Over the last decade, For King + Country has become one of the most successful stories in Contemporary Christian music. The brother duo of Joel and Luke Smallbone has been awarded four Grammy Awards, seven GMA Dove Awards, a Billboard Music Award, and nine number one songs on the CCM chart. Over their illustrious career, the brothers (who hail from Australia) have performed live to sold-out crowds around the world and have collaborated with a diverse list of artists including Timbaland, Dolly Parton, NEEDTOBREATHE, Echosmith, Lecrae, Tori Kelly and Kirk Franklin. In addition, their music has crossover appeal as evidenced by their Top 20 AC hits “Little Drummer Boy,” “God Only Knows,” “Together,” and “Amen.”
For King + Country’s Grammy-winning album, Burn the Ships (released in 2018), produced five consecutive #1 songs including “joy,” “Together (feat. Kirk Franklin & Tori Kelly), and the smash, “God Only Knows.” The album debuted in the Top 10 of the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart and was certified gold. The multi-platinum duo’s latest album, What Are We Waiting For?, has produced three #1 singles—“RELATE,” “For God Is With Us,” and “Together.”
During the pandemic lockdown, Luke and Joel (who were born in Australia and now live in Nashville) made good use of their time off the road to immerse themselves into the music. The extra time allowed them to dig deeper and reflect on the state of the world and their growth as men, fathers, husbands, and humans. Their latest music dives into a vision quest to explore the pains of life and examines the greater questions of where the urgency and hope lie.
In this new Q&A interview, the brothers of For King + Country talks about how they grew in the making of this album, discuss their songwriting process, and tell the story behind their hit single, “RELATE.”
BC: You’ve said that your new album, What Are We Waiting For? Marks a profound professional and personal growth. How so personally?
Here’s the video of For King & Country’s single, “RELATE.”
Joel Smallbone: The pandemic has been very educational for the world, and I think Luke and I are no exception to that rule. We just celebrated 10 years of putting out music together. February 28 was our 10-year anniversary. I think we realized even in looking back on that milestone, that the last two years really were a great wake-up call in pacing and in some ways slowing down for us. My personal, “What Am I Waiting For” is I’m waiting for the moment where I’m not waiting for something just to be still and be content with this moment. I think it showed us the beauty of and frankly, I think, the God-given gift of slowing down, being still, being quiet. With every other record we’ve been on a tour bus, the back lounge of a tour bus or dressing room or traveling. In this case, What Are We Waiting For?, was exclusively really made while we were off the road. We’re coming into this, I think, feeling very not only musically has it shifted, but inherently, personally, we’ve shifted into a place of being more contemplative and more thoughtful in how we engage with our listeners in the world, and that’s directly due to the realities of what we walked through in the pandemic.
BC: I understand that the songwriting process worked a little differently for you than it normally does. How does the writing process normally work for you, and how did it differ this time around?
Luke Smallbone: Usually, it can get quite frenetic to be honest. It’s the back of the bus. It’s walking off a bus, running through a writing session. This time around because of the pandemic we really in 2021 took six months to really write the record. We’ve obviously had songs that were written way back … we tried to treat it a little bit like a 9 to 5 [job]. You show up to the studio, write these songs, and go home, sleep on them, digest them, and try to fix the problems that arise overnight the next day. The songs—when you’re coming from a place that’s a little bit more rested and maybe a little bit less frenetic—I think they’re stemming from a little more of a place of deep contemplation versus just chasing your tail of the ideas that come into your mind. I think that’s a little bit of the reason why I hope this record is speaking to greater issues. In the past I think that so much of the musical content has been what we’ve been facing personally, and I think this record is a little bit more about what we’re facing as a people, and in some cases what we’re facing as people are just personal issues multiplied, but they matter nonetheless. I think this record there’s really three things to it: We’re dealing with some global things. We’re dealing with some family-type stories, and we’re also obviously talking about the spiritual, all of which have taken on a different level of importance to the pandemic.
Here’s the video of For King & Country’s single, “For God
Is With Us.”
BC: You have songs on the album like “Broken Halos,” “Unity,”and “Together.” Joel talked about how these songs look at the questions of where the urgency and hope lie. What answers did you receive in that search?
Joel: I think there’s obviously a great power in the question, hence, the title “What Are We Waiting For?” We asked our fair share of questions on this album, but you can also get kind of lost in the questions as well where you never feel like you’re landing on any sort of solid ground, if you will. There are certain ways I think we can ground ourselves, if you want to use that terminology, in truth, and one of those ways I think is to look back on particularly the cases of where God has intervened into humanity. The dark days that He tends to show up in mainly obviously Jesus Christ and 2,000 years ago. There’s so much to pull from in those heavy moments. So you naturally transfer that question mark of okay we’re walking through some pretty dark days humanly speaking now or have been the last couple of years, where is God in all of this. Is God some abstract idea, mystical creature, man upstairs a million light years away sort of looking down on His great experiment of planet Earth or is He something or somewhere else? If there is an answer in the record, amongst all the questions, is that we can come out of all of this really convicted through this stillness and the contemplation, and writing and looking at reality where we find ourselves, where the world finds itself … that God is not this abstract idea. God is literally all over the place. That God is here and now. He’s with us and that if we just look enough to experience it, we’ll find that this ultimately loving being is with us every step of the way. That truth, I think, certainly permeates—it’s permeated most of our music—this record as well.
BC: What’s the story behind your single, “RELATE”?
Luke: “RELATE” is the song we’ve led with on this record, and I think that one of the things we’ve been struck by in the last few years is there’s been an obviously massive degree of separation in thinking. It’s like you’re over here. You’ve got a side if you align with that person. If you don’t, you’re usually on the total opposite side of the spectrum. I think that’s a little dangerous. It has been a little saddening to watch, especially the people on social media, the amount of times I’ve seen people rip another friend, and they’re saying things like I’ve known you for 15 years, and we’re no longer friends anymore. It’s made me realize the lack of empathy and compassion for another. I liken “RELATE” a little bit to a young child who loses that favorite toys or that lovee, and it’s their precious thing and obviously when they lose it; there’s the tears, there’s the brokenness. It’s very easy for us as parents just to go, “Can’t you just get over it? I’ll get you a new toy. I’ll get you a new lovee.” But what you realize is that doesn’t actually help anything. But if you look into their eyes and say, “I’ve seen that hurt before because I’ve had that hurt before” you actually can go, “You know what? I acknowledge that this is difficult for you. I’m broken with you just as you’re broken with me.” I think to acknowledge another person’s pain it does produce empathy, it does produce compassion. “RELATE” is about that very thing. Do you have to actually agree? Do I have to actually have to walk through the losing of that precious toy to be able to relate with that child? Not necessarily because I can look into that child’s eyes, and I can see hurt, and I can see pain. That, to me, is the hope that we don’t have to walk through all the same circumstances for us to be able to relate to one another. We can just universally see some of these broader struggles that we are in. You wrote that comment out of hurt. So, I’m not going to reply. I’m going to walk away. Those are the types of things that I think have to take place for there to be a little more unity, to be a little bit more unified in life.
Here’s the video of For King & Country’s song, “Love Me
Like I Am.”
BC: You wrote the song, “Unsung Hero” as a sort of tribute to your parents. Can you tell me more about that song?
Joel: Our parents moved [to different] continents, and Mom raised seven of us. She was actually pregnant with our little sister as we were moving half way around the world. No insurance, not a lot of security in that moment. I think for Luke and I now as married men—Luke is a father of four—we both look back and marvel at their journey of love and their journey literally of going on this adventure around the globe and how they held steady in it and raised us in it. There’s a lot of honor bestowed on our loved ones once they’re gone, but this was a real fun and sweet opportunity to honor particularly Mom, but Mom and Dad and parents around the world for their great sacrifice and love and effort. The way it came about, Luke had walked into this room and said I want to write a song about dad. I said, I don’t know about that, but I want to write a song about Mom. We ended up putting pen to paper. Ironically, the verse I sing is focused more on Dad, and the verse that Luke sings is more focused on Mom. It’s been a real gift, I think, and hearing the responses from people as they share about their own unsung hero. That’s where the song really lifts off the ground is when it’s not just about our mom and dad, but it’s about your journey as a listener.
BC: You guys have had an incredible run of success. What has that meant to you? Where would you like to see your career continue to go?
Luke: Obviously, you’re always grateful for people supporting the art that is created, but it’s never the reason you get into music. You get into music because you’re passionate about it. You get into music because music affected you. You’re never doing it for accolades. You’re never doing it even for success or results. To keep doing it, you need a little bit of it. I think for us the success, if you want to call it that, represents songs connected to another heart, another soul, and hopefully spurn them on in their walks of life and in that run they may be taking.
I’ve never met anybody that doesn’t like music. They may not like the same genre of music that I like, but they always like music. I think it’s an honor to be able to do music, and a lot of people—Joel had mentioned we have been doing this for over ten years now. The amount of people that start music that are out of the industry in just a few years that’s the normal story. For us, it does come back to those people that stick up their hand and say hey thank you for being a part of my life with this song. I heard someone say a poet’s job is to articulate what another cannnot. I think for us it’s a joy to be able to attempt to articulate words through song that maybe other people cannot. Our hope is that these songs leave us, and they become the soundtrack to your life.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected].