How 2013 Transformed A Great Big World Into The Next Pop Sensation

TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Ian Axel, Chad Vaccarino of Music group A Great Big World appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Ian Axel, Chad Vaccarino of Music group A Great Big World appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

Pursuing a full-time career as a musician is a risk that pays off for few. Most spend year after year working side jobs, pouring every dollar they collect into recording, touring, and merchandise, often ending up in the red, or, if they're lucky, breaking even. Despite talent, many are forced to put down their instruments and enter a new field. But every once in a while, a confluence of frustration, sleepless nights, empty stomachs and talent makes for a perfect storm as an artist is suddenly propelled into the spotlight.

Such is the tale of A Great Big World, the rising project comprised of Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino. It all began during their college days at New York University. Axel transferred to NYU during his sophomore year, placing him in the awkward position of having missed out on freshman orientation, rendering him friendless. All Axel knew was that he wanted to make music and that he needed a partner in crime. In his search, the first person he met was Vaccarino, and, for reasons that can't be explained, he was immediately drawn to him.

Sharing a music business class, Axel approached Vaccarino with a few songs, hoping he would give them a listen. However, Vaccarino kept putting Axel off, telling him he was too busy at the moment. Determined to conquer his dodges, Axel figured out Vaccarino's practice room schedule, and gave him a performance he couldn't ignore.

"The moment I heard Ian play, I freaked out," Vaccarino said in an interview with HuffPost Entertainment. "I was like, 'We should totally be friends and start playing together.'" '

What Axel didn't expect was for his new friend to compliment his voice, as his pursuit of Vaccarino was heavily driven by the knowledge of his singing capabilities. Vaccarino's managerial instincts immediately kicked in, setting up vocal lessons for Axel. The two began writing together, working a solo career under Axel's name. They performed at open mics until they got their first solo gig, which was attended by only few friends and family.

Out of nowhere, though, their song "This Is The New Year" made its way across the Internet and received a few TV placements, garnering the attention of a small label. But as quickly as the duo picked up momentum, the label folded, bringing them back to square one.

"We didn't know how were going to pay rent or record at that point," Axel said. "We wanted to get six songs laid down and in the hands of our fans, but we needed to rebrand ourselves. We put up a Kickstarter and in only two days, we raised 22 grand. And that's why we decided to call ourselves A Great Big World."

As if their sentiment was heard by the heavens, what followed in 2013 can only be described as the most incredible year of their lives. "Glee" producers had chosen to perform their own rendition of "This Is The New Year" on the show's Jan. 31, 2013 episode, "Naked." Shortly after, L.A. Reid signed the group to Black Magnetic/Epic Records. The band headed into the studio to record their debut album, "Is There Anybody Out There?" As that wrapped up, "So You Think You Can Dance?" featured their single "Say Something" in the show's final, a cut that almost never was.

"We almost didn't put 'Say Something' on the album, wanting to switch another ballad in place of it," Vaccarino said. "But then Epic put it out as a radio single, which we were totally against at first. Most of the music on the album is really upbeat, and we just didn't think it was going to fit in."

"It was a really dark time for us, both just in difficult places even outside of relationships," Axel said. "Going through some really intense heartbreak, the song was such a cathartic experience. It was the only song we had written in a year's time, but I needed to write it right that second. Whatever spare time I had, I couldn't stop writing it. It came out so fast, and I think we found closure in the song. It isn't about hanging on in the end."

A quick glance through the song's lyrics proves that it is an anomaly among the feel-good roster of their debut, but its inclusion was essential. Soon after the "So You Think You Can Dance?" final, Axel and Vaccarino received a call from Christina Aguilera, asking if they would re-record the song with her on it. The duo performed the song with Aguilera on "The Voice," and during the American Music Awards. Then in December, Axel performed "Say Something" during the annual Victoria's Secret Fashion Show.

"I had to close my eyes for some of it because I was a little nervous and there was just so much going on," Axel said of the fashion show. "The girls were coming out with their wings and it was so dramatic and they were touching the piano. We had a couple rehearsals, but it was with the stand-ins, not the models, so I didn't know what it was really going to be like live. When I opened my eyes at the end it felt so good. It was so fun and everyone was so welcoming and supportive of what we were doing."

So what can fans expect to hear on the album, which drops on Tuesday, Jan. 21? Besides being an excellent collection of radio ready hits, one of the first things listeners will notice is that the record is very clean and simple -- almost all of the focus on the vocals and piano. Much of today's mainstream pop music has layer after layer, often creating a barrier that allows artists to hide behind. But there's no room for that on "Is There Anybody Out There?" The end of "Rockstar," the opening track, is the most congested it gets on the album. There's no synth overtones, no bass wobbles, no heavy distortion. While those elements certainly have their place in their respective genres, they can be deceiving, too. "Is There Anybody Out There?" breeds the same authentic feel of something like Ben Fold's "Songs For Silverman."

"We're really big fans of the craft of songwriting, Ian and I," Vaccarino said. "Our big goal was to deliver the songs as pure as they could be without going overboard. We want to be able to recreate this live, we want to give an accurate sonic interpretation. I would find simplicity as a compliment, things need to be effortless."

While Axel and Vaccarino struggled to find the proper words to capture the message of their album, the best comparison available was the concept of a cosmic pool of consciousness.

"It's funny that you say pool because when we write our music it feels bigger than us and it comes from everybody," Axel said. "We feel that everything is so very connected. We are wearing our hearts on our sleeves, and want to find out if anyone is listening on the other end."

After rocketing through 2013 at warp speed, Axel and Vaccarino have no intentions of slowing down in 2014, looking to bring their craft to the stage in more than one manner.

"We opened for Maroon 5 on New Year's Eve in Las Vegas, giving us a taste of what it is like to perform for 8,000 people. I would love to do that nightly," Axel said. "We also have been working on a musical for over a year now. Producers on Broadway approached us with an original script after relaunching ourselves as A Great Big World, and wanted us to write the music. They asked us to make the music we would sing if we could, and so we can go a little crazier. We refer to it as 'our music on steroids.'"

"We're also kind of space nerds, and we want to play in outer space one day, but I think Lady Gaga is gonna beat us to that one," Vaccarino joked.

"Is Anybody Out There?" Track By Track, As Explained By A Great Big World

1. "Rockstar"

"We were feeling our age more than ever and feeling like we were stuck in our routines and settling on day jobs that weren't right for us. We wanted to remind ourselves to keep dreaming as big as we did when we were kids."

2. "Land of Opportunity"

"We had a falling out with a friend when we wrote this song. And were really inspired by The Beatles' 'Abbey Road' album and ELO's "Mr Blue Sky" at the time. Chad had also just started playing the trumpet again, so he took a solo!"

3. "Already Home"

"This was actually one of the first songs we ever wrote together. It was originally an Ian solo song. Over the years, we just kinda forgot about it. It was put on the back burner. It wasn't until we were choosing songs for the A Great Big World album that we stumbled upon a demo of it and it just hit us differently than it ever had. We were on the road a ton and were dealing with being away from home and loved ones. The idea is that we are always 'home.' Love transcends any distance."

4. "I Really Want It"

"We had recently quit our day jobs and were 'full-time' musicians and writers for the first time. We were stepping into a new role in life and really honing in on our dreams. This was us venting and sort of rebelling against the norm and what was expected of us. It was a way to tell ourselves that we could have it all if we wanted it."

5. "Say Something"

"We were both in a dark place with our relationships. Writing this helped us to heal and find closure. We had never had a more powerful experience writing a song. It was 'religious' in a way. It's funny ... sometimes we joke around and say that we're both the same person. The fact that we were having similar experiences at the same time and were able to write about it was very special."

6. "You'll Be Okay"

"We wrote this when we lived in a one bedroom apartment in Queens, NY. Chad was living in the kitchen, and our apartment became infested with bedbugs. For five months, Ian was sleeping on the couch (in the kitchen) and Chad was on an air mattress. It was one of the lowest points in both our lives, and we had just gotten through the 'Say Something' relationships! Thus, we felt it was appropriate for this song to follow that one."

7. "Everyone Is Gay"

"Our friends at asked us to write the 'gayest song ever' for their compilation album they were putting together. They give advice to kids who are struggling with their sexuality. We wanted to speak to the kids who are bullied for being who they are, and to write a song we wish we could've had growing up. Because in the end, we're all human, no matter who you love."

8. "There Is an Answer"

"This song came from the awe that we both share at the interconnectedness of all things."

9. "I Don't Wanna Love Somebody Else"

"This was inspired by a toxic relationship that I (Chad) was in. In a weird way, I enjoyed the pain I was feeling from it. I thought it was better than feeling nothing at all. And I didn't want to let go of it. I also made up the whole thing in my head. So there's that."

10. "This Is the New Year"

"In 2008 we went to the most epic New Years party ever in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. On our way back, we felt incredibly inspired by life. This song came from a place where making changes and resolutions in our lives seems to only happen once a year, and we feel like they should be and can be made every day."

11. "Shorty Don't Wait"

"Ian was playing around with the line 'Shorty don't wait' and we both thought it was the funniest thing ever for him to sing that ... and it stuck. This was just a fun tune to write and we just tried to inject some positivity into the world through a three-minute song. Ultimately, we decided Chad should sing it because the word 'shorty' sounds more natural coming from him for some reason.

12. "Cheer Up!"

"We had just visited Yosemite and saw all the stars for the first time. You just can't see any in NYC. And seeing them gave us a new perspective on everything. When we got home, I [Ian] was talking to my parents and they were stressed out about something, and I wished they could've gotten to see what we saw in Yosemite. That's what inspired this song. And also the fact that I had just gotten myself a Casio keyboard from the '80s, and also that we have a friend who we SWEAR is from another star system."

13. "Say Something ft. Christina Aguilera"

"After 'Say Something' was featured on 'So You Think You Can Dance,' it started generating some buzz. Christina heard it, called us up and wanted to record a new version as a duet. We are so grateful for what she added to the song, and for everything that happened as a result. We feel like the luckiest two guys alive."

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