The electronic dance music world wasn't always so obsessed with the age of its DJs. But Chapel Hill, North Carolina native Porter Robinson, who hit the international scene at 17, may have started an industry-wide mania for the so-called "prodigy." Even tweens are getting record deals in 2014.
But how young is too young to reinvent oneself? At 22, Robinson is already trying to shed his wunderkind rep. Only three years ago, the bass-heavy single "Say My Name" and subsequent Spitfire EP branded Robinson as a teenage sure thing for Top 40 success. He headlined major festivals across the world. He remixed Lady Gaga. He lived the so-called "EDM dream." The only problem: He kind of hated it.
So Robinson stepped away from the mainstream. He took a break from touring. He hit the studio to immerse himself in Worlds, his debut full-length album. And now he's finally taking the record on the road, with an elaborate stage production that marks a permanent move from DJing to live performance.
"It definitely feels good, and I don't think I have the same angst that I had, performing live, that I had when I was doing the DJing thing," Robinson admits. "I was trying to choose between playing a song that would be effective and playing a song that I wanted to hear and thought other people should hear.
"It felt like a constant compromise, and I think there's something nice about how it's almost awesomely forceful playing only your own music. There's no room for saying, 'Well, these people aren't really feeling this, so I'll switch it up to appease them.' You like my music and you want to hear what I have to say as an artist, or you're not going to have fun."
Ultimately, being just another producer spinning other people's songs wasn't satisfying.
"Djing, to me, is fun in the same way as when somebody hands you the auxiliary cable in the car and you get to take control of the music," Robinson jokes. "What I like about the live thing, it allows me to riff and to change the chord progression, depending on the feeling of the night, and just do different moods. You can contribute to the songs when you're playing them live. I still think that DJing is the funnest. It's just not for me, because of the way that I want to express my music."
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The 22 year old also yearns to be ranked among his heroes -- and held to the same standards.
"When I see my favorite artists perform, like Kanye West, Daft Punk, Justice, if their sets were 90-percent cover songs, I'd probably be really disappointed," he says. "I admire artists who are known for their music first and foremost, and I think that's what I was reaching for with the record."
These influences are heavily apparent in the music on Worlds. So is the impact of Robinson's well-documented love for Japanese culture and video-game soundtracks.
"Japanese video-game music is the whole reason I even ever heard electronic music and was interested in it at age 12, which is when I first started writing music," he explains. "What I was trying to do with this record was to pass off every influence that was not authentic to me, and then do something that was superclose to what I love."
Some have analyzed Worlds as a sort of concept album, trying to glean a specific narrative from its lyrics. And Robinson accepts that kind of interpretation, in the sense that it's a musical journey. But he also says the record isn't telling any singular, linear tale. Rather, it's a deeply referential sonic montage, and each song is an exploration of all the TV shows, movies, video games, literature, and art that he loves.
"Worlds, to me, is meant to be an appreciation through music of fiction, escapism, and fantasy," Robinson explains. "It's meant to be this musical homage to the feelings that I get when I fucking watch anime, a sci-fi movie, or I read a book. A lot of people think that Worlds itself is meant to be this story. But in fact, I would say that it's about stories. That's why it's not World, because it's not a world."
In all, from conception to completion, the album took three years. And though he was possessed by an intense, unrelenting vision throughout the Worlds sessions, even the record's creator was surprised by what it eventually became.
"I think that it ended up being slightly more sweet than I had pictured it in my head. I imagined it being a little darker and a little more sad, but there's only so much that you can hold a song's hand and tell it what to do," he says. "This will sound so weird, I know -- but to a certain extent, in my mind, these songs have always existed or were meant to be. Sometimes, when I'm halfway done, I want it to go in a certain direction, and I just can't force it to go that way."
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The only exception to not "forcing it" was "Years of War," a song that Robinson claims to have "beat into submission." He deadpans: "That song took 500 hours total. It was the hardest I've ever worked, and it's not even close to being my favorite."
However, Robinson concedes: "My whole life, I've had this thing where whatever the most recent song I wrote is, that's the one that I love. I even convince myself I'll never do anything better."
Among his preferred cuts off Worlds are "Divinity," "Flicker," "Fresh Static Snow," and "Goodbye to the World." But he's most proud of the lead single, "Sad Machine" -- though it almost didn't make the final tracklist.
"I turned it in at the 11th hour," Robinson remembers. "And it originally wasn't even going to be on the record. I fought and fought and fought to make sure it could get on there. That's my favorite one, and it's also more fun for me, because it has a big vocal part and I can play the lead melody throughout."
As for the album as a whole, it's so personally meaningful to Robinson because, for the first time in a short but very successful career, he's baring his soul. And he's exceedingly grateful to the fans for having continued to embrace him.
"It feels like coming to a lot of these places again for the first time. I have all this history, and I'm up against three years of DJing and banging it out," he acknowledges. "But I know there's a lot of hardcore Porter fans out there, and they've been tweeting at me for the whole tour. I almost judge how good a show is going to be based on how many of those excited, anticipatory tweets I get, and I've gotten a lot of them from Miami."
With Worlds, Porter Robinson is no longer a kid chasing a dream, but a man turning fantasy into reality and new records.
"It's definitely a work in progress," he says. "I'm trying to improve every day. I'm trying to make it all it can be."
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Porter Robinson. With Giraffage and Lemaitre. Saturday, October 18. Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The show starts at 9 p.m. and tickets cost $32.50 plus fees via livenation.com. All ages. Call 305-673-7300 or visit fillmoremb.com.
Follow Kat Bein on Twitter @KatSaysKill.