After Christina Aguilera's people called to say she wanted to collaborate with them, Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino laughed, screamed and told each other repeatedly to shut up. Then they calmed down and agreed that the pop diva was likely to sing a verse, Xtina-style, at the end of their song "Say Something." That would have been fine with them.
Instead, Aguilera did something unusual: She held back. "We totally heard her 'Christina Aguilera belting' voice on it. But when we met with her she was like, 'I don't want to do this. I hear harmony in my head. I want to let the song breathe and be open,'" recalls Axel, who with Vaccarino makes up the New York duo A Great Big World. "She just sings so sweetly. It just feels like her voice is about to break apart any second."
Aguilera performed the song with A Great Big World on The Voice in early November, catapulting it to Number One, first on iTunes, then on Billboard's Digital Songs chart. It sold 189,000 copies in its first week and has since gone platinum. Although the chorus is melancholy ("Say something, I'm giving up on you"), the song has a soaring holiday-season quality. "We never thought 'Say Something' would be a holiday song," Axel says. "I'm still surprised that it's resonating at this time of year. Maybe that's why it's working so well – it balances out all the joy."
Axel and Vaccarino met at New York University, when both were studying the music business. At first, Axel was the singer, while Vaccarino's plan was to serve as his manager. Instead, while Axel was performing at a piano one day, they agreed to write together. "From that point, we started writing songs for both our voices," Vaccarino says.
They put out an indie album, then played gigs everywhere, to the point that Good Morning America, One Tree Hill and others began to use their songs on TV. Their crowd-pleaser "This Is the New Year" landed on Glee, which led to an Epic Records deal; later, "Say Something" wound up on So You Think You Can Dance, which is where Aguilera's people heard it. Since then, life has changed dramatically.
"It feels like right after we did The Voice, we entered this vortex, and we came out the other side of it, and everything is moving so fast," Axel says. "We haven't fully processed what's going on. Everything's kind of bigger than us."
A Great Big World's next step is to put out a full album, Is There Anybody Out There?, due out January 21st on Black Magnetic/Epic. The duo, both 28, apply their fun.-like high vocals to gospel-inspired swing songs ("Shorty Don't Wait"), vaudevillian piano-jazz ("Land of Opportunity") and wispy folk music ("I Don't Wanna Love Somebody"). The most provocative song may be "Everyone Is Gay," in which the duo preaches tolerance for people whose sexual identities are neither gay nor straight. The song was therapeutic for Vaccarino, who endured bullying as a kid because he was, as the song says, "somewhere in the middle."
The discussion of "Everyone Is Gay" gives Axel and Vaccarino an opportunity to clarify they are not, in fact, dating each other. (Axel has a girlfriend.) "I remember this one time someone came up to me – 'So, Ian, I was just talking to your boyfriend.' A lot of people assume we're a couple," Axel says. "[But] we definitely feel like an old married couple."