Joel and Luke Smallbone, the brothers better known to fans as pop duo For King and Country, just recently got back from a trip to Washington D.C. Like most of us, they’re still getting used to being out and about again. The COVID-19 pandemic waylaid a global tour but also provided the opportunity to focus on a deluxe version of their Burn the Ships album and a live concert film you can watch on YouTube for free.
They were smitten with D.C., where the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. “This really special moment of, ‘Man, all that’s happened, there’s always this rebirthing,” Joel tells me. “There’s always this new hope for us all.”
They opened up about why they love collaborating with other artists, what that’s taught them about seeking unity as a nation and what they’re hoping for the future of a world on the other end of a pandemic.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
With your new Burn the Ships deluxe, you’re really putting a spotlight on collaborations. Do you guys feel like you have a soft spot for working with other artists?
Joel: Burn the Ships was such an interesting project for us because it was really the great discovery of collaborations. On the first two albums, Luke had done a song with his wife. We had Andy Mineo and KB on, but that was it. Then on Burn the Ships, it was like, Dolly Parton, Timberland, Echosmith, Tori Kelly, Kirk Franklin, Lecrae, Tony … It just kept on and on and on.
It became this beautiful other life that the record had. The original record was just us, and then over the last two years or so, all of these great moments have come out. We’re looking into the future, and it was this moment for us of going, “Hey, how do we canonize this era of the band?” When people look back on Burn the Ships, what are they going to look back on? It felt like it was important for people to look back on it and go, “Well, part of this album was these other collaborations and these remixes that really expanded the feeling and the breadth and the width of the record.”
Luke hates deluxe editions, but it actually felt like this was kind of the right thing to do at this moment.
Why do you hate deluxe albums, Luke?
Luke: Because most of the time, you do deluxe albums that are not the best songs. It was like, you had your first shot at it and the songs that didn’t make it-
Joel: You put it on a deluxe album.
Luke: You never want the fan base to feel like you’re just putting out a new product that’s jipping them. I just feel like it’s a money grab, and I don’t like that.
But this one felt different for you, because it wasn’t just your leftover songs. You had a bunch of collaborations, like “Together.”
Joel: That was just a grace of God moment. Rewind back to January 26th of last year. It was the day of the Grammy awards. It was also the day that incidentally, Kobe had passed away just a few miles from the Staples Center where the Grammys are held, so it was a very conflicting day.
We were fortunate to win two awards that day, as did Kirk Franklin. Our awards were sandwiched in between each other, and so we were the first people to see one another, as we were walking off stage.
Did you know Kirk at the time?
Luke: A little.
Joel: What would he say to you, Luke, when he was passing by you all the time?
Luke: He would never say, “For King and Country.” He’d say, “King Country.” “King Country, how you doing?” So at the Grammys, he said, “Put me on the collab list.” And I was like, “Oh, is that something I meant to have? Because I don’t have a collab list.”
Joel: But because we didn’t have a list, he was inevitably at the top of it. A few days after the Grammys, we were talking about “Together.” We’d already written it, preceding any pandemic in the West. I called Kirk on the way and reminisced about the 26th. I said, “Hey, by the way, let me just pop you this MP3 of this rough track that we’re working on. Would you be interested?”
He went above and beyond. He was like, “Man, I’m not only going to do this. I’m going to bring my choir in.” He rewrote the whole bridge, which would be one thing if it was worse but it was so much better. We had that, and then in the middle of quarantine, I recorded a video text to Tori Kelly and her husband. We just sent it over and said, “Hey, we’ve got this track and Kirk’s on it. Would you just sing on it, Tori?” Three days later, she’s recorded at home and she’d sent it back.
Collaborations, as you would know, can get really complicated really easily, but it was one of those rare moments that it was like, we had this song talking about “What does togetherness look like in a time that was very rapidly becoming socially distanced, politically divided, racial tensions, spiritual division?” We had all of these layers and it was just this grace of God that we had this song.
It’s interesting. I feel like we all want unity. We want to be together. But then when we start to come together, some issue gets in the way and it can very quickly seem like that issue is more important than unity. Sometimes it actually is. Sometimes it only seems like it is. It’s hard to tell the difference.
Luke: I think that people feel the need to agree on every to then be unified. I think that you have to realize that you have to have empathy. You have to have grace, because we’re not always all going to get along, and we’re not all going to get along. We’re not all going to agree on everything. If we did, we wouldn’t be America. That’s what makes America so interesting is that it’s a lot of different ideas, and we have a unique way of trying to come and say, “OK, we’re different. We’re not the same. But how can we figure out a through road?” In some cases, it’s been very bumpy, right? But America is made up of people that don’t really agree on everything. That’s part of what makes it interesting.
Do you think creatively collaborating has taught you some lessons about cooperating with people on bigger moral or social issues?
Joel: That is exactly what we’ve discovered on this album, Tyler, With these collaborations, they brought something to the table that we never would have brought. It’s actually because of the differences that made it beautiful. The way Dolly sang “God Only Knows,” I wept the first time I heard it. There was something about her with all her life experience, with all the hardship, with all the family dynamics, with all the misogyny she’s faced in her life, singing this song, “God only knows what you’ve been through.”
It’s like, “Oh man, this means more than ever because she just sang that.” We’re all in on embracing, provided that it stays in this place of love and place of belief and place of acceptance. We’re all about finding new ways to connect with different people that think in a unique way from us.
You just had to drop in that you worked with Dolly, huh.
Luke: Oh dude.
Joel: Career highlight, no doubt.
How are you feeling about getting back out on the road again? It’s a very different world out there.
Joel: As a band and in the arts, that’s so pivotal for people to see again and experience again. We’re in this really interesting precipice where the medical community is exhausted. We tip our hat to them. The pastors, the therapists, the politicians, they’re all exhausted, but the arts community have been sitting on the sidelines for the last year going, “Put us in, coach. We’re ready.”
I think what we feel right now is this bubbling of going, “Hey, we’re ready. Put us in, because maybe we can be part of the healing.” The live concert film was a small way of us, that’s why we wanted to put it on YouTube and make it free and just give it to people versus on a streaming platform, whatever. It was just going, “Hey, here you go. Remember what this was like, and we’re going to get back to this soon.” It’s going to be more special than it ever has been, and more important, I would say.
Obviously, live shows are coming. Anything else in the works for the near future?
Luke: There should be new music and new content coming down the pipe. We’ve still got some work to do. Quite honestly, we’ve still got songs to write, but we’ll see. God’s worked in our hearts over the last three or four years. There’s stories to be told there.
We’ve obviously all gone through an awful lot, as a world. I think that the temptation is going to be that we’re all just going to write pandemic songs. My take on it is no, I’m not necessarily into writing a pandemic song. But what has the pandemic revealed to me that is real? That is true? What were the things that made me afraid? What were the things that delighted my heart? Those are the things that I want to maybe add some commentary on.
So, no like Pfizer and Moderna anthems?
Joel: We do have a song called “Modern A.” See what we did there? We just put a space in between them?
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.