If one were to try to sum up the last few years for brothers Joel and Luke Smallbone, who comprise for King & Country, it would be a challenge to condense it to a digestible sound-bite.
• Their debut album sky-rocketed to the top of radio and sales charts.
• Luke and his wife welcomed a son.
• Joel got married.
• They toured all over the world.
Adrenaline rush after adrenaline rush seemed to be the norm.
Combine all that, however, with a potentially life-threatening situation and you’ve got the excitement, thrill and joy of life alongside a stark realization of the fragility of it, resulting in a year of chasing dreams, living in step with Christ and prioritizing relationships like they never had before.
“This season has been a time of fruition on almost every level in my life,” shares Joel Smallbone. “Simultaneously, it’s been a time of pressing through a few things. Before the first record, we rarely ever traveled. We were so focused on writing and understanding the craft of making music. But the last two and a half years, we’ve been traveling and have made some beautiful discoveries. We’re a band of happy accidents,” he continues. “We’ve got this great ragamuffin group of guys who travel with us. We’ve become old mates in the last two years. That in itself has been a huge discovery. We really contributed creatively together and developed this sentiment of reclaiming our God-given right as humans to live as we were designed to live.”
The creative summation of that design became the title of the new project — Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.
“‘Running wild’ can be misconstrued,” Joel is quick to say. “You might think of debauchery or going crazy at college. But for us, ‘running wild’ means to be a risk taker, an adventurer…to embrace our God-given design we have to be the most inspired, interesting and outlandish people.
“‘Live free’ can come across as living however you want to live,” Joel continues. “But we say if we are in touch with the Creator of the universe, He is also the Creator of creativity and our bodies. If we live in accordance with Him, we are living free in our mind. You can be adventurous; but if you don’t love well and strong, you’re kind of up the creek. That last phrase is a very important one — ultimately, you must love strong. That goes back to ‘The Proof of Your Love.’ It goes back to being husbands and siblings.
“I think that the last few years have put legs to that statement,” Joel says. “Luke became a father and faced his own mortality due to a digestive disorder. I also came to understand more of what that means. I could have lost my brother who ended up 6’4” and 125 pounds. He couldn’t even hold his boy. He came off the road for two and a half months. And I was out there singing these lyrics in a way I’ve never sung them before. ‘If I sing but don’t have love…’ it puts things into perspective.”
Perspective combined with new experience and a wisdom that only comes through the course of time and life, confronted the means of lyrics and notes to reach an end, in this instance, the new record, that was vulnerable, focused and surprisingly challenging even for the men who created it.
“I had such a serendipitous moment the other day,” Joel shares. “We were supposed to play a show in Wisconsin; but our transportation fell through, so we had to pile into a 15-seater van. Around 5 a.m., my driving shift started; so I put on my headphones and, for the first time, listened to what we had recorded [of the new project]. It was really a humbling moment and really a lesson for life. We so often buy into this idea of control. I’ve always been the little engine that could. But there’s such a negative side to that. We go where we want and eat what we want; but, especially when we learned of Luke’s illness, I had to back away from this desire to control and instead had to trust.”
That pattern has been on repeat throughout the creative process for this record for several reasons. With a much shorter production time, the writing and studio time had to be “laser focused,” as Joel put it. As Joel juggled his new marriage to Moriah Peters, Luke managed his new fatherhood and illness, they continued to make music, travel, write, record and Joel even made his way onto the silver screen. All these things left little time for creative expression or a chance to finesse it when it arrived.
More than the clock, though, the theme of the record was primarily derived from and impacted by the people they’ve encountered and the stories they’ve heard.
“There’s a sense of knowing that comes with presenting music to people. Hearing where they are was part of this creative process. We would have someone come up to us at a show and say, ‘Your music saved my life.’ And we’d politely say, ‘Yes.’ To which they’d say, ‘I’m serious.’ And then we’d hear their stories. You can’t help but be impacted by them.
But the thing we’ve discovered as men and musicians, the most honest, vulnerable positioning and ultimately the most invitational, is when we write about our own experiences.”
The stories of others and their own intertwined to create a beautiful final product that captures the everyman whose life and heart is represented, while translating the intimacy of personal pain, discovery, joy and faith.
Ultimately, if you were to return to the original challenge — surmise the last few years in the life of Joel and Luke Smallbone — you’d be hard-pressed to find a more apt description than the six words the brothers landed on: Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.
More than an album, as Joel says, “This is our offering unto God. We bled for it and did the very best we could.”