Five years ago, Adam Young was posting songs on Myspace that were concocted in his Owatonna, Minn., basement and dreaming of stardom.
Today, the artist known as Owl City has one massive Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit under his belt with 2009's "Fireflies," as well as the current Top 10 duet with "Call Me Maybe" sensation Carly Rae Jepsen, "Good Time." In 2011 Owl City's third studio album, All Things Bright And Beautiful, reached No. 6 on the Billboard 200. Most recently, he released his fourth album of mesmerizing electro-pop, The Midsummer Station, in August.
In the midst of a world tour in support of The Midsummer Station, Owl City discussed his musical background, how fame has impacted his small-town upbringing, collaborating with Jensen, and where he hopes his creativity will lead next.
Why was Owatonna such an ideal place for you to develop your music?
Because there wasn’t that much available to me. There was no music industry or scene to speak of. Shows never came through my town. I live in a very small town and I still live there. But to me that was the greatest place. I think I probably would not have thrived if I had grown up in New York or L.A. or somewhere where there's a lot more of a music influence there, because it forced me to be creative and do it all myself. I didn't have to rely on anybody else. There was no one else around.
Did you take music lessons as a youngster?
I’m 100 percent self-taught. [I] never had an older brother who played piano, and neither of my parents play instruments. So no lessons whatsoever. I purely started learning how to play synthesizer and guitar and drums — those are sort of my main three. From day one I had to figure it all out on my own.
If there's any consistent quality associated with your music, it has to be optimism.
I think this is kind of the way I'm wired. I really enjoy and even prefer to see the good in everything and not just communicate in my music. I never wanted to sit down and create this inherently optimistic electronica music that will hopefully sound uplifting with lyric and melody combined. For some reason, it just happened that way, because as a fan of music myself and other artists, I generally feel the most inspired by listening to [something] optimistic, whatever it is. That's what I want to continue, because that's kind of my message — the uplifting, whatever it is.
"Fireflies" sold more than 4 million copies and topped the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks. How did the song's success impact your life?
It changed in a big way out on the road, and literally [had] no change whatsoever back at home, because where I'm from is still kind of a place of refuge for me. And I need that because of my personality. I'm laid back and introverted, and I lose a lot of my drive and energy when I'm around a lot of people all the time. When I'm constantly switched on I just get burned out, so I need that place to go and recharge. So that place I kept very safe and near and dear. I didn't want let to that amount of success change how I function and how I go about my day at home.
The shows were bigger with more opportunity. There were shows like crazy. The record company was always there. Everybody was putting in their two cents. There was a lot of work to be done. And it was a great thing to try and balance those two things. [It was] a little scary at times, because you don't want to say no to anything, but you can't say yes to everything, so I feel like I found the right groove.
What continues to drive you as an artist?
It's all about the pursuit of the new melody, the new song, the new track, the new production trick — it's all about the music for me. That's what keeps me going: How can I keep reinventing myself? How can I keep this ball rolling? How can I keep doing this day in and day out, because I don't have to work at a gas station or at a warehouse or do something I hate. I get to live my dream, and that's pretty fulfilling by itself.
How did you hook up with Carly Rae Jepsen?
I was on the hunt at the time for somebody with just a great spirit, a strong female vocalist. It was a few months before "Call Me Maybe" blew up. My manager was good friends with Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber's manager, and heard that he had just signed Carly Rae.
It was very simple, as far as our collaborative process goes. I produced the song and had her vocal part already written. After I introduced myself through email, I sent her the track via the Internet. She said, "I'd love to do this, but our schedules probably won't permit us getting into the same room." Thankfully we live in an age where we can do anything over the Internet. The song was finished without us ever having met face-to-face.
When did you finally meet?
The first day of the music video shoot was the first day I met her. I had the opportunity to play a lot of late-night TV shows here in the states with her as a duet, so it was great to bond with her. She's at the stage where I was a few years ago, just kind of having this monster hit out of nowhere. It was cool to connect with her on that level because I don't know anybody else that I could [talk to and] say, "Here's how I felt when my song 'Fireflies' went big a few years ago. And how are you feeling about yours?"
What is on Owl City's creative bucket list?
Over the past few months, there hasn't been the time to dedicate myself to what I've wanted to do, which is production and co-writing and film scoring. There's this whole world that's opened up to me that I would love to experiment in.
(Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based journalist and frequent contributor to The Toronto Star and SOCAN's Words + Music. He is co-author of the Key Porter book Music From Far And Wide: Celebrating 40 Years Of The JUNO Awards and a contributor to the recently published The Routledge Film Music Sourcebook.)