June 29, 2016

Scoring History: Adam Young's Monthly Musical History Lesson

By Yvette Martinez, ASCAP Membership Coordinator, Film & TV Music

Adam Young<br>Photo by Brian Bradley

Adam Young
Photo by Brian Bradley

Long before the world heard his summer anthems "Good Time" and "Fireflies," Adam Young (aka Owl City) had a deep underlying connection with the scores of master film composers like John Williams, James Horner and Alan Silvestri. Dipping his toes into the film music water, Young began writing songs for films such as Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, Wreck-It Ralph, Smurfs 2 and The Croods. As he became more inspired and motivated to tap into his passion for scoring, Young decided to embark on a year-long project of film composing.

Beginning this February, the first of every month, Young releases a new score on the Adam Young Scores website. These conceptual film scores are Adam's interpretation of historical events that have left a strong impression on him. Just before the release of the July edition, Young let us in on his inspiration for the project, the artistic process behind it all and his future plans in the world of film composing.

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What was the general inspiration for this project? 

It all started back when I was about 16 years old, and my first introduction to the world of film music. A lot of my friends early on, their first loves of music were, in a lot of cases, U2 or The Beach Boys or The Beatles and stuff like that. But for me it was film music. So fast forward all these years, that initial, compelling introduction has stayed with me big time on the back burner, in terms of me wanting to create this kind of music in this specific genre.

So the story behind the concepts this year was having all of this inspiration for all these years and never really having the correct amount of time to dedicate to this. I always had this dream of collecting this handful of historical events and choosing about a dozen real historical events that have always meant something to me, and basically reimagining those amazing stories with music, according to the way that I imagine them. As if I were in the shoes of the main characters.

I’m so excited to finally have a couple of these endeavors released. I’ve got five out already starting in February and, yeah…very excited.

You could’ve chosen to do this for six months. You could’ve chosen to do it once every quarter. Why did you choose the year-long process itself?

It was partly because there are so many incredible stories to choose from, and to be able to do as many of these historical events, according to my own imagination. There were too many to narrow down, so I said to myself, “What if I were to do one every month, an on the first day of each month have this new collection of instrumental pieces as a part of an album?” That was a challenging thought early on, but it’s a really healthy challenge. It means that I can’t just sit around for a month, you know? I have to do my homework, get all my ducks in a row and make sure that I’m ready for the first day of each month.

About the historic events – how did you go about choosing those? What particularly stood out for you the most?

It honestly came down to events that I had the most fun imagining myself in. February, I was imagining myself as Neil Armstrong, coming down the ladder of the lunar module, taking that first step. What would it feel like if I were the one to take the first step?

Another album I did was about Charles Lindbergh. What would it feel like sitting in the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis, making history and landing - here’s all these people celebrating, and suddenly I’m a hero? Just imagining myself in these scenarios and thinking - I’m gonna try and translate those sets of emotions with music, and just reinterpret how I feel and how that story makes me feel in my own head.

When you think about traditional film scoring, or even scoring a short, you have a picture to follow, and you have to write to that picture. In this case it’s different, because you have this event itself. What did you use as far as being able to tell that story? Did you look at YouTube videos? Watch documentaries? Did you do a ton of reading on websites?

A little bit of all those things. I definitely did a lot of reading. I tried to find some documentaries on each of the subjects - if those were available to me. I didn’t want to refresh my memory and tune in too much to an existing film that had to do with the same event so that it wouldn’t influence me. Obviously, I’m a huge fan of James Horner’s score for the 1997 Titanic film, but I didn’t want to let that indirectly, subjectively dictate some of the decisions that I wanted to make musically with my score.

But otherwise, yeah, I tried to read a lot about it each thing – or at least as much as a few weeks would allow me to each month, before I started to have to get some content done. A couple weeks were spent just doing research, plotting out “Okay, so here’s the main thing to happen – and here’s what happened then, and then and then, and that made these plot points for each historical event. Those became my track listing for each album, and that’s roughly what got me in the right direction.

Since this is a monthly thing, do you put yourself on any kind of schedule? Do you plot out your month? Or maybe you’re somebody who works really well under pressure and bangs it all out within the last week?

I try not to let myself procrastinate too much. With the nature of releasing all the albums digitally, they have to be uploaded to Spotify and iTunes, and worked into the aggregator system a couple weeks early. So of course I have to be done two weeks or so before day one of the month. Technically, it’s a week or two of research, and letting the story resonate in my own head. I try to read as much as I can and read all angles, and then I decide what parts would translate more musically than others. Then I try to draft a temp track list, so that I know the main points of the story, the main threads that I want to work on musically. I just start writing and follow where the inspiration leads, and whittle away at the music from there. It’s been a great challenge so far.

The other thing I thought was really cool is James R. Eads’ artwork that you have for each of your scores. And was that where you got a little bit of inspiration, or is it the other way around –like you let him know what event it is and then he drafts it up for you? 

I reached out to James at the end of last year because I was a fan of his work, and said “Here’s my vision with what I wanna do in 2016. Would you be interested in creating an album cover that also doubles as a full-frame art poster that folks can buy?” For the entire year of 2016, he was very gracious and agreed to do it. The process is, I shoot James an e-mail and say “Here’s what I’m thinking for the month of June (or July or August), and here’s the inspiration behind some of the music that I hear in my head.” Maybe a visual art reference – I just find something that sort of captures the vision that I hear in terms mood and aesthetic. I say “James, all I want is what you imagine in your head, and I want this to be very much a collaborative thing, so whatever feels right for you visually, you follow that.” Meanwhile, I’ll be working on music and making sure everything connects. He’s done such a great job and really hit it out of the park.

Switching gears a bit, this project is totally different from the work that you’ve put out under Owl City. Do you see the kind of impact that your songwriting is having on this film scoring project and vice-versa? 

Yeah, definitely. It’s been a really interesting switch of the gears, because this kind of composer project is basically for the sake of creating art. What I mean by that is that there’s not record label executives, there’s not this big plan – like radio singles – like the pop [music] world. And it’s kind of removed from all of that political, mainstream music industry…stigma, I guess is the word. I don’t have to follow any “rules.” Even in terms of writing, music, there’s no lyrics so I don’t have to worry about the message behind the song, or even down to the rhyme scheme, all these things that, for me, are a little bit more tedious than the actual music.

I’ve always had a slower time making sure the lyrics are where I want them than the actual music. That came a lot faster to me this time. It’s great to be creating music that serves a greater purpose than me writing a song. All of these instrumental pieces, of course, are intended to serve a purpose, which is to serve the story of the real event. And so that’s been really cool to not have a little bit of a box to stay inside of. That can be really compelling and really fulfilling, too.

Eventually, probably next year or so when the time comes to return to the Owl City sound and the Owl City music, I think I’ll have a lot more perspective. I think I’ll have learned a lot more about that world, having spent all this time this year with music that’s so different from it, you know? It’s stretched me in a lot of good ways and I’ve definitely learned a lot along the way.

Do you think it’s important for composers and songwriters to do something like this, to get out of your comfort zone, where you’re just trying new things and seeing what works? Do you think it’s something that every creator should try?

Yeah, I really do and I would recommend that to every artist. From my standpoint, it’s easy for me to zoom in so far into one specific sound or one specific aesthetic, and sometimes your ears need a break from that, you know? Sometimes you have to change things up so that you can return to what you’ve done, and suddenly you hear what you’ve been doing with fresh ears, and you say, “Oh, well that’s what this needed!” I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t taken a break or changed things up. Switch gears from time to time and take yourself out of your comfort zone from time to time. You’ll learn a lot, and it’ll make whatever your main focus is a lot stronger. You have a lot more of this wealth of knowledge to draw from and to use.

You’ve already released five months’ worth of Adam Young Scores and you’ve got seven more to go. This far in, have you changed the way you’re approaching this project? Is there anything that you‘ve learned early on that you’re already applying?

Sure, sure. A lot of what I’ve learned is moreso on the technical side, the mixing process and the production process. With Owl City, there’s frequent use of a tool in audio called compression. It’s like reducing the dynamic range that gives it the sound. But film music and orchestral classical music use very little of that. So when I first approached this, I was applying everything that I had learned producing this electronic pop music. And along the way I've really learned that different tools apply in different ways, different genres and different sounds and different aesthetics.

So on the tech side, yeah, I've definitely come a long way, and I know now “Here's what this needs, and here's what this needs,” depending on the scenario. Definitely a valuable thing. Along with that, I've also spent a lot of time listening to the work of other composers with fresh ears, and saying "Here's where this composer goes to melodically –their sensibility and their instinct. That's really valuable, too.

You've had several songwriting opportunities for films, and now you're working on the Adam Young Scores project. So is the next natural step for you to pursue film scoring? Is it something that you want to add to your resume?

Yeah, absolutely. I would love to try to take myself out of my comfort zone and jump right in and serve the movie or the TV show or whatever it is. So my eyes are definitely open, and hopefully in the next couple of years I can find a project that really fits my spirit, you know? I would love nothing more than to get into that film score world and I look at 2016 as practice, a little bit. Trying to get my chops together, trying to wrap my head around this world and hopefully, if the right project comes along, I'll already be in that same headspace – it’ll be natural. I'm really excited, so fingers crossed. 

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Download the monthly Adam Young Scores project at www.ayoungscores.com

Find out about Adam Young’s Owl City project at www.owlcitymusic.com