Owl City and the One-man wonders
Owl City is Adam Young, who wrote his debut album in a basement and is now No 1. Chris Mugan reports on how the net provides a great springboard for single-person bands like his, as well as Memory Tapes and Toro Y Moi
Friday 05 February 2010
You would struggle to recognise him in the street, but Adam Young is currently one of music's hottest properties. As Owl City, Young is sitting pretty atop the singles chart for the second week running with "Fireflies", while his debut album reached No 8 in the US charts ahead of its release here later this month. It is a huge achievement for this shy, reclusive Minnesotan, who had barely dared to dream of such success until the major labels tracked him down to his parents' home.
When he started posting tracks online, the basement artist told few of his friends, yet his poppy tunes, both vulnerable and naively positive, were soon picked up by a rapidly growing, fervent fanbase. And Young is not the only introspective artist hiding behind an abstract moniker and using the internet to build a profile you will hear from over coming months.
Dayve Hawk currently oozes credibility as Memory Tapes, and his debut album Seek Magic is already a bloggers' fave. Based in New Jersey, Hawk fronted the band Hail Social, but prefers working on his own. Further excitement revolves around the lysergic, jerky productions of Neon Indian – that is one Alan Palomo from Austin, Texas. Also worthy of note is Toro Y Moi, the nom de plume of South Carolina's Chazwick Bundick, who generates more intimate atmospheres with his laid-back vocals and glitchy beats.
In the UK, Gold Panda has been tipped for unlikely success in 2010. He is so media-shy that we only know the artist as Derwin. Other biographical details include that he hails from Chelmsford, Essex, has worked in a sex shop and sold his possessions to move to Japan to teach English. Thankfully, he has returned to grace us with an idiosyncratic strain of psychedelic dance based on dense layers of exotic samples and hip hop beats.
Adam Young came late to music, seeing it as an outlet for his insomnia in 2007 when he was 21 and living at his folks' Owatonna farmhouse. An only child, he happily worked in isolation. "I've always been the shy guy," he admits. "I don't see that changing, but I definitely feel a lot more comfortable than I anticipated. I can hide behind the music." The Midwest loner found himself connecting with similarly disaffected types – and lots of them. Soon label reps came beating a path to his door, though the ingénue with little knowledge of the music industry took his time before inking a deal. Without changing his style appreciably, Owl City's current album, Ocean Eyes, became a fixture in the US Top Ten from lst July to November and went gold in December, while "Fireflies" has topped iTunes charts in five countries.
Memory Tapes, meanwhile, provides less immediate thrills, as Hawk buries his voice deep within complex, yet engaging, soundscapes, whether a summery haze of guitars or the melancholy New Order-style coda that closes stand-out track "Bicycles". Hawk, though, denies he is especially reclusive. Of his decision to go solo, he says, "With Hail Social there were other people and their ambitions making me feel pulled in different directions."
Seek Magic dropped last autumn to wide acclaim and Hawk hopes to build on that critical support with a European tour next month. While very different to Owl City, the East Coast artist also prefers making music at night, something that may have a similar otherworldly effect. "I think maybe the tracks have a sort of introverted quality to them," he says. "Like, if I make a club track, it usually ends up more like a dream of a club track than a functional [piece of music]."
Hawk, too, originally came to attention through the internet, having quietly developed his sound by posting tracks online under the names Memory Cassette and Weird Tapes.
"It doesn't really matter if people like them or they become popular," he says. "I just like getting stuff out, 'cause then I feel finished with it. In the past you would make a record and then sit on it for two years while a label worked it into their release schedule. The internet offers a way around that system."
US bloggers have lumped Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi in with Memory Tapes to form the chillwave genre. Hawk is unimpressed with this turn of events. "I really don't like the idea of genres in general, and sub-sub-sub genres that are created on blogs or message boards as a joke, but then stick out of journalistic laziness, are even worse. I don't know the other "chillwave" artists and certainly have no problem with anyone, but I think you do artists a disservice when you categorise them right out of the gate. Better to let things develop."
Of course, many artists have chosen to take up exotic names to draw attention away from their true identities, think of Vini Reilly as Durutti Column, or Damon Gough as Badly Drawn Boy, though while Reilly and Gough relied on relationships with backing musicians and producers, this current crop share a self-containment and self-sufficiency beyond any musical similarities. The closest predecessor for many of them would be one-hit wonder White Town. Jyoti Mishra formed his band in the late Eighties, but after its final line-up imploded, he continued as a synth-based solo act and hit the big time when his track "Your Woman" made waves. Picked up by EMI, it got to No1 in 1997 and White Town's album sold nearly half a million copies in the US.
His label found itself struggling to develop this thirtysomething leftie. As Mishra explains, "Inevitably, it didn't last. The pressures of promotion, fame and the internecine feuding at EMI drove me bonkers. So I quit. That, and EMI were very keen to drop me."
What happened next may be instructive for Owl City as he enjoys global fame: the Derby-based performer has continued White Town as an occasional indie project, but has no regrets about his fleeting success – as he points out, it's "better than being a no-hit wonder".
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