Owl City Talks 'Mobile Orchestra' Album, Criticism & His Love of Country Music
Adam Young has a hard time switching off the creative side of his brain. The singer-songwriter, who goes by Owl City, is on his way to the airport to fly out to Japan and, more likely than not, will spend his time in the air working on new music. Just two weeks after releasing his fifth studio album, Mobile Orchestra, which debuts at No. 11 on the Billboard 200, the Minnesotan artist finds this ceaseless need to create both a blessing and a curse.
It's the endless access to technology that coincides with the album's name, one that prompted Young to wrangle the production's diverse crop of featured artists including Hanson, Jake Owen and Aloe Blacc. For Young, Mobile Orchestra is a proud product of his expanding sonic palette and work-heavy inclinations. Reveling in the post-release stage of his efforts, Young lets the album speak for itself, explaining the decisions that went into recording his latest.
How does it feel to have Mobile Orchestra out?
It feels so good to have the album out, particularly because it’s taken me a lot longer to make this record than some of my earlier records. This album has a lot more vocal collaborations and a lot more vocal guest features on it, so that’s always a big job to get everybody’s schedules, to get into the studio with everybody’s touring schedules and all the things that everybody has going on. So that definitely takes some time. On the business side of things as well; it took about a year, a year and a half to make the whole thing front to back. Usually, it takes me a couple months, because I’m just kind of doing my own thing and making my own album, just the rate that I work with nobody else. Looking back on it, I'm so excited that it’s out. Everyone did such a great job. I feel really proud of it.
What was the intent behind the name Mobile Orchestra?
The title is kind of a pun on the fact that I have a hard time switching off the creative side of my brain. Therefore, I’m always working on some lyric or some rhyme or some melody that won’t leave me alone. The blessing and the curse of how all this amazing technology now fits in a little box, in a laptop. The blessing and the curse is that you can always be working on something, literally anywhere. On the airplane, I’ll probably do that later today. I’ll probably be on the flight, putting my headphones on, just messing around. You can be on buses and trains. The idea is that,with all the technology, one guy sitting in front of a laptop can create the sound of an 80-person symphony. All the moving parts and all the bells and whistles. That’s the cool imagery for what I do.
How do you feel like the featured artists, all coming from different genres and backgrounds, contributed to the picture you were trying to paint?
So happy with how it turned out. I’m trying to invite these different artists who are so good at what they do, from all corners of the music world. My vision was just to invite all these folks in to say, “I don’t really want to give you any direction. I just want you to do your thing. Just do what you would do naturally, and therefore my hope is that it made the album more accessible across all these different genres and hopefully a lot more diverse than I would have made it otherwise. I felt so good about working with Aloe Blacc. Jake Owen was a huge, incredible experience for me. To work with Jake from the country side of things was fantastic. A vocalist from the U.K. who's done a lot of EDM work named Sarah Russell is on there. Different parts of the world across the map in terms of genre. I’m so proud of how it turned out.
What inspired the country song, "Back Home," with Jake Owen?
Something that I think not a lot of people know about me is that I’m actually a huge fan of country music. I listen to it all the time. Up until now, my love of country music hasn’t really been portrayed through my own music. It may have been hinted at a couple times, but it’s never really been experimented with until the song “Back Home”. I’ve just been a huge fan of Jake Owen for years, because I’m such a fan of country music. To me, he’s a legend and so good at his craft. There’s nobody that’s better in my book. So, I was sort of writing this song called “Back Home,” I think subconsciously influenced by the music that Jake creates and his vibe. Towards the end of that process, I just sort of sat up straight in bed. This big light bulb came on and I was like, oh man, I should send the demo to Jake. I guess I don’t have a whole lot to lose. Maybe he’ll be down to work with me. That’s exactly what happened. He was so kind and so gracious to just lend his talent for a second and make what I do so much better than it would have been.
Did you always want to do a country track or did it just occur to you with this album that you might want to experiment with that?
It sort of just occurred to me out of the blue. Then I realized, this has been a long time coming. I feel like I should have done this a long time ago. It was kind of a cool realization to play around with the staple country twang sound, like with the lap steel, the slide guitar. Just looking at the acoustic guitar differently than I had in the past was like, oh man, this sort of country lens that I can look through in my music, I should have done this forever ago. But, it was a blast to experiment with it and I hope to do some more in the future.
Some of the reviews say that your album has a 90’s nostalgia element. Do you agree with this?
Yeah, I do. That was another influence that I wanted to weave in throughout the fabric of the album, specifically the song “Unbelievable” with Hanson. Myself and those three guys are kind of the same age. We connected with so many different things that we remember as kids, things that we thought were so mind blowing as far as technology and kind of the latest, greatest thing at the time. In a lot of cases, depending on the product, it isn’t really around anymore. We had a blast just being like, “I forgot all about this. You guys remember this thing and this thing?” Just trying to find all these ways to work nostalgia into song. So, that track is kind of a trip down memory lane a little bit.
How did your song on the Oreo commercial come about?
That was so fun for me to do. Up until that point, I hadn’t really experimented too much with commercial music and you have to switch gears a little bit in terms of working in film and TV versus making your own album. The collaboration just kind of happened all of a sudden. I think Oreo had worked with a demo writer who had come up with an idea for this song called “Wonder Filled” for their campaign. I think that writer had thought of me, and he’s the one that kind of connected us all. Oreo was like, “Here’s the vibe that we’re after. Here are the main kind of themes, and just go for it. Get yourself some time in the studio and just get comfortable with it and see what happens.” We kind of just did that and it was a blast. That was my first time experimenting in that world, and I loved it.
You seem to have a really dedicated fan base. On the flip side of that, how do you handle negative feedback?
There’s definitely a trick. With anything that you do, for anybody, there’s always going to be somebody who loves it, somebody who hates it, somebody in the middle. I feel like I read a stat once that was like, “If you put something out, there’s 5% of everyone who loves it, 5% who hates it, and 90% of people who just kind of check it out and move on.” So, it’s definitely a trick to not dwell on the good or the bad. In terms of reading reviews online and things like that, I feel like I’ve nailed down a super healthy approach at that stuff. So, I will definitely check it out a little bit, but the moment it feels like I’m dwelling on it too much or thinking about it too much, I step back and remember at the end of the day, I’ve just got to do the best job that I know how to do and just be sincere and be honest, try to do the right thing. At the end of the day, people will talk and that’s totally cool and I’ll just keep fighting the good fight.