The new album from A Great Big World isn’t out yet—we’re told it will drop later this year—but a couple of songs have been released and fans will notice that the duo of Ian Axel and Chad King have taken their sound to new places. Whereas previous tracks like their Grammy winning collaboration with Christina Aguilera, “Say Something,” focused on acoustic piano and emotional vocals, the new music features a full band and host of playful synth sounds:
We talked to Axel about how he got from there to here—from the young piano student who was afraid to sing, even to himself, to a top-selling pro who’s excited about adding electronic sounds to his repertoire.
What were your earliest experiences with music?
I started playing when I was three. My grandma had a piano at her house, and I just went over it and started playing. One of my favorite movies was Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and I started playing “Tequila.” Then my parents said they guessed I needed lessons.
Were you classically trained?
Yes. I had lessons my whole life and I did the classical piano competitions. I went through a lot of teachers, though, because I relied on my ear more than on reading music on the page. I think my teachers had a hard time with me, so they would stop working with me. But I found one in high school who knew how to get to me.
He would take away music that I wanted to play and say, “You’re learning this instead.” I’d get so mad, I’d walk out of the lesson and go to the music store and buy the sheet music he took away and learn it just to show him. During that time, I played a lot of Brahms. I played Chopin. I loved Gershwin. And I was always writing. At all the piano recitals, I would play a couple from the book and always play a piece that I wrote.
Tell about your transition from classical to popular music.
My high school had a rock band called the Boptones. It was like the jazz band, but for rock ‘n’ roll. There were teachers and kids involved, and we’d do a couple concerts, playing rock songs from every decade. I would learn all of those songs by ear. I realized that even though I would always get so nervous playing in classical competitions, when I played my own music or when I was playing in the rock band, it was exciting to me.
I wasn’t singing yet, though. I was scared of my own voice. I didn’t even sing to myself. Then I got to college, at NYU, and I met Chad. I asked Chad if he would write a musical with me, and I hummed some of my ideas, and he was like, “Dude, why aren’t you singing this? Let me manage you. I’m going to manage you and I’m going to get you a voice lesson.” This kid I just met in college—he bought me a voice lesson. He was like, “You can do this. You’re a singer.”
I remember doing my first demo with my piano and voice on it, when we were still in college, and I couldn’t believe it. I left that session with the CD in my hand, shaking. This might sound morbid, but I felt like, “I could die tomorrow and this will live on.” It gave me an unbelievable sense of purpose.
What is your writing process now? Where do the two of you work, and what instruments facilitate the songwriting process?
Chad and I are joined creatively and spiritually. When we write songs, it’s like we’re one person. We sit there, and we just start throwing out ideas, and try to shut off our minds and have fun. It’s kind of a mystery where songs come from, though. I feel like we’re antennas picking up these things.
As far as where we work, we have a writing room in Manhattan, and our band records at Studio G in Brooklyn. We have a Yamaha upright piano in there. We have a Roland A88 that I use as a MIDI controller. I have Logic and a bunch of plug-ins in [Native Instruments] Kontakt 11. There are also some acoustic guitars in the room, a harmonium, a few different ukuleles. We have a Roland Boutique Series keyboard. We use a lot of Roland keys on our records.
The synth stuff is still really new to me, though. The band has been teaching me, and I've been having lot of fun learning it.
Without a lot of experience performing with synthesizers, how did you developed those sonic ideas during recording?
All of those ideas came from working in the studio with our band and engineers. A lot of the sounds were created by them and then I would give my input with Chad. Someone would usually dial it in as I played, and we would just respond to each other.
Can you offer some specifics, such as what the synth sound are the first single, “Younger”?
We definitely were inspired by a bunch of ’80s pop when making our record. We used a Juno and [Dave Smith Instruments] OB-6 and lots of LinnDrum. We also had fun using the new Roland Boutique Series on several tracks, as well as the new Mellotron.
On "Younger," for the choruses we used the Juno-60 layered with the OB-6, along with some other softsynths. The chorus bass notes are doubled on the Korg MS-20 as well. We used the Juno-60 for the big dark pads in verse two and the bridge. For the intro, it's honestly hard to remember! We were messing around with so many different sounds. But I do believe there are definitely a bunch of softsynths, and a Moog Subphatty doing the low notes. Our bassist Chris made the Super Mario coin sound with a [Critter & Guitari] Pocket Piano. That's also him doing the Mario impression!
On the other single we just released, “You,” an interesting tidbit is that we had recorded an alternate bridge that didn't make the record, but a remnant of the LinnDrum, which was used on that bridge, stayed in the recording. If you listen closely you can hear it just for brief second on the last chorus.
How are your fans receiving the new sounds?
We've only put out a couple new songs, but the way our fans have been connecting to the new music and engaging with us has been really amazing to see, and it's inspiring us and motivating us to keep staying true to who we are. I can't wait for them to hear the rest.