Owl City's reclusive Adam Young opens up

The electro-synth-pop musician talks inspiration

Owl City's reclusive Adam Young opens up
Erik Hess
Adam Young, photographed at Costa's Candies in Owatonna, Minnesota

"Woke up on the right side of the bed/What's up with this Prince song inside my head?" That's what Owl City's Adam Young asks himself at the outset of synth-pop summer smash "Good Time." Is it "1999," "Starfish and Coffee," "Alphabet Street," or another one of the Purple One's countless funky, jubilant moments?

"It's 'Purple Rain,'" the Owatonna native and resident tells City Pages. "It's kind of cliché because it's one of the ones, but you can't really go wrong."

Young's choice is a Prince mega-hit, but it's also one of most melancholy tear-yankers ever turned into a Hollywood drama. Yet it makes sense that the reclusive-to-a-fault Young had that song in his head when he wrote the happiest piece of bubblegum of his career. The mind that birthed electronic odes to imagination like "Fireflies," "Umbrella Beach," and "Alligator Sky" in his parents' basement might prefer "Purple Rain" strictly for an image of grape jelly droplets falling from the heavens.

The “Good Time” singer visits First Avenue for the first time ever on October 4
courtesy of the artist
The “Good Time” singer visits First Avenue for the first time ever on October 4

Back on Earth, a rare in-person conversation with Young isn't off to a dreamlike start. We meet up in Owatonna, which is 65 miles south of Minneapolis, at the only Starbucks for 40 miles in any direction.

"I thought he was charming and obviously quite talented," Young's duet partner and "Call Me Maybe" singer Carly Rae Jepsen says of her initial meeting with him in an email to City Pages. "But honestly, the very first thought in my mind was, 'Wow, he's a lot taller than I expected.'"

Young's height is notable, but erased once he sits and leans his gray shirtsleeves on the table next to me. His face is pale and has a few days' worth of beard growth along his jaw. We discuss Sky Harbor Studios, the recording space at his own four-bedroom house on a cul de sac in town, we touch on his side of that first meeting with Jepsen — it occurred when they filmed the music video for "Good Time" in Upstate New York — and we delve briefly into how he believes he's got the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome but never had it diagnosed. For each question, he has a matter-of-fact answer, always polite, but succinct.

Then comes the awkward realization that the recorder wasn't started for any of this. "Oh no," he says, wincing slightly.

This isn't the first interaction we've had, so I'm used to his shyness and am trying to match his lack of intensity. We spoke briefly on the phone in 2009 only because an editor gave a strict edict of no email interviews. His publicist pushes for email interviews because Young does exceptional email interviews. They're filled with jokes and playfulness, and mirror the attitude he projects in songs that have earned him a fan base that is mostly female and teenaged.

In a 2010 exchange, I asked him if he'd ever write a jingle for Coca-Cola, where he worked briefly in Owatonna before his career took off. "The way I look at it is this: I'm just a normal guy who wrote a song that went number one in 24 countries around the world, but at the end of the day, I'm just a Coca-Cola employee. I live alone, I talk to my houseplants with a megaphone, I prefer nasty sandwiches over NYC gourmet dining, I get super shy around pretty girls. The only way I know how to play the harmonica is to get my car going superfast and stick it out the window."

Note: Last year, Young purchased a black Ford Mustang GT, and he has posted footage on YouTube of the beastly vehicle peeling rubber on a country road likely nearby.

We start the interview again. "Do you feel sad to see MySpace [the service that gave you a platform and grew your fan base before you were signed to a label and had ever performed live] lose its relevance?"

"No. I honestly don't," he says. "I don't know. [At this point, a middle-aged couple walks up. The man is on crutches and punches Young's arm affectionately.] Hey how are you? How's it going? What happened to your leg?"

Man: "I tore my ACL. Look at that. Isn't that cool?"

Woman: "Hi. I'm good, how are you? He was trying to be Superman and stop our camper from rolling down the driveway."

And for anyone who grew up in a small Minnesota town, you can fill in the rest of the pleasant conversation with the folks who turn out to be church friends of Young's parents.

Woman: "Nice seeing you."

Adam: "Yeah, you too. [To me] Sorry about that."

Of course, he had nothing to apologize for. Those interactions, after all, are what homecomings are all about, and it lightened both of our moods significantly. We return to the topic of "Good Time," which has peaked at number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, and is one of several duets he's performed with female voices throughout his career. In concert, Apple Valley native Breanne Düren is his female counterpart.

"I never had sisters, I never dated girls in high school, I never had girlfriends," he says. "I never had someone to ask, 'Will you sing on this?' [chuckles] So it's always like a different world as far as artistry in general."

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