Writer Of The Week: Adam Young (Sky Sailing/Owl City)
You may know Adam Young, 24, as the mastermind behind Owl City, Taylor Swift’s favorite emo band. Before he launched his Owl City empire (their latest album, Ocean Eyes, sold over a million copies), Young recorded under the moniker Sky Sailing. He recently released the critically-acclaimed An Airplane Carried Me to Bed, the debut Sky Sailing record, which shines a spotlight on his earliest compositions.
When did you start writing songs? How were they compared to what you’re writing now?
I started writing in high school after I broke my wrist (which is ironic) due to a skateboard accident. Thankfully it was my left wrist, so I could still use a computer mouse. I dabbled with programming and sequencing and eventually contracted a serious creative infection that still hasn’t left me. To this day, I cannot stop writing/recording. I suppose that makes me a “voracious inventor” or something like that. I find the creative process is unbelievably inspiring in and of itself.
How did you get your record deal?
I somehow started scoring enough sales/plays via iTunes and MySpace to catch the attention of the majors. Universal Republic called me up out of the blue and asked me what I was doing. I gladly quit my warehouse job at Coca-Cola and climbed aboard the music boat. It’s been smooth sailing ever since.
Sky Sailing preceded Owl City, why go back now?
It was one of those things, given the timeline, that just felt right. I had a secret album in the can, just sitting there collecting dust. It wasn’t doing anything but taking up space on my hard drive so I did a bit of polishing and released it. The recordings are pretty sentimental to me because they were the first songs I’d put together, and specifically, the first songs I’d ever written lyrics for. I started out as an instrumentalist producing super ambient/experimental stuff. Sky Sailing was a whole new world at the time.
How is Sky Sailing different from Owl City?
Both projects are from the same guy, the same mind, and since the same guy is the singer of both projects, it may be easier to point out the similarities rather than the differences. However, Sky Sailing is darker, moodier, and much more organic. No intense programming appears on the Sky Sailing record and everything was performed by hand rather than sequenced. The songs and lyrics have a “searching” quality to them, always eluding to the idea that there is more out there, just waiting to be explored or discovered.
Is there anything that you would write about as Sky Sailing that you wouldn’t as Owl City? Sky Sailing claims the “darker” side of my writing. Though nothing I’ve ever written has been 100% left or right on the spectrum, it’s always been clear to me that there are two (and more) creative avenues I have a clear vision for and thus, both projects are disconnected enough from each other to be their own separate identities. It just kind of happened that way and it felt right.
Have you found that you enjoy one project more than the other?
Not particularly. I’ve always wanted to “do everything” in terms of writing and recording and of course I couldn’t do it all via one band. I’ve felt drawn to almost every musical genre at one point or another, and having separate projects allows me to do that.
What’s your songwriting process like?
I started playing drums in junior high so I usually start with a rhythm or a beat. Then I experiment with broad progressions and melodies, main vocal melodies come next and lyrics come last. Every songwriting process is a little bit different and needless to say, there’s is never a “formula” or specific way of really doing it right. If the song is inspired, it almost writes itself. I love being a part of the process, almost as an outsider, because it’s so fulfilling when the mix finally comes back from mastering and you can look back and see how the song progressed. It’s all about choices and decisions.
Has your process changed at all?
I suppose it’s become more intentional over the years. I have a more specific idea of what I want before I start writing. That can be a blessing and a curse sometimes because it may mean working harder on something, or writing and re-writing more times than you really want to. However, I think it ultimately makes certain that the end result is pleasing and that’s the most important thing.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Believe it or not, I spend a lot of time in the dictionary for lyric inspiration. It’s amazing how one word can make me think of something and allow me to dream up an entire scenario or “world” around it.
Tell us about the song “Brielle.”
Brielle is a little town on the coast of New Jersey. I wrote the song after reading Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson in which he recounts the discovery of a World War II German U-boat sixty miles off the U.S. coast in 1991. The song describes a sailor who is about to leave on a long trip and wonders whether he will ever see the girl he loves again.
There’s already some talk about the next Owl City album, any chance you might continue on with Sky Sailing as well?
It’s all just a question of timing. I certainly have the ideas and the inspiration to do more Sky Sailing records at some point. But making a record takes time and it usually comes down to whatever seizes my attention first. I’m about halfway done writing an upcoming Owl City record so after that’s all said and done, who knows what the next thing will be. I like to play it one record at a time.
What’s a lyric from An Airplane Carried Me to Bed you’re particularly proud of?
That’s a tough question. Probably the lyrics from the song “Sailboats” because it was the first song I’d ever written for, and I wanted to kind of “say it all” in one fell swoop. It’s pretty sentimental to me, like any artist’s first song probably is, and it says a lot about who I was at the time it was written and recorded.
You’ve said in interviews that you would like to work with Taylor Swift and John Mayer in the future, maybe on the next Owl City album.
I’ve always wanted to feature Taylor on a song. She has such indescribable talent and it would just be a lot of fun.
You’ve said “Love Story” by Taylor Swift was the best love song you knew. How come?
It’s such a sweet song, carefree and imaginative, yet so relatable.
Who are some other songwriters you admire?
Thomas Newman, Alan Silvestri, James Newton Howard, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, and Jonathan Ford.
You’ve been compared style-wise to Death Cab for Cuite’s Ben Gibbard, do you listen to him at all?
I honestly haven’t really heard enough to be persuaded one way or another. I’ve heard arguments on both sides and I just prefer to stay out of it.
Is there any song that you wish you had written?
“Jubilee” by Unwed Sailor.
Are you working on any other projects?
I’m working on the credit sequence track for a feature film due out in September and I’m super excited about that. I contributed vocals for a new Armin van Buuren track which was a dream come true for me. I’m doing a bit of remixing here and there, writing for commercials, collaborating with other artists, etc. It’s great fun.