When does the process of making a record begin? Is it when the engineer in the studio says ‘Rolling?’ Is it when the first bit of ink sinks into an otherwise blank sheet of paper? Is it when a band first gets together and promises kinship through an inevitably up and down handful of years, or longer?
For the popular duo-brother band For King & Country, the first light of their forthcoming LP (their fifth), What Are We Waiting For? flickered at 3 in the morning one night on a tour bus. The group had released a track or two that would find their way onto the new LP by that time, but it was then that entire concepts began to take shape.
That record is set to drop on Friday, March 11 and what it means for the band and for its fans will soon be seen, heard and felt in real-time as the brothers hit the road on a lengthy spring tour.
“I was laying in my bunk on the bus at 3 AM,” For King & Country’s co-founder Joel Smallbone tells American Songwriter. “It was December 22nd, or thereabouts. And I just felt like—you don’t really know when you’re going to have this moment or epiphany. But it was a very clear: it’s time.”
It was in that late hour that Joel knew he’d seen enough from life over the past year, or three, that a record with something to say, a perspective, could assuredly coalesce. He felt it in his fibers. The protests over the murder of George Floyd, the COVID-19 fallout, and more—with these circling in his psyche, a new album would come forth. So, he took his inspiration to his brother and band co-founder, Luke, and they sat down with their tour manager and began to plan. Because their then-tour had just concluded (a drive-in experience with dozens of dates) and because the pandemic precluded them from more dates, Joel and Luke had time to work on the album domestically at home, as opposed to on the road.
“You never quite know what the themes are going to be,” says Joel. “But there are three themes that have risen.”
Joel says that the new album explores a sense of universality that made itself clear during the pandemic, along with a collective idea of suffering. Also baked into the album are at times-subtle themes of religious faith and more overt themes of family. Of course, how could family not be part of the new LP. Both Joel and Luke were born into a musical family. Their father was a concert promoter in Australia, and they’d help put up flyers and sport band merchandise. In fact, their father is the central reason the two brothers—who are two of seven children in the family—got together.
“I didn’t want to work with my brother initially,” Joel says, with a chuckle.
But their father, who also managers the brothers’ talented musical sister, Rebecca St. James, pushed the two to working together. At the time, Joel was working on a solo project and he balked at the idea of working with his younger brother, who’d already grown taller than Joel and was “a better sportsman” than he was, too.
“That’s a recipe for a frustrated older brother,” Joel says, again with a laugh.
But the athletic Luke had blown out his knee and his promising basketball career was done. With his life shifting and with the urging of their father, the two got together and began to make music. They haven’t stopped since. At the time, Joel already had some production experience on programs like Pro Tools. He’d apprenticed under a local engineer in Australia. So, with more good-natured pressure from papa, the brothers began to take off. Along the way, the family moved to Nashville and, all of a sudden, the family was in the center of Music City. But that wasn’t necessarily a boon right away.
“Those first years,” Joel says, “when we started working together in the late 2000s, those first years we just got turned down. By every major label in America.”
Hearing the word “no” over and over can make artists question their purpose, if anyone cares. Not to mention, living in a city where people are signing record deals every day can distract. But the brothers persevered. They released their first EP in 2008 and their first (double) album as For King & Country in 2012, 10 years ago on February 28, 2012. When that record did well, the brothers could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Later, they found themselves on a tour with a “conglomerate” of bands, playing stadiums. They occupied the opening 10-minute slot as people were walking in. From then on, they’ve kept humility as a major asset, despite now garnering millions of fans and followers. They’ve even collaborated with big names like Timbaland and Dolly Parton.
“I don’t know if it’s being one of seven [kids],” says Joel, “if it’s being the middle child, being immigrants, being rejected so often—but I do have this feeling of ‘when’s the penny going to drop?’ With every song, with every tour, there’s this sense of importance and a priority on it because you never know this might be the last opportunity.”
Another tool the brothers use to keep their careers on track is faith. It’s not that For King & Country sets out to write about God and their relationship to the deity. Rather, if the subject crosses their desks, so to speak, they won’t shy away from it. They grew up with religion and like many, including their Christian rock sister, find it a part of their lives. Yet, they also keep the indie sensibilities they came up with close at hand. And as For King & Country look ahead, to the tour, to the release, there is much to be excited about. Not least of which is some new film projects, including one that their brother Ben, who is a filmmaker, will be making about their parents (Joel will star as the dad). It’s all part of the experience of an artist’s lifestyle.
“If you go back,” says Joel, “no matter how far back into human history, every culture there’s ceremonies, celebrations, commemorations that are always built around rhythm and music. I think we, more than ever, need it. This magical miraculous thing that we get to tap into.”
Photo courtesy Rogers & Cowan PMK