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Exclusive Q&A: Owl City's Imagination Takes Flight

For a multi-platinum artist currently in the middle of a massive world tour, Owl City had remarkably humble beginnings.  Adam Young, the man behind the synth-pop phenomenon, began writing songs as Owl City during his off time as a Coca-Cola truck loader in Owatonna, Minnesota.  After Universal Republic caught on to the growing speed of Young’s MySpace fan base, it reissued his first full-length album and offered him a multi-record deal.  Four years later Young is still flying high, and this June he released his third full-length All Things Bright and Beautiful. We recently caught up with him to talk about the challenges of being a frontman, what it’s like to work with Jack Joseph Puig, and what advice he would give to unsigned artists.

OS: From Strawberry Avalanche to Hello Seattle, you’ve noted a lot of strange and interesting inspirations for songs in the past.  What’s the inspiration behind this new batch of songs?

AY: Predominantly, my imagination. I enjoy writing songs purely from the imagination rather than pulling from my own personal experiences because the end result is so much more quirky and bizarre and dark. That’s always been way more interesting to me than writing about a lovestruck relationship or some specific personal scenario.

OS: Your song January 28, 1986 is a reference to the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, but you weren’t born until a few months after it happened.  Why did you write a song about the event?

AY: I grew up hearing about it and it was something very dear to my heart as a kid. I wanted to pay respect to the disaster and honor the lives that were lost.

OS: Unlike many artists, you produced and engineered your two major label releases by yourself.  Why have you remained in charge of those aspects of your music?

AY: I feel like creative integrity is something I couldn’t live without. If some A&R guy was always around telling me to recut vocals and make them more “passionate” or something, I’d go insane. I like being my own boss because my vision for music has always been so defined.

OS: GRAMMY Award-winning veteran mixer Jack Joseph Puig helped you mix the new album in post-production.  What did his creative input add to the project?

AY: He’s a legend and I was honored to work in the same room with him. His studio is absolutely incredible in terms of vintage outboard gear and analog equipment”things I’m too young to really have a handle on. He saw a challenge in taking my “in the box” mixes and warming them up with the world of analog and the final result turned out nicely.

OS: You’re in the middle of a huge US tour right now. What’s it like for a self-described shy, normal guy like you to perform in front of thousands of screaming fans?

AY: It’s really frightening, to be honest. Being a frontman was never something I expected to be, or even necessarily WANTED to be. Owl City just kind of happened and there I was stage center trying to figure out how to be a live singer. I’m an introverted guy which means I don’t have an inherent need to be around a lot of people to get my “fix” of social interaction. Sometimes that might come off as unfriendly or standoffish but it couldn’t more more opposite. I treasure every moment I’m out touring, doing the one thing in life I’m passionate about, but the idea of racing outside after a show to mingle with two thousand screaming fans is not my idea of a comfortable evening. It goes without saying that I appreciate each and every fan from the absolutely bottom of my heart, but introversion is a hard thing for a lot of people to understand, especially those that aren’t, and I suppose that’s just the way I was wired.

OS: What’s it like to play live with a back-up band when you record almost all of the instruments on your album yourself?

AY: It’s a fun creative environment. It’s new and fresh and challenging because I’m not used to working with other live bodies in the same room. It presents a lot of hurdles and room for error sometimes but that’s just live music!

OS: You began writing Owl City songs solo in your parents’ basement before making it big.  What would your advice be to unsigned artists who are working in obscurity?

AY: Make the music you want to listen to. Tolkien once said something like, “Nobody is writing the kind of stories I want to read… so I have to” and that’s always been my motto of sorts. Don’t write for labels or iTunes or Billboard… just write for fun, do what feels creatively satisfying to you and don’t worry about anything else.

Check out Owl City’s European tour dates and watch the video for the new single “Deer In The Headlights” below!