January 15, 2014 

Alumni Profile: A Great Big World: Ian Axel (STEINHARDT '07) and Chad Vaccarino (STEINHARDT '07)

NYU alumni Ian Axel (STEINHARDT ’07) and Chad Vaccarino (STEINHARDT ’07) met in the music practice rooms at Steinhardt. Nearly a decade later, their band A Great Big World has a platinum song, a new feature-length album, and a fan in Christina Aguilera.

A Great Big World's Platinum Single, "Say Something" (credit: Epic Records)

Growing up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, Ian Axel (STEINHARDT ’07) had dreams of become a musician or a storm chaser (ultimately pursuing the former). Chad Vaccarino (STEINHARDT ’07), from Port Charlotte, Florida, wanted to be an actor, appearing in minor roles on Nickelodeon and in films such as Monster. Complete strangers when they arrived at NYU, neither could have imagined what would transpire over the next decade: the use of their music on several network television shows including Glee and So You Think You Can Dance; receiving a phone call from Christina Aguilera and subsequent performances alongside her on The Voice and at The American Music Awards; nearing the top of Billboard and iTunes charts with their platinum song, “Say Something;” and drawing comparisons to artists like Simon and Garfunkel and Elton John.

With their first feature-length album to be released on January 21 and a tour spanning from Toronto to Nashville, 2014 promises to be another remarkable year for their band, A Great Big World.

You had a different dynamic working in the early years of your career, with Ian performing and Chad writing and managing (and also working as an actor); what made you decide to make the shift to performing together?

Ian: When we wrote “This is the New Year,” Chad felt moved by one of the verses in the song and asked to sing it with me. People really gravitated towards that song. And since then we've been writing songs for both of our voices. When we sing together, we both feel like there's a third voice happening somehow. It’s empowering for us and addictive!

How did you come up with the name A Great Big World?

When we were looking for band names, we looked at our lyrics for possibilities. And the first song that we went to was our song “Cheer Up!” In that song we say, “It's a great big world and there's no need to cry.” And that felt so fitting for what we were all about. It was optimistic, big, and positive. 

Since you started performing as the band A Great Big World in 2012, there have been several major milestones. What has been the most surreal experience?

The American Music Awards. It felt like an out of body experience—we had three minutes in front of millions of people, only one chance, live with Christina Aguilera, and performing in front of every superstar in the music industry. It was the most intense experience of our lives. In the best possible way of course!

You’ve been getting a lot of press lately and are probably asked the same questions repeatedly; what’s something no one has asked you about that you’d like to share?

Is There Anybody Out There?

The first feature-length album, Is There Anybody Out There? (credit: Epic Records)

No one has asked us about our favorite foods to eat, and the answer is Fine and Raw Chocolate. It's a small Brooklyn-based chocolate company. We're obsessed. Oh, and we love hummus.

Your new album comes out in January, what can listeners expect? Do you have a favorite song on the album?

The album comes out January 21! We hope people can smile and have some fun. The album is filled with hope and love.

Chad: I don't know if I have a favorite song, per se. But I'm most excited for people to hear “Shorty Don't Wait” and “I Don't Wanna love Somebody Else.”  I'm not sure if people are going to be receptive to my voice yet, since “Say Something” is only Ian's. I'm so interested in hearing what people think of these two songs that feature my voice. 

Ian: My favorite song is “Rockstar.” It's about not letting go or giving up on your inner-child. And for me, since I met Chad and started to sing, that's what my life has been all about.

Many artists don’t attend or attend but don’t graduate college; how has your NYU education and experience made a difference in your careers?

NYU was incredible. Two of the biggest things we got out of NYU: One, we were completely aware and educated on what a good and bad deal /contract looks like. When we went in to sign with Epic Records, we knew what we wanted, what was standard for artists in the industry, and if there were any contract points that didn't feel right. And two, the relationships we made at our internships are relationships we still have. The music industry is small and filled with people who graduated from NYU’s music business program. That's definitely played to our advantage! Finally, we met each other. 

What have you not yet accomplished that you’d still like to?

We want to tour the world and connect with as many people as humanly possible. It's one thing to hear about sales, charts, and Twitter followers, but it's a completely different experience when we get to see how our music is connecting in person.

A Great Big World’s first feature-length album, Is There Anybody Out There? will be released on January 21 and is available for pre-order now.  For more information and tour dates, visit agreatbigworld.com.