A Great Big World—the duo comprised of Ian Axel and Chad King—sometimes can’t believe their eyes and ears. When their music is on popular television shows like Glee or when they’re performing at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show or when they’re sharing a song with the global icon, Christina Aguilera, sometimes they just pinch themselves, happy at the result of loads of hard work.
Together, the two friends and longtime collaborators (ever since their college days at New York University) have worked quite hard. Through lots of internal, existential digging, they’ve come up with a formula for writing that works for them. But sometimes something unpredictable happens. Sometimes you write a great song like “Say Something” and Aguilera calls and wants to sit in.
We caught up with Axel and King to talk to them about their songwriting process, how they wrote their 2013 piano-based hit, “Say Something” (with co-writer Mike Campbell), which has since featured Aguilera, earned a Grammy Award, and garnered over half-a-billion streams on YouTube, alone.
American Songwriter: Before we talk about “Say Something,” let me ask: how do you think about songwriting in general?
Chad King: I feel like me and Ian use writing as therapy and one of the big processes that we do is we focus on one emotion, a single emotion, and how that feels. So, like, there’s a song called “Darling It’s Over,” or even “Save Me From Myself,” there’s a single emotion that we want to have threaded through the song.
Ian Axel: We swim in it and we dive deep in it and we try to be as vulnerable as we can and not afraid to be vulnerable and to say something in the song that might make us feel uncomfortable or might be a little bit too revealing for us. We kind of lean into that.
CK: But then the bigger songs like “Fall On Me” or “Glowing” have these bigger, wider spectrums of topics and I feel like it’s still a therapeutic process for us. I think both sides of the coin are really clear in my head when I think of it in a writing sense.
AS: What was the genesis of the huge hit, “Say Something”?
CK: So, in terms of the actual songwriting, I had a verse idea that I came to Ian with, like, “Oh, what do you think of this idea?” We were roommates at the time and Ian was like, “Oh, I have this chorus idea, what do you think of this?” And we merged them together and that became “Say Something.” But at the time, I was going through an unrequited love thing with someone and so was Ian.
IA: We were both feeling, like, a lot of pain. And that song was written to process the pain. It was very cathartic. It was a song that needed to be written, we felt. It was not an easy process. I don’t want to say it felt violent, but it was rough. Writing that song was rough. I remember we both had day jobs and we would meet each other after work— anywhere where we could get, like, 10 minutes here or there, like, in a park.
CK: Ian would have his ukulele.
IA: I had my ukulele with me and we would just write —we wrote it on ukulele actually.
IA: It was a hard one to write because there’s also not a lot of space for lyrics. There’s actually just a lot of space in the song.
CK: So, every lyric needed to make such a point. And actually, maybe, I have to think back on it, but maybe that was the start of us narrowing in on an emotion. That might have been, I don’t know. But it was so important to have every lyric in that song just hit you in the gut. Every single one.
IA: I know some people say they just write the song and it comes to them and it’s easily written in, like, an hour and they have this masterpiece, or whatever. But for us, we have moments of that but I feel like writing a song is a lot of work and we put a lot of energy into it.
AS: To get David from a block of stone, you have to do a lot of work, there’s a lot of refinement, right? Taking stuff away.
IA: Yeah. It’s also—I have to get better at it but I especially am really hard on myself. So, I just have to remember to try not to take it so seriously and to have more fun with it.
AS: And how did Christina Aguilera get involved in the re-recorded version?
CK: The song was on So You Think You Can Dance and it started suddenly having a lot of buzz from that show. I guess someone played it for her or she heard it somehow, like, a week or two later and she reached out to us and asked if we’d be open to doing a version with her. And of course, we said yes and couldn’t believe it. And we were out in a studio in L.A. with her, like, a week later. It all happened so fast.
Photo by Andrew Zaeh