It’s easy to read too much into music. The video for Owl City’s “Fireflies” features an old Speak & Spell; it seems like an homage to synth-pop pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark (OMD), who sampled the toy for their 1983 single “Genetic Engineering.”
“I must be an idiot,” confesses Adam Young, who records as Owl City all by himself. “I have no idea what OMD is. I know who ODB from Wu-Tang Clan is, though. Does that count?”
Whether he knows his ’80s synth-pop or not, Young, 23, has struck a chord with everyone from Gen Xers to the ’tween set. From the his parents’ basement in the small Minnesota town of Owatonna, he has built a 21st-century pop juggernaut.
Young first started making music to counter his shyness, embarking on a flurry of creative activity while his folks were away for the weekend. “Wanting to be loud and make some noise and whatever, I began writing versions of what became my first self-released CD, Of June,” he says. “I put it up on MySpace the following month and didn’t tell anyone.”
It caught on, and soon he had a fan base clamoring for more. He responded in March 2008 with Maybe I’m Dreaming. Owl City’s major-label debut, Ocean Eyes, came out in July. Though Owl City has been compared to modern groups like the Postal Service, echoes of old-school Kraftwerk, New Order, and OMD are evident too, even if Young doesn’t know these techno-pop forefathers. He says his musical influences are largely instrumental acts like Unwed Sailor, the Field, and Helios.
“I start with music,” he says. “I write the whole song instrumentally, then write lyrics and add vocals. … I like writing on a whim and experimenting with sounds as I go. I think it allows for much greater creativity, and I love how a song rarely ends up the way I initially envisioned it. I’m a firm believer that music writes itself.”
But Young says that Owl City won’t always be limited to electronics. “I like the idea of mixing an acoustic guitar with a bent Furby or an electronic birthday card or something,” says Young. “I also love the idea of using field recordings in music. There are so many sounds to be found, collected, and altered. Sources of audio are endless.”
For all the adoration Owl City has received, electronic music is still earning respect. Young says it’s just a matter of time.
“I think electronic music has become incredibly popular and respected by the masses compared to what it was in the past,” says Young. “I think the quirky ‘dreaminess’ that often embodies electronica is what interests me the most and, as a solo artist, I feel it’s a genre with endless possibilities because it relies so heavily on computers and hardware and circuits rather than other musicians. You can be an orchestra conductor without a symphony.”
On tour, Young has some help from friends, but being the only official member has its advantages, says Young. “There are no arguments, heated discussions or fist fights, and there never will be unless I become a schizophrenic.”
Those who follow Owl City on Twitter may wonder if Young plans to branch out into joke-book writing. Sample tweets: “Massage therapy is a touchy subject.” “A man stole a case of soap from the corner store. The police said he made a clean getaway,” and “Honeymoon salad is lettuce alone.”
“I like puns,” says Young. “People make fun of me. I still like puns.” •