It wasn’t long after the release of Porter Robinson’s lauded 2014 debut full-length, Worlds, that he convinced himself he would no longer be able to make music. The album had hit No. 18 on the Billboard 200, debuted at No. 1 on Dance/Electronic Albums and established Robinson, then 22, as a pioneer of a fresh, smart style of electronic music made for kids raised on the internet and anime.
The pressure to make an equally innovative follow-up was crippling. By 2016, Robinson had been working on a new album for two years and had maybe two ideas to show for it. Thinking that he just wasn’t working hard enough, he cut out everything in his life that didn’t have to do with music — friends, fun, life experiences that might actually give him inspiration. It didn’t help. Circumstances grew darker later that year, when his younger brother Mark was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
“This is when I was at my most unhealthy,” recalls Robinson over Zoom from his Chapel Hill, N.C., home. “I was just severely depressed and very anxious. I was terrified of the idea of moving out of my parents’ house.” But while he had become “extremely tied” to the idea that he was stuck, it wasn’t entirely true. In late 2017, Robinson released a five-track EP under an alias, Virtual Self: an homage to late-’90s and early-’00s rave music. Its single, “Ghost Voices,” earned a Grammy Award nod for best dance recording before Robinson kind of forgot about it.
“I would say things to myself like, ‘I’ve been working on this album for six years, and it still sucks and I’m still struggling as much as I ever was,’” he says. “There’s such an omission of part of the reality, which is that I did do that side project in the meantime, and I feel like my fans forget that too.”
His fan base — a group Robinson says he’s very sensitive to — was indeed still hungry for the Worlds sequel. After releasing the Virtual Self EP, the music that would become his second album began flowing more easily. He was intent on making songs with pop structures; he just had to figure out how. “I had been writing drops only for 10 years,” he says of Worlds and the dubstep-leaning output that preceded it. “I had never written a chorus.”
Robinson fixated his waking hours on lyrics, song construction and learning to record his own vocals, with “so much of the album focused on this idea of making music, because that was the only thing happening in my life.”
Then he met his girlfriend, Rika Mikuriya, and his approach to life and art evolved. “One of the themes on this album is meeting someone you love so deeply that you become afraid to die for the first time in your life,” he says. “It’s so clear to me that I can’t die at the altar of art here. I don’t find burning out extravagantly and dying in my 30s to be a romantic idea anymore.”
Robinson started spending time outside the studio, not looking at his phone first thing in the morning, wrapping his workdays earlier and seeing his friends again. The balance — “starting to prioritize my own well-being over my music” says Robinson — helped foster the aptly titled Nurture, out April 23 on Mom + Pop.
The album’s punchy, soaring lead single, “Get Your Wish,” arrived in early 2020, with a second, “Something Comforting,” following on March 10, just as much of the world went into lockdown. Originally intended for a September 2020 release date, Nurture was pushed back due to the pandemic, giving Robinson additional time to more or less remake the project. He wrote new songs, replaced existing music and expanded the album from 11 to 14 tracks. Writing on a piano, he composed, recorded and sang every song himself, pitching up his vocals to often sound childlike and feminine — an effect he was relieved to find out can be recreated in real time when he sings during future live performances.
Robinson performed his only set of 2020 during his livestream festival, Secret Sky, a 14-hour event he produced from the guest bedroom of his parents’ house. (“My mom was making pancakes; we had all sorts of snacks going,” he says. “It felt like the Super Bowl.”) Featuring artists like Madeon and G Jones, the show drew 4 million viewers, according to Robinson’s team. (A second iteration of Secret Sky is scheduled for April 24, with a lineup including REZZ, Boys Noize and Baauer.) Two hundred and fifty thousand people watched Robinson’s set, which closed with the buoyant single “Look at the Sky,” a song currently getting airplay on adult contemporary radio.
“I thought about almost all of Nurture through the lens of pop music in the sense that it’s verse/chorus driven,” Robinson says, “but I was never thinking radio.” It’s the song’s chorus – “look at the sky/I’m still here/I’ll be alive next year” – that he believes is appealing to broader audiences during this collective moment of cautious optimism.
But as Aaron Greene, Robinson’s co-manager at Slush, says: “There isn’t a goal of being a pop star or transcending electronic music. Porter is always trying to discover what he’s most passionate about and follow that passion.”
Since finishing the album, Robinson’s focus has dedicated “basically my entire life” to designing the Nurture live show, which will hit the road when public health permits. While originally intent on making this show more melancholic to match the often sad and anxious mood of the album, “as I started putting the show together,” Robinson says, “perhaps purely as a consequence of having been in quarantine and seeing no live shows for the previous year, I kept cranking up the fun. I couldn’t stop. I made everything into a more fun version of itself.”
Surely a highlight of this live experience will be Nurture’s latest single, “Musician.” The last song Robinson wrote for the album, the song is anchored by the line “I get so excited/When I finally find it/It just gets brighter from now on,” which arrives over ecstatically chopped production. It effectively sums up his creative process, his improved sense of well-being, his brother’s remission and the global mood.
“Throughout the album, you can really sense some of the trepidation, worry, anxiety and fear I’m feeling,” he says. “On ‘Musician,’ I wasn’t feeling it at all. I just felt pure unbridled joy and excitement. That was the goal: I was trying to get to this place where I could write music in a way where I could be vulnerable and just do this thing I love with the confidence I used to have. That song is that materialized for me.”