for KING & COUNTRY
Struggles That Informed 'Burn the Ships,' Their 'Most Mature Record' Yet
Evans Price, Billboard.com
Musicians' wives often serve
as their muse, and throughout history that dynamic has been known to
spawn some pretty sappy love songs. However, on Burn the Ships,
For King & Country's third studio album, siblings Joel and
Luke Smallbone tackle weightier issues than romance.
"It feels like the most mature record that we've made just in
understanding who we are as a duo, who we are as men and maybe
understanding life because we are a bit older than we were last time
around," Joel Smallbone tells Billboard.
Seated in a Nashville studio on a warm fall afternoon, his younger
brother Luke agrees with that assessment, and admits this collection is
also much more personal.
"We intentionally went back to our previous album [2014's Run Wild.
Live Free. Love Strong] and looked at the songs that connected with
people. Every song that really moved the needle, even the ones that
weren't singles, were songs that were personal. So we said, 'We're not
going to do 15 songs on an album. We're going to do 10 songs and every
single song needs to have a personal story attached to it.'"
Even if they didn't
live it themselves, each song had to be born out of real life
"It doesn't mean that it needs to have happened in our life, but somebody
came to us with the story. It feels like you could touch it rather than
conjuring up what the listener wants to hear, which sometimes us writers
do that and it's dangerous. It could work for some, but I often joke
that I'm not a good enough songwriter to write about something that
doesn't mean something to me. You could go through these songs and I
could point out something that Joel walked through or something that I
walked through very, very clearly."
The title track was inspired by Luke's wife Courtney battling
addiction. The couple has three sons, and, during her second pregnancy,
doctors prescribed an anti-nausea medicine to help Courtney with
debilitating morning sickness. During the pregnancy, they continued to
increase her dosage. "I was in Austin, TX for a show," Luke recalls.
"Courtney calls me and said, 'Hey I need you to come home.' I said,
'Okay what's going on?' She said, 'I can't stop taking these pills.
We've got to deal with this.'"
Luke returned immediately, took his wife to a psychiatric facility and
doctors placed Courtney in a treatment program. Luke dropped her off
every morning at 9am and picked her 2pm. "I was at home one day and she
had a bottle of pills in her hand. I was like, 'What do you have the
bottle of pills for?'" he recalls. "She said, 'Luke I need to flush
these pills because these pills represent so much guilt and shame in my
life. I don't want to be consumed by my past anymore. I want to move
into a new day and to what's before me.'"
The album title came from that moment combined with an old history
"I read a story about an explorer going to a new land. When he arrived on
the shore, he calls everybody off of the ships and said, 'Hey let's go
explore this land and see what there is to be seen,'" Luke explains.
"All the men were terrified of going into the unknown and he realized
that even those boats were grimy, stinky and small, they wanted to stay
on the boats because it was familiar.
The next day he calls them out again and when all the sailors were on
land, he gives the command to burn the ships because he said, 'We're not
going to retreat. We're going to move forward in our lives.' The
flushing of the pills was the burning of the ships for my wife and for
us to step into a new world, a new day. That was four years ago now. My
wife said, 'You need to go share this story with people because there's
so many people that are bound by things in their past. I don't want
people to live like that. I want my story to be an encouragement to help
them spread their wings.'"
Fight On, Fighter and Hold Her were both songs written to
encourage their wives, and their spouses to join in to sing on the final
track Pioneers. The song began with a great melody and as they
began writing the lyric, comparing marriage to being a pioneer, they
decided it would be only natural to include Courtney and Joel's wife (Moriah
Peters), who is also an accomplished Christian artist.
"Marriage is kind of like pioneering," Luke observes. "You find this
beautiful place to build a home, and once it's built, you get to see the
glory. You look back on what it was like to build that new home and
plant those crops, whatever it might be. It feels like you are
pioneering. Joel and I originally started singing this song, just him
and I, and it was very weird. It's like, 'We're not pioneering
It was a strange thing and so then we were like, 'Well, what if we ask
our wives to do it,' and it was cool!"
"When I sat down in the studio and played all four of us together I
literally cried," Joel says of being moved by their efforts.
The album also includes another family collaboration. The Smallbone's
sister, Rebecca St. James, co-wrote three songs, including
Never Give Up.
"She was very influential in that song and that moment," Joel says of his
sister, who was one of Christian music's most successful acts in the
'90s. "She did it for 20 years and now she just had her second child, so
they've got two little girls... For King & Country in some ways is a
legacy band of Rebecca's. We grew up doing stage managing, operating
lights and singing background vocals for her."
Before the album dropped Oct. 5 via Word/Curb Records, For King &
Country released videos for five songs. "We did one in Iceland, one in
L.A., one in Seattle, one on the salt flats in Utah. It's been intense,
but it's been remarkable," Joel says. "We had to come up with these
concepts and the second song on the record is called 'God Only Knows.'
The week we were coming up with the video concept both Anthony Bourdain
and Kate Spade had taken their lives. The song really circles around
this idea of statistically we are lonelier than we've ever been, but yet
we're more connected by social media than we've ever been. It's almost
these faux relationships, these sort of fabricated relationships. In the
1980s in America, 20% of the people claimed to be lonely. In 2017 it's
almost 50%. We've more than doubled, but yet in that time period the
connectivity of humanity has exponentially heightened. Why is this
They decided to make the video a clip to support suicide prevention. "We
follow this pretty young lady through her day doing normal things," Joel
explains of the video, which was directed by their brother Ben Smallbone.
"She hangs out with friends. She goes to a coffee shop and she walks
onto a bridge that night and throws herself over a bridge. Then it sort
of reverses to a pinnacle moment where someone interacts with her. It's
a physical interaction. It's not a Facebook message or an Instagram
note. Someone ran after her, hugged her, found her and changed her."
Not all of the album is so emotionally heavy. The first single, "Joy,"
is a buoyant track backed by a 100-member choir. The song has already
topped the Christian Airplay chart, earning them their fourth No. 1 on
that list, and it peaked at No. 2 on Hot Christian Songs. "'Joy' was the
first song we sat down to write for the record," Joel says. "We've been
a pretty serious band up until this point. This was a real fun moment
just to go, 'Alright we've still got something we're saying here, but
let's have a bit of fun with it.' We really enjoyed that. It's hard to
write a song like 'Joy' without a good feeling. This record needed to
have depth, but it's also a good moment in time to find things to
The Smallbones are currently touring in support of Burn the Ships. "We
are trying something a little bit different," Luke says. "We were like,
'What if we go all around America and do 10 shows in the biggest cities,
but intentionally keep them in theater size, 1500 or something like?' So
we're going to New York, Nashville, L.A., Denver, Seattle, Dallas,
Chicago and we're going to play and really introduce this album to
people for the first time in these kind of intimate settings that I
think will really leave a mark."
Obviously the brothers are hoping these songs will connect with a broad
audience, and they trust they will find their home. "We've always just
tried to write songs that are true to us, so if it's writing songs that
could played on top 40, that's great," he says. "If it's songs about our
love for our wives, that's great. If it's songs about what Jesus has
done in my life, I think that's relevant as well. That's what makes art
palatable is when the person who listens says that song is true to
whoever wrote that song and so wherever it goes, we go."
As the interview winds down and Joel is finishing up some soup, he
reaches for a culinary reference to describe his hopes for the album.
"You can either make a cheeseburger of a song or sushi," he grins. "The
cheeseburger you can consume and be like, 'This is awesome!' It's about
the way you consume it. With sushi you've got the chopsticks. You've got
to slow down. With the cheeseburger, you just shove it into your face.
Music is similar and hopefully we want our music to be sushi to the
listener. There's nothing wrong with either. If you have too much of
either, especially cheeseburgers, it's not going to be healthy for you,
but the point is that there is music that I feel like will come and go.
As quickly as you see it, you consume it and then it's gone. What we've
worked for -- and whether or not we've succeeded we'll find out in a few
months or a year -- but our hope that when it's heard and consumed
there's an honesty and depth. It might not be the flavor of the week,
but when you consume it, you connect and it lasts."
Here's what the song,
Joy, feels like to me: a giant release and a call to action, to
accept happiness into your life, no matter what.
It's definitely a fragile time in America, the 24/7 news cycle,
polarization, et cetera, and it's easy to get caught up in that ...
and listening to this song, my first reaction is that you're saying,
"Stop for a second and listen." Am I on track at all?
insightful. This song took six months to write, and we wrote it partly
here in Nashville, some in England, some in Los Angeles, and it was not
a finicky song at all to write, we just have a long process. On the song
itself, I think that people are so attached to their phones, screens,
social media that you need to pause and see the joy, in human connection
Luke: Yes, we wanted to really concentrate on positivity in this
song and leave out all negativity. I feel like when people see the
video, it will bring it home and make sense. There's a real beauty in
diversity and different opinions. If you can be open and free about it,
that's where the joy is.
So the hope is for you
that this track,
Joy, might actually get folks to
slow down a second?
Joel: Yeah, we
just get so addicted to these phones, screens, social media, that life
just moves along at the speed of light, or seems to anyways.
Joy is not overtly
religious in its lyrics.
Are you hoping for some
crossover success here?
honestly never think of things in that sense. The music industry tends
to want to put labels on it, but fans don't think of music in those
Joel: I think we make music for people, so if it makes it to all
corners of the earth, great, and if not, then our only responsibility is
to make music that is true to who we are. If you can do that, you'll
find that millions of people are going through the same challenges that
you are. It's all about human connection.
This is the first new
music from you in a while. What is your hope for fans,
and I mean your loyal listeners,
as well as the people that will discover your music for the first time.
What can you tell us about the new album?
Joel: Two years
ago, our record label sat down with us and asked what the next stage of
our career is. Honestly, the first word out of our mouths was joy. The
next stage is joy. There should be joy and not a flighty sense of it,
just stumbling around hoping that that happiness might find me.
No, there should be a fight for joy, a very passionate pursuit of joy. So
on this upcoming album, which will be 10 songs, there's a romantic theme
throughout and also a lot of spiritual themes. We spent a lot of time
writing for the record, but we also wanted it to be concise.
The album does not have a
title yet and is coming when? Some of your marketing materials had
mentioned that it was
being released in May.
Luke: [Laughs] Yeah, we have pushed
this project back two or three times, but it's coming this fall, most
likely in October.
Your last album was
released in 2014.
What took so long?
Luke: Well, we
did the movie Priceless in 2016 with Universal ... and we wrote
songs for the film, which held us over.
Joel: You know, there are lots of other artists that can just get
in the studio and simply write an album's worth of material on the spot.
It doesn't work like that for us. I have always said that I am not a
good enough songwriter to write songs that don't mean anything to me
personally. So, if you're going to write 10 songs for an album, you have
to live some life so you can have something to write about. If I was to
write an album every year or two, I'd probably not have anything that
interesting or unique to say.
Luke: Right, you need that time to make some mistakes, strive a
little, so the 10 songs that we have, they're essentially our journal
You are both songwriters
and collaborate on most of your material together. Now that the process
is wrapping up for this album, is there a feeling of satisfaction?
Luke: I can
explain it this way: Our sister Rebecca is pregnant and seems like she's
going to have a baby any minute. I feel like that's a good comparison
with our new record. You know how it is, you live and breathe this
stuff, so right now we are very anxious. We're about to give birth to a
Joel: Exactly, I lay in bed at night thinking about it, Luke is
probably thinking about it in the shower. It's on our minds all the
time, especially now.
See For King & Country's Official Music Video For "Joy"
featuring Candace Cameron Bure - Click
See For King & Country's "O God Forgive Us" Official Music Video - Click
See For King & Country's live version of "Priceless"
as they surprised fan Candace Cameron Bure on "The View" - Click
You've had plenty of chart
you've won awards -- with this being your third album, are there tangible
Joel: You never sit
down to do a record thinking about charts, winning an award or anything like
that. That's not why you get into this. You do it for the power of the music
and the effect that your songs can have on people.
But isn't there also a hope
that as many people as possible will connect with
your songs and it may help them
in their own lives?
that's the anticipation. If I was to encapsulate what we want from this
album is that a lot of people out there, who might be hurting, can be
touched and encouraged by these songs.
Joel: This is such an exciting time in music because the walls are
coming down. It's all about creating a playlist to meet your emotions. I'm a
believer that music is the universal language. Our hope is that wherever you
are, no matter what your religious beliefs; that you can look at this music
and just say, "I get it."
I know you guys are big
U2 fans and they seem to be one of just a few big acts not afraid to get
onstage and say how they feel politically --
and if they lose any fans because of that,
they seem OK with that.
So I am asking that, in this age of polarization that we live in, what is
your take on it and do you try to avoid it?
Joel: I think it's
less about staying away from it and concentrating on what our mission is,
but I do believe there's a social side to our music, too. We're not a
political band, but we're a social band, talking about important issues like
human trafficking. Also, talking about women and a woman's worth.
But the climate is kind of toxic and angry out there. At the same time, I
have just become an American citizen, so I am feeling a real affinity with
Americans as well as patriotism.
So Luke, you are an American
citizen too? Are you both dual citizens of
Australia and the U.S.?
Luke: Yep, that's
right. I passed that test a long time before Joel ever did. [Laughs]
Did you help your brother
laughing, but it's actually a little intimidating to think you might get
rejected. It's a giant relief when you know that you've passed.
As a former radio programmer,
I still have that sense of how a song will sound on the air. I think Joy
is one of those songs that was just made for radio. With all of the other
platforms available to consume music, do you still sense that romance of how
a song will sound on the radio?
Joel: I am an
Apple, Spotify guy, but there is still a certain magnificence to hearing
your song on a terrestrial radio station. I don't think that will ever go
How do you make sure that your shows
Luke: I think it's
similar to how you make your music. You tell your stories about where you
are in life and people gravitate to it because they're experiencing similar
things. We all put our pants on the same way. We meet people where they are.
When you speak to people from your box and expect people to relate, you're
not going to get the results that you were striving for.
I believe that anyone can walk through those doors on any given night,
and you have to be ready for that, and be able to relate to that person.
What's your favorite kind of
Luke: We have been
playing a lot of hockey rinks and basketball gyms of late. [Laughs]
Honestly, it doesn't matter where we are; we're going to try and bring
people in and create something special. But we're thinking of going on a
short run and play theaters like Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. We're really
excited about that. The best places to play as an artist are the places
where you can reach out and touch the audience and create a community.
Why do you think there are
some Christian artists lately who do not want that
Christian tag on their music?
Joel: I believe
that when you look at history, there was so much power in religious music,
whether it be hymns, chants, choir music. I think there are signs that it's
coming back. I think there's always going to be artists that desperately
want everyone to like them. That's a dangerous place.
I think with the album we're about to release that we have romantic
songs, but we also have our spiritual and religious songs. On our spiritual
songs, we don't back away from our beliefs. We're not backwards, coming
forwards about our spiritual songs. We're proud of who we are. It's music
that we just have to get out, we believe in it that much.
You've both been through a lot
personally. Everyone is healthy now, I hope. ...
Luke, you went through something really serious. As a cancer survivor, I can
tell you that it's pretty much a factor in everything I do. How does what
you survived affect both your career and life overall?
Luke: Yes, I can
say that when you walk through something like that, it just changes you for
the better. It actually makes you a more compassionate person. It changes
the lens that you see life through. You just had to overcome miserable
things to get there.
I don't ever want to go back there, but you're a better person on this
side of it. I work hard now, but I also rest hard. I think, before, my value
was in my work, and now it's in things like seeing my wife's smile as I come
up the driveway.
I probably should have asked
Why the name, For King & Country?
Joel: It's actually
good you put it at the very end. You know, when we were thinking about a
name, every billboard, every name, every advertisement that you see, they
are all potential band names. We came up with our share of silly ones, but
we wanted something that was a touch regal, a name which had a sense of
purpose. We didn't want a quirky, just bizarre name.
The phrase "For King & Country" just kind of came out in our first studio
session. It was actually a cry that Roman soldiers would cry out as they
were going into battle, and we thought it was perfect. After all, all of us
are essentially going into battle.
~ from www.billboard.com ~