On Tuesday night’s episode of “The Voice,” Christina Aguilera performed a duet with A Great Big World’s Ian Axel, a songwriter with a buttoned-up plaid shirt, frizzy hair and an ethereal voice that sounds like it might snap in half at any moment. The performance of A Great Big World’s single “Say Something” was understated — just a piano, some strings and a keyboard for instrumentation, and with Aguilera reining in her voice’s natural power — and exactly what Axel’s duo with Chad Vaccarino needed to break their ballad, which has sold 52,000 downloads through last Sunday according to Nielsen SoundScan, to a much wider audience.
A Great Big World not only snagged Aguilera to assist on the reality show performance, but the pop superstar recorded a new version of “Say Something” with the group for its debut album “Is There Anybody Out There?,” due out on Jan. 14, earlier this fall. Aguilera called the “Voice” performance “wonderful” on Twitter, and the recorded version of A Great Big World’s “Say Something” featuring Aguilera (released to digital retailers, conveniently, on Nov. 4) quickly shot into the upper reaches of the iTunes Songs list, making it to No. 2, behind Eminem’s new hit “The Monster.”
After Vaccarino and Axel met as music business students at NYU, the pair formed A Great Big World in 2012, used Kickstarter to fund a debut EP, and scored a deal with Epic Records. “Say Something” is the second single from “Is There Anybody Out There?” after “This Is The New Year,” which itself was featured in a “Glee” performance earlier this year. And “The Voice” wasn’t the first television appearance for the sorrowful “Say Something” — last September, the track was used on “So You Think You Can Dance” by season champ Amy Yakima, and sparked a reaction that eventually made its way to Aguilera.
“‘Say Something’ was danced to on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ almost two months ago, and so many people responded to it,” Axel tells Billboard. “In that whole process, someone on our team played it for someone on Christina’s team, and we got a call that Christina wanted to record it, and then, literally a week later, we were in L.A. recording it with her.”
Vaccarino and Axel were flabbergasted by the opportunity. The pair considers Aguilera’s set of pipes “one of the top voices in the world,” says Vaccarino, and re-recorded “Say Something” with her in two hours. “We look at Christina as this icon who can say anything and make it sound amazing,” says Vaccarino. “And here we are, just us and her in the studio, and she’s asking our opinions on what sounds good, and everything out of her mouth was sounding good! Who are we to give Christina Aguilera vocal advice?”
Originally released in early September, “Say Something” was written at a time when both members of A Great Big World were experiencing individual heartbreak. Writing the song was part of the healing process, says Axel, and the duo is still getting used to the wide-range affinity for such a personal tune.
“We’re both in a different place since we wrote the song, and have a totally different perspective on it,” says Axel. “Whenever we perform it, it’s like revisiting the scar. It’s always a part of me, and I can always go there and feel it.”
A Great Big World has a handful of live performances lined up later this month, beginning on Nov. 17 at the Marquis Theatre in Denver. As for “Is There Anybody Out There?,” which became available for pre-order on iTunes earlier this week — don’t expect 13-song collection of fragile ballads.
“The songs are all over the place in the spectrum of emotion,” says Axel, while Vaccarino describes the debut as “really honest, heartfelt pop music that’s piano-driven with a lot of harmonies.”