Brothers Joel and Luke Smallbone toyed with a handful of names for their musical pursuits before settling on for KING & COUNTRY, a British battle cry they say evokes a sense of purpose. There’s plenty of purpose driving their debut album, Crave, which showcases their songwriting chops and lyrical honesty. Born in Sydney, Australia, the siblings moved to Nashville in the early ’90s, when their father relocated for work. They spoke to American Songwriter about their album, touring and hearing their songs on primetime television.
You moved from Sydney to Nashville in the early 90s when your dad relocated for work. How has living in Nashville influenced and shaped your writing?
Joel: I’ve heard people say regarding music towns that, LA is the performance, NY is the business and Nashville is the song. We’ve found that to be quite true – it’s a writing smorgasbord here.
Luke: There are so many talented writers in this city and that definitely impacts our writing particularly because the overall standard is so high. It’s not like you have just one great writer – they’re everywhere. I believe that is part of this culture and what makes it so uniquely, Nashville.
You are two of seven siblings. Is your whole family musically inclined?
Luke: Not everyone is as intimately involved with it like Joel and me. We’ve all been a part of certain aspects in the past: lighting, stage design, web, video. Growing up in and around it, we all have an affinity with it in our own way.
Joel: Our youngest brother’s claim to fame is that he got to rap on a tour once…I’m not sure he had any right, he’s not your rapper type, but he did it!
“Light It Up” is a song with great personal meaning. Tell us about the song and how you came to write it.
Joel: We were out in Los Angeles writing with a great mate and musical hero of ours, Matt Hales (Aqualung), and at the time a dear friend of ours was struggling with depression. It had gotten to the point that he’d stuff blankets in the windows, switch off the lights and literally live in darkness for days at a time. This trip happened simultaneously to when he was going through a particularly low point. As a result, the situation was laying pretty heavy on both Luke and me. The words “light it up and let it go” came first and then really, the rest just spilled out.
Luke: When we told our friend that the song was about him he told us how it moved, encouraged and gave him hope. For both of us, it’s a reminder of the incredible impact music can have and that is why we do what we do.
Who were your most profound musical influences?
Joel: I’m an eclectic music lover and listener. I really enjoy a lot of it! The only genre I’m allergic to is “bad music.” Some of my most profound influences while constructing this album were the rock and melodic elements of classic U2 (e.g, Joshua Tree), the theatrics of the Braveheart and Gladiator scores, the technical genius of Mute Math, the Pop sensibility of the OneRepublic chaps and the harmonies of The Beatles, just to name a few.
Luke: I love the Goo Goo Dolls and Switchfoot. The honesty and emotion of their songs inspire and challenge me to write music that makes people feel the way those songs have made me feel.
What was the last song you wrote?
Joel: I recently sat down with Ricky and Ran from The Daylights. We always end up having unique and exceptional writing sessions. Interestingly enough, this particular night, I’m not sure any of us were in the mood to write, at least initially. But we ended coming up with a really beautiful song regarding how a girl’s belief can impact us so severely. Hope I get to play it for you sometime in the future.
What’s a song on Crave you really want people to hear, and why?
Joel: Honestly, I’d love for you to have a listen to the entire record. We’re really very proud of how all the songs came together to make one cohesive piece of art. But, if I had to pick one, I would say, “Light it Up.” I think it’s one of those songs that gives such a clear and complete picture of who we are as musicians. It’s got it all.
Luke: My personal favorite song on the album is the title track, “CRAVE.” The chorus says, “Hope is what we crave” and from what I’ve seen, it is a desire that will always exist, even for generations to come.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
Joel: “Love is on the side of the highway with his thumb in the sky. And war is flying in the fast lane in a suit and tie.” These are the opening lines to the song, “Fine Fine Life.” To me, it’s a fanciful description that true happiness can be found in some of the most peculiar places, as can strife. For example, in this scene, here’s a chap that seemingly is down and out, got a flat tire, can’t catch a ride (or a break) and yet he’s sort of enjoying himself. Whereas the bloke in the cool-cruise-car, with the flash suit is a complete mess. There’s an irony to it, isn’t there?
Luke: “Hope sleeps without me. Her sweet dreams surround me but I’m left out.” I’m actually not sure how this popped in my head when we writing this, but I remember saying, “I don’t know where this is coming from but what about this?” The line just came right out and looking back, it’s exactly what the song needed. I guess that’s the mystery of songwriting. Sometimes it just flows out, other times it doesn’t and on this particular day, I’m very glad it did!
Are there any words you love, or hate?
Joel: In our record or just in general? In general, “pumpkin” is my favorite word in the English language. If you say it as it is spelled, with a little extra air behind the P’s, it’s quite fun. Try it! On the contrary, I’m not an advocate of the word “moist.”
Luke: Every writer hates using filler words that aren’t saying much. Those just annoy me. As for words I love, anything that paints a picture that you can connect with. Songs and lyrics that talk about the extremes: life’s greatest delights and deepest sorrows. It seems those words will always connect to the listener the most so I love using them.
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
Joel: It’s a roll of the dice really. If the “procedure” did lean in either direction, it would go melody first and then sometimes a lyric is attached to it, sort of a two for one deal. In the end, we’ve found the best way to write is to just make ourselves available to it as often as possible.
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
Joel: Mate, I’m a total reviser. I’ll keep going back until I’m completely satisfied.
Luke: Joel and I are yin and yang, I love starting and he enjoys finishing a song. He’s also a bit OCD, so he ends up revising a lot!
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
Joel: Ricky and Ran Jackson from The Daylights. Their writing as well as musicianship is exceptional.
Luke: Matt Hales, who’s in the band Aqualung. We got to work with him on our album, which was a bit of a dream come true. He’s intensely talented and I think you’ll be hearing much more about him in the next few years.
What’s the perfect song to you, written by someone else, and why?
Joel: “Where The Streets Have No Name” by U2. It’s simple, purposeful and inspiring lyrically, and the production is masterful.