One phone call changed everything for a pair of New York University pals with Broadway dreams. Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino of A Great Big World were on the line with their manager, who had a shocking request: Christina Aguilera wanted to add her powerful vocals to a rerecording of the heartbreaking ballad "Say Something" after hearing it on So You Think You Can Dance.
"It was the most unexpected phone call we've ever gotten and probably ever will get," says Axel. "I was scared — that was my first emotion. I thought, I can't sing with Christina."
With the songstress' vocals newly intertwined and a joint performance on The Voice, the single shot to No. 2 on the iTunes chart. The whirlwind propelled Axel and Vaccarino to their first headlining tour, which brings them to the House of Blues' Cambridge Room Feb. 3.
In 2006, Axel, an NYU transfer student from New Jersey, met Vaccarino, a Florida transplant, while searching for a collaborator to compose a musical.
"Chad was the first person I found," says Axel. "When I met him, I felt like I had known him my whole life."
The two began writing songs together with Axel as the singer and Vaccarino as his manager. Axel released a solo album, which was met with overwhelming viral success. Their songs landed spots on TV shows such as One Tree Hill and The Amazing Race and earned them slots opening for stars including Matthew Morrison of Glee.
Although Axel was the star, Vaccarino collaborated on several performances. So the duo rebranded themselves as A Great Big World and released a Kickstarter-funded EP in 2012.
They focused their affection for theatrics into a collection of bright piano-pop tunes that caught viral fire when "This Is the New Year" grabbed more than 500,000 YouTube views. The song ultimately found its way to Glee creator Ryan Murphy and was performed by the cast in early 2013. "It's the craziest experience to be watching a show where you know millions of people are listening to these three minutes of this song that you created in your bedroom when you were completely alone," Vaccarino says.
The Glee cover landed the pair a deal with L.A. Reid and Black Magnetic/Epic Records to record a full-length album. Is There Anybody Out There?, out now, showcases the duo's dynamic melodies and heartfelt storytelling.
"When we write, we challenge each other to be as honest as we ever could be," says Vaccarino. "That's why people are connecting to the music."
Eight years after teaming up, A Great Big World is finally taking center stage. "Chad and I gave ourselves no choice but to do this with our lives," says Axel. "We took the jump and it is surreal that it's all coming true, but we've always believed in ourselves from the beginning."