“Priceless” is from the feature movie of the same name about human trafficking, a cause the brothers are extremely passionate about. The film stars Joel and both brothers were involved in its production. Another Smallbone brother (there are five brothers in total, plus two sisters), Ben Smallbone, directed the film.
A gifted little tribe this Smallbone family is: Luke and Joel are also the younger brothers of singer and public speaker Rebecca St. James.
For King & Country is gearing up for a new chapter. In their personal lives, both have overcome serious personal hurdles. Luke battled a life-threatening digestive disorder, ulcerative colitis, in 2016. Then shortly afterward, Joel’s wife, Moriah Peters, also a singer, faced a serious illness.
Everyone is healthy now and the duo seems anxious to get started.
Joel and Luke Smallbone entered the room with a larger-than-life presence (they’re also tall; Luke is 6-foot-4) as they bounced off the elevator at their record company, Word/Curb’s Nashville office. They seemed genuinely excited to talk about their upcoming work.
As they got ready to sit down with Billboard to chat, they first asked for opinions on their brand-new single, “Joy.” It’s the launch single from a new album due this fall; their first full-length studio album since 2014’s Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong, and you can listen to its exclusive premiere below.
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?
Joel: You’re 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 and interaction.
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?
Luke: We 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 terms.
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 entries.
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 new album.
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.
You’ve had plenty of chart success, you’ve won awards -- with this being your third album, are there tangible goals?
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?
Luke: Absolutely, 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 study?
Luke: We’re 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 away.
How do you make sure that your shows are inclusive?
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 venues to play?
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 this first. 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.”