MINNEAPOLIS — Adam Young had never seen the ocean, but that didn't stop him from writing and recording an album called Ocean Eyes.
The CD cover's marine and coastal imagery gives no hint that Young — who performs under the moniker Owl City — recorded the whole thing in the basement of his parents' house in Owatonna, Minn., about 60 miles south of Minneapolis.
"I wrote songs about places I'd never been because I'd never been there," Young said of his breakout album. "That to me is the most wonderful reason in the world to write about a given thing — the unexperienced, the great unknown."
For Young, who in recent months has leapt from the basement to the music charts, the list of things he never thought he'd experience is shrinking fast.
After cultivating a fan base by posting his ringtone-ready electro-pop songs on MySpace and selling about 115,000 single-song downloads on iTunes, Young landed a deal with Universal Records, whose artists include Taylor Swift, Lil Wayne and Kanye West.
Ocean Eyes has sold nearly 100,000 copies since its July 28 release. Owl City songs are climbing the U.S. Top 40 and alternative music charts, the video for Fireflies is in rotation on VH1 and MTV, and recent nightclub and theater shows have sold out in across the country.
"Never in a million years was this where I imagined myself going," Young said. "It's been surreal, to say the least."
Earnest and a little awkward, the self-effacing Young, 23, makes an unlikely candidate for a pop star. But he's an example of success in the post-Internet music business because he converted online popularity into money in the bank.
"All that online buzz means nothing if no one is buying the music, the T-shirts, the tickets," said Steve Bursky, Young's manager. "It's great if he's got a million friends on MySpace, but what separated Adam from many other online success stories is that the groundswell is translating into commerce."
Daydreams and fantasy worlds are a staple of Young's starry-eyed lyrics. As a kid, the only child of a mechanic and a schoolteacher fantasized about music stardom. But he realized after stints in a couple of teenage rock bands that for him, music was a solo act.
It wasn't until a few years later, when Young was in community college and working at a soda bottling factory, that he decided to give the solo thing a try.
"I was working a job I hated, just kind of a dead-end feeling," Young said. He started fooling around with music software, and he noticed that musicians were winning fans through social-networking sites.
Young posted songs on MySpace and put them up for sale on iTunes, and he quickly cultivated a following. He also has been up front about his strong Baptist faith, but he avoided defining himself as a Christian recording artist. His lyrics never veer near objectionable territory, making Young a safe bet for parents of teenagers (and perhaps one reason Rolling Stone's reviewer dubbed the music "serious mush").
Aurora Simar, a 15-year-old girl from St. Paul who sat waiting outside a club before Young's recent Minneapolis show, said she started listening to him about a year ago. That night would be her second time seeing him on stage.
"He dances at his shows, and then he'll sing into the mike and then he dances some more," Simar said. "It's like, he's so silly. It just makes me like him."