Spotlight: As he preps his debut LP, the 21-year-old is learning to navigate the industry's strangeness with a smile on his face.
All photos by Aaron Wynia.
It's Harrison Robinson's 21st birthday, but the young producer's plans are low-key: a quiet dinner with his family, a walk with his dog Aika, perhaps a few hours of his latest video game addiction, Overwatch. As we sit on the porch of the house where he still lives with his parents, located in a quiet residential neighbourhood on the east end of Toronto, a middle-aged man zips by on a bicycle and shouts his well wishes.
"Thanks Bruce—love you handsome!" Robinson yells back, before turning to me and explaining: "That's my neighbour Bruce, he's fucking hilarious. He's so stoked on life."
The more you get to know Harrison, who performs and produces under his own first name, the more you realize how warm-natured a guy he is. We've only met in real life once before, but he greeted me at the door a few minutes earlier with a full-body hug, like a long-lost cousin. His Twitter brims with playful, off-the-cuff observations—like how he'd rather be watching Seinfeld with his girlfriend than go to an after-party—and the cover of his forthcoming debut album, Checkpoint Titanium, sees him recreating a classic high school yearbook photo against a pink and purple backdrop. His pose is half-"Blue Steel," half-contemplative, with his legs crossed and left hand on his chin. He isn't smiling, but you get the feeling that he wants you to be.
Since he started making songs in his late teens, there's been an unmistakeable lightness to Robinson's productions, albeit with an undercurrent of pathos. While the majority of the electronic music currently being made in Toronto typically falls into one of two categories—murky, narcotized post-OVO trap beats or head-nodding, more serious-than-thou tech-house—Harrison's discography doesn't fit into either. His funk-influenced, whimsical tracks feel better suited to late night pool-hopping with friends than drug-fuelled penthouse romps with models or parties at sterile downtown bottle service clubs.
The youngest of three children, Robinson was born in Toronto to musically inclined parents who eloped when they were both in high school. His father was an occasional session drummer in big band jazz ensembles during the 70s; his mother played piano, and started teaching Harrison the instrument when he was seven years old—a practice he quickly abandoned, then picked up again when he was 16. The walls of his sunlit, plant-filled home studio are lined with calypso, disco, and soul records, and he excitedly brings up 80s hits like Midnight Star's "Midas Touch" or D Train's "You're the One For Me," pointing out chord progressions like he's a music theory professor.
When Harrison was 18, he started making beat tapes using software programs like Audacity and Reason. He built an early following on SoundCloud with sample-heavy compositions like "Down, B, Up, B" and "Akira," while his burbling, bootleg edits of Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, and the SOS Band earned him plenty of blog love. His 2014 single "You're Light"—which features the soulful vocals of his friend's younger sister Maddee over bright future-funk production—caught the attention of UK producer Star Slinger, who would go on to put out Harrison's debut EP on his Jet Jam imprint in 2015, with a co-release by Last Gang Records in North America. With its idiosyncratic combination of Nintendo chirps, slinky house, and R&B, Colors proved he was capable of making music as polychromatic as the record's Day-Glo, kawaii cover artwork, while not being afraid of wearing his heart-on-his-sleeve. (Take for example, the music video for "How Can It Be," which shows a fictitious teenage breakup via a text conversation.)
On Checkpoint Titanium—out next month via Last Gang—he's abandoned his more sample-based work in favour of clearer song structures—a development he credits, in part, to watching YouTube tutorials and torrenting university music lectures to expand his skills. He describes the album as more "melancholic" than previous efforts, but its ten tracks—whittled down from 60 to 70, with help from manager and Broken Social Scene drummer Justin Peroff, mentor Seamus Hamilton, and long walks—balance out its more downcast moments with atmospheric keyboards, gleaming synths, and buoyant melodies.
"If [someone] plays a few notes, I can usually tell you what [they're] going to play next," says his father, who joins us on the porch at one point to tinker with a leaky fountain. "When [Harrison] plays, it's always a surprise. The nuances are such that it's unpredictable."
Realizing his limited singing capabilities—"I've tried a couple of times, but I'm garbage," he admits—Robinson also chose to enlist a handful of vocalists for several tracks. His choices reflect his home city's very real musical diversity, one that the international success of Drake and his company can sometimes obscure. "Even though the rap and hip-hop side is tight as hell, there's so much more to Toronto," he says.
"Vertigo," which Harrison calls his "early 2000s banger," features a dizzying turn from experimental R&B singer-songwriter a l l i e; rising 19-year-old MC Clairmont The Second reflects on the dissolution of a romantic relationship on "It's Okay, I Promise," which first premiered on Zane Lowe's Beats 1 radio show ("That fucked me up, because that was a goal of mine," he says). Young Guv—aka Ben Cook, best known for his work as a guitarist in Canadian hardcore heroes Fucked Up—brings his best "Benny and the Jets" flow to "So Far From Home," warbling about getting the keys to the whip from his sick grandmother over a simple piano loop and chipper synths. Of the record's vast roster of contributors—which also include close friends Hamilton and Last Gang labelmate Ryan Hemsworth—he says simply, "They're all people I looked up to and really believed in."
When I ask him how he expects the album to be received by the public, Harrison hesitates for the first time in our conversation. "I don't have a clue, and that scares the hell out of me," he says. "I had a dream that Anthony Fantano gave me a 2," he continues, referring to the popular music vlogger behind score-based review YouTube channel The Needle Drop. He takes a drag from an omnipresent cigarette—he's trying to quit—before regaining his composure. "I like music so much, but at the same time, I don't care for parts of the industry."
Robinson keeps a checklist of goals he wants to achieve on his phone: tour Japan, do a pop song with Grimes, compose soundtracks for video games. He's already crossed off the latter, contributing music to Canadian indie Rock Band-meets-alien-shooter LOUD on Planet X, but he's not too pressed about setting exact dates for achieving the rest of these modest accomplishments. Harrison says he's exchanged emails with label representatives about writing for other acts, but he describes these discussions as "super unnatural." "It's really weird," he explains. "It'll be like, 'You need to send a zip file of instrumentals that you think would work for this artist.'" He's enthusiastic about the thought of "contributing positively to the radio"—and his subdued recent rework of Nelly Furtado's 2000 single "Turn Off The Light" proves he's capable of breathing new life into Top 40 pop hits—but true to his affable nature, he says he'd prefer to work side by side with prospective collaborators.
This emphasis on the interpersonal extends to Robinson's live performances, which have come a long way from the days when he suffered from severe stage anxiety. When I bring up a bare-bones late night set I saw him play last year during Toronto's Canadian Music Week, which saw him restarting songs numerous times due to technical difficulties, his reaction is characteristically carefree. "I loved that show," he says without a trace of irony. Forget about the sort of "cool" posing and mean-mugging you see on your typical Boiler Room live stream—Harrison is more likely to spend half of his performance time dancing with the crowd.
Although the album is bound to unlock new opportunities for the 21-year-old, including his first shows outside of the country, don't expect the self-professed homebody to move out of his parent's house any time soon. "In the next two or three years I'll probably move out, but I'm not in a rush," he says, emphasizing how the secluded, supportive environment has allowed him to concentrate on music. "I don't have the willpower to spend 30 minutes on the subway. It's just to be nice to be people around you love."
Listening to him talk about his family, I'm reminded of Checkpoint Titanium highlight "You and I," which features dialogue he recorded from a stranger on the street while coming out of a bar with a friend late one night. "So the point is you can stay here in fear forever as yourself, because hell is literally right here, or we can go everywhere by love together," the man preaches midway through the track. It's a sentiment that Harrison identifies with strongly—he doesn't know what the future holds for him as an artist, but he knows he's going to get there at his own pace, and he won't be alone.
Checkpoint Titanium comes out Sept. 9 via Last Gang Records, pre-order it here.
Max Mertens is on Twitter.