Owl City's Adam Young on Singing the First Pop Single From 'Dear Evan Hansen'

Abbey Olmsted
Adam Young

The new musical Dear Evan Hansen walked away with several of the biggest awards at this year's Tonys (including the biggest honor, Best Musical), but the show has had plenty of success in the pop realm as well. The original cast recording of the show's songs was released on Atlantic Records earlier this year, debuting at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 -- the highest debut for a Broadway cast album since Camelot in 1961.

Now, the award-winning show is further extending its reach with its first pop single, a cover of the anthem "Waving Through a Window" by Owl City's Adam Young, released today in collaboration with the show and Atlantic. Young spoke to Billboard about how the Evan Hansen dream team roped him in for this dream assignment -- before he'd even seen the show.  

How did you first discover Dear Evan Hansen, and have you seen the show?

It kind of betrays my ignorance, but I hadn’t heard of the play until the three guys who created the music -- Alex Lacamoire, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul -- just called me. I apologized for not being familiar with the project, and kind of just put my cards on the table. It was them calling me saying "We’re big fans of your work" -- which I still can’t believe -- "we’re trying to kind of re-imagine 'Waving Through a Window' in more of a pop genre versus the theatrical version."  And they said they looked at each other and thought, "Let’s get the Owl City guy." 

So I ran and listened to the song immediately. I was just blown away by the lyrics and everything I read about Evan, and thought, "I have to do this." This was right around two-and-a-half weeks ago, and I live in Minnesota, so I haven’t even been able to get to New York to see it yet, but I can't wait. It all happened so fast -- it feels pretty surreal for me.

Ben Platt's performance of the song is so beloved at this point. How did his approach to the song inform yours?

I remember telling my manager, "I have no idea how I can bring anything to the table!" Ben’s voice alone is incredible, and then in the version in the play with all the strings, the guitars, it’s so well-crafted, I just didn’t know how I could beat it, or not even beat it -- just bring something that could compete with it. One of the things that Alex, Benj and Justin mentioned to me in their initial pitch was, conceptually, if there was a radio in Evan Hansen's bedroom, they thought it would be playing Owl City music. He’s this outsider, he’s got social anxiety, a lot of things I dealt with as a high schooler myself. So just, "Live with this image of this kid in his bedroom, playing stuff that sounds like you, and come up with your own interpretation." That gave me a lot of inspiration to approach it in my own way.

You and Ben seem to have similar ranges, but very different vocal qualities...

I think Ben definitely is a lot more of a professional singer than I am; I didn’t have any formal training. It was tough to study his version, especially the bridge -- the "When you’re falling in a forest and there's nobody around” part -- that was tough for me to keep up as far as the inflection, the speed. It’s very loose and free-flowing, the way he sings it. That’s not really my style, but I loved how he sang it, so I had to try to nail that down. It was a really cool challenge to have that kind of guideline. I was a little intimidated at first, but I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed being pushed out of my comfort zone.

Did Alex, Benj and Justin give you any further information on why they felt you were the right choice for this song?

They mentioned that my signature sound has maybe a quality of innocence, a youthful sound, so they were like, "To the extent that you’re inspired, can you tap into more of that?" It’s a bit of my earlier sound, like from "Fireflies," so they wondered if I could kind of revisit where I was at when I wrote it.  But they gave just some general direction and said to run with it.

Initially they weren’t sure if they wanted the song to be a full on cover with all my vocal, or include some of Ben’s so it would be more of a duet, but they ended up telling me to sing the whole thing and make it my own. I’d put down a rough draft, send it to them to see if I was on the right track, and they'd be like, "Yeah, yeah, we like where you’re going, maybe adjust this line, re-sing this line with a bit more energy, or add some more glitchy electronic synth sounds in this part." I have a studio in my house where I kind of do everything just by myself, hacking away.

You mentioned relating to Evan's experience. What did you tap into emotionally as you were working on the song?

I felt like I was kind of looking at a depiction of myself back in high school. I dealt with social anxiety and low self esteem, some of the things Evan struggles with. In a lot of ways I was the same kid. The majority of Evan’s words in the lyrics are sentiments I’d felt at some point. I kind of channeled that, and I really saw how Evan turns to writing as his way of dealing with his troubles. I was the same way with turning to writing music in high school to deal with that. It was like a different life, so it was a tricky thing to revisit -- but it reminded me, in the same way that Evan finds redemption and will kind of overcome his struggles, that that happened for me as well. The biggest thing I remembered is just to be yourself.