By Annie Reuter
When Ian Axel transferred to New York University his sophomore year, he couldn’t have imagined that he would find his musical soulmate. But that’s exactly what happened.
Axel met his future A Great Big World bandmate, Chad Vaccarino in a music publishing class. From the moment he saw him he was convinced that Vaccarino would be the one to help him finish a musical he was writing. But Vaccarino was too busy working on his own music to help him make Axel’s Broadway dreams come true. Of course, that didn’t stop Axel from following Vaccarino around campus in hopes to change his mind.
“I found him in one of the rooms and I made him listen to the music I was writing,” Axel told Radio.com.
Axel’s persistence paid off since Vaccarino instantly liked what he heard.
“I freaked out,” Vaccarino said. “Right after he started playing, immediately I was like, ‘Oh my God! What are you doing with your life? You should be singing these songs. You should be a solo artist. Don’t worry about it; I’ll take care of it.’”
Vaccarino put his own passion for singing on hold and embraced his business side, taking over as Axel’s manager making his first order of business to sign him up for vocal lessons. The focus remained on Axel until 2008 when they wrote the song “This Is the New Year.” “We just decided that Chad should take a verse,” Axel said of the track. “That was a song that people started gravitating towards.”
After the guys saw some pick-up for the song, they decided to write music for both their voices and with a little help from Kickstarter, the duo — who initially considered naming their project Ian & Chad, before settling on A Great Big World — raised nearly $22,000 to fund their debut EP in 2012.
The two later shot a very low budget video for the track against a white wall at a friend’s party and the song started getting wider pick up, including a spot on Glee.
“This past January [Glee creator] Ryan Murphy leaked the video a week before it aired and that launched the band and exposed us to different people and radio stations and got the attention of record companies,” Vaccarino said.
L.A. Reid and Black Magnetic/Epic Records came on board in May and the guys went into the studio to record the songs they had written, including current single “Say Something,” which they wrote in 2009 and was previously released by Axel under his solo project. The week they finished recording the song a choreographer reached out and asked to use it in an episode of So You Think You Can Dance.
But it was one fateful phone call from Aguilera, who was so moved by the song that she asked to be a part of it, which helped propel the New York-based act into the major leagues.
“I feel like that was when the rocket launched,” Axel said. “When we got that phone call it was like, ‘Okay, our lives will never be the same again after this because it’s Christina Aguilera.’ We’re just two guys that like to write songs. It didn’t feel like we were on her level at all. It didn’t make sense to us.”
Vaccarino added: “To us, she’s a huge icon. She represents one of the voices of our generation and one of the best in the world. We were completely floored when we got that call. It was a little scary in the beginning, I’m not going to lie. We were a bit intimidated by the whole thing.”
When A Great Big World got into the studio with Aguilera they were taken back by how little she wanted to do with the song.
“We wanted her to take a verse and she didn’t want to do that,” Vaccarino said. “She didn’t want to belt. She wanted to sing a harmony on it and let the song be.”
The guys say it all happened in a few takes and that there was no producer in the room, just the three of them. “It was definitely a collaboration,” Vaccarino said. “We had to go back and forth. We’d sing and she’d sing back to us. We were freaking out the entire time.”
But even more than her professionalism, A Great Big World is inspired by Aguilera’s ability to balance work and life.
“She has a very clear line between business and personal,” Vaccarino explained. “It seems like it’s easy for her to differentiate when she’s on for work and when she can relax. I think Ian and I are struggling with that idea. Finding that line. When does work stop for us? It feels like right now we’re constantly working.”
Hopefully they can channel Aguilera in this upcoming year, which with the release of their debut album, Is There Anybody Out There? on Jan. 21 and the launch of their headlining tour, is already gearing up to be a busy one. But no matter how busy things get, Axel says the duo is more than willing to put in the work to make their rockstar dreams come true.
“When I met Chad I wasn’t singing and I never thought that I had anything worthwhile to share,” Axel said. “This whole process over this past eight years is relearning to love myself and knowing that what I care about is actually beautiful.”