Adam Young, the one-man band best known as Owl City, became one of the world's most famous people virtually overnight in 2009, thanks primarily to his monster hit single "Fireflies" from his platinum-selling debut, Ocean Eyes. He's toured the world, played hundreds of shows, and says he's grown up quite a bit since—but he's still just as shy as he's ever been.
Which is why when we asked for an interview to discuss his new album, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Young opted to do the Q&A via e-mail—just as he did when we interviewed him last year. Young says his shyness "certainly hasn't decreased by any means" and "telephone conversations still terrify me." We didn't want to terrify the guy, so e-mail it was.
In this digital conversation, we talked to Young about his sudden fame, his new album, his relentless schedule, his "romantic butterflies," and his faith. Young says, "Music is something that I can't imagine living without, and though it means more to me than the world itself, there is something that weighs significantly heavier on the scale of all things valuable and important in my life, that being my relationship with Jesus Christ. I am completely and utterly bereft of speech at how the Lord has chosen to use music in my life and what I do as Owl City."
When we last traded e-mails, your life was nuts—a grueling world tour, a lack of sleep, always on the move, barely a moment to relax. When you finally had a chance to slow down, what did you do?
The past twelve months have certainly been a whirlwind, and I could probably count the number of off-days I've had on one hand. But when your career revolves entirely around your passion, it's not a bad way to work by any means. The day after I returned home from the Ocean Eyes world tour, I started pre-production on All Things Bright and Beautiful. The day after I turned it in to the record label, I was out the door preparing for the upcoming six months of touring. Life is a roller coaster indeed! But at the end of the day, I always find myself on my knees thanking the Lord for allowing me to do what I'm most passionate about. There's no end to my sincere appreciation for the blessings I've been given.
How did overnight success affect you, for better or worse?
Despite the tidal waves of new situations and life scenarios mixed with heavy doses of insanity, I believe I've emerged from the smoke and debris a bit older and wiser. My innate level of shyness certainly hasn't decreased by any means (telephone conversations still terrify me), but I feel as though I'm able to tackle new endeavors and adventures in a healthier way than I was able to before any of this happened. The journey has seasoned me in a manner of speaking, and I feel like I've gained a bit of courage despite the onslaught of awkward uncertainty for such an introverted guy.
Why did you title the new album All Things Bright and Beautiful?
The Anglican hymn as well as the James Herriot book were a big part of growing up for me. I was raised singing the hymn in church, and my mother was a huge fan of Herriot's literary works and always had them around the house. The title was floating around in my head for who knows how long before I put two and two together and said, "That's it. That's what the new record has to be called."
How is the new album similar to Ocean Eyes, and how is it different?
A lot of inspiration found its way into this new record specifically regarding vocals. I spent the last twelve months onstage singing my lungs out in front of two thousand people every evening, and I grew pretty comfortable with the dynamic energy of that kind of atmosphere. I'd say the biggest step up in All Things Bright and Beautiful has to do with the lead vocal. It's more powerful, it's more aggressive when necessary, it's far less processed and Auto-Tuned; it's just more gutsy and bold. I'm not really a singer by nature, so that was a big step for me. Beyond that, the album feels a lot more conclusive; I believe it sounds more "finished" than Ocean Eyes does. The album was written, recorded, produced and engineered all in one room by one person, and thus I think it has a "watertight" quality to it that makes for a very definitive final product. My fingerprints are all over it!
On the new song "The Real World," you sing, "Reality is a lovely place, but I wouldn't want to live there." Over the last couple of years—word tours, becoming a "celebrity," rarely sleeping in your own bed—do you think you've experienced much "reality," at least like the rest of us?
I find it fascinating how some people think of daydreaming or "escapism" as a reckless way of turning one's back on responsibility, but for me, it couldn't be more opposite. The idea of going to/returning from a place in my head where everything is beautiful and absolutely perfect has an uncanny way of influencing almost EVERYTHING I do, whether it be creating music or writing lyrics or even living life day to day. I love imagining what the world would be like if things were in fact perfect because it makes me WANT to do whatever I can to fulfill that dream in and around my own life.
The line, "Reality is a lovely place but I wouldn't want to live there" is a fun way of saying I appreciate life exactly as it is, and although I can't change the world by any means, I can touch it. It's merely my way of dealing with things by proclaiming I can't keep the dark days from happening or the frustrations from occurring, but I can fix my eyes on that one blue patch of sky and thus keep my eyes focused on what truly matters.
Talk about what happens in your head when you compose—the creative process before you write it down or put your hands on the keyboard. How does your faith play a role in that process?
The instant I hear a melody or a chord progression in my head is the instant I strike gold. I can hear the beginning, the middle, and the end of a given song, and know exactly where I want to steer it along the way. Coming up with ideas has never been a dry well for me; the real problem occurs when I must decide which road out of literally thousands I'm going to take! A song could go so many different directions, a lot of them tempting for various reasons (in a healthy way), but my prayer has always been, "Lord, just give me the songs you want me to write so I can record them, release them, put them in the can, and reflect all glory and praise back to you."
When you write, do you ever consciously think, "This will work well with the Christian market; that will work well with the mainstream"? Or do the songs just fall where they may?
In a manner of speaking, my music has an extraordinary way of writing itself, and I'm usually just "the guy at the desk"—and the same goes for lyrics. I never consciously think about what specific line or lyric will resonate with what audience. I merely try to push all that aside and write sincerely from the heart, as if myself and God will be the only ones ever to hear it. In that way, I believe it keeps my music very pure and uncontaminated by whatever preconceived notions I might start injecting into the writing process. I just sit down to write a song as if it's the first and last piece of art I'll ever have the privilege of working on. And a privilege it is.
What's the story behind the new song "Deer in the Headlights"?
I enjoy writing largely from the imagination, and usually that produces rather abstract imagery. But with "Deer in the Headlights," I wrote a personal song that plays close to the chest in a way that no other song I've written ever has. I was ending a serious relationship at the time, and I was harrowed by the fact that so many people (specifically me) have a funny tendency to desire romance merely for the sake of avoiding loneliness, which ultimately means it's not about LOVE at all! Sometimes it's easy to be "blinded by the light" and forget all about what true romance is designed by God to be. When all you focus on are the warm fuzzies, a relationship can become dangerous and disastrous very quickly. So the song plays closely to the fact that I needed to pull myself out of the lights and remember what's more important than the romantic butterflies.
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