They’re twins! No, not Joel and Luke Smallbone, the Australian brothers who are at the core of the band for KING & COUNTRY. We’re talking about the dual Grammy trophies that the band took home in February 2015, triumphing in both of their nominated categories with their sophomore album, Run Wild. Live Free. Run Strong. “When we won those awards, it was obviously shocking,” says Luke Smallbone, noting the better-‐‐established acts they were up against. “The songs from the album are very personal and maybe the Grammy voters could sense that?” Naturally, the guys in for KING & COUNTRY weren’t actually doing it for glory or Grammy, but if their candor happens to be validated with kudos, they’ll take it.
The awards came at the peak of a heady season for the brothers, who first caught the attention of the mainstream in America around the time that Billboard magazine named them one of the publication’s “New Artists to Watch for 2012.” They made good on that prophecy with a debut album, Crave that made them not just a blip on the radar, but put for KING & COUNTRY on the map with 410,000 track sales and 9.5 million streams. Two years later, Run Wild. Live Free. Run Strong. celebrated an even stronger start out of the gate. The sophomore effort debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard Top 200 and No. 2 on iTunes; the lead single, “Fix My Eyes,” reached the top spot on several radio formats and landed the band on The Today Show andJimmy Kimmel Live. But when they won those Grammys, they were humbled… and not just in the 21st-‐‐century, figurative sense of the word.
“That week was one of the biggest of our career,” says Luke. “We had just finished filming a concert in New York City for Public Television’s Front and Center, performing on the Today show, playing the Georgia Dome and Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, and then winning two Grammys. It was surreal.”
They certainly come by a sense of high stakes, not just in their themes, but in their Cinemascope-‐‐sized musical influences. “We love classic U2 or Tears for Fears —big-‐‐sounding bands,” says Joel. “But when I want to unwind, I actually pull up film scores -‐‐ the most recent Tron film, (Daft Punk) or James Horner or Hans Zimmer with the Batman series.” You can also hear that mixture of cinematic grandeur and human-‐‐sized emotion in their new single, “Fix My Eyes,” which begins with a theatrical drum-‐‐line before settling into a sound that some have described as “Australia’s answer to Coldplay.”
However accurate the Chris Martin comparison, the Australian part is a little off, or at least begs a geographic qualifier since the family moved to Nashville to set up shop in the U.S. when Joel and Luke were just boys. And therein lie some tales.
“Our family was the Australian version of the Von Trapp family singers,” Joel laughs. “We probably toured together on and off for a decade.” And all that, mind you, was before for KING & COUNTRY was even formed.” But let’s backtrack still further. Their father was a concert promoter in Australia, who’d bring the children down to the halls to watch the bands. But after he lost his shirt on a tour, it was time for the family to sell everything they owned as dad took a job in America… an offer of employment that evaporated as soon as they arrived in Nashville. All but penniless, the family took to sleeping on beds of clothes, raking leaves, and scrounging for quarters in pay phones to survive, even as the kindness of strangers became something the itinerant family found themselves able to rely upon.
But then came a break even bigger than landing lawn-‐‐care assignments: the brothers’ big sister, who’d professionally redubbed herself Rebecca St. James, got a record deal and quickly turned a couple of gold records. Suddenly, as they spent most of the year on the road, everyone in the family had a job in the business. Luke ran the lights and Joel was not only the stage manager, but a background vocalist. “I daresay it’s a much more sophisticated version of the Von Trapp family now,” Joel says. “Our brother Ben produces all of our videos, while the brother above him, Daniel, has gone on to have his own lighting firm. Dad still manages us and our mom and elder sister are the cheerleaders who guide from the sidelines.”
The two brothers were rivals in their teen years. Joel keen on being a solo artist and Luke planning on pursuing football… until he suffered an injury that put the kibosh on those plans. At that point Joel, who was already more musically inclined,suggested that maybe they could try singing together, while Luke’s knee healed. Out of that came the kind of harmonies that only close blood relatives can produce. Rather than compete for lead vocals, they settled into a complementary approach that echoed their off-‐‐stage personalities. Luke, a little more laid-‐‐back, has a voice that is particularly rich in the highest and lowest ranges so he tends to sing lead on verses. Conversely Joel, who is a bit more aggressive, is at his best in a blustery middle range that is perfect for getting loud on what they jokingly call the “Shouty” and anthemic choruses.
For a long time they went nowhere, “Five years after we started, nothing was happening. But when we look back now, we realize that we were both waiting for the other to give up,” Luke admits. Even the inability to settle on a name seemed to symbolize their floundering. But finally, their persistence paid off. Their 2012 debut, Crave, induced a craving among listeners to the tune of 410,000 track sales and over 9 million streams. But before they could get to their even more acclaimed sophomore effort, there would be more tough personal roads to hoe.
Says Joel, “We began working on the record around the same time that I got married. It was a polarizing moment because I was away on my honeymoon and unbeknownst to us Luke’s health took a turn for the worse. (He had earlier been diagnosed with a digestive disorder). The album has that contrast. On one hand, it’s full of the excitement and joy that new love can bring, and on the other, the kind of trauma and fear that a life-‐‐threatening sickness carries with it.”
Luke’s illness left Joel touring alone for a while between records. “It goes without saying that it was hard, as a brother and a partner, for me to see him in that state and to be reminded every night of his absence. We wrote on the new record about how he stared full-‐‐face at mortality. ‘Shoulders’ is a very spiritual song that was directly written about that, as was ‘Without You’, which is just as direct, though it deals more with the effect that an illness has on loved ones.”
“Fix My Eyes” feels more celebrative, but came out at a time when the brothers were cataloguing their personal failures as well as feeling aspirational. “When we wrote ‘Fix My Eyes,’ we started with a list of sorts: ‘to love life without fear, to give when it’s not fair’ — kind of all these things that we hoped we would be known for, yet, in the midst of how tired and exhausted we were, we weren’t really sure if that was honestly who we were.”
“We write music about the human experience, plain and simple,” Joel says. “Some of the songs are spiritually inclined. Some of the songs are romantically inclined. Some of the songs are about struggle. We want to include everyone who’s felt these things in the story of each song. I do believe that, in being honest in the arts particularly with where we’re coming from and where we’re going, we’re able to spur each other on. And then the beauty of music is that it has the ability to bypass the head and go straight to the heart.” For king, country, and a spot deep in the chest cavity it is, then.