An interview with Ian Axel and Chad King of A Great Big World
With only two full-length albums to its name, pop duo A Great Big World, comprised of Chad King (who publicly came out as gay in 2014) and Ian Axel, appears to have the world at their feet. Hit singles such as the Grammy-winning ballad “Say Something” (a duet with Christina Aguilera) and “Hold Each Other” have cemented their relationship with fans worldwide. Influenced as much by artists such as XX fun. and Ben Folds as they are by the music and lyrics of Alan Menken and Howard Menken, A Great Big World is the musical equivalent of a great big hug. I spoke with King and Axel shortly before they embarked on their spring 2017 U.S. concert tour.
Gregg Shapiro: Which came first – the song “Cheer Up” with the line “It’s a great big world and there’s no need to cry,” or “A Great Big World” as the name of the band?
Ian Axel: The lyric came first, and then the band name. When we were trying to figure out what to call ourselves, we were having the hardest time ever. Months and months of some of the most terrible band names. And then we said, “Let’s look at our lyrics.” “Cheer Up” was the first song that we looked at. That was one of the first lines of the song and we felt like that song encompasses what our music is about in a way. On one hand, we try to infuse our music with as much positivity and hope and love as possible. On the other hand, we try to connect with our inner-kids a lot of the time. That’s what that song was for us. That’s why we chose that line and that name.
GS: Do you remember any of the bad names that you vetoed?
Chad King: I think Star Camp was one of the bad ones.
IA: So bad!
CK: That’s why we didn’t pick it.
GS: You’ve been musical collaborators for a long time. What is it about each of you that makes you play well with others and together?
CK: I would say that our relationship has evolved to the point where we’re brothers now. We’re so honest with each other, often more honest than we are with ourselves. That part of our relationship is so beneficial for us as a band, as artists going through this journey together.
IA: When I met Chad, I was like, “Oh, yes, I know this guy.” It was like I knew him from another lifetime. Like kindred spirits.
GS: What’s the best advice you could give other songwriting teams in terms of conflict resolution?
CK: I would say never let anything fester. Always communicate what you’re feeling. As soon as you get the thought, “Oh, God, I think I did this wrong” or if there’s a moment in an argument where you just let it build, and eventually it will come out one day…
IA: Are you talking about friendship, Chad, or the writing process?
[CK and IA both laugh.]
IA: We don’t really have many disagreements. We both want the same end-goal. We want it to be great. We trust each other a lot. If I think something is really great, Chad will be honest with me. If I really feel something, Chad finds a way to keep what I love but suggests changing the way we get to it or putting in something after it.
CK: It definitely goes back to the honesty and trust thing in the relationship. You have to trust your partner enough to know that their opinion is just as valid as yours.
IA: You can’t have an ego.
GS: A Great Big World was fortunate enough to have a sizable hit with the song “Say Something,” which appears in two versions on Is There Anybody Out There?, your debut album. How did the Grammy-winning “Say Something” duet version with Christina Aguilera come about?
IA: “Say Something” was written a long time ago; maybe six years ago. It was originally a song I released as a solo artist, when Chad was my manager. When we formed A Great Big World and we were singing our own songs, we decided to record it for an album. The idea of A Great Big World was that I could have my songs, Chad could have his songs, and we could have our songs together. “Say Something” was one of the songs that I sang. It was on (the TV show) “So You Think You Can Dance” right before our album came out. The response was really good; it was a perfect storm. Christina heard it somehow and wrote an email to someone on our team who forwarded it to us. She said she wanted to sing the song, that she was moved by it. We were floored and freaked out. We were like, “Is she sure she wants to sing it? [laughs].” We flew to L.A. a few days later and recorded it with her.
GS: In 2015, AGBW released its second album When the Morning Comes. What are some of the challenges and rewards of making a second album?
CK: I think living up to what happened with the first album and “Say Something.” That was the biggest challenge for us. How do we get beyond it and not think about it. It was really difficult to do going into the writing and recording process for the second album. Everyone’s expecting something and that weight is on your shoulders. That was the biggest challenge.
GS: Have you begun work on your third album?
IA: We’re just starting to write for it and figure out what that means. Kind of slowly and organically getting back into the process of writing. We’re also working on a Broadway musical at the same time. A lot of the last six months to a year has been spent working on that show. We’re just starting to transition back into the next album.
GS: I’m really glad that you mentioned the Broadway musical. To my ears, A Great Big World has helped to usher in a return to pop music that is both sunny and serious, which is also exemplified in the music from La La Land. Do you see A Great Big World on the same musical family tree?
CK: Oh, thanks! I think both Ian and I were both inspired as kids by Disney musicals. The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Those kinds of movie musicals. We always did and still do have that dream of putting our music to a movie, whether it’s an animated film or something like La La Land. That’s one of the ultimate goals for us.
IA: That’s been the goal since we met. When we first met I wasn’t singing. We didn’t have this goal to be an artist or a band. I told Chad that I wanted to write a musical with him. That’s what I originally wanted to do. Chad convinced me to start singing instead. We kind of got sidetracked. Now we’re finally writing a Broadway show. We’re learning how to do it. We love being artists and performers as well. We’re trying to juggle both.
GS: AGBW has made an impact on both the LGBT and straight worlds via songs such as “Everyone is Gay” and “Hold Each Other.” Would you please say something about the band’s role as musical and cultural ambassadors?
CK: It’s always our intention to be as fearless and honest with ourselves as possible. As a consequence, we are speaking truths that a lot of artists may shy away from. It’s always our goal to run towards the things we’re most fearful of because the world needs to hear it. The world needs to be exposed to all of our differences and all of the things that make us beautiful, that make us who we are. I think it’s an honor to even say that we’re influencing the world in that kind of way. It doesn’t feel like we’re trying to do that. It is our intention to bring as much positivity to the world as possible. It’s amazing that you’re even asking that question.
GS: Following the incredible turnout and response of the recent Women’s Marches around the globe, plans are in the works for an LGBT March on Washington in June 2017. Is this something AGBW would take part in in some form?
IA: I would absolutely love to take part in something like that. I actually wasn’t even aware of the details of that.
CK: That’s definitely something A Great Big World would get behind.
A Great Big World performs on March 17th at Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis, March 18th at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C., and on March 20th at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of Fifty Degrees (Seven Kitchens, 2016), selected by Ching-In Chen as co-winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize. Other books by Shapiro include the short story collections How to Whistle (Lethe Press, 2016) and Lincoln Avenue (Squares and Rebels Press, 2014), the chapbook GREGG SHAPIRO: 77 (Souvenir Spoon Press, 2012), and the poetry collection Protection (Gival Press, 2008).
He has work forthcoming in the anthology Reading Queer: Poetry in a Time of Chaos (Anhinga Press, 2018). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBT and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.
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