7 Questions With Owl City: On Hanson, The Art Of The Collab & ‘Mobile Orchestra’

Owl City & Hanson Relive The '90s
The dream of the '90s is alive in Owl City and Hanson's nostalgic "Unbelievable" video.

Plenty of musicians whiff when they attempt to make an uplifting pop anthem. Plenty of musicians crash and burn when they try to collaborate with other artists. Over the course of four albums, Owl City has mastered both those skills.

Adam Young‘s twinkling electro-pop project has become a dependable purveyor of cheery singalongs, and on songs like “Good Time” with Carly Rae Jepsen, Young shows a keen ability to tailor that sensibility to the strengths of outside contributors, resulting in seamless partnerships. This streak continues on Owl City’s fifth album, Mobile Orchestra, which drops July 10 (grab it here) and boasts features from the likes of Aloe Blacc and Hanson. Ahead of the release, we asked Young seven questions about the new LP and the art of the collab.

1. Mobile Orchestra drops on the first global release Friday, which seems minor in the grand scheme of things for artists. But won’t you be in a totally different state of mind over the weekend? What’s your headspace like in the days following a release?
I’m so excited about the release of the new album. I guess I’ve never found myself apprehensive or worried about an upcoming release, just a giddy excitement. It was a long process and I worked so hard on this bunch of songs, so when I think about July 10, I’m like, “Finally, this is the day I’ve been waiting for, for a couple of years now!” I’m really proud of how this album turned out and I can’t wait for people to hear what I’ve been up to.

2. Is there anything you knew or did while making this album that you wish you’d known back in 2008 for the first LP?
I find myself approaching songwriting more or less the same way I did when I started making music. The biggest thing I feel like I’ve learned along the way is on the tech side of things. Because I don’t work with engineers or mixers or producers, I do everything myself in terms of pushing buttons and turning knobs — and in that regard, I know infinitely more about the tools of the trade now. I know what thresholds and ratios do on compressors. I know what multiband sidechaining does and where it’s useful. I know when to use parallel processing, etc. That kind of knowledge is really important and I think it’s helped me by leaps and bounds.

3. You grew up in the ’90s when Hanson was huge, so what does it mean having them on the album?
It was a true joy working with Hanson. We are all more or less the same age, so we really connected on a lot of the subjects we mention in “Unbelievable.” This song is all about nostalgia, and we really had a blast remembering some of the things that we thought were amazing as kids, which by today’s standards, are perhaps outdated or even nonexistent. I remember a time before the internet, and even when MP3 players were a long way off, so things like that were so fun to connect with Hanson on. They are amazing guys, super talented, and so good at their craft. I felt lucky to work with them.

4. You always get guest artists to sound like a natural fit for Owl City. Are you just really good at choosing people who sound right or personalities that mesh with yours?
It’s a combination of wishful thinking, spontaneity and luck. I usually am working on a song, and a certain artist will pop into my head and I will think, “They would sound amazing on this track.” And from there, I usually just take a deep breath, and go out on a limb and send the artist I have in mind the demo I am working on, with no crazy expectations of course. I simply introduce myself and say, “I would be honored and so thrilled if this is something you might be interested in working on with me.” And looking back at my career, I am so blessed to have worked with the artists I have, because in all cases, they took what I had begun and made it far better than it would’ve been otherwise.

5. The “Verge” is about graduation. What was your first job after graduating? Was there a specific moment when you realized “OK, music can be my day job now”?
The first job I had after high school was working at a grocery store, believe it or not. I’m really glad that I had to work jobs like this one that I didn’t love because it put into perspective what an amazing thing it was for me to quit all of that and do music full time. I remember giving my two-week notice at work and my boss asking me what I was going to do next. Telling him I was going to focus on music was the best feeling in the world.

6. What specific aspects of the touring experience did you try to convey on the new album?
There’s just something about traveling and being on the move that inspires me to write music. I spend a lot of time in Asia, places like Japan, China, Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, Singapore, Thailand — and I have a lot of days off while I’m there. Alone in a hotel room, I just get out my laptop and start programming stuff, thinking about melodies and rhythms and lyrics. Even in the van on the way to the airport, I’ve got my headphones on and I’m working. I don’t know why, it’s not an “I have to always be working” workaholic mindset, however, it’s just this inner drive. The song “Back Home” is my attempt at capturing how I feel when I drive home after a long tour overseas. I drive home from the airport and I see the same things going by out the window and I just felt like I needed to paint that picture in a song.

7. The Mobile Orchestra title could also refer to how technology has affected music production. Being an electronic-skewing artist, what new or emerging capabilities are you excited about?
I’m so excited about how technology seems to be allowing users and music makers to create content at the same level of quality — only via smaller and more compact means of technology. Like back in the day, you made records on tape machines and it was this big laborious process that involved huge physical machines. Now we are making records on computers and laptops and we are on the edge of being able to make albums on phones and tablets. That’s amazing to me! Being able to create an entire “symphony” with a tiny handheld device is amazing to me. Who knows where it’s headed but I’m definitely on board.