Chad King (left) and Ian Axel
Ian Axel and Chad King set the world afire with their 2013 single "Say Something." Coming seemingly out of nowhere, the track exploded and caught the attention of Christina Aguilera who later appeared on a re-recorded version of the song. Earlier this year, that version of the song netted the duo their first Grammy.
Two years on, history seems to be repeating itself. Once again, A Great Big World has dropped a single--this time "Hold Each Other" a cut of their upcoming second album--that's whipped up a groundswell of support.
"[The reception] has been really good, overwhelmingly positive," says King, who sings the most buzzed about lyric on the single: "Something happens when I hold him."
"Originally the lyric in the chorus was 'something happens when I hold her,' " says Axel. "And after a day away from the song, I was like, 'Wait a minute, how is Chad going to sing that line? We need to change it.' So we changed it and it became a very powerful song for us."
The change was subtle, yet it greatly magnified the track's emotional resonance, especially for its singer. "I think what is really interesting is that I was [at first] uncomfortable singing it as 'Something happens when I hold him,' " King explains. "The fact that I was uncomfortable singing it, as someone who's gay, it showed me and Ian that we have to spread this message because I shouldn't be scared to say what's in pop music. It isn't done in pop music often, not in this way. The fact that I was scared to say that showed us that we needed to do it."
As Axel explains, it wasn't originally a statement. "But it became a statement in a way. It's so subtle that I don't think people really hear it on the first or second listen and it's just Chad singing about the person he loves and wants to hold and it's really not a big deal."
The moment was somewhat revelatory for the pair, who had, in swapping a pronoun, slammed into pop music's generic heteronormativity.
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"After that first day when Ian changed the lyric it became second nature," King says. "The initial switching of that pronoun, I'm not used to seeing [in pop music]. Even when we're writing, there will be some stream-of-consciousness moments where I'm singing about 'she' and 'her' and 'the girl,' but in no way do I actually feel those things. I feel that it's a habitual thing that I learned over the years listening to pop music."
It's songs like "Hold Each Other" that work within pop's framework while still innovating and challenging convention that will mark A Great Big World's upcoming LP, slated for a November release.
" 'Hold Each Other' is a positive happy love song because we're in a much better place than we were when we wrote the last album," Axel says. "I'm getting married, and we were just writing a love song."
King agrees: "I'm hopeful that we can bring an emotional aspect to pop music that you haven't seen before. I feel like 'Hold Each Other' is in the direction of our new album, where it's really emotional songs underlying this track that you want to bob your head to and I'm hopeful that we're on to something."
"We were being as vulnerable as we could, writing a song that we needed to write because it was our therapy and all of a sudden it found a lane on pop radio," Axel says. "I think the pop world is the place we want to be because we get to reach the most amount of people. "
"I feel like if you're scared to say it, or you're embarrassed or ashamed or insecure about it, I feel that the general rule of thumb for us is 'let's sing about it.' Because those are things that need to be said and need to be heard and are what people connect to the absolute most and what people need to hear because we're all in this thing together and we all feel the same things and our stories are everyone else's stories."
Considering that "Hold Each Other" has been met with so much positivity and praise, it seems that everyone is ready for Axel and King's brand of catchy, yet emotionally honest, pop. Well, almost everyone that perhaps. "I thought we would have had a little more resistance to 'Hold Each Other', especially getting it played on radio," King explains. "There have been a couple stations in the South that have refused to play it because they feel it's too progressive. But I'm OK with that, because it means we're doing something right. If they can't play a song like this, which is only about love, if they can't play a song about love then I don't want to listen to their station."
The duo's putting the finishing touches on their sophomore LP and say that the album will still be classic A Great Big World, just a bit more "grown up."
"I feel like we're trying to marry the theatrical sense of what we do and the emotional sense," Axel says. "Trying to hit a little bit more in the pop arena because we want to reach the most amount of people. I feel the album is a little bit more beat driven as well. I think that our fans aren't going to be disappointed at all, because it sounds like us and it has the same heart that it did in the first album."
Beyond finishing the album and gearing up to tour in early 2016, the guys also have a Broadway musical in the works that Axel says they've been developing for three years. "It's been a dream of ours to do this since we've known each other. We're pretty much finished with revisions on the first draft, we're about to go to a director, and there are some Broadway producers onboard," he says. "It's a show about family and what family is and how family is what you make it. There are definitely some twists and turns we can't give away."
While things are still coming together, King and Axel do have some information that they can share, including the tentative title: Two Blocks Away. "It's a pop musical," King says, "So there's our music but some songs are eight minutes long."
"It's kind of our music but on steroids," Axel sums up. "We don't have to write to any form or structure and we can just do whatever our hearts desire because of the stage; anything can happen on the stage."
A Great Big World's second LP is due in November. "Hold Each Other" is out now.