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Owl City returns to Hong Kong with live act credentials

Known for an effervescent brand of electronic pop, Owl City displays gravity and maturity as he takes the show live, writes Dave Bannister

 

ADAM YOUNG'S RISE to pop stardom from the basement of his parents' home is an inspiration to all bedroom musical wannabes. But turning a couple of hit songs produced on a laptop into a career that includes travelling the globe with a powerful live show is perhaps the more remarkable achievement.

A reviewer once described the sweet, childlike songs of Owl City - the name the American performs under - as "so insubstantial they practically float".

But the singer credits Hong Kong with playing a big part in his coming of age - as he proves that his songs as a stage performer have more heft than his saccharine vocals suggest. Outside of Canada, his first international concerts came during a tour to this city, Shanghai, Beijing and Wuhan in 2009.

And his return to Hong Kong and the mainland this month brings back good memories. "I got off the plane in Hong Kong and it was a whole new world for me," he recalls. "I hadn't done much travelling and performing, but the crowds were amazing. I'm looking forward to coming back."

Young's cheerful music certainly has a global resonance. The top-rated fans on his MySpace page include teenagers from as far flung as India, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Japan. Since he started out, he has made connecting with his audience a priority, regularly adding music posts and blogs, plus personally messaging as many fans as he can.

A multi-instrumentalist, Young started writing songs in the basement of his family's home in Minnesota, finding music an escape from the dull reality of his day job loading trucks. He soon won a following after uploading them to MySpace.

"MySpace has been my journey as an artist," says Young, who sold three million copies of his biggest hit single, Fireflies. "I didn't have a plan when I started. I just loved creating this stuff."

The spawning of new stars through the internet has become more common in recent years because of sites such as MySpace and the reluctance of big labels to take a chance signing young and relatively unknown talent. But while Young did land a deal with Universal Republic early in his career, he went his own way about turning his homespun music into something that worked in front of a live audience.

"That was a real challenge early on," says the 27-year-old. "I started making music before I had any idea I would take it to the stage. It was made on my laptop, where you can layer and stack things easily."

He turned to some musician friends from his hometown and over the years has assembled a band that now comprise five members: Breanne Düren on backing vocals and keyboards, drummer Casey Brown, Laura Musten on violin, cellist Hannah Schroeder, and Daniel Jorgensen on guitar and vibes.

"Fortunately I knew a few people nearby. People who could play drums and the synthesiser," Young says.

He was amazed at how his new bandmates in Owl City were able to replicate and interpret the synthesised beats and special effects that made his music distinctive. "The difference with the sound is that it's a little more raw and gritty [when live]. The electric guitar reverberating around a large arena has a more rock vibe to it," Young says.

Increasingly the musicians became a part of Owl City's work and featured prominently on the band's sophomore album Ocean Eyes, released in 2009, as well as later releases. Now the musicians and crew number about a dozen people. "It's a blast," Young says of being on the road with them.

His self-promoted debut single, Hello Seattle, in 2007 racked up more than six million plays on the web. A follow-up seven-track EP made the top 20 on Billboard's electronic albums chart, as did his subsequent album Maybe I'm Dreaming. The songs revealed the dance music influences of Relient K, with whom he has cross-produced tracks, and DJs such as Armin van Buuren, but with a very poppy feel.

While those two independent releases created a substantial yet niche following, Owl City hit pay dirt with his 2009 major label debut album Ocean Eyes, which included the sleeper hit Fireflies.

The song topped the charts in the United States and many other countries, marking a quantum leap for his career.

Young has produced three albums in six years and he's already putting the finishing touches to another due out this autumn. Despite being signed by a major label, he continues to operate much the same as he always did, still seemingly a boy living out his childhood fantasies through music.

Without the power of the internet, Young concedes he may still be writing songs for himself and his friends, an undiscovered talent in middle America.

Despite being shy as a teenager and preferring not to talk directly to interviewers, he now sounds more at ease taking questions on any subject, including his Christian faith.

His religious beliefs permeate his work to the extent that one album was even titled All Things Bright and Beautiful, after the famous hymn. Overt religious influences have handicapped many artists in the past, but Young makes no apologies.

"I'm just being true to myself. I never want to go out and shove anything down anyone's throat," he says. "How it appears in my lyrics is sincere and heartfelt. I don't want to edit myself and take away things that are a part of me."

With the new record due out in the coming months, Young says he's as busy living his dream as ever. "I'm trying to put together some new ideas, getting all of them together. It's a very exciting time to be plotting my next move."

48hours@scmp.com

 

Owl City, August 22, 7pm, Rotunda 2, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$380 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: untitled.asia

 

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