Meet Adam Young. The self-described “shy boy from the middle of nowhere in southern Minnesota,” who records under the name Owl City, just hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart with his sweet-natured laptop-pop single “Fireflies.” “It’s pretty surreal!” laughs Young, 23. The Music Mix called him up to find out how he got from Owatonna to the top of the charts — and ask how he feels about being constantly compared to the Postal Service.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Take us through your backstory. You’re from a tiny town in Minnesota?
OWL CITY: Yup. It’s about 15,000 or 16,000 people. It is about an hour south of Minneapolis, so it’s basically in Iowa. I actually still live there. I got my own place a few months ago. It’s a cozy, quiet place. Music really isn’t a big deal there. It was kind of removed from the world. I think it’s been good, because it’s given me an unbiased perspective in terms of writing.
How were you exposed to music when you were growing up? Did you listen to the radio or watch TV?
Probably radio a little bit more than TV. It was sort of just whatever was playing in the room — whatever my parents had on. I grew up an only child, so I never had siblings that played instruments or anything. I had a few friends in high school that dabbled in music. Initially I was inspired by a friend of mine to learn to play guitar so that both of us could jam together and cover old Blink-182 songs and stuff. That’s what got me interested very early on.
What do your parents do for a living?
My mom is an English as a Second Language elementary teacher, and my dad is a mechanic.
What kind of music did they listen to when you were growing up?
They listened to a lot of oldies radio. I remember liking the Beatles and the Beach Boys, some Johnny Cash, James Taylor, stuff like that.
You’ve said that you were a shy kid. What was high school like for you?
It wasn’t the most comfortable four years of my life. I was kind of a loner. I still am, a little bit. My list of friends wasn’t that extensive in high school. I wasn’t involved in sports or extracurricular stuff, so music became my best friend. I would race home from school and work on songs, and that’s what kept me really close to the idea of being an artist.
What kind of music were you making at that point?
Very early on, it was a lot of acoustic guitar, emo-ish, lovey-dovey songs. I was really big into the early Dashboard Confessional music. My very early stuff probably sounded a lot like it was influenced by Dashboard.
Once you graduated high school, did you go to college?
I took a swing at it for a year and a half. I went to a little community college in my hometown. I went for my general arts degree. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do specifically, so I just started to go to school for nothing, just for the sake of going, with hopes that something would catch on. I was working a dead-end job at the time. It just wasn’t really working for me. I was spending more thought thinking about my music in between my job and school than I was paying attention to my schoolwork. So that kinda went down the drain. But I gave it a shot, so my mom is grateful for at least that. [Laughs]
What was the dead-end job you were working?
I was loading trucks in a warehouse for Coca-Cola, a big bottling company warehouse. I started there after I graduated high school in 2005, so I worked there for two years or so. And then I also worked a night shift in a warehouse at UPS, loading trucks for them. I’ve had a warehouse-heavy past career. I’m grateful for what I’m doing now, needless to say.
You’ve said that you started focusing on making music in your parents’ basement around 2007. How did that happen?
In terms of all things Owl City, I started writing electronica music just on a whim. I hadn’t really delved into the world of programming and sequencing, and the endless roads that you can take via electronic music, so I thought it would be fun to take a stab at it. I got a sequencing program and wrote what turned out to be seven songs for an EP’s worth of music. I put that stuff out there on MySpace and didn’t really do much with it, just let people discover it. The response that came in was incredible. One thing led to another. I can remember going into work six months later, where I worked for Coca-Cola, and putting in my two weeks — telling my boss, “This has been great, and I’ve been grateful for the work, but I’m on to something else.” I remember the look I got when I told him I was making music and I was hoping I could run with that for a while. I remember walking out of that place, and it was the best feeling in the world.
What happened after that?
From there, things just started to grow. After the first EP, I put a record out on iTunes in March of 2008. That was received a lot better than I had expected. From then on, it was onward and upwards. I got some record-label interest, took a few trips out to New York to talk to some different labels. Wound up with Universal Republic, and have been totally thrilled with them.
How did you end up making “Fireflies” and the other songs on your most recent album?
“Fireflies” was inspired by a camping trip I took up to a totally rustic and kind of remote lake in northern Minnesota, where there isn’t really much of anything. I can remember sleeping out on a dock on the edge of this lake and looking up at the sky. There was a meteor shower that night. I remember thinking, what a cool idea of shooting stars being fireflies, and trying to translate that into music. That’s what spurred it on. I was also influenced by the lack of sleep that tends to happen.
How does that inspire you?
I tend to find myself the most creatively alert when I’m having trouble sleeping. That’s probably the cause of it. I’m not clinically diagnosed or anything with insomnia, but when I’m lying awake at night and I get the tiniest spark of an idea for a new song or a new lyric or something, I can’t go to sleep until I run to the studio and get it out of my head. I’m always afraid I’m going to forget an idea I had. That keeps me awake a lot, for better or for worse.
When you recorded “Fireflies” and the rest of this album, were you still recording in your parents’ basement?
Yeah. I actually recorded three-fourths of the current album in my parents’ basement. Then I got a place of my own and finished it up. The story behind it is not very glamorous. My parents live in a 104-year-old Victorian farmhouse in a really old, unfinished basement that I had sort of taken over. I remember recording during winter and having to unplug the furnace because it was so loud and I needed to get the room to be quiet. [Laughs] The whole house got 30 degrees and my parents weren’t too happy. But they’re not complaining now, so it’s all good!
With “Fireflies” getting bigger and bigger in the last few weeks, how has that affected your life?
It’s been so surreal to sit back and watch that take off. The idea of writing a new record and coming out with new singles is a little bit daunting, just because of how it may or may not be received. But watching that song take off by itself is incredible. Every night out here on the road, people sing that song back to me the loudest. It’s like a church congregation, almost. People are singing so passionately. They know every word. It’s totally crazy.
Are you on tour now?
Yep, I’m just finishing up a sweep of the States here. We have three shows left in the South, then we have two weeks off, then we head over to China and Japan in the last half of November.
Have you ever been to those countries?
No, never have. I haven’t been outside the country other than to Canada. I’m excited!
Have you had time to start setting down ideas for a new record?
A little bit. I’ve been fooling around on the keyboard during soundcheck. I definitely have some things that I’m excited to get back home to the studio and lay out and let sit for a little bit.
A lot of people have compared your music to the Postal Service. Are you a fan of theirs?
Yeah. It’s funny, because the more I hear people relating the two, the more I realize that they are pretty similar — even though that wasn’t my initial goal or anything. I definitely respect Ben [Gibbard] and everything he’s done. I’m probably a lot more of a Death Cab fan than I am a Postal Service fan. It’s an honor to be put in the same sentence with the Postal Service. What they did was incredible.
Had you heard the Postal Service album before you worked on your stuff?
A little bit. I’ve become more of a fan having started Owl City, actually. I had some friends in high school that would have it playing in their cars and stuff. It was cool, but it never really caught my ear. It’s kind of ironic, looking back at it, because a lot of people do relate the two projects. I can totally see it now, but I didn’t really then, for what it’s worth.
A lot of people wish they would put out another album. Is that something you would look forward to hearing?
Yeah. Having really dug into what the Postal Service did and what they were about, I think what they did was so brilliant. I think that record left everyone asking, “What are they going to do next?” Since no one has done anything quite like it, it’s almost like everyone is naturally saying this is the next step — maybe that’s me, maybe that’s this record. I have often asked myself what would they have done, had they come out with another record.
Are there any other musicians you’d like to work with going forward?
I would be a liar if I didn’t say Taylor Swift. It would be awesome to work with her, maybe do a guest vocalist thing. That would be incredible. I’m a big fan.
Anything else you’ve listened to lately that’s caught your ear?
I’m a big fan of film score music. I’ve really been into the soundtrack for that movie Finding Nemo. My influences in terms of listening are a little bit scattered. [Laughs] Recently that’s what I’ve been really into.
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