for KING & COUNTRY is a two-time Grammy award-winning duo made up of brothers Joel and Luke Smallbone. We sat down with them to talk about their journey so far as well as their new album, Burn The Ships.
First of all, congratulations on Joy being nominated for a Grammy award this year! How does that feel?
Luke: Well, I think I didn’t expect it, because there is certain timeframe you have to release songs by for them to be up for Grammys. So when I woke up to some text messages saying that we had been nominated, the first thing I thought was: “Wait a second, I thought we weren’t allowed!” I guess I didn’t understand the rules correctly.
But awards don’t mean that much, to be honest. What that award represents in my mind is the people that have been impacted and changed because of that song.
Luke and I worked very heavily on music for 6 years and we failed a lot.
That to me is so much more valuable than you know, a little trophy thing that is going to sit at your desk or in your house and collect dust for the rest of its life. I mean it just doesn’t really matter – but people’s stories do. People’s souls do. And that to me is what an award or nomination represents.
So I just take it as encouragement because there have been many songs that I have written that haven’t really moved the needle or impacted people that much. But Joy got some recognition and I think it means, “Wow, keep on doing what you are doing because there is this group of people who recognise it as art that matters.”
Was there a moment in your life when you really wished you were doing something else entirely?
Luke: For me, no. I don’t know why but I feel like I was kinda purposed in this world to be doing what I am doing now. I don’t think it’s going to last forever, but that’s what I feel right now.
Yes, there have been moments of intense difficulty where you sometimes go, “Wow, I’m pretty sure this job over there might be a little bit easier than this,” but easier doesn’t mean that it’s better.
And easier certainly doesn’t mean that that is the route that you should go. So, for us, we’re trying to do what we do in music to the best of our ability. I think a lot of music is just putting one foot in front of the other.
Joel: There have definitely been such moments, particularly earlier in our career, because Luke and I worked very heavily on music for 6 years and we failed a lot. And so there were many hard moments and I was very lonely – I hadn’t met my wife then – and there were many days when I thought about doing something else.
In fact, when I moved to Los Angeles, I got a little apartment out there thinking that if music didn’t work, then I would get more into filmmaking. Almost like a backup plan.
But music started working and so we carried on with music and I loved it. But yeah I think it’s a very common thing for everyone to have that question of “What if?” or “What if I did something else?” Sometimes I think about working in an office because it’s just simple – you just have your hours and then you go home.
How did you know music was what God wanted you to do?
Joel: First of all I should say that I didn’t have the lightning strike or radical moment of “This is what I’m meant to do!” It just happened little by little, day by day, piece by piece. Music was such a big part of my life that it was a very beautiful and natural thing to start pursuing it on my own.
But drawing a parallel to who we choose to marry: I don’t necessarily think there is one person out there for us to marry. I think that there are people who are very compatible and people who are not. I think that’s the same with work.
People sometimes get caught up with this question: “What is one thing that God has called us and designed us to do” But I think if there is one thing that God has designed us to do, it is to love Him and love each other. The greatest commandment. And as long as we are being good people and honourable people, then I think we can do a lot of different things at a lot of different seasons in life.
Speaking of marriage, you’ve previously worked on I’ll Wait For You with Moriah Peters – then your girlfriend, now your wife. And in your new album both of you collaborated on Pioneers. Both songs have a completely different message about love – so what did marriage teach you about love that dating didn’t?
Joel: Generally, the way young people approach relationships is that we get really excited and obsessed with the beginning of a relationship. Like the feeling you get when you see her across the room, have your first date or share your first kiss.
Those are beautiful times, but there aren’t a lot of songs written about the consistency and commitment of love and the fact that when we go on this journey of love, there are great times and then there are difficult times. But that is really where the richness of love is found.
So I’ll Wait For You and Pioneers are very different songs because I’ll Wait For You was at the very beginning of a relationship while Pioneers is written 8 years into a relationship. So the latter is much more settled – a deeper song.
And it’s probably in some ways more of a truer song, because we were writing I’ll Wait For You based on who we thought we were. Pioneers is about who we know each other to be now.
Tell us the story behind your new song, Burn The Ships.
Luke: My wife Courtney was pregnant with my son Phoenix when she developed debilitating nausea. So she went to the doctor and asked if there was anything they could do about it. The doctor prescribed her medicine and it worked for about six weeks. But after that, it wasn’t working anymore. So she went back to the doctor and they upped the dosage for her.
One day when I was performing in Austin, Texas for a show, she actually called me and said she needed me to come home. I asked what’s wrong and that’s when she said: “Well, I have been taking this medicine and I just can’t stop taking it anymore.” At that point, I realised we had a problem.
Spiritually, emotionally, and physically, Burn The Ships is an album where Luke, Courtney, Moriah and I come together and march into the new future as a family.
So I went home and saw Courtney and I asked if she was ok. She was ok then but as the night progressed, she started asking “What if I just take one more pill to get me through the night?” And then I saw her hands start to tremble.
The next morning, I took her to a mental health facility where she received outpatient therapy for two weeks.
Then one night she was in the toilet – and I saw that she had the bottle of pills in her hands. She said: “Luke, I need to flush these pills, because these pills represent so much shame and guilt in my life that I just need to flush them”.
Joel: It was then that Luke recalled the story of how an explorer came to an island hundreds of years ago. The explorer wanted to have all his men come on shore so they could explore the land. But the men were frightened. They wanted to stay on their ships. And so the next day, the captain ordered all of his men off the ships and told his general to burn the ships. It meant they were not going to go back, they were only going forward.
Luke: We all have things to burn in our past because they keep us from moving forward. So when my wife flushed those pills, that was her moment of burning the ships. That was the moment that inspired that song.
Joel: Spiritually, emotionally, and physically, Burn The Ships is an album where Luke, Courtney, Moriah and I come together and march into the new future as a family.
Your songs are primarily based on personal experiences, was there a time when you were afraid that you were running out of things to write?
Luke: After we write a new album, I start to think, “I’ve given so many stories to this album and if I were to write one now, maybe I wouldn’t have the same depth of stories to tell.”
But the truth is that there are tiny stories that are beautiful and powerful happening all the time – you just have to be willing to pay attention.
So I think kids helps a lot with finding these stories; marriage helps a lot because there is always so much taking place between a family that is really, really beautiful. There are a lot of things to write about in the world.
It can be so easy as a creative to forget that your creativity doesn’t belong to you. How do you balance focusing your craft on God rather than yourselves?
Luke: I genuinely am not the most gifted music guy in the world. I write these songs that feel important to me and I sing, but there are people out there who are crazy talented. And yet sometimes for those people, nothing ends up happening.
What that means to me is that this is all a miracle. This is the hand of God saying, “This is what I’ve assigned for you to do and I’ll equip you with the talents that you need”. When that is the case, you don’t necessarily start thinking, “Wow look how good I am”. You just start looking at how powerful Jesus really is.
It’s a pretty humbling experience getting to do this and if you continue to have a grateful heart, your eyes would be open to the miracles God has done. That’s the focus for us and that’s why for however long I am going to do this, I hope to try and remain with that mindset.
Joel: I don’t divide my life up to where part of it is God’s, and part of it is mine. The whole idea of life is God-given, it’s God-breathed. We are here because we are created by Him, so every song, every conversation, whether or not it is even written about God – is for Him.
There are also specific things that we do on the road. We remind ourselves before every concert by having a moment where the band and the crew will get together and say a prayer for the night. We’ll read something together and just kinda encourage each other.
So you’ve just got to be reminded that God is in everything, God is everywhere. The only time that we forget is when we are not paying attention. But I believe if you look for Him, He is everywhere.
for KING AND COUNTRY will be in Singapore for a night of worship on 11 February 2019. Tickets are available from $28 onwards. Grab yours now at The Assembly.