Porter Robinson Gears Up for Coachella: Plotting Surprises, Waving Goodbye to ‘Nurture’ and Not Catering to Frank Ocean Fans

Porter Robinson is a student of live music. Just days before the acclaimed DJ and musician flies to Los Angeles to begin rehearsing for his main stage Coachella set, he spends much of our 20-minute interview recounting recent performances that stuck out to him. But when discussing his favorite concerts, Robinson is mostly focused on how the artists carry themselves onstage.

He first brings up James Ivy, the Korean-American singer and producer who opened for Robinson on his North American “Nurture” tour, whom he calls “one of the most talented young artists in the world right now.”

“When he made a mistake on the guitar in his show, he would just laugh and talk about it,” Robinson says of Ivy. “It was so endearing. You could see everybody relax as soon as he did that. That kind of genuine, honest, unflattering vulnerability is so likable. It’s hard, especially when you’re in front of a bajillion people in a live stream like Coachella. But it makes for some of the most memorable moments.”

Then, he starts describing Kacey Musgraves’ 2019 Coachella set, at which the country star commanded the audience in a playful game of “When I Say Yee, You Say Haw,” as she often does in concert.

“Either she messed up or the crowd messed up,” Robinson remembers. “And she goes, ‘I didn’t say fucking yee!’ It was the most memorable part of her set.”

He continues, “A lesser artist would wince in that moment, like ‘that didn’t go how it was supposed to.’ Or ‘I just looked stupid.’ It’s so endearing to go the other way and just own it.”

Taking notes from some of his favorite live performers is helping Robinson prepare to play the main stage — before Kali Uchis, Björk and Frank Ocean — of one of the world’s biggest music festivals.

“It’s that old cliché,” Robinson says. “Be yourself.”

Of course, there’s also a week of nonstop rehearsal and weeks before that of setlist deliberation and mental preparation. But Robinson is a veteran in the electronic music world by now, playing festivals for a decade and running one since 2019. What he’s learned is that when playing in front of a hundred thousand people at the festival (plus tens of millions online), there is no use in trying to cater to the many who don’t know him.

“For most artists, if they believe in what they’re doing, pandering or trying to adapt to please a group of people is a failing strategy,” Robinson says. “The only fan I’m trying to please is myself.”

He adds, “I have an idea in my mind of what Frank Ocean’s fans would like, but I think I’m better off playing to my own strengths. I could never do Frank Ocean better than him, and Frank Ocean could never do Porter better than me.”

To illustrate his point, Robinson recalls a regrettable performance in Paris when he was 23. “I felt like I needed to play a bunch of cool French music,” he says. “Looking back, I wish I’d just done my own thing. They already have French music there.”

He names one last artist – Bon Iver, who at Coachella 2017 played the same stage as Robinson, performing right before headliner Lady Gaga. The set was a no-frills exploration of the Justin Vernon project’s downtempo album “22, A Million.”

“That album was monumental for me. It played big part of my life during a really difficult time,” Robinson says. “My younger brother was really sick with cancer — he’s fine now — and that album played a really big role for us both. And Justin played a set at Coachella that was just very true to his discography. It was immersive and exactly what a fan would have wanted to see from him. I’m taking inspiration from that.”

The next two Sundays will mark Robinson’s farewell to his “Nurture” era, his beloved 2021 album and most personal work to date. But all this talk about not adapting his performance for a festival crowd doesn’t mean Robinson’s Coachella set won’t be special.

“I definitely have a couple of surprises,” he teases. Yet, these moments had to be justifiable within the context of the show, as Robinson adds, “I had a strong gut feeling that I didn’t want to force a moment for hype or to be written up. It’s the end of an era for me, artistically. I don’t want to sacrifice something that is deeply heartfelt for me for a moment that would be exciting for people to say that they came and saw — and that I might regret down the line.”

Robinson says one of the hardest parts about playing a festival is consolidating his discography into an hourlong set. “You have to edit songs and cut out certain verses,” he says. “I tend to obsess over that. It’s like Sudoku. You know what things have to be there, you just have to figure out how they’re all meant to fit together in context.”

Robinson is also concerned about his own place in the puzzle that is Coachella: “My music is really earnest and big-hearted, and I’m thinking about how that fits onto the main stage.”

His conscientiousness is unsurprising: In 2019, Robinson started his own music festival, Second Sky, which is backed by Coachella producer Goldenvoice. The fest has sold out every year with over 100,000 attendees. And he says taking the lead on his own event has given him “infinite compassion for people that put on festivals.”

That concern extends to festival audiences, too. “This is probably the least rockstar thing to say, but I feel a sense of responsibility toward people’s time,” he says. “Going to see live music is a huge chunk of your paycheck.”

But as he gears up to grace one of the world’s biggest stages, Robinson is focused on the small things: “Even if there’s one person here who didn’t sleep last night because they were so excited, I owe it to them in a deeply real and personal way to do everything I can to make it fun and fulfilling.”

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