For KING & COUNTRY: Rescuing Christmas

Headliner recently spoke to Luke Smallbone, one half of four-time Grammy Award-winning Christian rock/pop duo For KING & COUNTRY, to discuss the musical chemistry he has with his brother Joel, collaborating with Dolly Parton on the band’s hit God Only Knows, and their new Christmas album that has been eight years in the making.

Australian-born, Nashville-based sibling duo For KING & COUNTRY are currently out on the road with “A Drummer Boy Drive-In: The Christmas Tour” in support of their first holiday album, A Drummer Boy Christmas.

“Obviously we’re there in person and we have a live PA, so you can roll down the windows if it's not too cold and still have a really nice experience,” says Smallbone. “The most important thing right now is that it's safe and socially distanced, so we're very grateful to have a little bit of work and be able to share the music that we've made on the Christmas album with the people.”

At least one positive about 2020 is that the pair have been able to use technology to their advantage. In fact, it has been quite the boon for their creativity:

“With the Christmas album, one of our producers who lives in Bath, UK was able to record a little bit there. It was mixed in London, we had some strings played in Copenhagen, we had some horns done in L.A, it was mastered in New York and then our band was in Nashville!”

Smallbone actually started out in life wanting to pursue sports, but that dream quickly faded when he tore his ACL playing basketball. Going into music with his brother Joel then seemed like the perfect alternative; the pair wrote some songs and did a couple of projects together, “but nothing ever really hit all that hard,” he says. “It was during those years that I think I fell more in love with music; I could see its power and maybe saw some of my talents beginning to form.

“During those six or so years of very little success we were finding ourselves and trying to figure out how to work together, and they were probably the bedrock of everything that we do now.”

From a creative standpoint when it comes to the songwriting process, there’s a lot of chemistry between the brothers, and they’re able to combine their talents in a truly meaningful way. After all, teamwork makes the dream work.

“We know each other so well, so when he’s resistant of an idea I can usually understand the reason why, and we can get to the bottom of it. Joel and I have very different musical talents. I usually start a lot of songs whereas he is more of a finisher, and I tend to usually be a little bit more of the driving force behind a new idea.

“To be honest we were arch rivals growing up, but now we have become dear friends. We've spent so much time together and worked with each other for so long that sometimes we can finish each other's sentences, and in some cases finish each other's songs! I've often joked that when Joel and I are separate, we’re just a leaf in the wind, but together we can do something that I think is special.”

I write the songs to comfort my own soul, and in turn I’ve realised that there's millions of other people that have a soul very similar to mine.

Earlier this year, For KING & COUNTRY debuted their single Together, featuring Kirk Franklin and Tori Kelly: a song about the strength of pulling together in the face of adversity, making for quite a pertinent topic this year. The track went on to spend a number of weeks at number one, and the duo also hosted a live stream event ‘Together: A Night Of Hope’, which received 2.5 million viewers across their social media platforms.

“We actually started writing Together about two years ago, and then when we went into quarantine we both knew it was the song that we needed to finish,” Smallbone reveals. “We did it all digitally; I never actually saw any of those people in the same room together. For want of a better word, it came together really brilliantly. I think that when we were writing it a couple of years ago, the intent was always for it to be released now, we just didn’t know it at the time.”

God Only Knows

The duo’s track God Only Knows won two awards at the 2020 Grammys, and they also collaborated with Dolly Parton to release a version that reached number one.

“Having Dolly on it is a special thing in itself, but when you hear a voice that’s been around for 65 years singing those lyrics (God only knows what you've been through / God only knows what they say about you / But God only knows the real you), it’s a really powerful thing. What she did to it took it to far greater heights than we could have ever achieved ourselves, purely because there's something about putting the weight of her vocal behind it that represents something quite significant.”

The track won Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song, while For KING & COUNTRY’s third album, Burn The Ships also won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album.

God Only Knows and the songs on that album were written about very specific things that we had experienced,” Smallbone reveals. “I write the songs to comfort my own soul, and in turn I’ve realised that there's millions of other people that have a soul very similar to mine. I think that when Burn The Ships won, that was a very satisfying moment of ‘I don't feel quite so lonely in this world.’”

More recently, the pair released their first full-length Christmas album, A Drummer Boy Christmas, which debuted on the iTunes chart at number four overall, and number one on the holiday chart. Their unique, explosive cover of Little Drummer Boy has become somewhat of a staple in their live repertoire, perhaps because they’ve done exactly what it says on the tin.

“The thought was, why has nobody ever done a drum-centric version of a song called Little Drummer Boy?” he laughs. “We literally just took the song for its word; we thought it was the lowest hanging fruit of all time! We love big, boisterous drums and I grew up playing them, so we went and played it at a few shows and it created a bit of a buzz.

“Fast forward quite a few years, and we’re becoming a little bit known for Christmas music, even though we've never actually done a full length Christmas album! This year the challenge was to go into the studio and do just that, just to see how it goes. When you think of drums, you think loud. I always loved Bing Crosby's Little Drummer Boy, but it's got bells in it, which made me chuckle to myself, because that's not what the Little Drummer Boy would be doing; he would be playing the drums!”