In February 2012, sibling duo for King & Country released their full-length debut album, Crave, spearheaded by the top 10 hits on Billboard‘s Christian Airplay chart, “Busted Heart (Hold On to Me)” and “The Proof of Your Love.”
A decade later, Luke and Joel Smallbone have four Grammy wins, seven consecutive Christian Airplay No. 1s and are releasing their new studio album, What Are We Waiting For?, out today (March 11). The latest single from the project, “Relate,” became the duo’s first track to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart in February.
What Are We Waiting For? centers around a trio of timely topics for an album forged as the nation struggled with political tensions, racial division and a global pandemic.
“Those three things — universality, spirituality and family — encompass a bit of what we walked through in this pandemic, the things we observed about the world and observed about ourselves,” Luke Smallbone tells Billboard.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced countless artists off the road — and along with a handful of other Christian music artists, for King & Country got creative and turned outdoor drive-in theaters into drive-in concerts. They also released holiday album A Drummer Boy Christmas. In early 2021, they returned to the studio. As with their holiday album, they were able to fully focus on the album-making process instead of slotting writing and recording sessions between tour dates and other career commitments.
“We said, ‘What if we were to go to the studio and treat it like a nine-to-five?’ You go in, you create, you take the music home,” Smallbone says. “Go back in, correct the mistakes and just attack it. I think this was the most enjoyable process that we’ve ever had making an album.”
The album includes a trio of collaborations: “Unity,” featuring Dante Bowe; “Harmony,” featuring Sleeping at Last and “Together,” featuring Kirk Franklin and Tori Kelly. “Together” was recorded and released during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and became a five-week No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Christian Airplay chart. Smallbone calls “Together” “the most expensive song we’ve ever made, because it had three or four producers on it,” due to necessary COVID separation.
The brothers began writing “Together” with the intention of including it on their 2018 album Burn The Ships. They didn’t finish the song in time to make that album, and eventually sent it to fellow Grammy winner and gospel music titan Franklin. “That whole bridge on the song is basically all Kirk’s doing,” Smallbone says. “He brought in his choir and his band and created the whole section. It was super special for him to come alongside and make it his own and infuse it with this great energy. And Tori has been a dear friend of ours, and she’s an unbelievably gifted singer.”
Though “Together” pulses with joy and cohesiveness, the song was recorded remotely. “I never saw Kirk or Tori during the recording process,” Smallbone recalls. “We would have phone calls to discuss different sounds, like, ‘Could you try this?’ or ‘Here’s what we’re looking for.’ It’s fascinating to think about the music that has been created over the last two years. If [the pandemic] had happened 50 years ago, there would be no music being created at all.”
“Unity” was born of watching as the nation has grown more divided and fractious over the past few years. “Just seeing the things that we were going through as a nation, it saddened us all. We wrote this song, just asking questions: ‘Do you believe in unity/ you and me in unity?’ If so, it does mean you do something,” Smallbone says. “You go out of your way to love a brother, love a sister. Rather than focusing on the things that separate us, what if we focus on the things that unite us? Having Dante on this album and on that song, it really illustrates that point. That’s the reason to do a collaboration, to expand the story, and I think that Dante does that in a brilliant way.”
The Smallbones wrote “Unity” in 2019 with Josh Kerr, Federico Vindver, and singer-songwriter Tony Williams, who has released a series of albums and EPs, as well as working on several albums recorded by his cousin, Kanye West. “There was already so much racial division going on and our hearts were broken by it,” Smallbone says of writing the song. After a mutual friend connected the duo with Williams, they played him an earlier version of the track.
“He listened to it and said, ‘Look, that may work from your side of the street, but those lyrics don’t work from my side of the street.’ I thought, ‘If you’re talking about a song about unity, I have to have your side of the street,'” Smallbone says. “We all write music and stories from our perspective, but it’s important to ask, ‘Well, what if someone doesn’t look like me, doesn’t have the same perspective as me?’ Tony brought so much to the table and I’ll be forever indebted to him for that. The first verse that Dante sings, Tony wrote that. Just having him write it from his perspective as a Black man growing up in America, it was so compelling.”
Several other tracks on the album, such as “Hold On Pain Ends,” “Seasons” and “Cheering You On” serve as uplifting, encouraging moments, while “Unsung Hero” honors the Smallbones’ parents’ journey immigrating from Australia to America, supporting their children’s musical ambitions, and ultimately seeing three of their children become stars in Nashville’s Christian music industry.
“Our parents immigrated from Australia when my father was 40. They had six kids and then had a seventh here,” Smallbone says, noting that their father worked as a concert promoter in Australia. “It wasn’t until a tour that my dad had in Australia went wrong that we lost everything we had… So we came to America broke, and it forced us to really bond as a family. We were all Australians in a new country, we all talked weird. Our family has five boys and two girls and we’ve all just had each other’s backs.”
Initially, after arriving in Nashville, the family cleaned houses, raked leaves, mowed lawns, and did whatever odd jobs they could find. Shortly thereafter, their father began managing artists and their older sister, Rebecca, began pursuing her own music career. Soon, artist-producer-label head Eddie DeGarmo (of Christian music duo DeGarmo and Key) signed Rebecca to his Forefront Records when she was 15. Under the stage name Rebecca St. James, she notched a No. 2 hit on Billboard’s Christian Airplay chart in 2003 with “I Thank You.”
Along the way, Joel and Luke soaked up every experience. “We were like subtle apprentices,” Smallbone recalls. “We were working the stages she played, worked lighting early on, and I don’t think it is any accident that, now, doing live shows is our favorite thing.”
The multi-talented duo is also working on a movie based on “Unsung Hero” that will detail their parents’ journey, and follows their 2016 film Priceless. “Our parents’ story is so fascinating and it’s a hopeful story,” Smallwood says, adding filming will begin in the fall. “They didn’t come out of perfect circumstances, but there was a dream, a passion and a hope for something greater.”
He hopes the songs on What Are We Waiting For? also encourage those going through struggles. “For a lot of us, we’ve gone through some real lows,” Smallbone says. “I hope the music is something that can cheer up, spur on and encourage someone through sometimes very, very dark days.”