Luke and Joel Smallbone find new beginnings

Christian pop band for KING & COUNTRY talk about their new album and tour

As Grammy Award-winning US-based Christian pop duo, for KING & COUNTRY, prepare to bring their latest album, Burn the Ships, to our shores, Joel and Luke Smallbone remember fondly their hard-scrabble years after the family moved from Sydney to Nashville in 1991.

Despite dreams of making it big in the music industry, the Smallbone family found themselves living hand to mouth after their father David’s job fell through when his employer could no longer afford to pay him.

“We knew that we were poor, we knew that we didn’t have anything, but yet I didn’t feel this immense sense of fear,” Luke tells Eternity in an interview filmed in Nashville in preparation for their new tour, which kicks off at the Sydney Opera House on January 28.

“I give my parents a lot of credit for raising us like that … the first house that we lived in had no furniture, so we were playing cricket in the living room, which was amazing for kids because Mum was, like, ‘you can do that, there’s nothing to break in here!’”

“It really brought us as a family super-super close,” he says.

Luke remembers mowing lawns at just five years old and giving the money he made to his parents. And he marvels at the way such experiences, not necessarily fun at the time, have brought amazing benefits later in life.

“I remember my mother and my sister [Rebecca] cleaning houses and babysitting – doing whatever they could; and none of this money would ever come back to us – it just went back into a family fund just to buy groceries and provide. I think there was something really beautiful about that and it really brought us as a family super-super close,” he says.

Joel and Luke – who have become American citizens, but still consider themselves Australian, when barracking for their native country at the Olympics – learned about hope, love and support from their tight-knit family. Music became the family business when Rebecca was signed to ForeFront Records in 1993 and became a successful Christian music artist under the name Rebecca St James. They bought a van and, like an Australian version of the von Trapp family, began travelling together as Rebecca’s road crew.

When Luke was 19 and Joel was 21, their father put them together as a band and they began writing and recording the body of work that became for KING & COUNTRY. David manages the band to this day and all of the Smallbone siblings are still involved. Brother Daniel runs their light show; Ben does their music videos and in 2016 worked on a feature film inspired by their No 1 hit of the same name, “Priceless,” about human trafficking; little brother Josh is general manager, while sister Libby and mother Helen work on sponsorship.

“I realised I needed to do something if I want to have joy.” – Luke Smallbone

“So, you know, if you’re family you kind of get a job to some degree; hopefully you’re good at your job at the same time,” says Luke.

For KING & COUNTRY’s debut album, Crave, was released in 2012 and won New Artist of the Year at the 2013 Dove Awards (for Christian music) and was named Breakthrough Christian and Gospel Album of 2012 by iTunes.

Their follow-up album, RUN WILD. LIVE FREE. LOVE STRONG., broadened their appeal further, debuting at No. 1 on iTunes, and producing two Grammys and four Dove Awards, as well as a highly successful a 60-date international arena tour.

“We learned the craft of music and fell in love with it on the road with Rebecca.” – Joel Smallbone

Overall, they’ve had four No 1 hits (“joy,” “Priceless,” “Fix My Eyes,” and “Shoulders”,) nine Top 10 hits, and had songs featured on the Emmys, Super Bowl, Sunday Night Football and other high-profile events, including performances on The Tonight Show, Today and Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Next month, as part of an international tour, they are playing eight concerts in Australia featuring songs from their third studio album, Burn the Ships, a musical landscape of ten songs which each have special significance, exploring themes of new beginnings, forgiveness, hope, and love.

The album’s No 1 hit single, “joy,” featuring a 100-voice choir and a hypnotic wave of rhythm and electronic sounds, was inspired when Luke felt down after a late-night marathon scrolling through social media.

“I couldn’t articulate in that moment why I was sad, but it sent me on a pilgrimage, and that is where ‘joy’ came from,” he says.

“I realised I needed to do something if I want to have joy. I can’t just scroll and find it.”

“We don’t want to live in the past; we want to move forward.” – Luke Smallbone

The title track was inspired by a 1500s Spanish explorer, who boldly landed his ships on enemy shores with no knowledge of what awaited. To ensure his men were committed to their mission, he proclaimed, “Burn the ships!” The only way to go was onward; retreat was not an option.

“That is the big statement that this collection of songs is making,” says Luke. “We don’t want to live in the past; we want to move forward. There are things in everybody’s pasts that you have to get rid of – in some cases physically burn and in other cases you just need to get rid of them however you can emotionally. For us, that is the name that represents this collection of art and work best.”

One song on the new album, “Need You More,” was inspired by the terrifying near-death of Luke’s baby son, Leo. His wife Courtney found Leo in his crib, blue from not breathing. She began CPR while praying over their son, who soon came back to life. While driving to the hospital, the words, “I need you more/more than ever before,” came to Luke, who hit record on his phone. That original recording, including sounds from the car, was included in the final mix.

“My hope is that if I have gone through some form of suffering, maybe there is someone else who has gone through something similar who can take a bit of hope that there was someone else just like them,” Luke says. “I feel like God has given me these struggles to share those stories.”

“We learned the craft of music and fell in love with it on the road with Rebecca.” – Joel Smallbone

“Fight On, Fighter” is a musical letter of support to their wives while “Never Give Up”, written with sister Rebecca, represents a full-circle moment. Once novices, Luke and Joel are now their sister’s peers and have a shared understanding of the difficulties of being frequently away from home.

“We learned the craft of music and fell in love with it on the road with Rebecca,” Joel says. “In some ways, for KING & COUNTRY is a legacy band of Rebecca’s. It’s a real special moment to be able to have that creative collaboration after all of these years with her.”

The album’s theme of adventure and exploration ends poetically with “Pioneers,” a lush song about the romance and realities of long-term commitment. Fittingly, wives Moriah and Courtney join them on the final track.

“In a time where commitment can be hard to come by – the through-thick-and-thin/death-do-us-part kind of commitment – it’s a song that celebrates that kind of love,” Joel says.

Luke explains that their name – for KING AND COUNTRY – came up as a suggestion of their producer, Ben Glover. For King and Country was the battle cry of English soldiers willing to lay down their lives for their king and their country.

“When I am faced with despair, struggle or hardship, what can I do?” – Joel Smallbone

“The way that we came up with it was this: Joel came into the studio one day with this band named All the King’s Men and our producer at the time spun around in his chair and was like ‘no, no, what about the name for king and country, like the old British mantra that they used to chant before going into battle.”

Both Joel and I both kind of looked at each other I was like ‘man, it just feels regal, it feels like it’s saying something,’ but if you fast-forward three or four months later I remember kind of having this epiphany that the name is kind of a mission statement as well.

“I mean, the reason why we do music is for King, for God, and for people, for country, and so I think they kind of go hand in hand as to the reason why we do music. Every time we’re introduced is for KING AND COUNTRY. It’s a little bit of a reminder as to the reason why we do what we do.”

Joel adds: “We never want to be a voice of critique or criticism, but a voice of, ‘Maybe if we shifted our perspective, what would we see?’ That is the beauty of music. We ask the questions of ourselves: ‘I want to have joy. I want to find a way. When I am faced with despair, struggle or hardship, what can I do?’”

For tickets to the upcoming Australian tour, visit