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The Technicolor Phase: An Interview with Owl City

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Thursday, Jan 10, 2013
by Faith Korpi
The one man synth-pop maestro broke out of his comfort zone for his latest album, this time collaborating with some huge names in pop music. The result? A new Top 10 hit, a whole new batch of singalong wonders, and an interview with PopMatters, of course.
cover art

Owl City

The Midsummer Station

(Universal Republic; US: 17 Aug 2012)

If the name Owl City doesn’t mean anything to you, you probably were living underground in 2009 when the song “Fireflies” was everywhere. Adam Young, the mastermind, one-man band behind Owl City has a mass of fans (who call themselves “Hoot Owls”) who have followed him faithfully since long before the “thousand hugs from ten thousand lightning bugs”. Young, a shy insomniac with a knack for writing whimsical lyrics that make the Hoot Owls swoon (“The silence isn’t so bad till I look at my hands and feel sad, ‘cause the spaces between my fingers are right where yours fit perfectly”), has a rare innocence about him that coupled with his supremely imaginative writing style could charm just about anyone.
  
For his new album, Young decided to step away from his normal approach of solo writing and production, and usual quirky lyrical tropes (“If the green left the grass on the other side / I would make like a tree and leave”) in an attempt to write a more “accessible” album. This was a big enough decision that Young felt compelled to post several notes to his fans, such as this one on his blog leading up to the album release to prepare them for the change:


There is no old Adam Young, there is no new Adam Young, merely different colors and different brushstrokes over the same canvas. Creativity is all about pushing boundaries and pressing onward and I prefer the Darkwing Duck approach to artistry… Let’s get dangerous.


The resulting album, The Midsummer Station is in fact not all that dissimilar to Young’s past albums, though the influence of collaborating with writers/producers such as Brian Kennedy (best known for writing Rihanna’s “Disturbia”) and Emily Wright (engineer and vocal producer for artists like Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson, and Katy Perry) is probably most noticeable in the dominating Top 40 sound and more generic lyrics. But fear not, there are still about five songs with some sort of reference to outer space, and enough synthy pop beats to get your hormones racing. Young speaks to PopMatters all about it ...


* * *


The Midsummer Station still sounds very true to your style—I’m curious what your collaborators such as Emily Wright and Matt Thiessen would typically contribute to each song? Did you still handle all of the production side? Did all the songs start with your writing or did they bring their own song concepts (whether it be music or lyrics) to you too?


99% of the record was done on my own via my own production and therefore I have a lot of say in the way the album turned out as a whole piece of work. Working with people like Matt and Emily proved to be a very exciting collaborative process because that process was one that I hadn’t been very familiar with in the past. Most of the songs wrote themselves and I think that is what music is all about, just standing back and letting the art take care of itself.


You say you’ve never had a music lesson before, so how did you start playing music? What instrument did you start with? What instrument are you most comfortable writing on? Is that also your favorite instrument?


I started experimenting with music purely out of boredom.  I started with the drums. Ironically I spend most of my time in front of the computer producing and sequencing and programming so I’d have to say that my favorite instrument is the laptop itself. I do all of my production work in Logic.


There are two break-up like songs on the new album (“Silhouette” and “Take It All Away”), which is a big contrast to your general tone of whimsical optimism, getting hugs from lightning bugs and whatnot (which I’m totally fine with by the way). Was this the influence of working with other writers ... or did this actually come from a real change in mood during your writing process? Or was that just a musical color you knew you wanted on this album?


It’s funny how when you begin writing music or making art, that first endeavor is generally what classifies you as being who you are so that the moment you branch out or try something new, it’s considered different from what you do normally. That’s interesting to me because I believe that’s a pretty big misrepresentation of the way it really works. Myself as an artist has certain threads or flavors that I return to or revisit, but I believe there are an endless amount of things worth considering and worth experimenting with. These “new” ideas are just more fuel on the fire. 


As you mainly write/perform/produce all your music yourself, how did you make the decision to tour with a band? And as a notorious introvert, what is touring with a band like for you?


Before I even started thinking about touring I firmly believed that one guy by himself on stage with a laptop would be a lot less exciting than a five piece band playing instruments, big loud guitars, full drums, keyboards, live strings, et cetera. It just made sense so I went for it.


Since the release of Midsummer Station you’ve released two more new songs on your blog, which seems like a lot considering you just finished an album, and are about to go on tour. Do you usually spit out songs like they’re watermelon seeds? 


I’m an incredibly prolific writer so I’m always working on something new to the point that when my inspiration ever seems to run dry I find myself questioning “do I still have it “or not.


How many songs have you composed that you haven’t recorded or made lyrics to yet, and how many of those do you plan to use in the future at some point?


More than you can imagine.


I saw you play the Moody Theater in Austin, TX and there was a girl with a sign asking you marry her. Has enough time gone by yet where you are used to the owl themed baked goods, drawings, and poster board marriage proposals? 


Yes.


I know you’ve said you don’t read reviews but how do you feel about the words “mostly” and “teenage girls” being used in reference to your fan base? How would you describe your fan base? Who are they and what are they like?


I honestly just try to stay out of it, I don’t really pay that much attention to the fanbase in terms of demographic or subculture, I just write music and I just try to take care of myself, and leave it at that.


I read that you don’t consider yourself to be particularly eloquent person. Are you taking crazy pills? That is to say, what do you mean by that—do you mean in real life? 


Yeah, I’m a lot more eloquent on paper or via music than I am in person.


Since you credit your insomnia with the start of your career and often times your source of inspiration, would you say you aren’t interested in curing it? 


I truly haven’t put that much thought into it, it’s just always been that way for me and I don’t even question it anymore.


In the “making of” video for All Things Bright And Beautiful, we briefly see a text document with a bunch of titles (like kaleidoscope and pony tail)—tell me about that. Do you write possible titles as you’re writing the music, do they come to you randomly and you just keep compiling (“Oh I might want to write about pony tails”). I am very curious about this particular part of your writing process. 


Certain things will jump out at me and sometimes I’ll think “hey that’s a great idea for a song or a title” and then I’ll just open a new text file and I’ll put down the name and that file will just keep growing and growing. I don’t keep track of what goes on in terms of my inspiration I just try to remember what I like and discard what I don’t.


When you get in your car and put on music, do you ever turn on Owl City? 


Not intentionally, but it will come on shuffle sometimes.


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