Porter Robinson Talks to Alan Shirahama About His New Album Nurture

The electronic music star answers questions by long-time fan and member of Japan’s biggest boyband.
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2021.04.26 01:00

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After 7 years, Porter Robinson has returned with Nurture- an album that tells the story of some of the biggest challenges of his life, coming to terms with his past, and finding true love so strong he found a reason to fear death. In this interview, Porter and Alan Shirahama, fellow musician and member of some of the biggest boy bands in Japan, navigate through the sounds and stories behind Nurture as well as chat about their creative processes and respect for one another. 


・・・


(Video shows only a portion of the interview. Read below for the full interview!)


Alan: Hi Porter!


Porter: 久しぶり!(Long time no see!)


Alan: I’m so excited to interview you about your new album Nurture! As you know, I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time. And your friend! 


Porter: Yeah, Alan! It’s so good to see you. Thank you so much for listening to the album. I saw a few of your thoughts on the album, and I’m just so excited to talk to you about it. 


(Alan’s comments on the album are shared at the bottom of this interview.)


Alan: I had the chance to listen to your new album, and I felt like I saw your true colors and the new things you’ve challenged. I feel like this album is like a work of art and I feel like it’s an album that’ll be a part of music history. Though I might sound like I’m exaggerating, that’s how I truly feel. 


Porter: That is so kind. Something really important to me is when I hear that from one of my Japanese friends like you. It means a lot to me because there are so many influences from Japanese music on the album. You were talking about how some of the chord progressions might be popular in Japan- I was inspired by Japanese music chord progressions! The chord progressions in many Japanese songs where it will be like,”4, 3, 6, 2, 3, 4, 5…” really moves my heart and gives me goosebumps. I wanted to write music that has that feeling. Your testimony in saying that the album feels like a classic to you- I’m just like, ”YES!” and feel like I did something good. Thank you so much. 


Alan: I think I’ll stop making music because your album is very, very nice. 


Porter: It’s funny because that was the opposite reaction that I hoped for. I wanted the music to inspire others to make music too. My musical heroes are the people whose music that I listen to and that I look up to. When I listen to their music I have mixed feelings like, “Oh, I should just quit!” But there are times where I am like, “I hope that I can make music like that someday.” 


Alan: Who are some of the artists or songs that made you feel that way? 


Porter: One of my heroes is Justin Vernon from the band Bon Iver. He has really inspired me. I went through a dark time where my younger brother was diagnosed with cancer- he’s okay now- but in that time the album 22, A Million by Bon Iver was there for me. It was probably one of the first times I heard unclean music, sort of lo-fi, gritty, almost recorded wrong, but that sounded really beautiful. In some places, it sounded like a low-quality mp3 or like that he had recorded his vocals on a cassette tape, scratched the cassette tape, and then played it back at a different speed. Other examples would be when I listened to Discovery by Daft Punk or Graduation by Kanye West. I think that I make music because there are songs out there that make me feel like the world gets one shade brighter. I feel like a single album or song can make the world a slightly more beautiful place and that’s why I think it’s worth doing. 


Alan: Why did you title your album Nurture? Are there any other names you considered? 


Porter: That’s a really good question. No one has ever asked me that before. Yes, there was another name that I considered for the album, Only Hope, but the title Nurture made sense to me. It’s a bit hard to explain with a language barrier because it’s sort of a pun in English. In English, when you talk about the way a person’s personality has developed, the reason you become the way that you are is either your “nature” which are things you’re born with or “nurture” the things that happen to you. For example, when psychological studies were made to see how people become the way that they are, they would look at twins who were raised by different families to see if the reason is their nature or DNA or the life experiences. That’s called “nature versus nurture”. I like the word “nurture” because it immediately makes someone think of nature without thinking about it directly. Also, when you’re suffering and hoping to feel better, you can’t change anything about the way you were born- your nature, but with your nurture and the things that happen to you, you can change your own experiences. That’s inspiring to me and that’s why it’s called Nurture- to give people that feeling of nature, but to make them feel like they can change the way they think of themselves and improve themselves. 


Alan: For your album, do you have a concept in mind or do you put all the songs you have ready together and then think of a concept? And how did this album come together? I wanted to ask because, in Japan, artists will usually put out several singles then put those together to make an album. I was also wondering if it might be something different culturally. 


Porter: All of my favorite artists tend to think of an album as a way to express an idea thoroughly. I think that in the U.S. there are artists that release music in a way that’s more driven towards commercial success. They’ll write the big singles and songs to focus on and that’s the way they’ll sell the album. I think even as an artist, I want to be able to do a big tour and spend on music videos, so I do things like that too. The way that I tend to think about albums is that I want every album to be like a world that you can live in. If you have a vinyl or CD on your shelf and you see the cover in your room, you can look at that and think of it as a place that you can go to. I just got the chills thinking about it, but if I just see the cover of my favorite albums, I feel like I’m living in the world of that album. I’m really careful about what I put into each album because I want it to be a pure expression of a certain world. Very early in the process, I’ll have a vague idea of what the album is going to be. With Nurture, in 2015 I saw the movie “Ookami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki” scored by Masakatsu Takagi. It was my first time listening to Takagi-san’s music and it changed my life. I think with Worlds, my sense of what’s beautiful and what’s emotional was this idea of something that’s very far- a faraway dream is what I thought beauty and music were. But when I heard Masakatsu Takagi’s music I felt like you can also express beauty with something up close and personal. I feel like the feeling of Takagi-san’s music is like laying in a field of grass or flowers. So for Nurture, I wanted it to feel beautiful, not like a dream, but more like real life and closer so you can touch it. As you continue to develop an album, you see what things can be a part of what world and you start collecting all these elements that make it up. 



Nurture cover art 


Alan: How did you come up with the concept for the interactive site for “Look at the Sky”? I saw the site and it’s really good! It was very artistic and emotional. 


Porter: Thank you! I feel really lucky that I get to work with this designer called Active Theory that makes a lot of my favorite websites. I wanted to have a website that was called “look-at-the-sky.com” and had two ideas for what it could be. The first idea I suggested was to get randomly connected to one other person in the world. The only way to make the song play was to look at the person in their eyes and hold the stare and as soon as you look away the song stops playing. The reason I wanted to do that was that I feel like the internet, in so many ways, tends to divide people more than connect them, and it causes so much conflict and misunderstanding. I thought that the better way of communicating would be to see each other and have a conversation. I wanted to give people that feeling of looking into a stranger's eyes and making a real connection with a human, but that introduced certain problems… The other idea was an AR app where you look up at the sky with your phone, and the song starts playing and you can see how many people are looking up at the same time. So as you look up, you’re sending a flashlight into the sky that goes forever. With time you can see that there are people in one part of the air and someone else looking into the sky. The final result was something closer to that. The site puts you into a room with other people where everyone looks up at the sky and reads the lyrics. I guess to me, the feeling of looking up at the sky is a reminder of the beauty of getting to live. It’s a reminder that you exist in the present moment too. It’s really easy to get caught up thinking about the future and the past, but it’s always good to remember that at the moment you’re safe and that everything is okay. That’s why the lyric is “Look at the sky, I’m still here. I’ll be alive.” It’s like a mantra of hope and safety. 


Alan: How do you come up with these ideas? I try to think of ideas for my group, but sometimes these ideas just don’t come out. I wanted to know if these ideas are spontaneous or if they’re things that you have to sit and think about for a while.


Porter: It’s so cool that you’re involved with the concepts too. I can tell by the fact that you, Alan, truly connect to my music from the things that you wrote about each song. I could tell before, but I could tell that you’re a true artist and someone who truly loves music with a passion. I want to applaud people for really caring about the way their work gets presented and coming up with those ideas because I feel like art is like a way of giving a window into what you love and what you think is important. It’s good to have an independent mind about how work is presented as well. But it’s hard to say how I come up with ideas. Sometimes I’m trying to solve a problem. Sometimes the problem would be that I need a website for “Look at the Sky'', and then I’ll start talking to somebody about what would be cool. Then they will kind of misunderstand my idea and then they’ll have a different idea and then I would misunderstand that, but then we would come up with something better. So sometimes it’s collaborative like that. Other times it’ll be based on something I’ve seen or heard that I loved so much and felt like I needed a piece of in my world. The artists whose music I hear and when I see what they do, I feel like I need a piece for myself. It’s selfish but it’s how I feel when I love music. I want to live the music. 


Alan: I also loved your “Secret Sky” set from Youtube! I’ve also performed online, but isn’t it scary not being able to see the fans’ reactions? 


Porter: Yeah, that’s very real. I think that’s something that all of us miss from live performances. The reaction from the crowd is what tells you if you’re connecting or not. Though sometimes with Twitch chat you can see the emotes flying up, and that can be useful feedback. With Nurture, it doesn’t sound like DJ music to me- it sounds more like a band or solo artist and it sounds more melancholic. In the last 6 months after I finished the album, it was time for me to prepare for my new live show and I’ve been working on it every day since. As I started preparing the show, I surprised myself because I kept adding all of these “turn-up moments” and fun DJ-style moments whereas I thought I was going to be making this show that was soft and sweet. I think being in quarantine for so long I missed the excitement of live music. Even though the music is really sad I had to have it be really exciting too because I think everyone misses that energy so much. 


Alan: Watching all of these online shows, I feel like technology has raised the bar in terms of quality. I feel like it’s important for us to eventually get back to live shows so that we can catch up to it. 


Porter: So true. I can’t imagine a world without live music. It’s kind of like what I was talking about earlier about things that make the world slightly brighter. I find myself thinking about club music a lot more than I used to a year ago. Dance music and club music, in general, feel like a celebration no matter what, because dancing is like a celebration. Recently, when I find myself turning on Spotify, I’m not listening to beautiful music, but listening to a lot of trap and dance music. I don’t know if you know Tohji, but I’ve been listening to him all the time. It’s what I’ve been craving because I miss the live energy and fun. I don’t think it’s what I’m known for from my music, but my appetite for what I want to listen to and what I create is different too. 


・・・


Porter: Alan, could you tell me a bit more about PKCZ® such as the idea of this collective of DJs, how it works, how you approach it from a live aspect, and how you approach it from a music production standpoint? 


Alan: The first track I released with PKCZ® was one where we didn’t share with the fans who the surprise vocal was until after the release. We did a campaign where the fans guessed to see who the surprise vocal was. These were things I’ve never done before and it was also the first time I sang. Being on PKCZ® has brought out different aspects of myself as an artist. On top of that, we allowed fans to see who the secret guest was early if they went into a VR world we set up. We’ve also done live performances and meet and greets inside VR. I feel like it's a really progressive group. 


Porter: It’s so awesome you’re all doing stuff in VR, because something that I was able to experience in the last year because of quarantine was attending these nightclubs in VR. There’s a VR game called “VRChat”' and it’s a pretty otaku game. It’s a social game where people can pick their avatar and create their own world, but there’s no actual game- it's mostly just social. You can see other people, talk to them, and be friends. I go under an alias and use a different voice, so no one knows it’s me. It’s cool. It’s a different way to socialize. In the last six months, I’ve seen these three different nightclubs pop up in VRChat and they’re called “HOM3”, “Shelter”, and “Loner Online”. I started secretly going to these clubs and it’s so amazing. They have these live DJs, VJs, LDs, only a hundred people can fit inside the venue, and you have to know somebody to get in. In that way, it feels kind of like real life. Everyone is interested in these new things, as you said, such as VR performances. I think because they are the kind of people who are interested in new technologies, the sound is also really fresh. All of these DJs are playing futuristic music that sounds like nothing I’ve heard before. Some of the best nightclub experiences that I’ve had in my life were in VR, so I think it’s so cool that you are all doing that because it’s a new frontier and it’s something that everyone in music should be exploring. It’s funny because I have an image of PKCZ® being something really big and normally these kinds of things are things that smaller artists are interested in, so it’s cool to see a big artist, a bigger collective take these on so early on. 


Alan: I think with VR you’re able to renew yourself, be the person who you want to be no matter what race or sexuality, and I feel like it might be VR where people can truly be themselves the most. 


Porter: I think that’s a great observation, and it’s been so true in my experiences. These websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, have gotten good with their algorithm and at showing people the things they already want to see. It’s been harder to find things new on SNS. It’s just showing the things you want to hear, the things you want to see, and things everyone already likes and that’s not real life. In life, you have good experiences and bad experiences and not everything is perfect. The truth isn’t simple. VR is interesting because, in my experience, the friendships that I make there- people are tolerant of each other and try to understand each other. The importance of eye contact, for example, is so different. It’s harder to say something cruel to somebody if you can see into their eyes. In VR you can feel someone looking into your eyes. Say 5 people are standing around in a circle having a conversation, you sort of start to sense when one person in the group is feeling uncomfortable like maybe they haven’t said something in a little while. That little nuance of human interaction, like body language, shows that somebody might have to go soon. All these little things that we as human creatures are good at sensing are lost on SNS. In VR, even though it’s super unnatural, in some ways it’s more natural. 



Alan: Back to talking about the album! The song “Blossom” sounded different from the rest of the album and I wanted to know what you were feeling while making it? 


Porter: That song is different from the rest of the album. It was recorded and written in one night. It’s a love song and I’ve never written one before. It came to me so quickly because I had this realization that I was so in love with somebody that it made me truly afraid to die for the first time in my life. I’ve never experienced fear of death until I truly had somebody to lose. Thinking about that made me cry. I was crying as I wrote it and at some points, I was crying while I sang it. It’s a little embarrassing, but it’s true. I wanted to write a song where I could express my love and gratitude. Having made music for 14 years, I’ve never written a love song and it all spilled forth in a really powerful way. The lyrics are really important in that song. I remember I played all of my songs to all of my brothers and I’m close to all 3 of them. We were all in my car, and I’m driving and playing the album. We get to that song and it’s really quiet, so I’m like, ”Do they like it? Do they not like it?” I look back and everyone is trying so hard not to cry. It was so awkward because it’s hard to see your family crying like that. After all, even though it’s a ballad and it’s a song written for guitar, to me it truly feels like Nurture the album because it’s vulnerable and heartfelt, and that’s what I wanted this album to be. Maybe with my past work, I wasn’t being truly open about my true feelings. On this album, I wanted to become vulnerable, be open with the things that I was feeling, and tell the truth with my music.


Alan: When I first heard the song, I felt that if I ever have a child I would want to play this song the moment they’re born. 


Porter: That’s such a beautiful sentiment! 


Alan: The introduction to “dullscythe” is very sudden and I thought that you must have been going through something when making it. 


Porter: I guess I am an emotional person in every sense. When I’m really happy I love to have fun, and when I’m sad I get extremely depressed. There’s a part of me that when I get scared I can get pretty angry and it’s something that I’m ashamed of. I hate feeling angry and I hate feeling scared, but I wanted to express the full range of human emotions on the album. I think a lot of the songs on the album are messy but I thought it was messy in a different direction. I was like, “What if I make this song super hard with huge kick drums and big sounds, but the rhythm doesn’t make any sense at all.” I imagined myself standing in a venue and hearing something that sounded so big with so much bass and such big kick drums, but the rhythm being almost nonsense. I thought it would feel like being pulled in a bunch of directions and like complete chaos. I was able to tap into a part of myself that feels more power, anger, and strength. Like, ”You’re going to listen to this rhythm and you’re gonna like it!” kind of feeling. The rest of the album is so shy, and I wanted to tell the truth by adding this other element about me that is kind of rebellious. I know I’m going on a long time about this story, but there have been times in the past, like with my old album Worlds, where I was openly angry about stuff on social media. One example would be, people were telling me that my new music sucked and that I had to sound like my old music. At that time, I was getting really angry about people just wanting me to be a DJ and not truly express my full music. There were times where I even tried to disown my songs and say that it wasn’t my music anymore by saying that the past songs I released weren’t by Porter Robinson anymore. It’s not a part of me that I think is cool and it’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s a part of my experience as a human being. It’s just a part of living to have negative emotions. So that’s a great question because I guess I wanted to express some of the darkness. 


Alan: Could you share with me some of your favorite memories from putting the album together? 


Porter: “Look at the Sky'' was written while l was in Japan for a few months in 2018. Or maybe it was 2017? I wrote the first melody in 2016. In 2018, I was feeling uninspired and was struggling to make music, so my girlfriend and I went to Japan for two months. While we were there, I finally wrote that chorus and wrote the lyric “Look at the sky~.” I remember being in the studio, I had auto-tune on, and I was just screaming anything. Random melodies, random words. I wasn’t writing anything down. Just yelling all these ideas and words that were coming to me. Then I would listen back and be like, ”Oh, cut that out” and sample my voice. When I came up with the lyrics “Look at the sky, I’m still here”, I remember my manager flew to Japan and I played him the song that night. He was just like, ”Oh yeah. That’s pretty cool.” and then he went to sleep. The next morning, he asked me to show him the song again and I played it for him a second time. He was like, ”This is the best song you’ve ever written! Oh my god!”, so that was a really happy memory for me too. I had been stuck with writing music and that trip to Japan was helpful and inspiring to me. 



Alan: What do the ghosts in the music video represent? 


Porter: All these ghosts are building instruments. They’re cutting down a tree, polishing the wood, and turning the wood into a guitar or a piano. Then they’re mining these rocks and melting these rocks and turning them into a computer chip. The main idea is that even though I feel like I’m making music by myself, no one is doing anything by themselves. If I was raised on an island with no contact with other humans, I would have never even come up with the idea of notes, scales, chords, or melodies. The idea of melody music, in general, is something that was given to us by people who developed it for millions of years. I always think that I’m making music on this computer and that someone made this computer, learned how to make microchips, learned how to make music production software, created the concept of a piano, the concept of a computer mouse. All of these things that we do like making music or doing anything- we’re building off of these achievements made by other people. So everything that we make is a coincidence. I say it’s like we’re weaving another little square onto a blanket of human culture. You add a little piece to the story of human history. The idea is that even though I’m alone and making music and doing it all by myself, the truth is that everyone else is still here. Even after you die your presence is still felt in the things you’ve made because somebody who doesn’t even know you might be using the ideas that you came up with. To me, that’s just a very beautiful story of how we live with death. It’s like we are all collaborating. I’m collaborating with you, you’re collaborating with me, and everyone is working together whether we know it or not. 


Alan: My final question is what are you looking forward to doing most when you visit here again? 


Porter: Oh my god! Every day I’ll tell my girlfriend, “I miss Japan. I miss being in Japan.” I said it in the car on the way here. Maybe the thing I miss most would be performing live, but that would be the artist's answer. God, there are so many things that I love. I think my actual answer is… You really stumped me with this question! 


Alan: Yeah, it’s a really hard question! 


Porter: Hmm... What do I miss most? Maybe Japanese curry. The last time me and my friend Garrett were in Japan we did a little curry tour and we ate a different curry every day in Tokyo. I miss Tokyo so much. I miss the fashion. I miss shopping. I miss walking everywhere. In the U.S., you always have to drive everywhere. I miss waking and taking the train. My body feels so much better when I’m walking more. I miss going to the club. I miss too many things! I’m kind of embarrassed, I feel like I’m gushing too much, but I really really miss it. 


Alan: Let’s see each other in Tokyo! 


Porter: Yeah! Alan it’s been so good having you as a friend. It’s always really important for people who are in the public eye or who are musicians to know each other because in a way we’re the only ones who can understand each other. It’s interesting to hear your experience from the Japanese side because you’re a much bigger artist than me, so your experience is much different from all the things you do like acting which is something that I don’t have experience with. It’s so interesting to hear about your side of it so I really value our friendship. And I also have to say I really appreciate the notes you gave about each song and I don’t think everyone understands the album the way you do. I just feel that you truly believe the album in your heart and that means a lot to me. So thank you for the thoughts and thank you for the questions. Next time I’ll ask you the questions, okay? 


Alan: Thank you, Porter!


・・・


Nurture comments by Alan Shirahama


1. Lifelike 

At first, the song feels country-ish, but I could imagine this song playing at the start of a game, anticipating the excitement that something is going to happen. Listening to this made me feel like it was going to be a crazy album. 


2. Look at the Sky 

This is only my thought, but the song seems to have an intentionally crushed effect overall that’s made to last in your ears. The melody of the chorus is genius and will truly move the heart of anyone listening. I’m in awe at how amazing this song is, to the point where it makes me want to stop songwriting. After listening to this song I was in such shock at Porter’s talent that I closed my laptop.


3. Get Your Wish 

The foundation of this song feels like it is inspired by 8bit game music from the ’90s, but it’s also a sound of today. This “Porter-like chiptune” melody brings out a very emotional feeling.


4. Wind Tempos

The contrast between the smooth ambiance and the noise is very soothing. The piano coming in after the 3-minute mark hits me hard. It brought out a very nostalgic feeling and I felt like I was going through Porter’s memories.


5. Musician

This song to me represents the truest Porter Robinson. The melody on the track and the vocals are completely different, but they somehow match perfectly. This is a song that can only be written by Porter. Porter, you’re a genius. 


6. do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do

A familiar sound of birds and children is followed by a melody expanding from the do-re-mi scale, which is recognizable by any Japanese person. The four to the floor kick drums that come in from the second half of the song naturally make you feel energetic and I want to listen to this on the morning of an exciting day.


7. Mother

The bass is brought out to the forefront and I want to listen to this in a very bass-y environment such as a club. The song can be interpreted as both “night” and “day”. This song is calmer than the other songs and how the sounds expand is very soothing. 


8. dullscythe

The chopped sounds and the sounds that swing you right and left are very artistic. I am sure Porter was going through something when he produced this song, so I want to know what exactly happened (lol). The beat slowly coming in from the ambient second half felt like a light of happiness was slowly appearing. I would love to make a track like this. 


9. Sweet Time

A grand sound with the vocals at the forefront. The duet between the male and female vocalists adds sweetness to the song. I would like to translate the lyrics into Japanese and read them thoroughly. I also felt like the Japanese audience would love this chord progression.


10. Mirror 

The percussion sounds are so interesting that I’m very curious about what they are and how the sounds are made. The song itself has a fast BPM, but the topline is very soothing. The development of the bridge is amazing. The “keep going” at the end was a pleasant surprise and it makes me feel like I can make it through another day.


11. Something Comforting

I need to hear this at a festival!! Everything about this song is beautiful. I like the stab cutout during the buildup. The piano melody is so delicate that it almost feels like the piano is singing. If I can listen to this one song during Porter’s set I think that all the stress I felt during covid would go away. 


12. Blossom

The song is so smooth that if I were ever to have a child, this would be the song I’d play for them as soon as they’re born. It's sacred and happy, but somehow ephemeral. I want people who want to cry, but don’t have the time to cry to listen to this song because they will cry. It’s a simple song, but it’s a song with strong Porter elements. 


13. Unfold

This song to me feels “sky blue”. It feels so “sky blue”, that I would forget the heat if I listened to this on a hot summer day. The stoic layout of the instrumental brings out the high-tone vocals even more.


14. Trying to Feel Alive

The vocal riff sounds fit perfectly with the digital ambient track. I feel like Porter is giving us hope through this song. This is the last song on the album, but it makes you realize that the end is also just the beginning.


・・・


Porter Robinson’s Nurture is out now. 

Listen here: https://lnk.to/PorterRobinson_Nurture



Interview by Alan Shirahama

Text by Amy

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