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INTERVIEW | Owl City Sheds Whimsy For Stunning Honesty On New Album, 'Cinematic'

Young Talks Important Life Moments, Country Music Influence and Lessons Learned at (almost) 32.

Photo courtesy of Adam Young/Owl City

Adam Young waxes personal for the first time in his career.

From the chilly wallop of "Cave In" to the soft twilight of the mainstream-defining hit "Fireflies" to the Hanson-featuring whistle blower "Unbelievable," the songbook of Adam Young is one drenched in whimsical notions and fantastical musical compositions.

Owl City, as he's known onstage, is a curious and eccentric genius of gloriously vivid pop music. He's never one to follow trends; in fact, he inhabits a world of astonishing and bewildering blends of insightful songwriting, mythical creatures lurking in life's darkest, wettest corners and a singular voice of childlike charm. He adheres to a similar approach on his new record, his first in three years, called Cinematic, which sees him trading up on his storytelling and opting in for truthful stories about his life.

It's his first spin at peeling back the layers ⎯⎯ choosing to detail the night he was born (with the rhythmic and breathy "The 5th of July"), his father's health struggles (the piano-focused stunner "Always"), and signing his first record deal ("Fiji Water"). His sixth studio record is not only refreshingly familiar territory but expands his touch points, from delighting in the Sam Hunt-esque "All My Friends" to the cool caress of a "Lucid Dream" and offering a reminder to "Be Brave" at all costs. Young continues to be a formidable storyteller, enduring a breakout hit and forging a legacy all his own.

The album whisks by in much the same fashion as the seasons, our own lives at the mercy of winter, spring, summer, and fall. We can't stop it, and we're only able to collect little trinkets and mementos along our route, from youthful naivety to burgeoning adulthood to greying old age. Young's story is just getting started, really, as he turns 32 this summer. He possesses a world of know-how, steeped in his signature aesthetics, both progressive and classic. But somehow, these days, he's far more astute in his understanding of the world, allowing himself to be open and raw and vulnerable.

"I've had some bummer days, but I ain't looking back / I've made a few mistakes, but I'm on the right track / I've got somewhere to be / Gotta hurry so I can make my date with destiny," he sings on "Winners Never Quit," by all accounts, the glistening empowerment anthem of the bunch, which came about when he re-read the classic Aesop's Fable, The Tortoise and the Hare. "I remember reading them as a kid in elementary school," he tells Popdust in a candid conversation over the phone. "[This story] is basically the meaning of the song ⎯⎯ slow and steady wins the race. That can be applied to so many different areas in our lives. It felt a little more universal as a song on this album that is so personal."

Even given his generally cheery persona, he cops to his "bummer" days that have peppered much of his very-public life. "There have been a lot of moments of feeling pressure, not necessarily from other folks or a record label or management. But it's more self-imposed pressure ⎯⎯ of seeing myself through other people's eyes and how I wanted to appear to other people, even on social media," he says. "It becomes this endless pit that's hard to climb out of. You start teetering on the edge of living life the way you want other people to see you. I definitely have had my fair share of self-esteem issues."

Throughout Cinematic, Young never avoids brutal honesty, exchanging downright detached whimsy for charcoal-broiled truths and stories ripped from his memory and a stash of photographs. "I don't know if it was the weather or my mood or what was happening in my life, but I started delving into this bottomless pit of nostalgia," he says, with a hearty chuckle. "I found myself looking back on the last 10 years of my life and almost feeling super sentimental. At my desk in my studio, I would surround myself with photos of when I was a kid and things that mean a lot to me. I got into this mood, and I couldn't shake it."

Having grown up in the Christian faith, he took that "mood" as a sign he was meant to come to terms with many things in his life. He explains, "I took that as 'Ok, you're supposed to write an album that is very specific to your story.' In terms of all of my past albums, I tended to write songs that were the opposite, very abstract songs based on my imagination and weird dreams I had. I would write songs that had a very stream of consciousness feeling. This is the polar opposite for me ⎯ of writing songs that are literal and autobiographical. This was just meant to be."

At the album's core, he vowed to "honor the people in my life and some of the life-changing events" that have come and gone since he started his impressive career exactly 10 years ago. "I'm so grateful for those," he says.

Below, Young opens up about some of the most important moments of his life, how he sequenced the record, country music's influence and listeners' biggest takeaways.

How did you decide what people and events were most important to you for this album? It must have been a very long list.

It was. I started very much by creating a blank text document on my computer, and I made this physical list of some of my favorite memories. I can't wait to tell my kids someday these stories. So, I whittled down the ones that felt like I needed closure with. Some of these needed to be told so I could feel like I appreciated them as much as I possibly could or that I was able to shed light upon. "5th of July" is about the night I was born and the moment I drew my first breath, obviously the biggest event in my life. "Fiji Water" is about my signing my very first record deal, a huge moment for my career. "House Wren" is about me visiting my grandparents during the summers as a kid.

Did you have an approach when you went to sequence the record?

That process was less involved with the specific content of the songs. It was more about the vibe of the music. I've always been picky, maybe it's to my detriment, about putting together an album sequence. I try not to put two ballads or downtempo songs together. It probably doesn't matter in today's world of streaming and how people don't necessarily listen to an album from top to bottom anymore. That's fine. But I'm still stuck in that mindset.

Did writing such personal songs present any new challenges?

I don't think my mind defaults to grabbing onto some of the things that have happened to me as being song worthy. For whatever reason, my mind gravitates to the abstract ideas. It was a constant struggle to wrestle my mind away from wanting to take a given song in that direction and say, "No, if this wasn't a specific detail that happened, I'm not going to put that line in the song." Whatever lyric is strung together, I wanted to make every word and idea literal.

You turn 32 this summer. What lessons have you learned in your life, and how are they present on this record?

The biggest lesson I probably learned over the past 10 years since I started music is to stay true to yourself and do whatever you feel inspired to do. That gets said a lot but it's true. To boil that down, to me, it means not to let third parties and outside opinions to change the final result of a piece of music. It's making sure that whatever I create I am excited about and that I'm doing it for the right reasons.

Your songwriting has a general story-driven approach, in much the same vein as country music often is. Your song "All My Friends" could have been a Sam Hunt song. Was that something you were thinking about?

That's an amazing observation. I was and am a huge fan of country music, mostly for the fact that so much of it is story-driven. I listened to a lot of Jake Owen and Brad Paisley. There's a lot of that on my Spotify, just to use as inspiration and run through my own filter.

"Always" is a standout, very piano-based, but then arena-rock guitars enter the arrangement later on. How did that develop?

That song is based on my dad's health struggles the past couple years. Being raised in a family of faith, this is something I wanted to tell my dad ⎯⎯ to just hang on. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. I wanted to write a ballad that started very quiet and ballad-y and then mirrored the journey my dad has been on ⎯⎯ of this roller coaster and the doctors not knowing what's going on with him. I wanted to mirror that in the dynamics of the song. Some days are good, and some days are really bad.

"Madeline Island" is very poetic and vividly written. Can you walk me through that moment in your life?

In the summer of 2013, my folks, their little yorkshire terrier dog named Max and I went on a vacation. We hadn't traveled anywhere together just the four of us for a lot of years, because my schedule was so busy. I hadn't seen my parents for a couple years. That spring, we said we'd pause everything and go on a family vacation just like we used to when I was 10 years old. So, we opened the map and picked a spot that we thought would be fun to visit. Madeline Island is an Archipelago island in Lake Superior. It's off the "coast" of Wisconsin. It's a quiet, beautiful place to relax.

The four of us went there, and it was pretty uneventful. That was the point. [laughs] It was so good to reconnect with my parents and to realize that I have an amazing relationship with them. Not everyone can say that. It made me feel so blessed and grateful when I was looking back. I wanted to honor my parents by telling this simple story of us going camping and enjoying nature.

There is so much happening, musically, in the title song, "Cinematic." How did it become the album's name?

This song came at the 11th hour of the songwriting process. I knew that I wanted a song at the very end of the album to sum up the tracks that had come before and that said to the listener, "You just witnessed a few scenes from my life that I love, just a few stories I never want to forget. So, what does that mean to you? What are your movie-magic moments from your life?" It was a summary track, really.

You have three alternative versions of songs at the end, "All My Friends," "Montana" and "Firebird." Were these versions that arose through the process, or things you wanted to experiment with afterward?

These three alt versions were very much side directions. While I was writing the main versions, there were a few moments along the way where I was tempted to go in the direction that appears as these alt versions. Rather than decided against just picking one, I thought, "Maybe if I put these on the backburner for a second, I'll finish the main versions and maybe come back and mess with these." They're almost like bonus tracks for the listener to hear the different approach and get insight into my process and how sometimes when you're working on a song there are times it can go into so many different directions. It can be a puzzle. I wanted to leave that door open.

What would you want the listener to learn the most about you from this album?

I would probably want them to learn that my radar is always up. I'm always up for trying something new in my music. Writing these deeply personal songs allows me to utilize a new skill. Maybe someday, I might dive back into this world of nostalgia again on a new album. It might be even easier then than this one. I have it under my belt now. I hope people listen to this album and feel it's still the same guy from way back on MySpace who hasn't been corrupted by the industry.

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Jason Scott is a freelance music journalist with bylines in B-Sides & Badlands, Billboard, PopCrush, Ladygunn, Greatist, AXS, Uproxx, Paste and many others. Follow him on Twitter.


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