The day is glowing and the grass sparkling green outside Adam Young's modern subdivision house, but the world's most homebody pop star has the curtains pulled. He is downstairs in the dark, working on his own brand of sunlight.
His new recording studio sits under the garage in a cold, windowless room actually built as a storm shelter. Which is also a source of amusement for the young homeowner.
"Anytime there's a tornado, my mom will call me up and say, 'Adam, you'd better get in the basement,'" Young said with a warm giggle. "I'll be like, 'Mom, I am in the basement.'"
It's the perfect creative space for the overnight sensation -- "overnight," because he famously created his million-selling debut album during sleepless nights in his parents' basement, writing daydreamerly songs about places he wanted to see when he finally had the chance to leave Owatonna.
Young made it out of town, all right. The first thing he bought after winning worldwide fame, though, was his own house in this quaint, farm-encircled city of 24,000 in southern Minnesota. And when it came time to make the follow-up album, which goes on sale Tuesday, he ruled out the finest studios in New York and Los Angeles for another basement studio in Owatonna.
Now 24 and seemingly still the shy, awkward boy who once missed the chance to flirt with Taylor Swift, Young certainly did not anticipate the tornado that would carry him halfway across the world after he started uploading his homemade recordings onto the Internet under the name Owl City.
A quick recap: Those tracks generated a swift, rabid online buzz soon after he posted them to MySpace in 2008; that led to his first-ever airplane ride to New York to meet with Universal Records executives; they issued his "Ocean Eyes" album in July 2009; by the fall of '09, Young had the No. 1 song in the United States (and England and many other countries) with his fluttery synth-pop single "Fireflies."
When he finally finished touring for "Ocean Eyes" last fall, Young had seen the world: Europe, Australia, Hawaii (his favorite), Japan and even China.
Even then, Owatonna was just a phone call away. During "one of the big, crazy moments that made me stop and say, 'Wow,'" Young called home.
"I said, 'Mom, you'll never guess where I am right now: the Great Wall of China,'" he recalled, with a little giggle again. "She said, 'Adam, it's 2 a.m. here.'"
You can imagine how Young's whirlwind world tour affected his imagination -- the same imagination that was already hyperactive back when he spent all his time in Mom and Dad's basement, or at his drab part-time job at the local Coca-Cola distribution center.
"I had always imagined and daydreamed about these places, and suddenly I was there, like I was finally putting the name to the face," he said. "That started sparking all these new ideas. I spent a lot of time on tour running back to the bus, typing out lyrics or other ideas."
Those ideas were poured back into "All Things Bright and Beautiful," Young's second Owl City album. Though loaded with all that new inspiration, the record mostly boasts the same electronic-flowerbed sound and angelic, galaxy-pondering lyricism as "Ocean Eyes." Heck, it even has songs titled "Angels" and "Galaxies." The album opens with textbook Adam Young lines, in a song called "The Real World":
Weighed down by heavy lids and lunar lullabies/
I knew you were wide awake because you smile with your eyes /
Downy feathers kiss your face and flutter everywhere/
Reality is a lovely place but I wouldn't want to live there.
There's a harsh reality shadowing "All Things Bright and Beautiful" and what it means to Young's career. His adolescent fans will either grow with him and possibly latch onto his music for life, or they will see him as another one-hit-wonder who made a brief, bright, supernova-like impact on their childhoods.
Just as he does in each and every one of the hopeful songs he writes, though, the singer said he tried to stay positive and ignore the pressure from the outside world while crafting the new record.
"I tried not to let the gold and the platinum plaques leer down at me, saying, 'Can you do it again?'" he said. (For real: Record-sales plaques hang all around his house.) "I just tried to do my writing from the same place it came from for my past records.
"Ultimately, there was more pressure, but I think it was positive pressure in a way. I feel like I had more purpose in my writing. At the same time, I was steadfast about being in the same genuine place I was before."
The place he now calls home is only a mile from his parents' house -- close enough for them to come over with their riding lawn mower when he goes back on tour this week.
Young's parents were often the only ones who saw their son over the winter, when he was holed up in the studio.
"He was like a total hermit, with the beard and everything," said his guitarist and good friend Daniel Jorgensen, who was back at the house two weeks ago, rehearsing with Young.
The bachelor's pad looks clean, neat and wholesome enough to house any conventional suburban family. Posters of splashing dolphins and the movie "Wall-E" adorn the family room downstairs, where a pair of dumbbells sit on the floor. Besides the platinum plaques, the only other clue that it's a pop star's house is random musical equipment scattered all around: a guitar on the wall here, a Steinway piano there (free through an endorsement deal). There's even a microphone, connected to a laptop, butting out from atop the breakfast bar.
"Sometimes I even keep working on ideas when I eat," Young said.
He usually does his grocery shopping after midnight to do so inconspicuously. However, he can't help but get noticed as the town's resident chart-topper when he goes out to eat at Applebee's, which he does often.
"Mostly it's quiet here and nobody ever bothers me. But yeah, if I do go out to a restaurant or whatever in town, people might say, 'Aren't you the guy from the front page?' It's fun. There's a little bit of hometown, healthy pride in it."
When Young played a benefit concert for his old high school's music and arts programs last Halloween in the school gym, his mom pretty well explained her son's attraction to living in Owatonna.
"It's a good place to keep him grounded and level-headed, and I think he can get away from all the pressure here," said Joan Young, an elementary school teacher who marveled at how far Adam had come since his high school days. "He never was very outgoing in school, so it's amazing seeing him here now, center stage."
Talking over his kitchen table two weeks ago -- he cracked the curtain to the back door to finally let in a little light -- Young never shied away from answering questions. Nor did he lose the sweet, polite veneer that seems as genuine as everything else about him.
He even talked openly about the breakup with his longtime, pre-fame girlfriend, the subject of the record's current single, "Deer in the Headlights," as well as a bonus track called "Lonely Lullaby."
"It was a combination of my career and just being the wrong kind of fit personality-wise," he said, noting that he's still not dating anyone else. "I can count the number of girlfriends I've had on one hand, and she was the most serious one, so it was the source of a lot of frustration."
That's as close as Young got to showing the wounds of stardom, or of getting older. Even the bandmates who spend weeks on end with him amid the stress of touring say they've never seen him blow his top or act out against his conservative upbringing.
Young was raised Baptist and goes to church most Sundays when he's home. On the road, he maintains a no-alcohol policy backstage and on the bus, and he works with musicians of a similar mold (Decker is the son of Christian missionaries).
"Despite maybe my parents' fears that the music industry would turn me into some kind of monster, I feel like it has been the opposite experience," Young said.
"Since having the 'temptations' all around me, it has kind of made me stick closer to my friends and weave this support system around me that is filled with the right people. I made sure the music industry hasn't changed me. So it has kind of made me more resolved and resolute about who I am, or who I feel like I should be."
He applied that same resolution to the making of "All Things Bright and Beautiful." Nobody can accuse him of altering his style to suit his critics. And there have been many harsh critics, most of them soured by his music's unabashed sweetness. Spin magazine already called the record the "synth-pop equivalent of a totally awesome plush toy," suitable for people who have "never swallowed anything stronger than gumdrops."
If ever there were a reason for Young to raise his voice or lower his smile, it would be for reviews like that. But no dice.
"As a listener and an artist, nothing has ever moved me more than something that is really uplifting, rather than something that connects on a darker, angst level," he said unapologetically. "For me, it's always way more fulfilling just to imagine and seek the higher road."
That's one thing Adam Young doesn't need to imagine. He's on it.
- Chris Riemenschneider
- Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib