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Sarah Whitman: A conversation with Joel Smallbone of For King and Country

The Christian pop duo’s Burn the Ships tour comes to Tampa’s Amalie Arena Oct. 13.
For King and Country's Joel and Luke Smallbone. [Courtesy For King and Country]
Published Sep. 18
Updated Sep. 19

“Do you guys want to interview For King and Country with me?” I asked my middle-school students.

In addition to writing for the Times, I teach language arts at Christian-Crossings Academy in Odessa. My students know the words to most For King and Country songs. They stream the music via Alexa and watch the videos on YouTube.

"Really, talk to them?" Atalya Seizmore, 11, said. "Wait, what should I ask?"

“Aren’t they really famous?” Brady Smyth, 11, chimed in.

"Yeah, they're pretty famous," I said. "Is that a yes to the interview idea?"

Brothers Joel and Luke Smallbone, who make up the two-time Grammy Award-winning duo For King and Country, garnered worldwide appeal with their second album, Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong. The album’s single Joy has been streamed more than 18 million times. Fans spanning generations pack sold-out arenas at For King and Country concerts.

In 2018, the band released its third album, Burn the Ships. The Smallbones partnered with Timbaland and Dolly Parton on remixes of the hit track God Only Knows. For King and Country announced dates for its 2019-2020 Burn the Ships tour, which docks in Tampa Oct. 13 at Amalie Arena.

My students and I had the opportunity to ask Joel Smallbone a few questions via speakerphone. He called from Nashville, where he lives with his wife, Moriah. He was happy to hear from a group of very excited young people.

How do you keep from getting sidetracked by fame? Maddie Jones, 11, asked.

Most of our job involves things that happen off the stage. Being on stage and in the public eye is really a small part of our lives, but also a profoundly interesting part. If we're not careful, we can believe the publicity. My wife, who is a wonderful woman, keeps me focused. Luke is, of course, my brother. Our dad manages us. So, really, our work is a family affair. That helps a lot. The other thing is of course God and our love for Him. It's very centering to know we are part of a bigger story.

What inspired you to start making your music? Riley Smyth, 12, asked.

Well, Riley, when I was about your age my family had already moved to the states, My sister was a vocalist and I started working with her as a stage manager. I was very young to be able to do that and it really allowed me to fall in love with music. Then, when I was in my twenties, I asked Luke if he wanted to write some songs together. At the time, I'd always had this jealousy toward my brother. He was younger, better at sports than me and a better singer. Despite that, we sat down to write a few songs. It really brought us back together.

What was the inspiration behind Burn the Ships? Jack Smyth, 11, asked.

We were performing in Austin, Texas and Luke’s wife called to ask him to come home. She was pregnant and had been given pills for nausea. She’d become addicted to the pills and needed help. Luke went straight home and they walked through her recovery process together. One day, he found her standing by the toilet with the pills and she said she wanted to flush them as a symbol.

There’s this old story of an explorer who reached a new island and his men were afraid to be somewhere new. So, he gave the command to burn the ships as a symbol that they could only go forward and not backward. We thought was a cool analogy and a way to tell Luke’s story.

Your music has so many layers? Who does the arrangements? Amy Hoag, teacher at Christian Crossings Academy, asked.

There are four of us who worked on and produced this album. Really, it’s a collaboration in sound. A lot of work goes into the writing and the producing. Luke and I are like the curators.

Does your work ever pull you away from God? Brady Smyth asked.

Well, Brady, the short answer is yes but I don't think that's exclusive to being an artist. A lot of things distract us these days. I'm in Nashville now, tomorrow I'll be in Arizona, then Philadelphia and then back to Nashville. You can imagine, when you're traveling and don't get enough sleep, it can be distracting. So, we take time to just sit, talk and pray together.

What was it like making Joy? Atayla Siezmore asked.

It was a very hard song to write. We wrote many different versions before we were finished. We rewrote it. I added the cowbell in the end. I played it myself. I'm quite proud of that. The music video, we asked Candace Cameron Bure to be a part of it and she said yes. She's this 1970s newscaster delivering the news, which can be sad and heavy, and we come in with Joy taking over the news.

How long does it take to make your videos? Lucy Key, 12, asked.

Well it only takes one or two days to film but a month or two to plan. For Burn the Ships, we’re on a ship that was used in Pirates of the Caribbean. It was a question of how to move it and where to take it. We changed the story a couple times. Also, speaking of videos, we have a Christmas movie that will release in 2021, about two brothers on opposite sides during the Civil War. It’s called Little Drummer Boy.

At this point in the interview, I asked a couple questions of my own.

You recently collaborated on remixes of God Only Knows.What inspired those team ups?

It’s really a special time in music. There’s this resurgence of artists getting back in touch with God, faith and spirituality, like Timbaland. With Dolly, my wife and I were watching the movie Dumplin, which she produced, and it features a lot of her music. It made me think of this idea to work with her. I called her management and they played her the song. She loved the song and it went from there. She is a kind and gracious woman. I can’t say enough good things about her.

What advice can you offer my class and other young people growing up in the Christian faith?

I encourage you to keep exploring who Jesus is, what He stood for and what it means to love God more than self. Keep learning from one another. People get tired when they stop being curious, so keep searching and asking questions. Love well and do not judge people. Love people.

The class thanked Joel for his time. I hung up the phone and they let out their excitement. Each expressed surprise at how thoughtful Joel seemed and how he addressed them each by name.

"I felt his response was very straight up and true," Brady Smyth said. "For a famous person, he is very nice and down to earth."

'He was so humble, patient and relaxed,' Jack Smyth said.

‘It must be cool to know that you’re changing the world, even if it’s just a little bit,’ Lucy Key said.

For more information and to purchase tickets for the Burn the Ships tour, visit https://www.forkingandcountry.com/.

Maddie Jones, Kaiden Cashman, Atalya Seizmore, Madison Troiani, Lucy Key, Eli Karnaby Nathan Atiyeh, and Jack, Brady and Riley Smyth contributed to this column.

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