DECATUR — When a pop song goes quadruple platinum, it’s typically the work of major label artists with teams of writers, producers and massive PR campaigns behind them. The sheer number of sales associated with that kind of award — almost five million and counting — is out of reach for all but the biggest stars.
So it came as a shock to the music industry when a 23-year-old insomniac named Adam Young accomplished the feat in 2009. The Owatonna, Minn., native, better known by the title of his musical group Owl City, climbed to the top of the American music charts on the strength of the song “Fireflies,” a synthesizer-driven tune about his own trouble sleeping contentedly.
“At the time when I began making music as Owl City, I started to have a lot of daydreams,” said Young, who will perform Sunday evening at Urbana’s Canopy Club. “I was stuck in a world I wasn’t thrilled with. I had no plan; I was just going through the motions. Music was my outlet from the more mundane world. I was singing with this optimistic, light-hearted sound about idealist worlds I wanted to be in.”
Back in 2008, as Young got his start, he was living in his parents’ basement, working a day job loading Coca Cola trucks at a warehouse. His first independent release was recorded entirely on his own and managed to reach No. 13 on the U.S. Electronic charts thanks to a devoted MySpace fan base, which quickly brought national label attention. Young briefly considered continuing his career on his own before deciding to take the plunge.
“I was thrilled to death that my after-work hobby was making me enough money to quit my job,” he said. “That was all I wanted at first. Then the labels started reaching out, and soon they’re asking all these questions and you’re flying out to meetings. I had to take a leap of faith and take the opportunities I was given, or I thought I’d wake up one day and kick myself for passing it all up.”
Commercially, the move certainly paid off. Owl City’s 2009 debut album “Ocean Eyes” sold more than 1 million copies and obtained its own platinum record award, and with his newfound fame, Young tackled other challenges, such as figuring out how to take an act that consisted of himself sitting in a basement on the road with a full band.
“That was something I never had to think about before,” he said. “It was a big personal hurdle for me because I’m a reserved, shy guy by nature. I was asking myself, ‘How can I learn not to lock up after awhile on stage?’ But these days, the live shows are what keep the music really compelling and interesting for me. I would say that in the last two years we’ve really managed to dial it in.”
At times, it’s been a heady, nearly overwhelming experience for a still-young artist who admits he is much more reserved than most pop stars. Young believes, though, that he’s managed to retain his own identity throughout, despite living in the musical fast lane.
“The label and management have said from day one, ‘We want to help you keep doing what you’ve already been doing,’ ” he said. “To their credit, they’ve been very true to their word. But with that being said, my life has been filled with these experiences that are just ridiculous — things like international touring — experiences that I never would have been able to handle on my own.”
As for the future of his music, Young and Owl City have their work cut out for them to match the chart-busting success of “Fireflies.” After a three-year absence from the same heights, the singer scored big again in the summer of 2012 with “Good Times,” alongside pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen. Young said there will be more songs on the way that “connect with people and move masses,” and expressed a fascination with what makes a pop song have true crossover appeal.
“The success of ‘Fireflies’ really put a charge into me to figure out what makes a song connect with an audience in that sort of way,” he said. “Right now, I really am just trying to write cool, concise pop songs that absolutely hit people in exactly the right way and contain some of that magic.”