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Owl City Talks Nightmares and Dreams in our PV Q&A

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Interview by Tom Lanham

Adam Young — who records as virtual one-man band Owl City, which he launched from his parents’ basement in dinky Owatonna, MN. five years ago — just might be gifted with the best luck in showbiz. Sure, his whimsical breakthrough single [2009's] “Fireflies” went quadruple platinum, paving the way for synth-fizzy full-lengthers like Ocean Eyes, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and the brand new The Midsummer Station (out August 21). But a few months ago, when he was looking for a female vocalist for a Midsummer boy/girl duet called “Good Time” he’d penned, he decided to roll the dice on a then-little-known Canadian crooner, since their managers had been childhood chums. “So I sent Carly Rae Jepsen an e-mail saying, ‘I’m Adam, I make music as Owl City, this is what I do — here’s a track called “Good Time,” and I would be honored if you would sing on it. If you’re even into it’,” Young recalls of his studio hookup with the artist who would soon own the radio waves with her own “Call Me Maybe” smash. “And she wrote back and said, ‘Yeah! I’m a big fan of what you do — you’ve played in Vancouver a couple of times, and I’ve actually been to your shows!’ And I had no idea! So the timing was jut crazy — I can’t believe all the dots connected.” The collaboration is bouncing up the charts, yet there’s a lot more happening on Midsummer than ebullient effervescence, as the keyboardist makes clear in this interview.

PureVolume: What are you into now? Have you picked up any hobbies since the last record?
Adam Young: Gardening! I actually have a garden in my back yard, and my mom’s given me plants like rhubarb and tomatoes, so I’ve been making rhubarb pies and nerdy stuff like that.
PV: I thought you might have gotten into astronomy. Several lyrics on the new album feature the word "stars."
AY: Yeah. It’s one of those words. And it’s so fun to sing about that stuff. The stars are very visible from where I live, 'cause I’m still in a small town — 20,000 people — and the closest city is Minneapolis. I never really go there unless I’m on tour, because I feel that I don’t need to. So I’m still in Minnesota, and everyone says ‘How come?’ and I guess it’s because I get to see every major city in the world once a year, so I don’t really feel the need to get out.
PV: Have you got a girlfriend these days?
AY: No, I don’t. I’m just kind of staying off the radar. Right now I feel like I’m supposed to hit the music thing hard. My eyes are always peeled for the right lady, but right now I’m just kind of stuck on my tour bus, by myself.
PV: This record has a Pandora’s Box aura to it. Where you look back and analyze your own fame in be-careful-what-you-wish-for fashion.
AY: Yeah. And for me, that’s kind of the beauty of it. Because with the ups and downs, it’s kind of like a roller coaster, the whole music-career thing. It’s something that I never expected to be able to have my hands in, in any way. I thought I’d be stuck working 8:00 to 5:00, five days a week for the rest of my life, doing a job I hate. So even if there’s a plateau or a valley or whatever, I’m just along for the ride. I don’t have to go to work at Coca-Cola anymore, so I’m happy. But on this record, I wanted to make sure that nothing was filtered. I guess I’ve never been the guy to write from his own personal experiences — I’ve always preferred to write from the imagination, and somehow there was always a lot of inspiration behind that. But, for instance, the new song “Silhouette” – I wrote and re-wrote that song a lot to make sure that everything in there had the right amount of darkness. Darkness that I do deal with.
PV: ”Embers,” “Dementia,” “Dreams and Disasters,” even in “Silhouette,” where you sing ‘Tired of waking up in tears/ Because I can’t put to bed all these phobias and fears’ — it seems like a lot of bad stuff happens to you at night.
AY: Yes, it’s very true. I guess it comes down to really bad dreams. I feel like whenever I do get to sleep — I still do the whole insomnia thing, unfortunately — it’s like, whenever I have a dream, it’s generally a nightmare. Which sounds morbid, but it’s true. So “Dreams and Disasters” talks about the ups and downs — there are dark days headed your way, but if you keep your eyes locked on the good, if you teach yourself how to see the good in everything, well, I think you’re just better off being a little more happy in life.
PV: Do you keep a dream diary? Or journal?
AY: I should. And this is probably the cause of my insomnia, but if I do doze off to sleep and catch the last few minutes of a dream, whether it’s good or bad, I’ll wake up and think ‘Whatever that was, was powerful!’ Even if it was scary or frightening. So then I have to go into the studio and try to recreate that vibe, with music or lyrics or whatever, so I don’t forget it. And therefore, I’m up all night. Every night. So it’s a blessing and a curse, because I do end up getting more work done.
PV: Were any Midsummer tunes inspired by specific dreams?
AY: Yeah. There’s a song called “Metropolis,” and I remember having a dream about Superman. So the song is basically about Superman, but it never mentions him by name. And I remember waking up thinking "What kind of baggage does this superhero have to deal with that nobody knows about?" Everybody thinks you’re bulletproof and you’re invincible, but deep down, you’re maybe just wearing a suit. So how do you deal with that stuff?
PV: Do you have any secrets to fighting insomnia now? Or have you just learned to accept it?
AY: I’ve partly learned to accept it. Although if I don’t take three melatonin — I think it’s three grams each, nine total — then generally I’ll be awake all night. So that helps, the melatonin. Other than that, Ambien just makes me stupid. It makes me crazy, and then I write some really weird songs.
PV: Did you ever go to therapy for all this? Or are your songs the therapy?
AY: Yeah, you nailed it. I think there’s something about writing music that helps me process, and that helps me deal with life in a positive way. It helps me deal with all this stuff, by writing inherently optimistic-sounding songs, even though there are those dark, melancholy undercurrents. And that gives me something to latch on to. If I didn’t have the music to be able to focus on? I’d probably be a total mess!


 
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