‘Most of my inspiration comes from daydreaming, as I haven\'t really gone anywhere or done anything. I find a lot of inspiration in imagining what the world would be like if things were different -- better.’
It’s hard to imagine how much better things could get for Adam Young right now. When the shy 23-year-old first uploaded a few synth-pop songs on to his Myspace profile in 2007, his Owl City project was just one of thousands of unknown acts in the web’s worldwide hive of musical activity. Two-and-a-half years and one EP, two albums and over 50 million Myspace hits later, Owl City’s Fireflies single hit the No. 1 spot on the U.S. Billboard charts in early November 2009. It had already sold nearly two million copies, been No.1 in the U.S. iTunes chart, and been officially declared the fastest-selling electronic/alternative track of all-time. Its parent album, the self-produced Ocean Eyes, has nestled happily in the U.S. Top Ten since its release in July, and, after confessing that playing his first shows left him with ‘white knuckles’, Adam is now confidently playing sold-out shows to a crowd who are, as The NME observed, ‘made up mostly of young girls, who, impressively, know every single word to every single song’ and that ‘squeals and shrieks with the kind of delight usually reserved for buffed-up boy bands’. The shy boy’s dreamy DIY imaginings have become a bonafide pop phenomenon.
But even a cursory listen to the gorgeous synthetic gems on Ocean Eyes reveals why Owl City has struck such a universal chord. Young has fashioned an elegant and seemingly effortless connection between fashionably arty, retro-nouveau electro pop and the kind of fresh-faced, sweetly melancholic hit factory songwriting that you can imagine being sung by X Factor contestants a few years down the line. Let’s be frank – even our favourite 21st century synth-pop has had a hint of raised eyebrow reference-heavy irony. OwlCity pop has a purity of purpose – an innocence – that breathes fresh air into the electro-pop revival. ‘I like melodies that get stuck in your head, specifically the kind that don\'t drive you crazy when they do just that. I love the idea of being able to play any given vocal melody on the piano and it having the ability to stand up on its own. Using melody as it relates to the human voice as an instrument is really interesting to me. I\'ve dabbled in some other genres of songwriting but pop music continues to be the most challenging and fun for me.’
The key, perhaps, lies in Young’s emergence from a non-musical family in Owatonna, Minnesota - a small-town which has no music scene to speak of. Owl City music sounds like a sparkling wintry day in a place full of nature, rather than electronic music’s usual urban nocturnal vibe. It also makes an escapist magic out of an experience shared by all kids raised in small towns – the retreat to the lonely bedroom where one creates a world of adventure to combat the quiet and boredom that surrounds you. As Young sings with such happy anticipation on Fireflies: ‘A fox trot above my head/A sock hop beneath my bed/A disco ball is just hanging by a thread.’ The eternal nightclub of the mind perfectly defined.
Young is glad to own up to the Owatonna influence on Owl City’s pristine pop. ‘Owatonna is a comfortable, quaint, cozy place. Returning home after a long trip is like pulling on a pair of warm sweatpants fresh out of the dryer after shoveling the driveway in your undershorts. It\'s very welcoming.’
But he’s also keen to dispel two early Owl City myths. Firstly, the Owl City name isn’t a play on the word Owatonna. ‘I used to work part time at a state zoo during high school and one of my jobs was to look after a cage full of burrowing owls. There were tons of them. It was literally like a city.’
And while Young makes pop that sounds like a dream, it isn’t, as many imagine, inspired by his dreams. ‘I\'m afraid I don\'t actually remember a great deal of my dreams,’ Adam admits. ‘But what is probably best described as "intentional dreaming" influences me endlessly. I tend to make movies in my head, envisioning myself going places and doing things that can only be done in dreams. I\'m a total escapist.’ When one mentions the amount of flight imagery in his songs, and asks him where he’d go if he could fly, he answers, without hesitation: ‘To the Moon.’
Yet none of this explains exactly why Adam Young chose to make computer music. Young’s first instrument was guitar. Couldn’t he have just formed a band? ‘Electronica chose me, to be honest. I began writing music on a whim and the only thing available to me was a sequencing program and an old synthesizer. That started the ball rolling and I\'ve fallen headlong into the wide world of electronic music. There\'s so many directions an artist can go, so many ways of doing things... that in and of itself is inspiring to me. It\'s like I can conduct a symphony in my own bedroom.’
The bedroom symphony aspect to Owl City’s pop is also helped by Adam’s influences. Talk to him about favourite acts and his first mentions go to underground heroes. ‘I\'m a huge fan of experimental music. Wordless, ambient music that was designed with the intention of letting the listener decide what a given song is or isn\'t about. I love the idea of music being limitless or bottomless in terms of the moods and feeling it elicits. Bands like Stars of the Lid, Helios, Boards of Canada, Hammock, Unwed Sailor.
But, then again, Adam’s excitement at getting props from one of America’s biggest current country-pop stars explains why he’s not afraid of the winsome pure pop melody. ‘Taylor Swift has recently become a fan. That\'s amazing to me because I so greatly adore her music.’
Perhaps the biggest challenge Adam has faced involved taking the Owl City show out on the road. But, after some early, nerve-racking, one-man-and-his-laptop shows, Young now has a regular Owl City live line-up featuring Breanne Duren (background vocals/keyboards), Matthew Decker (drums), Laura Musten (violin) and Hannah Schroeder (cello), and a personal recognition that touring might just cure his inhibitions. ‘I began performing with white knuckles because I was so terrified of being in front of people. But after having toured America, I find it much easier and a lot more enjoyable. Being super outgoing and animated is a good challenge for a shy hermit crab like myself. It\'s almost like a bizarre form of therapy.’
So Young is now looking forward to bringing that live show to The UK in February, following November 2009’s release of the warm and witty reinvention of prime Giorgio Moroder that is Umbrella Beach. The tour ties in with the unleashing of the Fireflies phenom on unsuspecting Brits, and the release of the Ocean Eyes album on March 1st – a blissful first-day-of-Spring treat to pull us all out of our winter funk. ‘I love the idea of a melancholy optimism via sound waves,’ Adam explains, in response to questions about the youthful optimism of the Owl City sound. ‘Music that evokes happiness, but the serious kind. The kind that gives you hope. That\'s really what I want to communicate. An uplifting feeling.’
That’s a job already done in his native country. It’s about time we Brits got our shot of Owl City’s bright, shiny spine-tingliness. Adam Young may have trouble remembering his dreams, but his vertiginous journey from secret Myspace darling to America’s Great Pop Hope is still a waking dream he’s having difficulty fully absorbing.
‘I can\'t believe how fast things have taken off. It seems like it was only yesterday I put a few songs from my first EP online and watched things begin to happen on their own. I never thought music could spread like mine did through the internet. I guess it\'s just another testament to the power of technology and communication. I do know one thing though: I just wanted to keep creating. It\'s a lot of fun and it\'s the only thing in the world I\'m good at. So it\'d be a real shame to stop.’
That it would. And this would be the bit where we implore you to watch Owl City make like a bird and fly.