A great big hit propels the melodic pop duo to the top of the charts

Piano-pop duo A Great Big World’s debut album, Is There Anybody Out There?, includes two versions of their recent haunting smash, “Say Something.” Christina Aguilera, who fell for the song when she heard it on TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, asked the duo—Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino—if she could record the tune with them for The Voice. No surprise, they agreed, and the pair was left with two versions they loved.

“They both have their own beat, and I don’t lean to one more than the other,” says Axel. “It was scary hearing the new version at first, only because I was used to the older one. I do feel there’s something very lonely about the one with just me, solo.”

Florida native Axel met Vaccarino, who hails from New Jersey, eight years ago in the music business program at New York University. “I was looking to collaborate with someone. I wanted to write a musical,” remembers Axel. “When I met Chad, I felt like I’d known him all my life. I wasn’t singing at the time but I had all this music in my head.”

When Vaccarino heard that music, he was in. “Writing with Ian came really naturally,” says Vaccarino. “It’s kind of a crazy, amazing chemistry. Every song is a co-write—it just feels easier to write with him than writing alone.”

Says Axel, “I wasn’t singing at all when Chad heard me play. He started really pushing me to sing.” Sing he did, as on the title cut from his 2011 album This Is the New Year, which later became the duo’s breakthrough hit when it was performed on an episode of Glee in 2013. “Since then we’ve been writing songs for both our voices and harmonies,” Axel says. The frequent collaborators formed A Great Big World in 2012.

The 28-year-olds also share a love of film scores and Broadway. “I was in musical theater from the time I was 5,” says Vaccarino. “In high school, I started getting into more soulful music like Boyz II Men, Stevie Wonder.”

“I was also inspired by film scores, including Disney musicals and Danny Elfman,” says Axel. “The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my favorites. I wasn’t writing lyrics, I was attracted to the music.”

“The craft of songwriting is what it’s all about,” Vaccarino agrees. “When we’re working, or we’re with other songwriters or performers and I’m shown something I never would have thought of, it’s the best.”

–Linda Laban

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