The singer-songwriter-producer explains how insomnia, a new synth and Blink-182 inspired a multi-platinum single that topped charts across the globe
Minnesota’s Owl City is just one of several projects by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Adam Young. But it was under this pseudonym that the avant-garde hitmaker managed to clock up album sales over 2.5 million and single sales surpassing 18 million globally. His smash hit single Fireflies, from the 2009 album Ocean Eyes, started him on this meteoric rise to fame, achieving an RIAA five-times platinum certification in the US and reaching No 1 in another 26 countries – it held the top spot in the UK for three weeks.
Here, Young recounts the sleepless night, new synthesizer and Minnesotan countryside that helped create the song that marked his emergence…
“I can’t remember if it was a weekend or not, but I was up late – it was no earlier than maybe two or three in the morning. I’d got one of those little MicroKorg synths and I was just kind of exploring it for the first time. I was sitting on the floor messing around, and just started playing the intro of Fireflies. I always call it the ‘ping’ sound, the little ping motor in that. I just started to mess with that, found a cool delay setting that I liked and it kind of did to the song what The Edge does for U2. It drove the song a little bit.
“I remember playing it over and over, so then I jumped on my computer, recorded it and made a loop out of it. The hours just flew by after that. I’m not sure if that’s all I did that night, but I came back to it soon after that. I started to build the drum track, added the bass and some of the pad elements in the song. I had built, more or less, the rough outline of the instrumental tracks in a week or so.
“All the while, as I’m making melodies and building the track, I hum along and find melodies I keep repeating. When I was in junior high, I had a real connection to Blink-182 and how their vocal melodies came first and foremost. So with Fireflies, I remember thinking the melody was the most important part. Certainly, lyrics are equally important, but I focused on melody first.
“Half-a-week or a week later I had all the vocal melodies down in ‘da-da-da’ form, just gibberish, then I spent the next few days finding the lyrics and that was it. It was definitely a stream of consciousness: I just started to write down things that popped into my head. It was summertime and there are a lot of fireflies where I grew up. For some reason they popped into my head and, between that magical imagery of catching fireflies in a jar, and having trouble falling asleep – I’ve always had trouble turning off my mind – the verses of the song came pretty effortlessly. Choruses are tougher for me because I know the chorus is going to have to be repeated, so there’s more tension riding on it. With this song it was that way, the chorus was tougher and I remember rewriting the chorus.
“It was written somewhere in the middle of making my first album and I don’t remember telling anybody, ‘You’ve got to hear this, this is going to be big.’ It wasn’t even my favourite song on the album, it was just one of the songs on there. So that certainly added to my surprise later when it took off the way it did: I was kind of blown away. Every time I play that song live, I like imagining what 10 million fireflies would look like.
“A few years after I released that song and we were performing it live, I had to go back into the original Pro Tools session and do some work on the track, muting certain parts that my band members were going to do physically. It’s almost embarrassing, as I was sifting through the session, there’s one synthesizer track – I think it plays during the bridge – and it’s got a completely wrong note in it! You can hear it if you listen for it. It was totally my mistake as I was programming: I must’ve dragged one of the notes on the piano roll up by one, because it’s totally in the wrong key and it’s horrible. But I didn’t even notice!”