Adam Young, aka Owl City, has made the journey from the basement of a Minnesota farmhouse to the top of the charts all over the world. Here he tells the story of his success.
Like many people with a strong creative streak, Adam Young has difficulty sleeping at night. While others might battle fretfully against the condition, he has learned to embrace its more positive aspects.
“The creative juices start flowing most when I’m lying awake with nothing to do,” he explains to me, a few hours ahead of a sell-out gig in Oklahoma City. “My mind is quiet, and my thoughts are collected, and that’s when I find that the ideas really start happening.”
In 2007, a 21-year-old Young was working in a warehouse in his hometown of Owatonna, an hour’s drive south of Minneapolis in the midwestern state of Minnesota. He still lived with his parents – a mechanic and a school teacher – in a late-Victorian farmhouse, spending much of his time in its unkempt, windowless basement. One weekend in June, alone in the house for a couple of days, and motivated as much by boredom as anything else, he began to channel his insomniac energies into music, piecing together melodies and lyrics in his subterranean den.
Young worked in isolation, making up his own rules as he went along. He didn’t come from a musical family, none of his friends played instruments, and the live scene in Owatonna was almost non-existent. Instead, he took his initial inspiration from film scores and movie soundtracks. “One of the things which got me interested in music as being aesthetically pleasing was the movie Finding Nemo,” he says. “The music from that film is just so inspiring. It’s a testament to how well music can stand up on its own, when it’s written for something visually. That really made me stop and think: wow, this guy makes me feel like I wanna be able to do that for other people. I didn’t have any sort of structure, or an innate sense of direction that I wanted to go in lyrically, but I knew that I wanted to stand out from whatever else was floating around out there.”
A month later, Young had completed the recording of seven tracks. Adopting the name Owl City, he began to upload his music to MySpace, eventually making the tracks available as a self-released EP, Of June. Aside from telling a few friends, he did little to publicise his work.
“Slowly but surely, kids started to catch on to it and discover it. They started to pass it around to each other, and I just sat back in awe and amazement to see how fast people were connecting with what I’d done. I honestly thought there wouldn’t be a lot of people, because in comparison to what I thought was the popularised kind of music, that people find easy to connect to, I thought it was a bit off the beaten path.”
Although Young was no longer a teenager himself, his wistful, daydreamy synth-pop quickly found a natural constituency among the core MySpace demographic. His lyrics made frequent reference to the oceans, but he had yet to visit either coast. He had never travelled overseas, and he had never set foot on a plane. Equally isolated in their bedrooms, and equally innocent of the outside world, his young listeners instinctively related to these songs of inexperience, imagination and wonder. The connection was direct, intimate and personal. Friend requests and play counts started to stack up. Six months on from his MySpace debut, Young quit his job at the warehouse.
By the spring of 2008, emails from major record labels were arriving on an increasingly regular basis. Initially wary of their advances, Young was in no hurry to respond.
According to Avery Lipman, co-president of Universal Republic records, “It took us a good six weeks just to convince him to come to New York to meet us. He had no interest, he was nervous, he was intimidated. When he finally came, I think he was actually accompanied by a town councilman; I thought it was his dad. This guy was an accountant by trade, hoping to make sure this young kid didn’t get taken advantage of.
“Adam certainly had no concept of the business. I basically had to explain Record Business 101: what a record company does, how the relationship works, how and why he should get himself an attorney and a manager and a booking agent. He certainly listened. He was intrigued. And yet it took us yet another three months to convince him to finally sign with us. He was probably, and with good reason, concerned of the unknown.”
“I didn’t want to have anyone swooping and taking this out from under me,” Young admits, “because it was so special, given that it was something that came out of leftfield. I wasn’t planning on the whole success thing. It was so unexpected.”
Once the deal was signed, Young returned to Minnesota and continued much as before. The deal was kept under wraps, prolonging the illusion of independence. A self-released full-length album, Maybe I’m Dreaming, continued to notch up healthy sales. Back in the basement, work began on its follow-up. Aside from some string overdubs on a few tracks, almost all the music was recorded in the usual manner. The winning formula was not to be messed with.
News of the Universal deal finally broke in February 2009, just as Owl City was preparing to perform live for the first time. The first gig was a small, hometown affair. “I was pretty apprehensive, because I’d never done it before,” says Young, who has now played more than 90 shows. “Creating all this music as one person alone in a room on a computer, it’s hard to translate that into a really aggressive, exciting live performance experience. So I was scared that it wouldn’t come across, and that it would be boring. But that first show sold out, and it was so much fun that I wanted to do more.”
A backing band was put together, comprising an additional singer and keyboardist, a violinist, a cellist and a drummer. Between May and July, Owl City gigged constantly, building support for the forthcoming album, Ocean Eyes. On the eve of its digital release, iTunes chose one track, Fireflies, as its free single of the week. The decision came as a surprise to Young, who had never thought of it as a potential hit; in his eyes, it was “towards the bottom of the list”.
Fireflies entered the Billboard Hot 100 in early September, at the start of Owl City’s second US tour. Supporting the band on the first leg was Unicorn Kid, a teenage dance musician from Edinburgh who had flown over at Young’s request. While manning his merchandise stall, Unicorn Kid witnessed the increasing fervour first hand. “Every night, it was like a mania,” he says. “The fans are so dedicated. They all seem to identify with Owl City as being more than just a band; it’s something that seems to bind them all together. They take pride in the fact that they knew songs besides Fireflies before he got famous.
“I would often have Owl City fans coming up and asking if I could give him things. For example, because he’s quite heavily Christian and a lot of his fans are as well, there was a girl who had found a lightbulb. She took the end off it, then made origami stars and wrote bible verses on the stars. She filled the light bulb up with them, screwed it back on, and made it as a present for him.”
Two months after first charting, and despite scant support from Top 40 radio, Fireflies reached No 1 on the Billboard charts. By the end of 2009, it had amassed over 2.5m sales.
Given Owl City’s undeniable stylistic resemblance to the Postal Service, who had delighted critics in 2003 with the cult hit Such Great Heights, it was small wonder that the rock press gave Fireflies such short shrift. The influential indie-centric website Pitchfork awarded it a rare 1 out of 10, lambasting its “emasculated, cloying wheeze that serves as a cutesy defense mechanism for a guy who’s trying so hard to be sincere, he forgets to say what he actually means”.
None of this halted its progress. Fireflies is currently the No 1 single in Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands – and the UK, where it deposed the previous incumbent last Sunday, a week after entering the Top 40.
Amid the furore, Adam Young remains a shy, unassuming soul and a reluctant interviewee, who delights in confounding his interrogators with whimsical tall tales. There are conflicting accounts of how he chose the name Owl City, ranging from a “marvellously mysterious forest” in the “lovely Scottish foothills”, crammed full of owls, to an incident at school when “Pickles”, an owl brought by a classmate to a show-and-tell, burst out of its cage and “began flapping around the classroom, ripping scribbled posters off the walls and wreaking havoc”.
“He has a childlike way about him,” Unicorn Kid confirms. “He’s certainly very innocent in reality. It’s not something that he’s created or made up. He’s 100% genuine in his representation of himself.”
“I still really haven’t come to grips with that feeling,” Young says, reflecting on the success that Fireflies has brought him. “It’s still very new. It’s very surreal, but it’s so thrilling. When I lay awake at night and think about that song, it has been listened to by so many more people than I ever imagined it reaching when I was writing it.
“I’m trying not to take it for granted. If it all goes away tomorrow, if the whole thing is a flash in the pan, I’m still a happy camper. I can still go back to what I was doing before and have a lot of good stories to tell from it. So I’m just trying to take it day by day, and soak it in, and be grateful for what I have, while I have it.”
Give pub rock another chance: Fans were quick to turn their back on Dr Feelgood et al once punk hit, but they weren’t so different really.
In the autumn of 1976, a poll was published in our school’s self-styled “underground” magazine, in which more than 300 of us had voted for our favourite bands of the day. Although dominated by the usual slew of superstar proggers, the act in second place – just behind Santana – stood in incongruous contrast to their contemporaries. Riding high with their live album Stupidity, which had topped the charts for a week in October, Canvey Island’s Dr Feelgood were, albeit briefly, the biggest band in the UK.
Although they were routinely lauded in the weekly music press, the standard critical line on the Feelgoods was that they were an astonishing live band who could never quite recapture their essence in the studio. Still, there was a lot of goodwill towards then, and a faith that the band would one day make good on their promise.
For those of us who were impatient for British punk rock to make the leap from enticing music-press buzz to tangible vinyl product, Dr Feelgood and their compatriots at the rowdier end of the pub rock scene – Eddie and the Hot Rods, Count Bishops, Tyla Gang – were as close an approximation as we could find to the music we had read about, but could only piece together in our imaginations. Ahead of the punk eruption, these John the Baptist figures were leading the charge, showing that rock music could be reinvigorated by a high-energy, no-nonsense, back to basics approach.
As for that troublesome “pub rock” tag, it’s worth remembering that in those pre-punk times, the label carried no shame. It was a handy code for a smaller scale, more egalitarian performance ethic, which stood in opposition to the florid, remote, stadium-scaled pomp of the bigtime prog elite. Meanwhile, the network of London venues that evolved around it, or whose lifespans were sustained by it – the Hope and Anchor, the Nashville, Dingwalls – provided a ready-made launch pad for the punk scene.
Before the barriers came up, the boundaries between punk and pub were blurred. The Sex Pistols supported the Hot Rods at the Marquee, and scene stalwarts The 101ers at the Nashville. The Feelgoods and the Ramones shared a bill in New York. The word “punk” debuted on Top of the Pops on a T-shirt worn by a Hot Rod. Punk bible Sniffin’ Glue even ran a rave review of Stupidity, claiming that “this is the way rock should be”.
“Our energy was our legacy to the punks,” argued Dr Feelgood’s guitarist Wilko Johnson, quoted in Will Birch’s history of pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island. “It was the violence of our act and the mean look which got to them. They didn’t have the knowledge or the technique, but they had the attitude.”
Naturally, there was no place for gratitude from the UK punks, given their scorched-earth approach. As the new bands landed record deals, “pub rock” changed from a term of modest, affectionate pride into a scornful signifier of plodding, jam-band conservatism. For those of us who jumped ship during 1977, Dr Feelgood’s brand of supercharged rhythm and blues fell into almost immediate redundancy. It was as if we had been living in an Eastern bloc state, longing to wear Levi’s but making do with frumpy denim slacks. If this was a generationally necessary distancing, it was also – with the wisdom of hindsight – a harsh, juvenile snap judgment.
But if you’re still inclined to dismiss the Feelgoods as a Canvey Quo with one too many Chuck Berry covers in their repertoire, take a fresh listen to Wilko Johnson’s lean, taut slashes of guitar on She Does It Right, the first track on their 1975 debut Down By the Jetty. Then search YouTube for Going Back Home, as performed at the Southend Kursaal in the same year. Observe singer Lee Brilleaux, menacing the crowd and wiping his nose on the sleeve of his filthy white suit, and ask yourself whether Rotten was taking notes (Weller and Strummer certainly were). Finally, go to see Julien Temple’s forthcoming documentary Oil City Confidential, and marvel at the legacy of this malevolently raw, dirty and groundbreaking band.
Oil City Confidential is released on 5 February. Mike Atkinson’s Spotify pub rock playlist: tinyurl.com/pubrock