A Great Big World Talks Physics, Popularity and New LP ‘Particles’

The two founding members of the New York City-born group, A Great Big World, have found their method, their songwriting strategy. In an age when it’s practically second nature to look elsewhere, outward or to someone else when in need of something, bandmates, Ian Axel and Chad King, instead look deeply inward, and for them, it’s made all the difference. For the songwriting duo, who rocketed to fame and fortune with their 2013 hit, “Say Something,” which later featured a version with Christina Aguilera that’s been streamed over half-a-billion times on YouTube, to look internally and to dive deep into their own proverbial pools of vulnerability turned out to be the key to success. And this is especially so on the band’s new album, Particles, which is out today (August 27).

Videos by American Songwriter

“When I think of this album,” says King, “every song is very specific to a life experience that either Ian or I had or are going through. For example, there’s a song about me falling in love for the first time. I’d never been that inspired before—I woke up at 4 in the morning and I grabbed my little keyboard and started singing.”

Whenever King or Axel identify an important thought or emotional quality to a song, they move to weave that feeling throughout their composition. They dive into it, going deeper and deeper until they’ve explored the depths and entirety of it. But why? Why do this, why put yourself through so much labor and so much potentially devastating effort, at that? For the members of A Great Big World, which was originally founded in 2012, it’s because they have to. If they couldn’t, it would be like not speaking in their native tongues ever again.

“Music and songs can say so much,” Axel says. “When you put a chord or melody behind a lyric, it says so much more than the lyric on its own. Writing songs allows us to say stuff that’s hard to say and it captures so much. For instance, we wrote the song, ‘One Stop Ahead,’ and I proposed to my wife with it. I used the song to say stuff I didn’t know how to say. But she could feel it.”

Both Axel, who grew up in New Jersey, and King, who grew up in Florida, found music at a young age. Axel took to piano before any formal introduction. Later, he was classically trained. For King, he came to music almost as a defense mechanism. As a kid, he would get bullied and picked on often. So, he resolved to get good at music. If he was an excellent trumpet player, then he’d have respect and an identity as such, he thought. Years later, as college students, the two met in a music business class at New York University. At the time, Axel was thrilled to find another songwriter.

“My freshman year, I went to Boston University,” he says. “Then I transferred my sophomore year to NYU [in 2005] and transferring schools is tough because everyone makes their friends freshman year. Coming to NYU, I was looking for a collaborator to make music with. Me and Chad were in the same class and I was just like, ‘YES! He’s the one, it’s him!”

Axel jokes that he was “obsessed” with making sure he and King got into a room together to show each other what they could do.

“I already had my friend circle and I was in my own little band,” King says. “But Ian was really adamant that he needed to show me his ideas on the piano.”

King remembers that finally the day came and they met in a rehearsal room on campus. And when Axel played King his songs, King freaked out.

“I was so overwhelmed,” he says. “It felt like the first time in my life I’ve ever encountered someone with such talent and such potential. I knew immediately. I was like, ‘I’m going to manage you. You need to sing.’ Because he wasn’t singing at the time, he was just humming. I remember the day, just feeling like life had changed.”

“I think the universe brought us together,” Axel says. “When I met chad, it felt like I’d known him forever.”

Since those early days, the two have worked diligently in unison for about a decade. They’ve found their way to what they want to do, even if they don’t always believe the fruits of their labor—spots on major television shows like Glee, playing Victoria’s Secret Fashion show, and collaborating with Aguilera —are much more than the hazy fragments of far off dreams.

“We never take a moment for granted,” Axel says. “We practice gratitude. We try to take a moment to breathe and celebrate it, really. It’s incredible. It’s hard to believe all that stuff happened.”

“There’s part of me and part of Ian that always feels like a fraud,” King says.

“Like,” Axel says, “are we here by accident?”

But of course, the band has achieved nothing by accident. For example, the group’s newest LP is a practice in dichotomy, exploration, distance, and difference—heady-yet-pretty stuff. The songs on the 10-track Particles are bright and crisp, melancholy and mournful, rich and rowdy (see: “Save Me From Myself” and “Fall On Me”). Like their composers, the songs are myriad things, worlds upon worlds.

“I’ve always been interested in the idea,” says Axel, “that the universe exists in every particle. And we have these particles that make up the whole world inside of us. When we make music it’s a spiritual process, and when we write we try to dig deep and go as far inward as we can. We believe the more inward we go, the more we connect with others outside of us.”

Photo by Andrew Zaeh

Leave a Reply

Maisie Peters’ Debut Solo Album, ‘You Signed Up For This,’ is a Pop Masterpiece