It's not that his past three albums as virtual one-man band Owl City have been completely fictional, but they have been a bit distanced from Adam Young's real life. "I guess I've never been the guy to really write from his own personal experiences," says the small-town Minnesotan. "I've always preferred to write from the imagination, and somehow there was always a lot of inspiration behind that."
That was definitely the case with Owl City's whimsical multiplatinum breakthrough "Fireflies," a 2009 single so delightfully innocent that it bordered on naiveté. But all that has changed on Young's fourth Owl City album, the decidedly mature and introspective The Midsummer Station, which was released last month on Universal Republic. The synth-driven collection's only flight of fancy is the recent Top 10 hit "Good Time," a ching-chinging duet with Carly Rae Jepsen that aims for nothing more serious than sugary summertime fun. Other tracks dig deeper with lyrics like "Nights full of nightmares / I dreaded closing my eyes" and "Tired of waking up in tears / Because I can't put to bed these phobias and fears."
The latter lyric — taken from a ballad called "Silhouette" — is something of which Young is particularly proud. "I wrote and re-wrote that song a lot, to make sure that everything in there had the right amount of darkness — darkness that I do deal with," he admits. Young not only suffers from chronic insomnia, but whenever he does manage to drift off to sleep, his dreams usually morph into nightmares. This, in turn, becomes a debilitating Catch 22, creatively speaking.
"This is probably the cause of my insomnia," Young has come to believe. "If I doze off to sleep and catch the last few minutes of a dream, whether it's good or bad, I'll wake up and think 'Whatever that was, was powerful!' Even if it was scary or frightening. So I have to go into the studio and try to re-create that vibe, with music or with lyrics, so I don't forget it."
The only option, Young figures, is to surrender to his malicious muse. "And therefore I'm up all night, every night. So it's a blessing and a curse, because I do get more work done."
The feather-throated singer has, in some ways, learned to accept his situation. He combats it nightly with three nerve-calming melatonin tablets. And he can't rely on Ambien because it "just makes me stupid, it makes me crazy, and then I write really weird songs."
Young initially hatched Owl City as a synth-centered DIY project in his parents' Owatonna basement, while he was working a straight job at a local Coca-Cola plant. So it's been a dream come true, he says, not having to put on a uniform and punch the clock every day. His gift for Lightning Seeds-style fey pop songwriting was his ticket to stardom, and now his songs are doing double duty as life-affirming therapy.
"There's something about writing music that helps me process, that helps me deal with life in a positive way," Young concludes. "And if I didn't have the music to focus on, I'd probably be a mess."