by Mark Geil
For King & Country hasn’t exactly been quiet since 2014, when the duo’s last studio album was released. The brothers have released a few new songs and a live Christmas album. They’ve been a part of a major motion picture on human trafficking, Priceless. And on the personal side, the band family has grown, with weddings and babies and life events.
But for fans desperate for a proper full-length album, it’s been a long wait. Though it’s not obviously autobiographical, their highly anticipated release Burns the Ships is an album of stories. These songs are as personal as any the band has written. We caught up with Joel and Luke Smallbone to hear about the making of the new album.
CCM Magazine: I was actually a little surprised so many years have passed since Run Wild. Have you been writing for the new album since then, or only recently?
Joel Smallbone: I’m a bit of a compartmentalizer. I like the beginning, middle, and end of the process, which is ironic, because it doesn’t serve the music and creative world well. There is no real end. You can always create something more. The song’s never finished; the music video is never done.
When we finished Run Wild, it was a real mad dash to the finish line for that record. We got there and we felt like there was still a little bit more to be said. That’s where “Priceless” and a song called “Ceasefire” came from.
It’s an outlet thing. You have to keep creating to feel the reprieve of creation. But all the while, the grand process was the new record: living life, and understanding how to say it. We starting diligently buckling down about a year and a half ago.
Interestingly enough, “Burn the Ships,” which is a very personal song for Luke, came two and a half years ago. That song just hung around. I tried to scoot it off the record a few times, and it kept coming back, and became the most prominent theme of the album. We ask ourselves, ‘Do you write the song or does the song write you?’
You can definitely shove yourself into the creative process and write a record. But if you sit back and let the creativity marinate and show you where to go, then the record can end up writing you. We didn’t know it was the title track. But we look back and say, how beautiful is that? It was the first song we wrote, the song that stuck around the longest, and the song that was meant to be the lead sentiment of the record.
CCM: With this album you’ll pass a million total album sales. Does that cause you any pressure when you’re writing and touring?
Luke Smallbone: We went back and did a little research on Run Wild to see the songs that people have really connected with. The correlation was this: every song that came from a personal place in life, people connected with.
JS: The songs that we wrote rather than the songs that wrote us.
LS: So, for this one, we decided the songs need to come from a real place, a personal place. The only stories I can tell are the ones I’ve experienced. We don’t ever start with, ‘Do I think this song is going to be popular or not?’ What people connect with is real and authentic. The pressure’s off when you view it that way. You’re not trying to solve a puzzle. You’re just trying to be you.
CCM: Joel, you said the new album feels like the most mature version of for King & Country. What does that mean?
JS: It’s funny when you say it back, because it feels a little presumptuous. It’s actually a lot of life lived. Between the eight of us in the band, we’ve battled through cancer, loved ones with mental illness, a sickness inside the band, lost loved ones. We’ve fought through it together now at this point.
We can write now from a different vantage point, and stay in the creative tension long enough to find the center of it. The music shapes itself and also speaks to the moments of life you’re walking through. There’s a maturity found in the life experience. Also, by the third record, we know our audience and they know us, and we’ve grown together. The relationship has matured.
CCM: It’s great that you have these responsibilities now that you didn’t have at the start, but you can still declare in a song, “I give up control.” You’re in a new place, but you’re just as dependent as you ever were.
JS: That’s one of the most personal songs I’ve ever written that’s been on a for King & Country record. We wrote that chorus five years ago, but we could never finish it. I travelled to Bath, England to meet with one of our producers. I remembered that chorus from five years ago, and I said, ‘This sentiment seems like it’s trying to get out of me. It’s trying to write itself, but I’ve not been able to get it right.’
Then I played these other two songs randomly. He looked at me and said, ‘You’ve written the same song three times.’ We called the other producers in America, they sent over the other two songs. They all collided with one another and became “Control.”
That’s part of the lesson of the song. In life, we grapple, and we gripe, and we try desperately to maintain control. We send ourselves into illness or broken relationships or shaking our fist at God, when if we could just trust enough to take a deep breath, and say, ‘I give up control’ almost moment by moment, day by day, then what freedom! That’s the kind of freedom we’re meant to live under as humanity.