When Porter Robinson unveiled the complex world of his Y2K trance and hardcore project Virtual Self, he thought for sure it would be alienating. He’d built a fiercely loyal fanbase with fantastical synthpop melodies and inspired a generation of producers with his debut album Worlds. He didn’t expect many to follow his hard left turn toward stomping rhythms and slaughtering synths, but some of the scene’s most heralded producers found themselves in awe, and now, Virtual Self’s “Ghost Voices” has been nominated for best dance recording at the 2019 Grammys, the producer’s first such distinction ever.
“I was ecstatic, to be honest,” he tells Billboard Dance. “I basically found out from Twitter. I didn’t even know it had been submitted. I just never once considered it as a real possibility at all. … I was in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur. I was just jumping for joy, something about how vastly it exceeded my expectations. It was really gratifying.”
“Ghost Voices” has become the project’s standout track, and Robinson says it came together far easier than any of the EP’s other four tunes.
“I remember the exact moment that I wrote the hook,” he says. “I was trying to write a new lead sound which kinda sounds like the human voice, and I was trying to write this ambient thing where it sounded like she was going to heaven, a very beautiful, sad, nostalgic chord progression. It was almost more cute sounding than what ‘Ghost Voices’ ended up being. I was just playing the keys and did that riff, and I was like ‘damn, that’s so catchy,’ so I immediately wrote a bassline behind it and I was like ‘oh shit, this is really good.'”
The drum pattern came next, a jackin’ house beat at 120 bpm. He wrote the first drop from the melody into the hook, gave it a good groove with a dark and mysterious mood, then focused on crafting the perfectly turn-of-century trance break.
“It was pure inspiration, he says. “I remember I had a phone call with my manager just going over logistics. They were asking me questions, and I kept muting the phone because I was working on the track the entire time that we were talking. I was so excited to work on that, I didn’t want to do anything else, and I love that feeling.”
The vocal he pulled from a random demo he’d been sent, a relatively mainstream pop performance that he twisted, chopped and warped into something “ghostly and ethereal.”
“I think if anyone ever heard what the original vocal was like, it would not be what you expect, lyrically or otherwise,” he says. “That was a two or three day endeavor. I wanted there to be something to fill the space and to catch the listener’s ear, but I didn’t want there to be any Virtual Self songs that had a clearly defined vocal with lyrics and top line. If you do hear any lyrics, it’s just your brain filling in the gap, because those moments are just various syllables combined.”
As soon as “Ghost Voices” landed, it caught fire. It became a set staple for DJs of all kinds of genres. It’s biggest supporter might have been Calvin Harris. The dance-pop, disco-lovin’ hit-maker went on record stating that he thought house music was bereft of inspiration. He’d given up on the genre, then he heard “Ghost Voices,” and his whole outlook changed.
“That was really cool, because he went on to release that “One Kiss” track that I thought was so good,” Robinson says. “I love any sort of pure inspiration. I relate to that as well, where I hear a track from somebody who’s not in my normal sources of inspiration. I don’t think Calvin Harris was interested in what I was doing at all prior to that, and to inspire somebody like Calvin, too, who has done so much different, great stuff over the years, that was really cool.”
Robinson says he’s noticed an overall push for hardstyle and hardcore sounds since he took the big leap. It warms his heart to see the project and it’s general style embraced by peers both established as well as up and coming. He’ll celebrate the projects success and his Grammy nomination with a huge show at The Shrine in Los Angeles, for which tickets are now on sale. He’s also taking the audio-visual act to Miami’s III Points festival in February to play alongside Tyler, The Creator, Beach House, SZA and others. He says he hopes to wow audience members that may not be so well-versed in the world of electronic dance. Tickets for III Points are also on sale.
He stays mum about what the future might hold for Virtual Self, though he promises he’s always working on material for the project as well as songs as Porter Robinson and other projects nobody yet knows about. He keeps himself busy, pushing forward, and he’s not biting his fingernails over award.
“I don’t feel nervous at all,” he says. “I’m sure that that will hit me as I get closer to the date. I don’t know if I’ll be the most comfortable being at that kind of event physically, but I will say that I honest to God do not care if I win or lose. I felt like I won the moment it got nominated. It was more than enough, but I’m completely satisfied that Virtual Self got nominated for the Grammy. That is a complete victory for the project in my mind and anything else is just bonus.”
“Ghost Voices” is nominated alongside Above & Beyond’s “Northern Soul” featuring Richard Bedford, Disclosure’s “Ultimatum,” Fisher’s “Losing It,” and Silk City’s “Electricity” with Dua Lipa. Watch the Grammys on Sunday, Feb. 10, to see if Porter Robinson takes the bonus-level high score, and listen to “Ghost Voices” below.