Interview: A Great Big World Opens Up About Their Origins And Their New Album
Ian Axel and Chad King, better known as A Great Big World, got their start in New York City— though they weren’t always the duo as we know them as today. Axel began playing piano around the age of 3 and says it was something he just understood: “It came from a past life or something.” However, singing wasn’t a passion until he met King while studying music business at NYU.
King, who had young dreams of being in a boy band, was encouraged by a family member to direct his focus toward the music business side of schooling. So King began managing Axel as a solo act, encouraging him to use his voice and even providing vocal lessons.
Inevitably, the duo began writing together. “I thought I would be a music business executive, then I met Ian. When we started writing that’s when I felt like [performing] music was my path,” says King. Axel agrees, saying, “For me, when I met Chad, I believed in it a hundred million percent.”
While managing and co-writing alongside Axel, King began pitching to various publishing platforms—including MTV, which licensed music for free at the time. “I was like let’s get our music on TV regardless of if we’re getting paid or not,” King explains. They landed a song on the hit MTV show “The Hills,” and were directly contacted by Pete Wentz (of Fall Out Boy), who wanted more information on the duo’s up-and-coming sound.
“I remember freaking out about that,” King recalls. From there, they produced a low (borderline no) budget music video for their song “This Is the New Year.” After the song went viral online, MTV picked it up for the theme of “I Used To Be Fat.” The song was also performed by the cast in an episode of Glee. “MTV played a really huge role in this, along with us being open to people hearing our music for free,” says King.
Slowly gaining recognition in the music industry gave Axel, as a solo artist, more confidence. He says doing open mic gigs and seeing people’s positive responses helped form the security behind the dream of becoming a successful artist. “[I began] walking on the streets of New York as a young 20-year-old with a smile on my face, and I felt like I was being born,” he says.
After some time spent rebranding, Axel and King officially joined forces under the name “A Great Big World.” They were signed with Epic Records, and put out a three-song EP that included their giant hit, “Say Something.”
“For ‘Say Something,’ Ian had the chorus and the melody written, and I was toying around with a verse,” says King. “The original verse, lyrically, was about aliens coming down to Earth or something like that. When we put the verse and chorus together it completely changed, thank God.”
“So basically, ‘Say Something’ is about aliens,” Axel sarcastically adds.
The song was played on the finale of “So You Think You Can Dance,” and then placed among the top 20 songs on iTunes. After hearing the song, pop superstar Christina Aguilera wanted to collaborate with Axel and King on a re-recorded version.
“We were really scared when we went into record with Christina,” says Axel. “She’s a total pro. She gives 150 percent and she makes you want to be the best. What a blessing.” The group performed this new version of the song on NBC’s “The Voice,” after the refurbished release. In 2015, they earned a Grammy for Best Pop Duo/ Group Performance.
Since then, AGBW has worked with other big-name celebrities, though they say they take nothing for granted. “We hung out with Rihanna one night,” says Axel. “We wrote a song with Gavin Degraw that we love and hopefully something happens with. You know, we’re just trying to continue to build relationships.”
In the past few years, AGBW has signed with a major label, gained national press, won a Grammy and worked with top-notch artists and industry executives, yet Axel says, “Even with the Grammy, we feel like the underdog, and I don’t ever want to not feel like that.”
Just like any other independent artist trying to make their music known, AGBW feels like they are still trying to figure out what’s next. “A lot of people know the song ‘Say Something,’ but if you asked them if they know A Great Big World they say no,” Axel explains. “Our music was able to connect with millions of people, but we’re still just starting out.”
Now the group is touring their sophomore album, “When the Morning Comes,” which was written and recorded over the course of eight years. “We wrote this album with a lot of pressures,” Axel says, “because [now] this is a business, and we have a label, a publisher, people making money from this, and they expect something.”
King describes the album as a lot more “cohesive” than the last. “We were definitely more focused on the second album,” adds Axel.
One song on the album, “Hold Each Other,” was produced by Dan Romer, who also helped produced “Say Something.” Originally written as a love song between a man and woman, the duo took a different approach. When Axel asked King if he was going to shift pronouns to reflect his own sexuality—saying “him” in place of “her”—King was not on board.
“It felt very uncomfortable,” King explains. “No one says that in pop music.” But after reflecting on that, he says, “A lightbulb went off, and I thought, ‘Why am I not comfortable with this? This is who I am, this is my truth.” Rapper and producer Futuristic signed on for a verse of the song, adding another level of complexity to the track. “It’s a song about love for everyone,” Axel says.
As for the future of AGBW, the band is going to continue to create and put out music that is both slow and emotional, yet optimistic and joyful. Axel and King have also been working on a heartfelt, comedic musical for the past three and a half years. Their band will be performing most of the songs from the musical at a show in NYC in April. “It’s one of the most rewarding writing processes for both of us,” says King.
The Kaleidoscope Tour comes to St. Louis Sunday, March 13 at the Firebird STL (2706 Olive Street). Playing songs from their new album (and of course songs from the past), the duo says “we’re super excited to get back to St. Louis with this whole band experience. It’s different than the last time around.”