Of course he still remembers his first airplane ride.
It was 10 years ago this year. He was still living in his parents’ basement in Owatonna, Minn., and working a colorless job at the local Coca-Cola distribution center. At night, he was making music on his computer. That flight to New York was literally his ticket to a new life.
“Got an e-mail at 22/Told me I could be a star,” Adam Young sings in the opening lines of “Cinematic,” the nostalgic new album released under his nom de synth-pop, Owl City.
“Landed at JFK/Father Christmas picked me up/Checked into a dream hotel/And I thought there’s no such thing as luck.”
Looking back on that momentous occasion — when he flew to NYC to sign a record deal with Universal Music — Young did not downplay just how lucky he feels about it now.
His heart-tuggingly earnest song “Fireflies,” which he recorded at home late at night using computer gear, had become a viral hit on the then influential website Myspace. Once Universal got involved, the track soon made it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
“It was such a case of being in the right place at the right time, and the world and the stars really aligning for me,” Young said last month. “The song changed my life.”
Ten years later, though, the most remarkable thing about Young might be how little his life has changed.
He’s still living in Owatonna, in a house he bought with “Fireflies” money, not far from his parents and their church. He’s still unfailingly polite and humble offstage — not nearly as demure and soft-spoken as in his first in-person interview with the Star Tribune in 2009, but still a far cry from your typical chart-topping hitmaker.
And he’s still making unabashedly wholesome electronic pop music in the vein of “Fireflies.” Songs on the new Owl City album include one about a camping trip with his parents, “Madeline Island,” and another that’s specifically an ode to his dad titled — grab a hankie! — “Not All Heroes Wear Capes.”
“I’m not one of these guys who can tell my dad in person how much I love him,” the younger Young sweetly explained. “So I thought this song would be a good way to show him I care about him.”
After the ‘Fireflies’ buzz
Still not a dad or a husband himself — although he’s been in a steady relationship for several years, he said — Young has been busy maintaining a music career in the decade since “Fireflies.”
He contributed tracks to numerous soundtracks, mainly for the animated movies he so loves, such as 2013’s “Smurfs 2” and 2010’s “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.” He made four more records after his breakout “Ocean Eyes,” each one including outside guests such as Aloe Blacc, Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus and Hanson.
And even though he had never performed live before “Fireflies” broke big and is a self-admitted “homebody,” Young happily settled into life as a touring musician. “It’s a crazy change of pace for me, but I’ve grown to love it,” he said.
He hit the road again last month and will circle back for only his second show ever at First Avenue on Friday, performing with a new Owl City lineup made up mostly of Minnesotans. He also frequently plays overseas in Japan and South Korea, where his albums earned some of their biggest numbers.
“To go over there and experience audiences that aren’t even English speakers singing along to my little songs I made up in Owatonna is incredible,” he said.
About the wildest thing Young did careerwise was make a rowdy-for-him duet with Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012 called “Good Time.” a song all about — gasp! — having a good time.It became a staple of “Kidz Bop” and karaoke CDs as well as another top 10 Owl City hit, but Young said its success felt less personal. “ ‘Good Time’ had more folks involved and was not as 100 percent me,” he said. “I’m grateful for it, but it was a little more planned.”
He added, “There’s something about ‘Fireflies’ that’s more pure. It was done by a kid who didn’t even know what the Billboard Hot 100 was at the time. I look back on that time really fondly.”
‘Amazing’ life experiences
Young’s new album is almost nothing but fond memories. The title, “Cinematic,” suggests the kind of fantastical, daydreamy songs that have filled prior Owl City records, but the mini-movies in this case are Young’s actual memories.
“When I sat down to start writing, I was looking for inspiration from somewhere other than my traditional place, which has primarily been my imagination,” he said. “It wasn’t that I was bored writing that way, it’s just I was in a sort of nostalgic mood.
“I started looking back on the 10 years of my career and my 32 years on Earth, and I felt so blessed over all the amazing things I’ve been able to experience. So this is like the highlights reel of those experiences.”
Other songs include “Montana,” about visiting an uncle’s ranch, and “New York City,” about another trip east, this time in a car with a friend, listening to Johnny Cash and showering at a truck stop.
At least one new song clearly isn’t from Young’s own memory, but it’s still as personal as it gets: “5th of July” recounts the story of his birth, from his mom and dad jumping into their Chevy Caprice to his grandparents’ arrival and their view of fireworks from the hospital room.
“I sat down with my folks and almost interviewed them, asking them what was it like, who was there, all that,” Young recalled. “It was like I was writing about it in a memoir, even though I have no memory of it myself.”
As for the opening song about his unforgettable plane ride to New York and the success that followed, it’s called “Fiji Water.” The bottled water symbolizes a fancier world that Young wasn’t then accustomed to — and maybe still isn’t. He is no longer signed to Universal and seems resigned to probably never land another top 10 hit again.
“I’d be overjoyed if it happened again, but I’m not pursuing it and don’t really expect lightning to strike a third time,” he said.
Either way, he’s content still doing things his own way on his own terms — and especially his own turf.
“My former record label talked about me moving out to Los Angeles and getting me more involved with other collaborators,” Young said, when asked what keeps him in Owatonna. “Ultimately, I just felt like I’m more inspired and more creative when I’m at home, working by myself.”