Like so many other hopeful artists circa 2013, A Great Big World’s Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino raised the money they needed to record a six-song EP the only way they could think of: On Kickstarter.
And while fans of Axel’s solo work came out in droves to support the newly formed duo, easily exceeding their original $15,000 goal, the pair had no idea of the exponential leap they were about to make, thanks to two songs: the first pulled from relative YouTube obscurity to be featured on an episode of Glee and another one on So You Think You Can Dance – which led to L.A. Reid signing them to Epic Records, and no less a star than Christina Aguilera asking to collaborate with them.
Now, just over a year later, they find themselves with a certified hit, “Say Something,” released last September and still hovering at the #5 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. But the two friends, who first met at NYU nine years ago, have a lot more to say in their debut album, Is There Anybody Out There?, due Jan. 21.
EW caught up with AGBW to find out more about their big break(s), what they learned from Christina Aguilera, and what to expect from their new album (hint: more Chad, more cheer):
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: “This Is The New Year” was featured on Glee and then “Say Something” was showcased on So You Think You Can Dance — were you surprised to get so much recognition so early on in your forming as a band?
IAN: It kind of fell into our laps, and it was just luck and timing. But we always thought that “This Is The New Year” would be the huge breakout song for us and we did not think “Say Something” could ever be a single. Most of our music is upbeat and positive. Also, A Great Big World is mostly about our voices together, so we wanted the song that would break us to feature both of our voices. After So You Think You Can Dance happened and the song started getting some buzz, our label [Epic] said they were pushing it to radio and at first we were like, “No, no that’s not part of our plan!” But we went for it and, people are connecting to it more than we could have ever dreamed. We felt so alone writing that song.
Were you feeling alone at a personal time in your life, or as a band? Like you said, “Say Something” sets a very different tone than the rest of Is There Anybody Out There?
IAN: Chad and I were both in a rough place personally and with our careers. We were a few years out of college, still stuck in our day jobs and we were losing steam a little bit. At the same time, we were also both really heartbroken. So, writing kind of came to a standstill for about a year for us. “Say Something” was pretty much the only song we wrote in a year’s time.
Chad: For me, I didn’t realize that I had this toxic relationship happening in my life until we started writing that song. I knew Ian had this relationship going on where he was just not in a good place. But it wasn’t until we wrote the song that I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going through the same thing in this other relationship.” Then, it was like the synergy of our emotions together created the song.
When you heard from Christina Aguilera that she wanted to sing the song with you, did you feel like that was going to be a good fit? Were you immediately excited, or were you worried at all?
IAN: I feel like we were both in disbelief. She’s an iconic voice and I immediately felt so small [like] “I can’t do this thing with her, I’m not on her level,” and I started doubting myself. Of course, we said yes though. We got an email from her saying that she didn’t want to take over the song and she wanted to let it be. A week later we were recording with her. Everything happened so fast; I mean, the recording was taken from the first two takes.
CHAD: Being in the studio with her was really, really difficult because she would sing something and ask our opinion of it and it’s like, what are we supposed to say to that? It was perfect! We had to believe in ourselves enough to trust that we had something just as valuable as she did.
Christina Aguilera is practically a professional mentor for new artists now with her tenure on The Voice. Did she leave you with any advice during the process of recording with her?
IAN: She’s super on her game when she works and she doesn’t overthink things. She’s all about letting things happen naturally and not getting in your head about things, which I have a problem with. I’m always super analytical, so that was cool and refreshing.
CHAD: Ian and I are kind of going through this for the first time and it’s been so hard to separate personal and work. That was something she made clear: you have to separate work and play or else you’re going to go insane. Like, she invited us over to her house after the AMAs and we played paintball. We had a couple glasses of wine. It was totally the opposite of the intense, kind of terrifying AMA experience. It was really awesome to get to spend that time with her.
“Rockstar,” the first track on the new album, is all about being “born to be a rock star.” When you met in college did you see yourselves becoming recording artists in the future?
IAN: [Sighs] When I was a kid I saw that in my life. But when we were in college, it was so…it was buried. That’s why we were in the Music Business program. It felt safer because there was the word “business” attached to it. But I always played piano, I always wrote songs. The album goes on this journey of us graduating from college and believing we could do anything to, “Oh my God, we’re singing songs and doing this,” to us getting jobs and getting our hearts broken a few times, being in a dark place for a couple years. Then, us kind of regaining our strength to do what we’ve always wanted to do and quit our jobs and overcome our sadness. We feel we have this responsibility with what we’re doing and it’s really important to us to write about positive things.
CHAD: We’ve gotten asked over and over, “Are you nervous about what the next single is going to be?” I’m really not nervous at all, and I’m not nervous about this album because I feel like, we’ve had 28 years to write it. I’d be nervous about the next album!
Let’s talk a little bit about “Everyone is Gay.” That one really stands out in the middle of the album and it’s this quick, crazy, fun thing. How did that come about? I’d ask you if you were trying to send a message, but the message is pretty clear…
CHAD: [laughs] Right, we’re not actually saying everyone is gay. But our friends Kristin and Danielle run a website called Everyone is Gay and they give advice to kids who are struggling with their sexuality. They wanted to put out a compilation album filled with the gayest songs ever and they asked us to write one of them. Growing up, I felt like kids made fun of you because you had to be one thing or the other and kids would make fun of me because they would think I was gay, but I thought I was straight. I don’t know, just that confusion of labeling yourself as one thing or the other is kind of where it came from. Why do you have to label yourself at all? We’re all somewhere in the middle and we’re all on this spectrum of sexuality.
Where do you see yourselves going next? Are there any artists whose careers you admire that you’re hoping to emulate?
IAN: I love the career that Randy Newman has had, or Danny Elfman. Danny Elfman started in a rock band and now he’s scoring songs and so theatrical. Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my biggest inspirations. Randy Newman, we just saw him in concert and he’s as old as my grandpa now and he was like, “I wrote this song when I was 23,” and he killed it! I want to be that old to say that I wrote the song I’m performing when I was 23.
CHAD: For me, Justin Timberlake and his career are just so ridiculous and I admire him a ton. I feel like he’s totally capturing it all, from acting, to singing in N’SYNC, and then doing his solo record. I don’t know, I feel like he’s everywhere and that, to me, is a beautiful thing and I totally would love to do all of that.
IAN: Are you saying we’re a boy band right now and you’re going to spin off and do your own solo thing?
CHAD: [laughs] No, definitely not.
Is There Anybody Out There? is currently available for streaming and pre-order on iTunes until its official release on Tuesday, Jan. 21.