Duo’s Chad King on the pressure to live up to ‘Say Something,’ forthcoming album (their ‘arrival moment’) and being gay in music today
While you were crying, out musician Chad King and his friend Ian Axel were figuring out their next move. Could A Great Big World, as they’re collectively known, strike twice with another colossal Christina Aguilera-assisted tearjerker?
Peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and winning them a Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, even they knew another “Say Something,” which featured Aguilera’s harmonious flutters, was likely inimitable. Still, the crushing ballad gave considerable clout to the two albums that followed it: their 2014 debut Is There Anybody Out There?, and its 2015 follow-up, When the Morning Comes.
With a third on the way, and its lead bop, “Younger,” out now, I caught up with King to discuss writing about dressing in his mom’s clothes as a kid, finding their true selves, and how Paris Is Burning inspired a musical moment.
On “Younger,” you revel in the nostalgia of playing with Barbies and giving fashion shows. What were these fashions like? Did you strut?
Yeah, I remember going through my mom’s closet with my younger brother and putting on her heels, putting on her dresses, and stuffing them with padding to make it look like we had boobs. Then, as a whole family, we’d sit down on the living room couch, and my brother and I would come out and work it. And they’d cheer for us. I never thought I would be singing about that, but I’m glad it made its way into the music.
How did the song come to life?
“Younger” was actually the first song we wrote for the album, and it morphed into this tune where it’s like, let’s tap into our childhoods: what we remember, why we were so happy then, and what was so exciting and freeing and liberating about being that kid. Playing house with my neighbor down the street, I remember playing with her Barbies and feeling like no one was going to come and hurt me. I was so safe to be and act however I wanted, and there was something so freeing about that moment.
After two albums, why self-title this one?
Is There Anybody Out There? was a collection of songs that Ian and I wrote over the first five years of being friends. And one of those songs was “Say Something,” that had the life that it had. Then suddenly we found ourselves in this pop world. We also found ourselves feeling pressure to stay in that world. That’s when the second album came out, which it did what it did, or didn’t do.
And then it came time for the third album. We were thinking let’s go back to writing for ourselves again. So it took six months to write the album, and we’re so proud of the songs. This is the truest to who we are, and our sound or music has ever been, so it made sense to be a self-titled record. It was like, “Okay, this is A Great Big World.” It feels like an arrival moment.
Even though “Say Something” was a mega-pop hit, the first album it appeared on was rooted in a musical-theater sound. Have you worked your fondness for theater into the fold for this album?
Yeah, absolutely. “Younger” is an excellent example; it’s so theatrical, narratively. I feel like we write well to a narrative or in that context of storytelling. We have a song called “When I Am King” that is also super theatrical and super Queen-like. This record has theatricality all over it.
And how did the iconic queer film Paris Is Burning become the inspiration for “Hooray for You”?
I showed everyone the clip of Dorian Corey at the end of Paris Is Burning having that sort of moment in front of the mirror where she’s applying her makeup and saying, “You don’t have to bend the whole world. I think it’s better just to enjoy it.” And at the end she goes, “If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”
And we did something special with that moment. We took a sample of it and made a track of its own that I’m excited for people to hear. It’s exciting to have this on a record. Like, this will live forever. Also to push Paris Is Burning, because it’s iconic and brilliant, and I only found out about it last year. I’m so thankful that we could make that a part of the record.
I imagine after “Say Something” the pressure to top yourselves or reach that same level again was immense.
At the moment, we would never say there’s pressure. I’d be like, “No, we’re just writing!” I’d probably say that. “Yeah, we love writing!” But looking back and reflecting on how we wrote with all sorts of pop writers and got into the room with all kinds of pop producers, it’s clear we were going through the motions of creating something under this pressure. Even if it was subconscious, there was this pressure, for sure. That song feels like an anomaly. It feels like a monster. It feels like something that happens once in a lifetime. So, to follow that up is… yeah, there’s a ton of pressure.
Did you have people around you asking you to recapture that magic?
We had a couple of moments where people were like, “We want you to write ‘Say Something’ for us.” So we had to go through the motions of writing another song like it. There’s one song that we have — oh, I don’t know if it’s official. I can’t tell you. But we have a song that looks like it’s going to be making another artist’s record and their original briefing to us was, “We love the emotion behind ‘Say Something.’ Can you give us a song like it?” So, Ian and I tapped into that, and it looks like we’ll be getting the song on this record. But I think “Say Something” came from such an emotionally charged place that it’s hard to recreate if you’re not experiencing that at the moment.
You wrote a great essay for Out Magazine about being a gay man with multiple sclerosis. Do you hear from other gay people with MS who can relate?
At the time, I remember people coming to me and saying, “I had this trauma around my MS,” and sort of validating my theory: this mind-body connection, and that there is nothing separate about it, and the fact that I came out and two weeks later I was diagnosed with MS is not a coincidence. I do not doubt that that is not a coincidence.
I don’t feel like I have MS. It’s more I feel like I was diagnosed with that, but to me, my body was reacting to its environment in specific ways. I only need to be aware and conscious and be careful of what I put in my body and how I treat my body. When I started paying attention to the effect of my environment inside and out, that’s when I felt real change. But it didn’t feel random to me. It felt like, “What the hell is going on with my body and why right now?” So my sexuality was entirely tied to that, and that was so monumental of a discovery for me.
The landscape for out gay musicians has changed even since 2014 when you released your debut. If anything, more artists are out from the get-go. Is this an even better time to be an out gay musician than it was four years ago?
I’m jealous of anyone new to the music scene because it’s like being gay today versus 20 years ago. It’s not the same thing. And it’s so awesome that kids have nothing to fear when they’re singing about who they love — and it could be a guy and a guy, or a girl and a girl, and it works, and everyone accepts it, and it’s beautiful. I think the landscape is going to change even more in the next year.
I went to see Tyler, the Creator, and it was the first time I listened to his music or listened to the lyrics, and I was like, “Whoa, he’s singing about a cute boy, and he has all these hardcore rap fans. It was so cool to see.” I think this is a beautiful time to be out and an artist and be free with your expression. The fear I had with “Hold Each Other” or with any of our songs talking about a love interest, where I felt like it couldn’t be from the male perspective about another male — that feels like it’s gone now.
So I take it you’ll be writing with male pronouns on this upcoming release?
Yeah, I do on this record coming out. I do it more. And it was freeing and easier, and it was beautiful. So, I’m excited for people to get even more gay music from us. (Laughs)
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).