Life can feel like a movie. Each moment functions as a scene that comprises a larger arc. Given the big screen-worthy scope of his musical vision, singer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and mastermind Adam Young projects his experiences in filmic fashion on Owl City’s sixth full-length album and first independent offering, the aptly titled Cinematic. Preceded by a trio of three-song Reels, the record artfully threads together dream-pop lucidity, poetic revelations, and Steven Spielberg-style eighties wonder into 18 new anthems.
“It’s a personal narrative, as if a film was made from key scenes throughout my life,” he explains. “My hope is there’s a way to teach yourself to recognize and appreciate what I like to call, ‘movie magic moments’, so you don’t miss out on them. That’s what the title alludes to. You have an audience cheering you on. Everybody is in your corner. Do your best for them.”
In many ways, the entire undertaking represents the apex of Young’s decade-long output to date. Hailing from the tiny town of Owatonna, Minnesota, he quietly became one of pop’s most ubiquitous voices, selling over 2.5 million albums and 18 million singles globally. 2009’s Ocean Eyes yielded a timeless smash in the form of “Fireflies,” which went seven-times RIAA platinum, soared to #1 in 26 countries, and ignited a meme frenzy in 2017 nearly ten years removed from its initial release. Among a discography of hits, “Good Time” [feat. Carly Rae Jepsen] also earned a triple-platinum certification and toppled charts worldwide. No stranger to film and television, Zack Snyder tapped him to compose a theme song for Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, while he contributed and performed “When Can I See You Again?” for Disney’s Academy® Award-winning animated blockbuster Wreck-It Ralph. Other placements span The Croods, VeggieTales, Smurfs 2, and more.
Following the release of 2015’s Mobile Orchestra, he took a step back from Owl City and devoted 2016 to releasing one instrumental score per month, simply as “Adam Young,” basing each song off of a favorite historical event. These spanned Apollo 11, RMS Titanic, The Spirit of St. Louis, The Ascent of Everest, Omaha Beach, Miracle in the Andes, Project Excelsior, Corduroy Road, Voyager 1, Mount Rushmore, and The Endurance. This exercise earmarked something of a creative turning point.
“Coming out of all that instrumental music, I felt really refreshed to be back in the world of lyrics,” he goes on. “I got my bearings again as far as what I wanted to do with Owl City.”
Galvanized, he retreated to his Owatonna basement studio to commence recording in January 2017. As the sole writer, the sessions conjured the magic of Ocean Eyes. With Spielberg’s Hook often playing in the background, he unlocked a whimsical sense of wonder that wouldn’t be out of place in a “Brat Pack” flick.
“There’s something I’ve always missed about my first records,” he admits. “I didn’t know the status quo or any of the rules. I wasn’t traveling to L.A. or New York to collaborate. I wanted to return to that feeling. So, I decided to shut myself away, and I just kept moving in the studio rather than stopping.”
That motion drives 2017’s Reel 1 from the endearing “Fiji Water”—which details his first meeting at a major label and consequentially first flight—to the ethereal calm of “Lucid Dream.” Elsewhere, the lead single “All My Friends” builds from breezy acoustic guitars accompanied by a friendly gang vocal into a stadium-size chant that’s impossible to shake.
“It’s about those rare friendships that you never forget,” he elaborates. “At the time of writing, I was remembering a bunch of my friends from junior high and high school. I was so overwhelmed and thankful they were in my life. I’m still close with some of them, and I’ve grown apart from others. Still, they stick with me. It’s my way of saying, ‘Hey, thank you for being there. I probably wouldn’t have turned out the way I did without the positive impact you had on me.’”
Perhaps the most personal of the bunch, “Not All Heroes Wear Capes” remains a centerpiece of Reel 2. A clean riff resounds under his breathy delivery before culminating on a heartfelt refrain, “My dad’s a hero to me.” In under four months, it quickly surpassed 2 million Spotify streams and 3 million YouTube/VEVO views and counting in addition to garnering acclaim from People, Billboard, and more.
“It’s the most literal one,” he states. “It’s all about my dad. He loves hot rods. He has a workshop. He’s quiet. He doesn’t always say, ‘I love you’, but everyone knows it by his acts of services. That’s his way of telling you he cares. I’m cut from the same cloth. We’re both super reserved, so this was a way for me to tell him he’s been an amazing dad. It’s everything I feel, but never said aloud.”
Finally Reel 3 jump-cuts from the synth bliss of “Cloud Nine” to the wintry young love of “Be Brave,” which recounts the December evening he met his longtime girlfriend at a late-night movie.
“Before now, I’d mostly written songs about daydreams and abstract ideas,” he says. “That’s how I’m inherently wired as a songwriter. I hadn’t really written about actual things that have happened to me. I decided to go down this path with Cinematic though. I looked back at the past thirty years and saw all of this great songwriting fodder. I felt like I was watching this highlight reel of my own movie.”
Cinematic features the music of Reels 1-3 as well as nine other tracks, rounding out an entire experience. In 2018, Young shares this “movie” with listeners everywhere.
“I have a handful of records and songs that I’ll play if I’m having a hard day,” he leaves off. “They’ll directly speak to my emotions. I’d love for this album or even a song from it to be that for somebody else. That’s all I want at the end of the day.”