things that are inherent about you, and your nurture consists of things that both happened to you and that you’ve done in your own life. It’s the other half of your experience besides the things that are inherent to you. It evokes the word ‘nature’ which obviously, aesthetically, is relevant to what I’m interested in, but it also evokes the sense of control and how your experience defines who you are in some ways. And how you can affect your experience.
There was a point in my life when I became so cynical and so afraid of being hopeful. I was scared to feel hopeful about anything. I’d start on a musical idea and get excited about it, but there would be a voice in my head: “Don’t get too excited, you’re going to feel stupid when this doesn’t work out. You’ll be disappointed.” I think a lot of people feel ashamed about the idea of being hopeful because you’re scared to look naive. You believe you’ll feel worse down the line for having been hopeful at all. That kind of cynicism can be a protective mechanism to keep you from feeling embarrassed. But if you zoom out, it’s a pretty insecure and sad way to approach things. It’s not very cool, really, being scared of being hopeful because you might disappoint yourself. Cynics do have an aura of coolness about them but I find cynicism to be very uncool, actually, and it’s way more admirable to be vulnerable and to earnestly and sincerely try at something. I’m amazed by that.
I grew up a pretty cynical person and my experience with Rika, again and again and again, would be that there’d be a situation where my thought would be “no way, there’s no chance”, and she’d stubbornly persist on something for maybe 10% longer than I thought made sense, and oftentimes it would work out. She’s relentlessly optimistic and relentlessly positive. That affected me in a profound way. Just a little more dogged persistence and a little less fear of failure can go a long way. I definitely regret the time I spent giving up on stuff.
Earlier I mentioned the turning point I had, after I’d isolated myself in the studio for years and made nothing, and eventually I broke and realised I needed to travel and ‘waste time’ and not work. One of the things I did during that time was visit the studios of other musicians I respect. Not setting up a collaboration, but experimenting together. And what I found is that I’d start something, a musical idea, and after two or three hours I’d start to get into the mentality of “this is hopeless”. I’d lose the rush of the original idea, and I’d start to feel like it wasn’t good. And nearly every person I worked with was baffled. They’d be like: “Why are you considering starting over?” This happened with seven different people. All these people going: “What are you doing? Why are you wanting to start over?” I love that all those different people were willing to call me out on that and not to defer to ‘my expertise’. Everyone told me I was giving up on ideas too quickly, so that was helpful. I learned to push through that phase of fear and anxiety about a song not being good.
But I can imagine that even during the difficult period, if you’d been in the other chair — if someone had come to you, and they’d given up on an idea too easily — you also would have called them out on it. But it was just difficult to identify that behaviour in yourself.
I think nowadays I’d recognise that and be able but actually in 2015 and 2016 I was very much in the mindset of feeling that the best songs are all done in a rush of euphoria. I’d developed an expectation: that the best songs are all done in two days, and they’re fun from start to finish. Which is an experience I’ve had a couple of times with songs I really love. But that led me to think that if something’s not happening, that means something’s wrong.
But of course just because something can happen that way, that doesn’t mean it necessarily has to.
Exactly. There are so many ways to get to the creative end. A common question is: “How do you start songs?” And almost every good musician’s reaction to that is: “I don’t know, it’s different every time and if I had a way of doing it consistently I’d be making a lot more music.” I’ve had a funny experience now I’m in the end stages of this new album and I’m writing all this new music. I’ve heard this from other musicians too: you’re almost done with a project then all these new ideas start coming to you. I’ve been making music for fifteen years and I’ve never had it before, but it’s happening to me now. I’m having so much fun writing stuff when I’m not supposed to be.
It makes sense that you’re hitting a new creative streak when you’re happy that your album’s almost done. It echoes what you were saying earlier about how once the pressure’s off, creativity can appear.
That’s definitely a part of it: the lack of pressure. The most I’ve ever experienced that before is with the last album, and the last song I wrote for it was Sad Machine, which ended up being the biggest song on the record. I wrote that after I’d submitted the entire album. I had to push things back in order to get that on there. But that was just one song. Now, I’m writing tonnes of music, and having fun, and it’s something I haven’t experienced for many years.
You mentioned a sense of regret on the time you’d spent giving up on stuff, as if you felt that was wasted time. But I wonder if you’d be in this place now without all that having happened. So then I wonder: was that time actually wasted?
Yeah. I think about that too sometimes. I… Yeah. It’s difficult to describe because I think this was about a creative low but also my wellbeing and my health. I was very, very depressed and extremely anxious. I know many people are anxious. But I’ve been through some stuff in my life and it was probably the worst thing I’d ever experienced. I just felt so, so low. It was a vortex of negative emotion that lasted for years. And, well, I wonder if there was another way. (Laughs) I wish musicians didn’t have to go through this. It’s such a common thing for musicians, especially around the age I was — 25, 26, 27 — to be going through these mental health struggles. The thing I’m really lucky for is that I wasn’t struggling with any addiction. I just wish… I mean, I get that there should be some level of pain and some degree of sacrifice, and I’m not trying to feel bad for myself here, but it was extreme. I’d love to say the music I’ve made has made it all worthwhile but, well, I wouldn’t wish it on other people.
I think you’re right to push back on the subtext of what I said because there’s an idea that’s quite damaging to the musical community in general and specific artists within it too: the idea that you must struggle for your art. ‘You must push yourself to the point of breakdown before you can make great art.’ And actually, it doesn’t have to be like that — there are ways the industry and fans and journalists and other artists can help artists not feel that they have to push themselves into a breakdown just to make some bloody pop music.
(Laughs) You know, I completely agree with that. The thing is, I’ve written the best music of my life when I was feeling great and I’ve always secretly felt ashamed of that. I write my best music when I’m in love and I’m having fun. When I’ve been in pain, I’ve never written anything good.
The thing that’s new to me about Nurture is that it was only once I was feeling more healthy, happy and stable that I was directly able to address the pain I’d been feeling. In 2015 and 2016 I thought: “Well, I feel awful, I’m questioning everything, maybe I should write about this! Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” And I tried. I tried so, so hard to write about what I was feeling. This may come across as melodramatic but I’d be crying in the studio. Feeling terrible. I could not write ANYTHING. And I guess the good side of that is that a couple of years down the line, when I could access my memories of how I’d been feeling… Well, I do like the lyrics I’ve been writing. I feel happy with how I’ve been able to describe some of those feelings. So It’s not all bad. And I should be open about that. As much as I resent the idea that music and art should come from suffering, if I hadn’t gone through it I wouldn’t be able to write the way I’m writing today. I wouldn’t be able to evoke some of the sadness, especially in my lyrics, if I hadn’t experienced it directly.
But I like to be happy! I like to feel joy. When I’m writing a song and it’s going well, there’s nothing that compares to that. There’s not a single thing in the world, not even performing live, more glorious. There’s an unbridled excitement and potential that I feel. Language is really not enough to describe this.
You almost don’t need language. When you released Something Comforting and posted a video discussing some of the troubles you’d had, there was a point in the clip where you played the part of the song that you’d recorded when everything had suddenly made sense. And totally spontaneously in that video, as soon as you play that piece of music, a smile appears on your face. That’s the joy you’ve just been talking about, right?
I wish I could put it into words though! And I wish people could feel what I’m feeling. I often think that what I’m trying to do through music is share a sense of joy with people. It’s about why I make music but also why I share it publicly. I reached a point where I realised that no higher level of achievement was going to satisfy me: by that 2015/2016 period I’d done more than enough stuff in my life. I’d achieved enough. I remember asking myself: “What exactly do I want here? If I won a Grammy, would my life really change, or would I be any happier?” I had to come to terms with the idea that achieving something like that wouldn’t make me happy. I came to realise that achievement wasn’t going to do it for me. It’s not like you get 85% of the way to being The Beatles and that sucks, but once you’re 100% of the way that’s amazing, you know?
And even The Beatles ended up not wanting to be in The Beatles.
Right! It’s kind of obvious when you zoom out and look at it: the most successful popstars are very lucky in some ways, and in other ways their lives seem miserable. I had to wrestle with that and think pretty hard about how if that were the case, what it was I did want. I was asking myself why I was trying to do this. And the conclusion I came to was in two parts.
The first is remembering that feeling when you’re fully immersed in someone else’s song and you have the chills, and you’re driving, and you have that little moment of bliss in other people’s music — well, I had to remind myself that people can experience that listening to my music. That might seem obvious but when you spend a hundred hours listening to the same thirty seconds of a song, it’s easy to lose sight of what it actually is. So that’s one thing: the idea that the inspiration and bliss I feel in other people’s music is something I can sort of pass on to people who hear my music.
And the other thing, which is related, is that my greatest desire is to feel understood, and to share my taste. In a weird way I feel like the music I write is about me trying to give other people the same feelings my influences have given me. Maybe every other artist does this? It’s like I’m trying to repackage my favourite stuff into an unrecognisable form.
For legal reasons if nothing else.
Ha, well, yes, but also because I’m a fan of novelty. I love the idea of something being new. There’s real magic in the re-synthesis of things you love. To me, my songs when I hear them are almost like a moodboard — I can see the pieces of everything I love in them. They feel disjointed in my mind’s eye, but I love them for that: I love the idea that my songs each contain a little piece of all these things that have caused me joy.
Let’s talk about the Something Comforting video! It’s a similar template to the previous one — will ‘Porter in a box’ the motif for all the visuals throughout the campaign?
Well. The Something Comforting video was actually made first — originally it was going to be the first song that came out. With Get Your Wish my thought was: “What if we took this little slice of nature and turned it into more of a performance video?” Which was something new for me — I’d never done any kind of performance video, and I wanted to lean into the strangeness of that. I still have no idea how people perceive me but I wanted to lead with Get Your Wish because I thought the performance video would be a bit more shocking and turn people’s expectations on their head.
But yes, the Something Comforting idea came first and yes I guess it is something of a template. Nature is a big part of the look and feel of this album. To me, nature in art represents health and serenity and peace and I wanted to find a different way of relating to the idea of nature. Because I’m not a big hiking guy! I don’t generally spend a lot of time in nature myself. It’s not who I am — I’m not a rugged man of the woods.
I mean, no offence, but I could tell that from the way you were sawing the log in the video. It’s very much “here’s a man who hasn’t cut much wood in his life”.
(Laughs) AND they pre-cut it for me! (Laughs) But the way I relate to nature is sort of through a window. My studio is out in the woods and I can see and hear nature from where I sit: it represents possibility and health and peace and a sense of sweetness. I knew I wanted to relate to nature in my music videos but I wanted to put it in a bit of a box. I didn’t want to film it out in nature — I wanted to inject a bit of artificiality into it. Because that’s how I’ve always related to it. Some of my most beloved experiences of exploring quote-unquote nature have been in digital videogame worlds. So I wanted to reference the artificiality of my relationship to the wild.
When you step off the box in the video, what’s happening?
It’s about someone who’s stuck and trying to leave — but it’s scary trying to leave. It’s a representation of being stuck in this little studio: being creatively stuck, and the darkness outside the garden is representing the uncertainty of life outside your routines. It’s about taking a leap of faith towards a healthier and more balanced situation.
But also, the perfect video for these self-isolating times.
Is it not a bit strange that the world’s gone mad and here we are having a chat? Obviously, pop music always will and must carry on. But on the other hand, I’ve often wondered how I’d behave if there were a massive global crisis and here’s my answer: I’d sit around on the phone chatting to a popstar who stole my name.
(Laughs) So. It’s been interesting releasing music around this time. I can only hope that people will continue to do what’s in the best interests of everyone else in their society, but I’m also looking to the point where people will at least be able to go about their daily online lives a bit better. The point where we don’t need to frame everything through the lens of this pandemic.
It feels like at the moment everything’s done because or in spite of the pandemic. “Since we’re all staying at home” — that kind of thing. And I’m not sick of that by any means — I find it pretty cosy in some ways, with all the livestreams people are doing. I’m not trying to be cynical at all about the ways people have adapted, in fact it’s amazing, but I also hope pretty soon people will not need to have that asterisk of “by the way — yeah, coronavirus”. You can feel a bit tone-deaf going about promoting something.
So my hope is that soon people won’t be thinking as much about it, even if we’re continuing to take the best steps to make sure we as a society get through this thing. God, I’m really hoping this turns out okay. I’m pretty scared of certain circumstances. I mean, I have a pretty anxious disposition anyway, obviously, and I’ve spent a lot of time myself wondering how things might be if nothing was the same any more… Some days it’s cosy and interesting and other days I’m fearful. I mean this video was finished such a long time ago that I hadn’t thought critically about it in a while and coronavirus thoughts occurred to me a few days ago. I don’t think I’d want to the message to be “you’ll feel better if you leave”, though.
But if you have a garden, why not plant some seeds?
I was watching documentary about the Unabomber recently and obviously I don’t agree with the Unabomber’s general way of going about things—
Thanks for that caveat! I’m glad to know what your take is on the Unabomber.
But the thing is, when they showed the little shed he lived in, I thought: I quite fancy that.
Those minimalist fantasies, and the idea of escaping to your own little quiet retreat… It’s really tempting.
I mean, I’d last nine days before I got bored and went home, but still.
In a way that relates to the video. During my difficult period I was stuck: I was doing the same routines over and over again and going nowhere. In the video I wanted to depict some of the melancholy of being stuck in a situation that some people might envy, in a way — because there was a comfort in my routines: I’d wake up, make coffee, go to work. But I was stuck and I was not happy and I needed to get away from that. So my challenge was to convey why a situation some might find appealing might have been difficult for me. Because I can imagine how my situation might be pretty hard to relate to — and people might find it hard to empathise.
I certainly know that when I was growing up and thinking about musicians I respected, the way I thought it worked was that they’d think of sounds in their head, then they had the skill to make whatever they were thinking. I didn’t realise how much doubt and uncertainty every artist on the planet has if they really care about what they’re doing — so that led to a great deal of imposter syndrome. I’m still coming to terms with how much other people in my position are also struggling.
So with the video there’s this idea that someone who seems to have an idyllic life, that from the outside looks really beautiful, feels trapped. I definitely was stuck in my routines. So when I had the idea of a little slice of nature in a void, shot in a documentary style but in such a way that it’s clear to the viewer that it’s actually a very strange circumstance… Well, it just felt right to me for the song. It just felt really right. A visual that really matched what I’d been feeling.
Is now the time to properly bring up the fact that you stole my name? It feels like we do need to have this out. And I appreciate not everyone reading this will be called Peter Robinson so this won’t be very relatable. Should I just let this go? Every fucking time I see your name I think it’s me.
I get it. Although our names are similar you probably won’t relate to this but I have something along the same lines. People who wait tables and work in kitchens have this thing they do when they’re coming round a corner. They yell: “CORNER!” And every time I’m in a restaurant it scares the shit out of me because I think people are calling my name. So that’s something I get and you don’t. And you should count yourself lucky because I definitely got the short end of the stick here.
I think on a cosmic level balance has been achieved.
That’s good. Let’s bury the hatchet.
I accept your apology. Good luck with the rest of the album!
Thank you, and goodnight.
Something Comforting is out now; Nurture‘s out when Porter’s finished coming up with last-minute additions.