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For those who follow the emerging lap-pop styles of today's electronica or the attention-deficit musings of online music sites, the recent success of Owatonna native Adam Young's Owl City project should be no surprise. With his songs on MySpace garnering over 32.7 million plays, it's also no surprise that Young's newest release, Ocean Eyes, debuted on Billboard's Top 200 Album chart at 27, staying in the Top 100 for over two months.
Young's newest work contains crystal-clear, honey-sweet ballads of love, awash in oceanic metaphors and driven by techno-pop beats. It's readily evident that Ocean Eyes was digitally devised to delight; it's sonically smoother than the farthest skipping stone of the summer. Currently on their first headlining tour, Owl City have sold out many of their 35 dates already, including a performance at the Cabooze this Saturday night. Bedecked with keyboards and laptops, Young will be accompanied by Matt Decker on drums, Breanne Duren on vocals, and a pair of string players on cello and violin.
In anticipation of the band's homecoming show, we talked with Adam Young about the evolution of Owl City, the use of Auto-Tune in today's music, and life on the road as a skyrocketing musician.
City Pages: Where does the name "Owl City" come from?
Adam Young: "Owl City" comes from a wee incident I had in Scotland back in 1994. I used to visit my wonderful creaky grandmother in Edinburgh every year, and it was that particular year that I happened to be waltzing scot-free through the lovely Scottish foothills when I suddenly came upon a deep, dark, marvelously mysterious forest. This forest was literally crammed full of owls. Big owls, small owls, fat owls, skinny owls, tall owls, short owls, smart owls, dumb owls, tough owls, sissy owls, owls who climb on rocks...you name it. It was literally a city of owls, and me being the incredibly clever bloke I so happen to be, thought "Owl City" had a bit more of a ring to it than "City of Owls."
CP: When did you realize that you wanted to write music, and which bands inspired you most?
Young: I knew I wanted to write music more than anything a few years ago when I worked in a warehouse loading trucks, not lifting with my knees, hurting my back, sweating like a sweaty water buffalo, learning new words from my nice co-workers, etc. Probably the most influential band for me has been Unwed Sailor. Jonathan Ford is an absolute genius.
CP: Now that you've seen some of the locales your lyrics daydream about, do you think it will change your perspective on how you'll write in the future?
Young: More than likely—and that certainly doesn't mean that I've become bored with the things, places, and ideas I've written about, nor has seeing some of these locales proven to be anything but the way I imagined them and much more—I think touring has given me a better, more precise "formula" for daydreaming, if you will. Save the sewers of Atlanta, I've greatly enjoyed everything I've seen over the course of my happy travels.
CP: How do you feel your sound has evolved from your initial EP, Of June, until your newest release, Ocean Eyes?
Young: Things have become more defined, I think. Creatively speaking, I've gotten a much sharper sense of where I want Owl City to go, what I want to accomplish with the project, what moods I want to evoke, etc. As an artist, I'm a firm believer that music writes itself; however, working according to intuition, in my opinion, is endlessly valuable.
CP: There's been much discussion about the use of Auto-Tune on vocal tracks in pop music. I've read that you specifically use Celemony Melodyne to edit yours. What's the desired result in using this technique for your albums?
Young: I tune my vocals a bit to smooth out some of the shakes. I use it as more of a tool than a sound. A lot of electronica is notorious for having really tuned-up, snapped vocals—that always reminds me of Eiffel 65 and, for what it's worth stylistically speaking, I think it's totally cool. However, it's not my thing. I'll be the first to say I haven't been blessed with a perfect-pitch singing voice, so Auto-Tune comes in handy as a way to airbrush my vocals a tad rather than attempting to make my music sound like a Daft Punk rip-off.
CP: Being a mostly electronic band, is it difficult to accomplish live what you've completed in a studio environment?
Young: Performing electronica live is harder than I imagined it being, because of the nature of the way the music is made. Plus, much of it is prepared beforehand, making touring a hefty challenge because you have to recreate sometimes 40-plus layers of audio that took a few days and a lot of experimentation to create. That said, it's been a tricky row to hoe and I'm the farthest thing from a farmer, although I confess I occasionally have overall problems.
CP: What's the strangest thing you've seen while on tour?