A Great Big World says something about male pop duos: We love them

One of the few male duos in the pop universe, there’s more to A Great Big World than just 'Say Something'.

It would seem that the road to success for indie pop sensation A Great Big World couldn’t have been easier – at first glance. Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino formed the act in 2012, landed a contract with Epic Records in 2013, and by 2014 their ballad duet with Christina Aguilera, Say Something, had became an international smash. 

That's one helluva breakthrough.

But in a phone call from Los Angeles, Axel and Vaccarino reveal theirs wasn’t exactly a fairytale story. “Ian and I worked day jobs that were very draining, says Vaccarino. "It was difficult to have a nine-to-five job while pursuing our passion, but we had to pay the bills. We worked tirelessly every day so we wouldn’t have to be in those jobs again.” 

The 28-year-old was referring to a seven-year period before the two pursued their pop career full-time as a double act. By day, Axel worked at an Apple Store in Manhattan and Vaccarino was as a PA at a record label. By night, Axel was struggling to break through as a singer while Vaccarino played his manager, and they wrote songs together.

“We kept on believing, we never gave up, and we took a risk,” Axel says. And then something clicked as they started collaborating as performers. After entertaining crowds at venues in New York and building a fan base, A Great Big World released a six-track EP via crowd-funding website Kickstarter. One track, This Is The New Year, catapulted the duo into prominence when TV's Glee covered the song.

Considering that there aren’t a lot of male pop duos in the act right now – gone are the days of Hall & Oates and Simon & Garfunkel – Vaccarino believes this sets A Great Big World apart in the pop universe. “Not many people do this kind of thing. It’s a little strange for people to accept. But for those who do, it’s really special,” Vaccarino says.

One of them, Christina Aguilera, decided she wanted to work with the duo after hearing Say Something on the TV competition show So You Think You Can Dance. “We had one night to go into the studio with her. We had to learn very fast how to collaborate with someone on that level. When we went into that session, we were both very intimidated at first. But it was a huge growing experience,” Vaccarino says.

Of course, not everyone has taken to them as well as Aguilera. “I read a review once that said our work was juvenile and cheesy,” Axel says. Vaccarino adds, “They called it ‘a great big disaster’.”

True to their unmistakably sunshiny, glass half-full outlook as evident on their first full-length release, Is There Anybody Out There?, nothing can keep this duo down. “We’re some of the most positive people you’ll ever meet. So when one of us is feeling down, we have each other’s back. We’ll inspire each other,” Axel says.

Indeed, the two have support each other for a long time, ever since they met while completing a music programme at New York University. When asked how they separate their personal and professional relationships, Axel says, “We don’t. Chad and I have been roommates for years. We just moved out actually. But it’s hard to keep them separate especially being on the road all the time.”

Axel and Vaccarino are now touring the region, with stops in Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland, Tokyo and Seoul. They were due to perform in Kuala Lumpur but called off the show following the MH17 disaster. That said, travelling has been rough on Vaccarino who admitted last June to having multiple sclerosis, which was diagnosed in 2007.

“It’s very difficult. It’s a learning experience for Ian and I. Our diets have never been more extreme, so it’s getting harder to eat on the road. Like, how do you find a salad in the middle of the United States?” says Vaccarino, who manages his condition by sticking to the Paleo diet. “We’re still figuring things out, but hopefully by next year we get to hire a personal chef for the road.”