For King & Country on the Struggles That Informed 'Burn the Ships,' Their 'Most Mature Record' Yet
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 experiences. "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 lesson. "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 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, 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 together.' 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 happening?"
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 celebrate."
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."