Owl City's reclusive Adam Young opens up
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.
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."
Additionally, "Good Time" features about 50 other locals in the form of the Minneapolis Youth Chorus giddily singing backing vocals. In mid-March, Young and the kids gathered at the Terrarium Studio in Minneapolis to record. According to chorus director Patrice Arasim, this wasn't a tough assignment for a group of kids in grades four through nine who have experience singing in different languages and over an orchestra. "We just had to learn how to rock 'n' roll and shout-sing it," she says. "It's just a simple little phrase, you know? That took us about 15 minutes to learn it, and a couple of hours to go to the studio and record it. He was so with the kids and in the moment. When they were singing, I could see his jaw drop."
"I was really, really, really excited," adds choir member Audrey Darst-Kereakos, who was already an Owl City fan. "Oh my god, I didn't know it was going to be this huge of a song, and now it's like a worldwide summer anthem for 2012. All my friends are always bragging that I'm in that song."
Forget bragging, Owl City's label, Universal Republic, is probably content to breathe a sigh of relief. Owl City's 2009 breakout, Ocean Eyes (with "Fireflies"), has topped a million in sales, but 2011's follow-up, All Things Bright and Beautiful, has yet to crest 150,000. Thus, this year's The Midsummer Station is ratcheted up with the aforementioned Jepsen collaboration, a duet with Blink-182's Mark Hoppus called "Dementia," and "Shooting Star," a co-write with Norwegian production juggernaut Stargate, who have helped create hits for Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Beyonce.
There's another kind of song on the album, called "Silhouette," and it might be Owl City's candy-coated "Purple Rain." Young calls the piano-based track the most personal song he's ever written. "I've never really experienced a lot of stuff worth singing about," he says. "So I kind of had to dig back over the course of my life. It's mainly about one relationship that kind of hit rock bottom. It kind of tore me up. I tend to write songs purely from imagination. This is definitely kind of a departure. We play it live and it's tough to get through the song without choking up because it's so personal. I'm singing about real things, which is kind of new to me."
Minnesota music fans will be surprised that another thing is completely new to Adam Young: First Avenue. When Owl City performs a headlining show there in October, it'll be the very first time he enters the storied venue, and aside from a brief stint living in Dinkytown, he rarely visits the Twin Cities. Although he was still an anxious perfectionist on stage in front of 110,000 people at the Jisan Valley Rock Fest in Korea, he's more comfortable with a guitar in his hands than he ever is in the audience at a show.
"I don't need to be in a social situation for very long to get what I need from it," he explains. "Every human being needs to have interaction, but I can get it like, lightning quick. When I'm home [in Owatonna], I can close the door, I can stay inside my house and not leave if I don't want to. And usually I don't leave."
We're in Young's growling, spotless Mustang now. (It's an automatic.) Earlier, he told me that this is one of his favorite things to do — just drive around aimlessly.
"I'm probably 15, 16 years old. I'm still a boy," he freely admits. "The bummer, if you could call it a bummer, the negative thing about having the amount of success I've been blessed to have, I don't have to pay my own bills, I don't have to worry about cell phones, or do anything that real life requires of everyone else. So that's why I kind of cheated the system. What if I have to do that someday and I don't know how to do it?"
The recorder isn't running now, but that's intentional. Young says he's put only about 1,000 miles on the car, and mentions that he's nervous about a couple of TV appearances he's doing in the coming days. I briefly ponder asking him if he's gotten what he needed from our interaction yet, but stay silent.
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