Luke and Joel Smallbone extend tour, add Canadian dates
By Joshua Maloni
For every Amy Grant, MercyMe or Skillet, there’s a dozen other Christian artists who will never crossover and find success in mainstream music.
Though the work of these other musicians is just as strong as their “secular” counterparts, their brand isn’t top-of-mind in most consumers’ minds. In fact, one looking to catch these artists live on stage would find limited options – a church, a faith-based college or an event like Kingdom Bound.
Jesus + pop-rock just isn’t a peanut butter and jelly fit for the general public.
So, why is that for KING & COUNTRY is at the center of so many major music events lately?
When the Christian duo released “burn the ships” in late 2018, the album landed at No. 7 on the Billboard Top 200. The single “God Only Knows” went Top 30 on Mediabase and Billboard’s “Hot AC.” In the past year, for KING & COUNTRY performed at the Country Music Awards, recorded with Dolly Parton, remixed with Timbaland, shot a video with Sydney Sierota from Echosmith, and took home two Grammy Awards.
“One of the things that we did before we wrote ‘burn the ships,’ the album, was we had kind of done some market research, and that was, ‘What are the songs that most people were responding to, and why? What were they thinking? What were they feeling? What was going on?’ ” Luke Smallbone said in a recent phone interview. “What we realized was, most people that responded to any of the different songs, it was because they somehow personally related to us; there was this personal connection that they had to a story that had happened in our lives. And what we realized was, when something happens in our life, it's happening to other people all over the world.
“Sometimes I think the temptation in the world is that anything that is difficult, or anything that’s happening, it's only happening to you. You're the only one going through depression. You're the only one going through terrible relationships. You’re the only one. And what we realized is, no, you know, basically, everyone's going through similar things. So, if we can write songs that are personal, and that mean something to us, then there's actually a good chance that people can really respond to the music as a whole.”
And respond they have – so much so, that for KING & COUNTRY had to extend its “burn the ships” tour into 2020. The band is headed to Canada for a series of shows, including the Meridian Hall in Toronto on Friday, March 13.
“Most of the time, we hear the response of, ‘Hey, thank you for writing a song that can be my life story.’ Or, ‘Thank you for seemingly reading my journal, even though I know that you didn't,’ ” Smallbone said. “When you're a part of writing a piece of art, or creating a piece of art, and somebody else says, ‘Thank you for writing this song, because it's become my rally cry,’ I think that's the reason why you get involved in music, is you hope to be able to make something that people can relate to, and feel attached to.
“And, in our case, it’s particularly thrilling, because a lot of times we're making this stuff, and we're writing about the stuff that is happening in our lives, personally. And so, when that becomes somebody else's song – when that becomes somebody else's life song; that becomes somebody else's rallying cry – it makes what you walk through in your own life, personally, feel that much more validating. Because it's been able to spur somebody else on in their life.”
Read more of our conversation in this Q&A – and, Luke noted, “Tell the Kingdom Bounders we said ‘Hello.’ ”
Q: Were you more surprised that you won the Grammys – or that they didn't just give them to Billie Eilish?
Luke Smallbone: (Laughs) Look, any time you’re up there doing some stuff at the Grammys, you're always grateful to be in it – because, essentially, people that are voting for you, they're your peers. They're the people – they’re your buddies – that are voting; so, you're grateful for it.
Now, if Billie Eilish had been in our category, hands down she would have won. We would’ve just been able to kiss that thing goodbye!
But no, we had a great experience out there. It’s actually cool to kind of go check in on what music is doing when you go to the Grammys, because you go for the show, as well. Every year you're talking about the most happening thing now. Those are the ones who are doing the performances, so that was actually kind of cool – to kind of sit in, like, ‘This is what people are doing in modern music,’ you know what I mean? It was interesting.
Q: So, where do you keep the Grammys?
Luke Smallbone: Well – that's funny. My kids have them in their rooms. We have two from a prior Grammys, and then we have two more – well, we don't have the two more yet. They ship them to you at some point. I don't even know when they ship the other two. So, the two that we have, the kids have them in their room.
I don't know; I’ve never really known what to do with the Grammys, because I don't want to be that guy that, it's like, “The most special place in the house goes to … a Grammy Award!”
That feels weird.
So, we don’t know. My wife did say to me, “burn the ships,” the album that one of the Grammys was awarded to, she was like, “You know what, this is a very special song, and a very special album for us, personally.” She said, “We actually might have to display this somewhere.” And I said, “You know what, we can do that.” And she said, “I want to display it, because this is really a redemptive moment for us, and our family, and our stories.” And I was like, “All right; fair enough.”
“burn the ships,” it may actually get a place on some sort of mantle or something. It remains to be seen.
Q: So, switching gears. … What kind of reaction do you guys get in Canada? How is your music received in Canada?
Luke Smallbone: Well, ironically enough, we haven't done that much in Canada. We've only really done festivals and things. And so, to be totally honest, we were a little apprehensive about doing this tour up there, because we're like, you know, we're gonna go up there and do – I forget how many shows we’re doing, but we're doing like eight or nine shows up there – is anyone gonna come!?! That was the thought, kind of originally. Like, what's gonna happen here?
Now, we’ve gone up there and done a decent amount of big-sized conferences and festivals and things – but you know, Canada is a big place. And so, to start on the east and go out to the west, that's a big tour you’re talking about right there.
And so, what we've found is just this very warm welcome, which has been great. I think that all the shows are sold-out outside of three or four of them or something like that. It's been this kind of welcome hug, and I think it's going to become a thing that we're going to try and come up there every couple years and do something like what we're doing this year.
Q: When you put an album together, obviously you hope for the best. But, to be in a position where your fans – as the press release rightly points out – there was an overwhelming response and request for you to extend this tour and to do the encore – that's got to feel pretty good, right?
Luke Smallbone: Yeah; I mean, look, you know it's gonna end at some point, so you kind of enjoy it while it lasts for the minute.
But yeah, the cool thing about “burn the ships,” the album and the tour, is this has been a deeply personal album. And so, to be able to have a moment where people are responding to that – you know, the last tour that we did – the “burn the ships, part one tour” – it was the most ambitious thing we've ever done by a long shot. And so, the fact that people came out – the fact that people responded to that – that was the reason – kind of the heartbeat – behind doing the encore tours. Because other people kept come coming to us saying, “Hey, well, you didn't come to my city,” you know? “You didn't come to my country.” So that's why we really wanted to be able to make it to where, you know what, if you wanted to come, you can come. And so that's why we are getting to do these shows up there with you guys, and the rest of North America.
Q: When you talk about the ambition of the tour, I'm sure a good portion of that is because of the actual physical aspects of it, where you've got the bow of a ship, and you've made an immersive experience. Tell me a little bit about that – and what it's been like to perform with all of that going on in the background.
Luke Smallbone: Well, it absolutely is the most ambitious thing that we'd ever done – and to be totally frank, it was an exhausting tour. We haven't done many shows since that tour; and it took me about six weeks, I think, to recover emotionally (laughs) from that tour.
We were just done. It was very exhausting, and part of it is because we've never done anything quite to that size; we’ve never done anything to that scale. We've done big events, but when it's your own tour, with that amount of stuff, and that amount going on, you feel the weight of the responsibility of that. Do you have production managers and other people who take charge? Yes, of course, but still at the end of day, it’s kind of your thing.
And so, we went all out. We tried to make it as unique and special as anything that we could ever create. And I think that that's part of the motivation behind wanting to do this encore tour is because we have stumbled upon something that we're really proud of, that we do want to take to other people. And now we get the opportunity to do that with you guys.
Q: All right, so, I'm looking at this picture, and in this picture there's you; and there's your brother; and in between the two of you is Dolly freakin’ Parton.
How did that happen? How does one get connected with Dolly Parton, and get her to participate on a song?
Luke Smallbone: (Laughs) Well, it is a very interesting story. And the story is this: Joel had been watching the Netflix special, or movie, “Dumplin,’ ” with Jennifer Aniston in it. And, when he watched the show, all of Dolly’s music is laced in there. And so, he was like, “Oh, that's kind of cool. We should do a song with Dolly Parton.” And, you know, when you just say it like that, you're like, “Yeah; keep dreaming, buddy.”
Well, Joel actually taught a couple of her junior managers – and I've known all of these guys for years – in Sunday school, many, many years ago. And he was like, “Well, I'll just give them a call.”
And so, he gave him a call and said, “Hey, I know this is a longshot, but we've got this song that's doing well on radio, and we're looking for a feature to kind of take it to other places. Do you think Dolly would be interested?”
And they were like, “Well, it's funny that you should call: She just told us two days prior that she's looking to do more inspirational and spiritual songs.”
And so, sure enough, she heard the song (“God Only Knows”) and said, “Hey, I want to be a part of what this song is doing.” And so, she sung on the song.
A little while later, she said, “Well, I think we should do a music video for this.” So we did a music video for it. And then it got to a point where she was like, “Well, I'm hosting the CMA Awards, and I like our song real good. Why don't we sing this song on the CMAs?”
It was this beautiful relationship that, you know, who would have ever thought came from teaching a couple kids in Sunday school and Netflix’s “Dumplin’ ”? Who would’ve ever thought?
Q: And so, then, if that wasn't enough, you decide you’re going to do a version with Timbaland and Sydney from Echosmith. Tell me about that version of the song.
Luke Smallbone: Songs that connect the way that “God Only Knows” has, I mean, we understand that they're a dime in a dozen. You just don't have songs that (hit like that). … But if that’s the case, and it’s going to continue to be (successful) … we thought, “How can we spur it on a little bit? How can we give it a little more life?”
We have some connections with Timbaland’s folks, and they were really interested in wanting to do a remix of it. Once again we thought, “Well, you know, Timbaland’s a little more on the pop side of things, we probably should get an artist that is a little bit more pop-oriented.” We’ve known Sydney and her family for a little while, so we thought, “Well, why don't we give her a call?” And she got really excited about the idea of doing something like that. And, voila, here we have this song that is featuring both Echosmith and Timbaland.
Q: She said that you and your brother are unequivocally the nicest people in the entire music industry.
Luke Smallbone: Well, we paid her to say that, so she’s holding to her side of the bargain.
Q: (Laughs) It's got to be nice that there are so many different sorts of bands and different genres out there now that want to work with you guys – I mean, that's got to be rewarding, I would think?
Luke Smallbone: I mean, you're right. Look, a lot of times when you're somebody who's in Christian music and following Jesus with their life, that's not necessarily Hollywood-friendly.
Luke Smallbone: You know what I mean? It does kind of pigeonhole you, in some cases. But one of the things that I realized, though, is, man – not to over-spiritualize things – but nothing’s too big for God. If God wants the Echosmith-Timbaland-Dolly Parton thing to happen, like, look what happened? These special, unique and amazing things can take place.
But it is also humbling when you get to a point where you realize that, you know, those people don't just want to work with people that are making silly songs. They're responding because they feel like there's something in this music that they want to attach to. They're not just doing it for a paycheck, if that makes sense.
Man, we’re honored by that. I mean, that's something that we're really grateful for, and people to come alongside us – and to believe in us – and for them to say, “Hey, well, you may be this, but we don't care; we're gonna work with you anyway.” That's cool. I really respect that.
for KING & COUNTRY returns to New York with a 7 p.m. show Friday, May 1, at Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton. Find tickets at https://www.ticketmaster.com.
NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Binghamton show has been rescheduled to June 18.