Attempting to decode Owl City's Adam Young, Minnesota's biggest pop star

What's going on in that head of yours, Adam?

What's going on in that head of yours, Adam?

We all know Owl City's Adam Young yearns for 1,000 hugs from 10,000 lightning bugs, but how are there not 10,000 think-pieces attempting to dissect the psyche of Young? The 29-year-old force behind the mega-selling electro-pop outfit is a baffling pop star, one who shuns every trait associated with being rich, young, and famous. 

Shy, earnest, and devoutly religious, Young — who scored No. 1 hit "Fireflies" in 2009 and No. 8 hit "Good Time" in 2012 — still lives in his hometown of Owatonna, population 25,599, where he reigns as Minnesota's biggest contemporary pop export. The traps society sets for its fledgling Top 40 superstars (overexposure, drugs, sex) seemingly have zero risk of snaring our eternally boyish hometown hero. 

On new Owl City album Mobile Orchestra, released in July, Young shows he's no commercial sucker, though, embracing profitable trends like EDM ("Verge," featuring Aloe Blacc), bro-country ("Back Home," featuring Jake Owen), and clickbait nostalgia ("Unbelievable," featuring Hanson). On the other hand, he also goes full Jesus with "My Everything," something of a risky move in the secular pop landscape.

The only constant in Young's career? Profitability and popularity in the face of critical acrimony. With a lifetime Metacritic score of 51 out of 100, Owl City's cloying synth-pop and storybook lyricism places it at the lunch table with Nickelback, Ashlee Simpson, Hoobastank, and Ja Rule. Still, the Oreo marketing team certainly isn't worried about his inability to win over rock critics. 

And neither is Adam Young. City Pages scored a very brief phone conversation with the perplexing pop star ahead of his gig Saturday at Varsity Theater. This writer dreamed of playing armchair psychologist, unearthing the motives, fears, and insights of one of the most reclusive yet engaged celebrities around — what makes you tick, Adam!? Instead, the well-practiced interviewee yielded his favorite Blink 182 record and not much else. Oh well.

City Pages: Take me through the artistic statement you set out to make with Mobile Orchestra.

Adam Young: I guess the word that kinda comes up is diversity, that’s kind of what I was going for. As opposed to some of my earlier records, I guess I wanted to experiment with different genres, my influence and my love of things that always inspired me growing up. So on the record there’s a couple songs that are inspired by my love of rock music, kinda like punk rock kinda stuff like Blink 182 or Green Day that sounds run through my own filter.

There’s a little bit of my love for EDM and dance music. I’m a big fan of trance music, so some of that kinda found its way into the programming of it. My taste for country music found its way on there, too, with the song “Back Home” with Jake Owen. I’m a huge fan of his stuff, so it was really cool to collaborate with him. There’s a bunch of vocal features on there; I feel really lucky to kinda work with everybody involved. I just feel like they took what I do and made it better. That’s kind of the vision of what Mobile Orchestra is about.

CP: What’s your favorite Blink record?

AY: Take Off Your Pants is probably my favorite. It’s so good!

CP: Now that your record has been out for two months, have you been happy with the reception – commercially, critically, from fans?

AY: Really good. The reception is great so far. We haven't played any songs yet live here in the States. We were well-received in Asia, but it’ll be great to test them out here, because it’s so different culturally and everyone’s appetite for music and different genres here is so different. It’s been really fun. The shows are going great so far. We’re kinda working to tighten ‘em up as we go. So far, so good.

CP: In terms of that critical aspect, you’re the highest-selling artist out of Minnesota in a long time and major-selling pop artist in general, but critics have never had love for your work. Does that bother you? How does that make you feel?

AY: Yeah, I usually don’t pay that much attention to it. Places like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone have always kind of had a vendetta against me I think just because the style of music is so popular. I always just think it must be a bummer to hate on stuff because you have some sort of self-appointed agenda.

It seems like you’re robbing yourself of a lot joy if you have that mindset. I kind of feel sorry for folks like that, but I just don’t pay attention to it; I just do what I do. I hopefully don’t have an agenda myself. I just try to stay true to what my fans like and what they want to hear. I just kinda do my own thing.

CP: How has your comfort level changed with being a pop star?

AY: At first it was a big switch. By nature, just the way I’m wired, is real internal, definitely an introvert. So at first it was kind of a tough thing to find my path through and figure out the way the world works as far as touring, the industry, and labels, and all that stuff. Thankfully, I think I’ve found my pace through it all. I've kind of figured out how to make it work for me and kind of synch it to my speed, I guess. I do really enjoy all aspects of it now. Touring at first was pretty tricky, because it’s so much for somebody like me. I really do enjoy all aspects of it.

CP: But not so much at first?

AY: Yeah, not so much at first. It was just such a big change and it happened so fast. Back in 2009, everything kind of changed for me overnight and it was a little bit crazy. Thankfully, everything was back at home. I didn’t move to New York or L.A. I just kinda stay put. So that’s kind of been my home base. It’s always been constant, so that’s been good. 

CP: Are you still in Owatonna?

AY: Yeah, just about an hour south of Minneapolis.

CP: Yeah, I’m from Minneapolis. So when you go get, I don’t know, a carton of milk, do people scream Owl City and point at you?

AY: Yeah, sometimes. It’s a small town, so usually I get groceries in the middle of the night and stuff because usually everybody knows me. But nobody’s ever malicious. It’s a small town, but there’s a little bit of like … I hope I don’t know anybody when I go to the store, I’m kind of wired that way anyway. Everybody’s very sweet, very kind, but usually I like to stay on the down-low a little bit.

CP: Sure. What keeps you in Owatonna? Have you felt pulled anywhere else?

AY: No, not really. I’ve definitely kept my eye open as I’ve toured around the States the past five or six year. I’ve tested the water to see if maybe another city felt like home, but nothing really has. I just really like the pace of a small town — there’s no traffic, there’s no crime, no smog.

There’s no kind of the downfalls of, at least what I see, of some of the bigger cities. I guess I kind of meet my quota, just in the way I'm built, when we tour around the country. That kind of meets my needs, I guess, of being out and about, what’s going on tonight, and finding stuff to do. We’re not out late, which I kind of prefer. 

CP: Tell me how your faith informs your career and your songwriting. 

AY: It’s a big part of the way I write. My parents and their influence over me … I always grew up in the church, whenever the doors were open we were there. I think it’s their support for me spiritually, and just having them always around to build me up in my spiritual life. It has always been so important. That continues to this today, and I’m so thankful for their influence over my life.

That’s always been so important for me as I’ve done the music thing, and kinda found myself in sort of a darker industry at times. Just having the right people surrounding you I think is such a big deal, just kinda that safety net. Surrounding yourself with the right people is half the battle.

CP: You alluded to the darker elements of the industry – obviously sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll pop into a lot of people’s minds. Have you faced temptation?

AY: Thankfully, no. I know there’s a lot of temptation out there. I guess half of it is because of just the way I am. After a show, usually I just go straight to bed. I’m like that kind of a guy. I don’t go out to look and see what’s around as much. Part of that is just the way I am.

The other half is, like I said, having the right kind of friends, having my folks back at home praying for me, and just being intentional. Staying in the Word and keeping myself grounded is really important. That’s kind of what I do to stay away from the bad stuff, the dark side of the industry. 

CP: Commercially, do you feel like you’ll ever lose cool points or credibility for being so upfront about your faith?

AY: No, I never felt that. I feel like if I were to hide the fact I am a person of faith, I would feel like I’m wearing a mask a bit. My goal is never to go out and be a preacher or preach fire and brimstone or anything. It is the most important thing in my life, so I’d feel wrong to not mention it in my music and not point it out and say it’s the No. 1 thing in my life. So yeah, that’s kinda where I’m at with that.

CP: In a very broad sense, do you feel understood? Does the public perception of Adam Young reflect the real Adam Young?

AY: Yeah, I’d say so. I feel like the music does a good job of kinda representing what I’m about. Just with this project, with all my goals, is just kind of a positive sound and positive emotion. A lot of the music is deceivingly positive; a lot of the lyrics are pretty dark. But there’s something cool about having a positive sound to some of those songs. But yeah, to answer your question, I think for the most part I feel pretty understood.

CP: What brings you the most joy?

AY: Usually it’s a process in the studio, where I come up with an idea musically. It’s usually something musical, that’s kind of what comes first in the songwriting process. I think of a melody or program a riff or rhythm or something like that; I kind of have this template down. It’s this point right before I start finishing it that I get the most excited, because I haven't been able to fill in all the blanks yet and work out the bugs.

It’s just this idea that I’ve stumbled upon something I really enjoy. I go off to get dinner or go to bed or something, and I play what I just made, and I kind of remember … that’s when I get the most joy, that’s when I get the most excited about whatever it is, because it’s not finished yet and that’s my favorite part of the process. 

CP: What brings you the most anxiety?

AY: Umm, probably phone interviews and doing press. That’s not my favorite kind of thing. If I could kind of hide behind the scenes, I would do that.

CP: OK, how’s it going right now?

AY: [Laughs.] Doing good! You’re doing good, thank you.

CP: It might be hard to pinpoint, but what makes you anxious about interacting with journalists?

AY: I guess I just don’t really like talking about myself as much. I would rather talk about other stuff. It’s always been kind of a thing, but like everything else, I think I’ve found my way.

CP: Is there one thing journalists don’t ask you that you’d like to be asked about?

AY: No, no. Not really.

CP: [Laughs.] I guess that kind of comes back to not wanting to talk about yourself.

AY: Yeah.

CP: Just in the perception I get from watching your videos and listening to your music, there’s kind of a boyish sense of wonder in the way you go about things. I’m curious — do you ever get pissed off, jealous, angry? What does it take to make Adam Young angry?

AY: Not much, just because I’m pretty even-keeled ...

[Long pause, then the publicist comes back from having muted the phone].

AY: Sorry, where’d you lose me?

CP: I lost you at even-keeled, but you were telling me what I’d have to do to really piss you off.

AY: Yeah, not much. I’m definitely not the moodiest guy. I’m kind of always in the same rhythm. I definitely process everything internally, so if you did, you probably wouldn’t know it. I kind of bury everything deep down.

CP: OK ... in a healthy sense?

AY: Yeah, yeah.

CP: Final question: When you’re going to bed at night, what are your dreams? What do you want your legacy to be?

AY: That’s a tall order, for sure. I feel like I’ve done so much already that I’ve never planned on doing. I never envisioned myself doing music as a living. It was never really a dream of mine, it just sort of happened. I feel so lucky to be able to do it, because I do love it.

Again, I feel like I've accomplished so much more than I ever set out to do … I have so much to be thankful for. Ultimately, if I can just keep doing what I do, keep it going in a similar fashion, I’ll be real happy.

Owl City

With: Rozzi Crane.

When: 7 p.m. Sat., Oct. 17.

Where: Varsity Theater. 

Tickets: Sold out; more info here.