Aaron Bruno is writing again and trying not to think about “Sail,” a song he first recorded under the name AWOLnation more than three years ago, which would be a lot easier if it weren’t everywhere he turned. A creeping stain of synth rock with startlingly confessional lyrics and a frayed, single-word climactic chorus (“Sail!”), the song has soundtracked an endless string of movie trailers, viral videos, CW dramas, and car and liquor commercials since its January 2011 release-each one extending what has become a historically lengthy life cycle.
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Now a staple at mainstream top 40 radio, “Sail” climbed to No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 the week ending Sept. 21, making it the first song in history to reach a new peak after spending more than a year on the chart. This week, its 55th on the Hot 100, the song continues its ascent, landing at No. 20 with sales of 77,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Cumulative sales of “Sail,” released by Red Bull’s independent label Red Bull Records, are now 3.8 million.
“I never actually expected people to hear the song at all,” says Bruno, who recorded with a handful of other bands that never took off before starting AWOLnation. “When I wrote it, I had thrown in the towel as far as anticipating any kind of commercial success.”
“Sail” caught its first wind in July 2010, when Austin DJ Toby Ryan premiered the song as a staff pick on KROX (101.5). Feedback was immediate: Within a week, listener call-ins made “Sail” the station’s most-requested new song. Spins in Portland, Ore., and Indianapolis followed, and in each market the song provoked a similar reaction.
In summer and fall 2011, “Sail” went viral on the back of a pair of user-generated YouTube videos-including a death-defying helmet-cam clip of a wingsuit flight by Jeb Corliss (nearly 25 million views)-and peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Alternative chart.
The song was exposed to still new audiences in 2012, when prominent synchs in ads for BMW and the History Channel’s original drama “Vikings” helped it double its sales week over week.
“We treated it like we were going for the long term, like we didn’t have to get everything all at once,” AWOLnation manager Berko Pearce says. “We knew that the song was powerful and that wherever it got played, people would react.”
On “Sail,” Bruno is singing from rock bottom, baring a frustrated artist’s disaffection and despair in lyrics like “Maybe I should cry for help/Maybe I should kill myself.” That the breakthrough of a lifetime would blossom from such a low point could be called one of music’s bittersweet ironies. Now Bruno is working on a sophomore album under vastly different circumstances, and trying to move on from “Sail,” though it’s easier said than done.
“People on my team keep coming up to me and saying, ‘We just had our biggest week yet!'” he says. “It’s wild. I don’t know what’s going on, I really don’t … But I’ll take it.”