Owl City: The pop emo hitmaker and what inspired "Fireflies"

Sunday 21st February 2010

Tony Cummings reports on the singer/songwriter from Owatonna, Minnesota, Adam Young, better known as OWL CITY

It's extremely rare to find a pop chart topper like Adam Young - now known by millions as Owl City - talk so openly about his Christian faith. But then, there's nothing typical about this shy, softly-spoken 23 year old from Owatonna, Minnesota, who found international fame making recordings in his parents' basement to combat his insomnia. But then there's nothing typical about Owl City's music. Labeled "synth pop", "alternative rock", "electronica" and "emo" by a somewhat bemused media, Young himself described his music on his Facebook page. "If your household appliances wrote love songs while you were away on vacation, their cheerful blips and bleeps would pour out the windows, sweep through the neighborhood like candy-coated tidal waves, and you would return home to find crowds of people standing on your lawn, clapping and singing along to the happiest pop melodies imaginable."

If such descriptions are just as fanciful as his lyrics about "ten million fireflies" that "fill the open air and leave teardrops everywhere" he was much more direct when asked by Back Beat, Seattle, about his Christian faith. He said, "I don't write Christian songs but I am a Christian musician so I suppose the classification of the band is up to the listener. My faith is very important to me and is a very big part of who I am as an individual."

Adam spoke to journalist Simon Vozick-Levinson about growing up in Owatonna. "It's about 15,000 or 16,000 people. It is about an hour south of Minneapolis, so it's basically in Iowa. I actually still live there. I got my own place a few months ago. It's a cozy, quiet place. Music really isn't a big deal there. It was kind of removed from the world. I think it's been good, because it's given me an unbiased perspective in terms of writing."

Adam's father was a mechanic and his mother a Second Language elementary teacher. Life at high school wasn't particularly comfortable for the budding musician. "I was kind of a loner. I still am, a little bit. My list of friends wasn't that extensive in high school. I wasn't involved in sports or extracurricular stuff, so music became my best friend. I would race home from school and work on songs, and that's what kept me really close to the idea of being an artist."

Slowly but surely Adam's music began to take shape. "Very early on, it was a lot of acoustic guitar, emo-ish, lovey-dovey songs. I was really big into the early Dashboard Confessional music. My very early stuff probably sounded a lot like it was influenced by Dashboard."

After high school came college. "I went to a little community college in my hometown. I went for my general arts degree. I didn't really know what I wanted to do specifically, so I just started to go to school for nothing, just for the sake of going, with hopes that something would catch on. I was working a dead-end job at the time. It just wasn't really working for me. I was spending more time thinking about my music in between my job and school than I was paying attention to my schoolwork. So that kinda went down the drain. I was loading trucks in a warehouse for Coca-Cola, a big bottling company warehouse. I started there after I graduated high school in 2005 and worked there for two years or so. And then I also worked a night shift in a warehouse at UPS, loading trucks for them."

It was Adam's switch to electronica which proved to be a turning point for the musical warehouse worker. "In terms of all things Owl City, I started writing electronica music just on a whim. I hadn't really delved into the world of programming and sequencing, and the endless roads that you can take via electronic music, so I thought it would be fun to take a stab at it. I got a sequencing programme and wrote what turned out to be seven songs for an EP's worth of music. I put that stuff out there on MySpace and didn't really do much with it, just let people discover it. The response that came in was incredible. One thing led to another. I can remember going into work six months later, where I worked for Coca-Cola, and putting in my two weeks - telling my boss, 'This has been great, and I've been grateful for the work, but I'm on to something else.' I remember the look I got when I told him I was making music and I was hoping I could run with that for a while. I remember walking out of that place, and it was the best feeling in the world."

In 2007 Adam posted his debut EP 'Of June' onto the web utilizing the name Owl City. "Viral popularity" came very quickly. Word-of-mouth recommendations spread like wildfire and the EP reached number 20 on the Billboard Electronic Albums chart. By the time Owl City's first album 'Maybe I'm Dreaming' was posted on iTunes there was a big internet audience for Adam's haunting brand of melodic electronica. Adam found himself courted by the major record labels. He stated succinctly, "I got some record label interest, took a few trips out to New York to talk to some different labels. Wound up with Universal Republic, and have been totally thrilled with them."

At first recording his 'Ocean Eyes' record label debut meant more sessions in his parents' basement. "I actually recorded three-fourths of the current album in my parents' basement. Then I got a place of my own and finished it up. The story behind it is not very glamorous. My parents live in a 104-year-old Victorian farmhouse which has a really old, unfinished basement that I had sort of taken over. I remember recording during winter and having to unplug the furnace because it was so loud and I needed to get the room to be quiet. [Laughs] The whole house got 30 degrees and my parents weren't too happy. But they're not complaining now, so it's all good!"

The breakthrough hit from 'Ocean Eyes' was that most haunting of songs "Fireflies". Adam spoke about his smash hit. "'Fireflies' was inspired by a camping trip I took up to a totally rustic and kind of remote lake in northern Minnesota, where there isn't really much of anything. I can remember sleeping out on a dock on the edge of this lake and looking up at the sky. There was a meteor shower that night. I remember thinking, what a cool idea of shooting stars being fireflies, and trying to translate that into music. That's what spurred it on. I was also influenced by the lack of sleep that tends to happen." "Fireflies" peaked at number one in the US Hot 100 in October last year while this year repeated the feat by becoming a UK chart topper in January.

One of the intriguing guests on the 'Ocean Eyes' album is the frontman of Christian rockers Relient K, Matt Thiessen. Matt even sang backups on "Fireflies" while Young produced the Relient K track "Terminals". Said Adam about the unexpected musical association, "It's been a total blast thus far. I've been a huge Relient K fan since junior high and have recently become good friends with Matt."

So why does composer Adam resort so often to images of beaches and the ocean while living in a land-locked State? "I grew up in the midwest so most of my daydreams revolved around faraway places, the ocean being the most interesting to me. I'd never flown on an airplane or stood on either coast up until a few months ago and both experiences have proven to be even more inspiring than I'd imagined. I probably spend way too much time lost in wishful thinking but there are so many places I've never been, people I've never met, things I've never experienced. . . sometimes I'm afraid I'm missing out on something wonderful, you know? I mean, I couldn't be more grateful for who I am or where I'm at in life, but it's the 'great unknown' that fascinates me."

Now Owl City has embarked on sell out concert performances, Adam has wisely recruited some musicians to accompany his on stage efforts. He listed his compatriots: "Matt Decker plays drums, Breanne Duren sings and plays piano, Laura Musten plays violin, Hannah Schroeder plays cello and I play synth and guitar. I'd hate to tour without them. Best bunch of friends you could ask for."

If Owl City's recordings and now tours aren't enough, Adam has also found time to record a couple of instrumental ambient projects, 'The Airship' (2007) and 'The Albatross EP' (2008). He said, "I write a lot of ambient music in a solo project by the name of Port Blue which is largely inspired by bands like Unwed Sailor, Boards Of Canada and Hammock. I love the idea of creating wordless abstract music without telling a listener specifically what to think or how to feel. It feels limitless because you can go anywhere, do anything or be anyone in your mind. You can let your imagination go and there's no telling where it might take you. I find my escape in instrumental soundscapes and I definitely plan on writing and releasing more records under Port Blue. It's very dreamy stuff."

A lot of critics have suggested that Owl City's style is musically indebted to the work of influential group The Postal Service. Adam responded, "It was never the intention or the initial concept of the band to remind people of The Postal Service, but it's proven to do just that and I take it as a total compliment. The idea of my music being likened to a Ben Gibbard side-project is a pretty honoring thing."

Having been so unexpectedly catapulted into international fame it's hardly surprising that Adam is somewhat dazed by the process. He admitted, "It's been so surreal to sit back and watch that take off. The idea of writing a new record and coming out with new singles is a little bit daunting, just because of how it may or may not be received. But watching that song take off by itself is incredible. Every night out here on the road, people sing that song back to me the loudest. It's like a church congregation, almost. People are singing so passionately. They know every word. It's totally crazy." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


Reader Comments

Posted by andrea aka barbiie:) in brownsville,texas @ 23:32 on Jul 27 2010

I love Young Adam! Owl City he's a very good singer,my favorite...haha I remember this guy once send me the song Vanilla Twilight,and when I first heard it I fell in love with it,It helped me talk out my feelings,well that song is just my lifes story:) well I just wanted to say,Adam your awesome,I love your songs,and keep doing what you're doing,you're great:))

Posted by Alasdair in Stockport, United Kingdom @ 19:15 on Mar 15 2010

I don't think he realised that, little lad from mid west America who hadn't really been out much who worked in a warehouse? :P
Very interesting, gonna listen out for Mat Thiessen in that now!

Posted by jasperJULIAN in Sheffield @ 23:58 on Feb 24 2010

Well that's great, however I never thought this guy was a Christian hence the name OWL CITY - an owl is a Masonic symbol used greatly among Free Masons, and skull and bones society members. - any way obviously the artist name is a coinsidence or is it? I'm very happy though that a Christian has topped the U.K Charts

Posted by mackenzie in Rhode island @ 21:40 on Feb 23 2010

omg i just love owl city(adam young) it is so hard to find a good emo singer(cuz im emo). he is so awsome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! i so want to meet him. i love his song vanilla twilight i wish he could sing it to me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by Julie in Wolves @ 15:02 on Feb 22 2010

lol - that is true! however in saying this it's still a cool article interesting read.

Posted by White667 in England @ 16:43 on Feb 21 2010

My problem with this entire article is that Adam Young is pretty much the most typical post-teenage pre-adult internet user in the world.

"there's nothing typical about this shy, softly-spoken 23 year old from Owatonna, Minnesota, who found international fame making recordings in his parents' basement to combat his insomnia."

Please reread that. Shy, softly-spoken twenty something from Minnesota who spends his life on the internet late into the night? That pretty much descripes 90% of the YouTube contributors.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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