June Band of the Month: Owl City
In November 2009, Owl City’s Adam Young, a native and longtime resident of Owatonna, Minnesota (pop. 25,000), who had made his very first airplane journey only a year prior at age 22, found himself standing on the Great Wall of China. “I called my mom on my cell phone at 2 a.m. Minnesota time and said, ‘You’ll never believe where I am right now!’” Young recalls with a laugh. “I’m this shy kid from nowhere. My family didn’t have a lot of money to take vacations, so for me to have that kind of experience was surreal.”
It was just one of many extraordinary moments this unassuming 24-year-old Midwesterner would have over the past 18 months thanks to the blockbuster success of Owl City’s major-label debut album — the lush, lovingly created Ocean Eyes, which was released by Universal Republic Records in July 2009. Filled with whimsical melodies and blissful beats that Young conjured up alone in the basement of his parents’ home in Owatonna, Ocean Eyes topped the Billboard Rock, Alternative, and Dance/Electronic charts and was certified gold or platinum in nine countries, including platinum in the U.S. The album spawned the quadruple-platinum first single “Fireflies,” which was a No. 1 smash hit in 24 countries including the U.S. (where it hit the top spot twice), and sold more than four million downloads. Its eye-popping success has made Owl City an international phenomenon, selling nearly 12 million tracks worldwide and amassing an impressive touring record, including support stints with Maroon 5 and John Mayer, and sold-out headlining tours in which Young, backed by a five-piece band, performed for besotted fans in the U.S., Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
Young’s adventures over the past two years are evocatively detailed on the impossibly catchy electro-pop songs that make up Owl City’s new album, All Things Bright and Beautiful. “Ocean Eyes was written from the perspective of my bedroom,” Young says. “All I could do was imagine how I’d feel if I could visit all these places I was writing about. This time around, I was influenced by very specific things and was able to draw upon what I’d been through, so that got poured into the lyrics and the moods of the songs. The music always dictates the lyrics. I just sit down at the piano and think about things and it happens in front of me.”
On All Things Bright and Beautiful, the music and lyrics conspire to make listeners feel as if they were stepping into another world — a verdant musical dreamland where “reality is a lovely place, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” as Young sings on the opening track “The Real World.” Images of abundance, like a backyard of butterflies (“Honey and the Bee”), blossoms filling a room (“Hospital Flowers”), and “sunsets that dazzle in the dusk” (“Dreams Don’t Turn To Dust”) unfold alongside starry-eyed imaginings of cherry bombs staining blackbirds red (“Kamikaze”) and dipping one’s toes in the galaxy (“Alligator Sky”).
Young opens the album with “The Real World” because, for him, it serves as a partial commentary on his fanciful nature. “Not that I want to check out from what’s going on around me,” he explains, “but I’m the guy who’ll lie awake at night and have these wakeful dreams, like a movie director who’s creating this film in my head, and that is so inspiring. It’s worth more than anything that’s ever happened to me in person. So that song is kind of an embodiment of what life could be like if I were in a different place.” Interestingly, Young follows “The Real World” with “Deer in the Headlights,” a playful song about feeling the pressure to be the perfect guy. “It’s my way of telling myself, ‘Wake up, nothing will ever be that perfect.’ I put those songs back to back to say that you can stay in one world and be happy, but often what’s real is much different than what you perceive to be ideal.”
Another highlight is the first single, “Alligator Sky,” which features Los Angeles rapper Shawn Chrystopher. “’Alligator’ and ‘sky’ are two words that don’t really go together, but conjure up an image, which fits the idea of the song,” Young says. “It’s about how there are so many weird things coming at you every day. Why not just meet them head on and take charge even though you have no say over what’s going to happen? You and those around you are what matter most.”
Through each song, even the more melancholy ones, such as “Dreams Don’t Turn To Dust” and “Plant Life” (on which Young sings about wishing plant life would grow all around him “so I won’t feel dead anymore”), Young retains his ever-present optimism, letting the listener know that no matter how tough times get, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. “I would feel weird if I were to communicate anything other than optimism, because it’s just who I am,” Young says. “It's always been in me to make Owl City a vehicle that sends a hopeful message. As a listener, I'm drawn to things that are really uplifting. When a certain melody grabs my ear, it makes me feel like I could be a better person.”
All Things Bright and Beautiful also finds Young expanding his sonic palette, playing around with a harder-edged vocal delivery on “Kamikaze,” majestic strings on “Dreams Don’t Turn To Dust,” euphoric dancefloor tempo on “The Yacht Club” (featuring guest vocals by Canadian singer Lights), and straight-up piano pop on “Plant Life” (which Young wrote with Relient K’s Matthew Thiessen). The experimentation comes from Young’s evolving confidence as a songwriter, musician, producer, and engineer. As with Ocean Eyes, Young produced and engineered the album himself (before mixing it together with veteran mixer Jack Joseph Puig). “For the actual production of the album, tonality and texture played a larger part,” Young says. “I knew I wanted it sound bigger and be more dynamic than Ocean Eyes, so I put more time into trying to figure out how to do my job better from a technical standpoint. I had to polish up my knowledge so I could bring the sounds I heard in my head to life.”
Young has come a long way since his days posting his musical experiments on MySpace and YouTube, launching both an online savvy and radio-friendly career that the New York Times called “a textbook illustration of how the music business needs new and old forms of media to make an artist a star.” Before becoming an Internet sensation (racking up more than 98 million total plays on MySpace and more than 18.5 million channel views on Owl City’s Vevo/YouTube channel to date), Young, the only child of a mechanic and a schoolteacher, was attending community college and working dead-end jobs, including one in a warehouse loading Coca-Cola trucks. He began creating melodies and beats on his laptop as a way to combat insomnia and eventually self-released an EP, 2007’s Of June and an album, 2008’s Maybe I’m Dreaming, both of which reached the Top 20 on Billboard’s Electronic Albums chart.
Impressed by Young’s connection to his grassroots audience, Universal Republic signed Owl City in early 2008 and stepped back to watch his creativity flourish. He has also released music under the moniker Sky Sailing, and appeared on a track on Dutch producer Armin van Buuren’s 2010 album Mirage. Last year, 300 and Watchmen and director Zack Snyder asked Young to write the theme song for his animated film Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga-Hoole. “To The Sky” anchors the film’s soundtrack, which also includes the score by Academy Award nominee Davis Hirschfelder.
For now, however, Young’s attention is focused on Owl City, which will hit the road for a U.S. tour in June 2011 following the May 17th release of All Things Bright and Beautiful. Forced to overcome his shyness and trepidation about performing live, Young is now enthusiastic about touring and showing up for his fans. “The gratification you get from flying across the world and playing to a sold-out room full of kids who know all your lyrics, even if they don’t speak your language, is incredible,” Young says. “It’s those times when you stand back and say, ‘I’m just a normal guy, I can’t believe this is happening.’”
Maybe I'm Dreaming (2008)