Pop Duo A Great Big World, Tell How They Wrote Their Hit “Say Something” And Their Other Songs

A Great Big World - Chad King and Ian Axel
A GREAT BIG WORLD (Chad King (left) and Ian Axel)

The duo A Great Big World, which consists of Ian Axel and Chad King, have had a strong impact on the pop music scene for the past four years. They’ve released two albums (Is There Anybody Out There? and When the Morning Comes on Epic Records) which feature memorable, heartfelt ballads and catchy, energetic pop-rock cuts, with all the songs reflecting the duo’s unique personality and vision.

Of course, A Great Big World is best known for their worldwide hit ballad, “Say Something,” which was one of the biggest hits of 2013 and 2014. Early on, the song caught the attention of Christina Aguilera, who loved the song and subsequently recorded her vocals with the duo on a new version, which helped propel the song to further success.

“Say Something” became so popular, that it has slightly overshadowed the fact that the duo has created many other impressive songs. In particular, A Great Big World’s first album (Is There Anybody Out There?) was an eclectic album which contained a wide range of distinctive songs, from the beautiful ballad “Already Home” to the joyful rocker, “This is the New Year.” Their second album (When the Morning Comes) also featured such notable songs as the single “Hold Each Other,” the empowering cut “Won’t Stop Running,” and the hopeful “The Future’s Right in Front of Me.”

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Ian Axel & Chad King of A Great Big World, who tell how they wrote their hit song, “Say Something.”


Now in 2017, A Great Big World will be launching a two-week concert tour in March of the East Coast & Midwest, starting in Annapolis, MD on March 17 and ending on March 28 in Minneapolis, MN. The shows will be more intimate and acoustic, with Axel & King performing live and telling stories about how they wrote their songs.

In addition, the duo has been busy working on two fronts. Axel & King have been writing songs for their next album, and they’re also developing a Broadway musical show, which is now in the workshop stage.

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Ian Axel & Chad King of A Great Big World. They talk about their current projects and new tour, and they tell how they wrote their songs “Say Something,” “Already Home” and “You’ll Be Okay.”

DK: I read that you’ll be doing a concert tour in March. Is it true that you’ll be playing an acoustic show with just the two of you onstage?

Ian Axel: It’s just going to be the two of us. We haven’t actually done a tour with just of two of us, in a long time. That’s how we started—just the two of us, driving around in our rental car. Every once in a while, the two of us [would perform] at a random event here and there, and it’s really an amazing experience for us, because it gets us back to the songs. It gets us back to how we wrote it, outside of all the production. With this new tour, we just wanted to offer something really intimate and different for our fans who’ve been coming to our shows for a bunch of years now.

DK: In your announcement of the tour, you said you’ll be telling stories about how you wrote your songs. Can you tell me a good story about writing one of your songs?

Here’s the video of A Great Big World’s hit “Say Something”
featuring Christina Aguilera.

Chad King: One of our songs that has resonated with a lot of people and helped them get through their struggles, is “You’ll Be Okay.” It’s been amazing to see the response, but a lot of people don’t know that the song came out of, when Ian and I were living together as roommates in New York City. We had a bedbug infestation that destroyed our lives (laughs). And so I think we were playing around at the piano one day—we were depressed and not sure how we were going to get out of this situation, and literally the words “you’ll be okay” came out of Ian’s mouth (laughs).

Axel: It was the bedbug thing, but it was also that we were both heartbroken. We were both working day jobs that were ultimately not the right places for us to be. We were trying to get out of [these jobs] and pursue music, and we needed to lift each other up. So that was that song.

DK: When the two of you write, what’s your songwriting process? Does one of you focus more on the music, and the other on the lyrics?

Axel: We share music and lyrics pretty [equally]. We both write music and lyrics. When we lived together, it was a different situation. Now we live in two, different neighborhoods in Manhattan. So it’s basically, I’ll work on my own, or Chad will work on his own, and we’ll come up with ideas and share the ideas together. And one of us we’ll be like, “Well I like that, or I don’t like that,” and sometimes we’ll put melodies together. Sometimes, we sit down and we just play around and see what comes out. It’s pretty much like…there’s no way, but to do it and take a leap of faith that it’s gonna happen somehow that you’re going to create something. You just can’t think about it, and you need to be open and and have fun and then trust that it’ll happen.

I really don’t know how we write songs. Every single time we write a song, there is a thought like, “Oh God, what if we never write another song again?”

DK: Have you begun working on your next album yet? Are you currently writing songs?

King: We actually are—we’re just starting to dive into that process. We’re also working on a Broadway musical, so we’re sort of balancing both worlds. For our third album, I think we both want to get back to…Me and Ian, in terms of the heart of what we are, what the band is, and really kind of go back to the beginning. I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense, but that’s sort of our intention with it.

DK: Do you mean going back to a little more of an acoustic style, like your first album?

Here’s the video of A Great Big World’s song, “Already Home.”

Axel: I think what you mean is…with the first album, we had a different kind of mindstate [than we did] with the second album. The first album…I definitely thought we were more free, we were less restricted with time. We put less pressure on ourselves, and had less pressure from other people. And then you know, trying to follow (the hit) “Say Something”—the second album was a very different mindstate. We also started writing with different writers. Chad and I were always writing the songs too, but it used to be that everything we would ever write would be [just] me and Chad. So I think we’re really going to get back to that. We’re still open to doing co-writes, but I think we’re going to be limiting them, with Chad and I focusing on our relationship and our connection, and getting back to why we started writing music in the first place.

DK:  I want to ask you about “Say Something,” which is such a great song. Can you tell me how the two of you wrote this song?

Axel:  We were both going through something pretty intense. It was a song that we just needed to write. (At the time) we were both working day jobs, and I remember when I was working at my job, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea in this song…the way it made me feel, because it was so cathartic. And Chad would meet me on my lunch break, and I had my ukulele—that’s what we wrote it on. We would write it in the park during a 45-minute break, and then we would write it after work. It took like three weeks to come out, because we only had like an hour here and there. It felt so urgent, and I remember crying so much, writing that song. So it was definitely one of the most powerful experiences writing a song.

King: For me, it also felt like an art piece. I remember when we were finishing up the song, and there was the decision of whether to say “Say something I’m giving up on you” as the last line. And I remember Ian saying it, and then saying “No no, don’t say I’m giving up on you, just say…Say something.” And I remember his saying it, and it felt like that was it. It felt complete to me. I don’t know…there’s something about that song that felt like a piece of art. It felt like a painting.

Axel: Also, because there was so much space in the song (melodically), there wasn’t a lot of room for lyric. There aren’t a lot of lyrics in the song at all. So we really needed to make sure that each word in each line really counted—we really labored over getting each word right.

DK: Can you tell me about the new Broadway musical you’re working on? Do you have a title for it yet?

Axel: There’s no working title yet. We’ve been working on it for about four years now. It’s an original story—it’s a new take on what family is. And it’s a crazy process. We just had our first workshop in New York. We had a cast…we basically had a reading, where they read [the dialogue] and sang the songs in a room in front of us, and a bunch of our friends and people we work with.

Here’s the video of A Great Big World’s song “Hold Each Other,”
featuring Futuristic.

So it was really enlightening, because we realized that a lot of stuff was working, but then a lot of stuff needed to be changed. So we’re going back to the drawing board a little bit right now.

DK: Will the two of you be performers in your musical, or would you stay behind-the-scenes?

King: Maybe in the future we might sit in (onstage in the show), but at this point we’re just writing, and hopefully we’ll have a great cast and singers. [The musical] definitely sounds like us.

Axel: Yeah, it’s our music, so someone who is familiar with what we do will hear it; it still has our DNA in it. These are songs that we would have fun writing and performing as a band, and we do want to do that, whenever the show comes out. Our band wants to put out a record of us singing the songs. And we definitely want to incorporate the songs into our live show.

DK: One of my favorite songs of yours is “Already Home.” It has such a beautiful melody. Can you tell me how you wrote this song?

Axel: That one is really interesting. When we were writing it, we weren’t really going through it, or at least I wasn’t as much, until years later. It was almost like we wrote this song, years before we experienced it (laughs). I remember when we wrote it—we were trying to draw from the experiences that we had. We originally wrote it for (the MTV show) The Real World: New York—they were looking for a song with a New York theme. So we took a stab at it, and they used it.

But then years later, when I found myself in a relationship and now I’m married to her, I was traveling a whole bunch. I started dating her right before “Say Something” [became a hit]. So we were traveling pretty much for two years straight, and it was really hard. And that song was kind of hitting it right on the nose, with what I was going through…being away from home the whole time.

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima