Six years after ‘Fireflies,’ Owl City is still glowing as an accidental careerist

By | October 13, 2015


Owl City’s Adam Young of Owatonna has gone from one-hit wonder to appearing on movie soundtracks, TV commercials and a McCartney tribute album.

Admit it: You thought Owl City was destined to be a one-hit wonder, a Minnesota music trivia item, a punchline in a Twin Cities music hipster’s conversation.

Not only did Adam Young — that one-man band who recorded in his parents’ basement in Owatonna — reach No. 1 with the single “Fireflies” in 2009 but he landed at No. 8 with “Good Time” featuring Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012.

Now Owl City has just released — it might be hard to believe — its fifth album. And if there is one phrase to describe the 29-year-old Young, it would be accidental careerist.

“This is not what I expected,” he said recently on tour in Philadelphia. “It was never even a dream of mine. I never envisioned I’d ever have a chance to get into music. I didn’t have a plan or goal at all. Back in 2007-2008, I just started to write songs for fun and put them on MySpace when MySpace was the center of sharing music. Suddenly the years have gone by and I kind of have a career.”

Not only has he issued five full-length albums on major labels, but Young, as Owl City, has contributed songs to several movie soundtracks, including “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” and “Smurfs 2,” plus TV commercials including Oreos. He also was asked to provide a track to “The Art of Paul McCartney,” a tribute album featuring such heavyweights as Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Billy Joel, Smokey Robinson, Willie Nelson and Brian Wilson.

Young can drop a few names himself — more contemporary names — of the guests on his new album, “Mobile Orchestra.” Try Aloe Blacc, Jake Owen and Hanson.

“I hope this album sounds a little more diverse than some of the other records I’ve done,” said Young, who returns to the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis on Saturday for a sold-out concert. “This album was my first endeavor to bring in a bunch of outside folks. Each collaborator took what I did and made it so much better.”

Turns out Young is a country-music fan — who knew? — and Owen is his favorite country artist, ahead of Brad Paisley and Keith Urban. So when Young wrote a country-tinged pop song called “Back Home,” he decided to reach out to Owen.

“I just thought of Jake and sent him a demo. I said ‘You probably don’t know who I am.’ It turned out he was a fan of mine, which blew me away,” Young said. “It was a dream come true for me.”

This being the modern world of recording, Owen did his part in a different city. In fact, Young hasn’t met him and hasn’t made plans to do so but he’d like to get together with him.

Feeling Owatonna

“Back Home” may be Young’s most Minnesota-centric song since “Fireflies.” But listeners probably don’t know it’s about Minnesota. It’s about his hourlong drive from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Owatonna on I-35, and he mentions the sweet pine trees, tall corn, a diner off the highway and, yes, fireflies.

“I wanted to write a song that sums up how I feel when I come back after a long tour really far away,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia and you get used to it faster than you think. So whenever I come back home it’s almost jarring, in a good way. There’s that 60 minutes from the airport to my town where I kind of readjust. I see the same things go by every time and I just wanted to point those out in the song and sum up how easy it is to come back.

“I go by this diner off the highway right near Faribault. I don’t know the name of it. The back of it is to the interstate. I’ve never eaten there. Then I get closer to Owatonna and the corn is 10 feet tall.”

Feeling nostalgic

When Young wrote “Unbelievable,” it was about being nostalgic for things of his childhood like C-3PO, G.I. Joe and “The Lion King” movie. So he reached out to Hanson, the brotherly boy band of “MMMBop” fame in the ’90s.

“I remember being in fourth or fifth grade and they were one of the first music acts I really enjoyed,” Young said. “It’s a big deal, the first music you love as a kid.”

Young cold-called Hanson “and they were super-kind and really gracious,” said the singer, who’d met Hanson when they were on the “Today” show together.

The ever-humble, aw-shucks pop star still seems flabbergasted that he recorded long-distance with these stars he admires.

“It’s surreal. When I listen back to the songs on the album and their parts come up, I hear Jake Owen’s voice and I hear Hanson singing on my stuff, I feel really lucky. I’m undeserving.”

Despite having some commercially viable names on Owl City’s album, the new tracks haven’t received much love from Top 40 radio this time around.

“I’ve never really set out to cater to Top 40/pop format,” Young said. “I just want to focus on the music first. If something fits the format, I’m happy.”

Sad, happy merger

With his emo lyrics and bubbly synthesizer lines, Young has crafted a style that sets melancholy lyrics to upbeat music.

“That’s the way I’m wired. Being an introvert, I am attracted to a certain sense of sadness. I’ve always been that way,” he said, citing Enya’s music as an influence in that regard. “It’s a kind of cool dynamic to come up with a sad sentiment and put that over a happy sounding melody.”

He’s also committed to his faith. There are two overtly Christian songs on the new album — “My Everything” and “You’re Not Alone.”

“I’m a person of faith and I want to make sure that that comes across,” he said. “My goal isn’t to preach but I want to shed light on the fact that my relationship with God is the No. 1 thing in my life.”

Other than moving into his own Owatonna home after “Fireflies” soared and traveling around the world, the biggest change for Young has been the musical equipment.

“I’ve learned a lot about the studio and the gear,” he explained. “When I first started, I had no idea. I never went to school to study it. I learned it all teaching myself. Now I definitely know more about the actual technology. I’m a nerd for that kind of stuff.”

And he’s a nerd for Owatonna.

“I’ve been blessed to tour the country and the world and I’ve kept my eyes open to the vibes to see if anything else feels like home. I haven’t,” he said. “So I’m going to stay put. I’m happiest there.”

Even though he’s based in a modest southern Minnesota town, Young gets big-time opportunities. Like singing on the all-star tribute to McCartney.

“I think they said ‘We’d like to have somebody cover one of these three songs on the list,’ ” said Young, who picked “Listen to What the Man Said.” “I’m not sure why they reached out to me. I feel so humbled.”

And how did he land the Oreos commercial? “They reached out to me out of the blue,” he said. “I have to pinch myself because the opportunity is so cool.”

Well, does he eat Oreos?

“Occasionally, yes,” he said hesitatingly.

Spoken like an accidental careerist.

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