Interview: Joel Smallbone of for King & Country

The artistic Smallbone family is best known today for Christian rock. Oldest sister Rebecca Smallbone changed her name professionally to Rebecca St. James. Brothers Joel and Luke formed what is now Christian pop rock duo “for King & Country” in 2011.

Pamela Maynor: How did you first meet Jesus?

Joel Smallbone:Luke and I are two of seven children, originally from Australia. Australia is a post- religious country in a lot of ways, and a lot of folks have the mentality of “no worries mate.” The economy is pretty good, the weather’s pretty good, and life is alright down there. C.S. Lewis said, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Often times that’s not the case in Australia. The last I heard, 5% of Australians go to church on Sunday. We were fortunate to grow up in a spiritual family and have that spiritual heritage, not only with our parents, but with our grandparents and our great grandparents.

Luke and I both crossed that threshold, if you will, of releasing our lives to God when we were eight years old, mutually (I’m two and a half years older than him). That was the beginning; that first step of having a childlike view of God and what it meant to release your life to Him. Since then, we’ve walked through a lot of things as a family that have helped us grow.

We moved from Brisbane, Australia, to Nashville, Tennessee when Luke was five, and I was seven. Dad was a concert promoter in Australia. He had lost a quarter of a million dollars on a tour that went bad. So, he was selling basically everything we had, with six kids and one on the way. We packed 16 suitcases. Pursuing a job opportunity, we moved to the United States. We got here, and about a month later, he lost his job. Both my parents are great people, and my mom stood by dad in that hard time. We would all sit in this furniture-less house we were renting, not knowing where the next paycheck was going to come from. We didn’t even have a car in Nashville. We would sit in a circle and pray for everything, and we saw miraculous interventions!

For instance, the whole idea of Thanksgiving was a new one for us. We had been invited to someone’s home, who we had never met before. At the end of the night the father of the house walked up to my mom and said, “Hey, we believe God’s told us to give you a key to a new minivan.” So he handed over the keys!

for King and CountryA few months later, we didn’t have any way to pay for my little sister to be born. In the hospital, somebody anonymously paid for it—the whole bill! And so, as a boy, radical paradigm shifts were made in my understanding of the spiritual world, faith, prayer, and all of these kinds of foundational principals of Christianity.

PM: God speaks. But what do you do when you feel like He is distant?

JS:There are Scriptures that talk about seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. But, I think our seeking can sometimes lack luster, and I think our knocking can be a little soft. When Scripturally it talks about seeking, at least from my reading, it is this extravagant, passionate, nothing held back, all-in pursuit of God.

So, the first thing I would ask is, “What does seeking, and what does knocking mean to you? What does that look like?” Communally, prayer-wise, reading—what does that really look like to you? And, I’m not saying that you need to be a spiritual superhero, particularly initially, but it does mean with the tools that you have, with everything you’ve got, how do you find your way as best you can to God?

I’m reminded of the Scripture that says, “You believe because you have seen Me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing Me” (John 20: 29). This is a different day. Jesus Christ is not walking beside us, literally speaking, and so there is this element of trusting and this idea of faith, which is very countercultural. More than ever, the idea of the spiritual realm and the miraculous is being challenged.

Everything now, more than ever, is about feeling. It’s not about a commitment, or just standing by something because it is right. It’s about your feelings dictating your behavior, which for us all is a bit of a dangerous thing. I’ve always been under the mindset that feelings follow action, not action follows feelings. If actions are following feelings then you just dictated everything you do. “Well, I don’t really want to tell my wife I love her today; or I don’t really want to pray.” Everything starts falling apart at the seams if action is only following feelings. Build a vertical relationship on something more than a feeling. Build it on knowledge, build it on faith, build it on discipline, and then those feelings of closeness, that feeling of nearness will follow suit.

PM: How does God communicate with you, personally?

JS:Much like a wedding day, when you cross the threshold, life changes. It’s very easy to think, “Well that’s it. I did it!” My wife and I are about to celebrate our two-year wedding anniversary in just a few short days. It’s very easy to think, “I committed to her, I did it, we walked out, we said the oath, we’re in.” But it’s the beginning. It’s the beginning of the journey. It’s the first step. And so I feel like I’ve seen God in different facets ever since I crossed that threshold. At first He was sort of that dad figure—my nurturer, protector. Then as a teenager, He became a bit more disciplinary.

And then into adulthood, I kind of moved into more reverence for Him. I think we lose a little bit of fearing God and reverence of Him in this unsacred culture. What does that even look like? What does it mean to actually fear God? Whether it’s your physical posture and how you pray, or your lifestyle. How do you physically fear God?

I find that I fear, so to speak, often in past tense. Even, yesterday, something happened at the show, and I’ll look back, even 10 minutes afterward, and there’ll be that sense, whether it’s a tweaking of conviction or a certain joy that follows, of a special moment. In hindsight, the Spirit and my gut will sort of say, “Hey you could have done this. You could have said this, or you need to even ask for forgiveness for thinking this, or job well done on this.”

PM: Although you come from a very musical family, how did you personally decide to go into the music industry?

JS:Luke and I both often say that music more chose us than we chose it. Luke was always a sportsman and so, he was a little bit less inclined initially to lean into music. Our oldest sister was an artist for many years by the name of Rebecca St. James. We joke that dad needed cheap labor, and he had five teenage sons, so he put us all to work as the road crew! We were sort of the Australian version of the Von Trapp family. It was during that time we got to see the impact of music. I was performing with Rebecca doing some background vocals and playing a bit. Luke tore his ACL at a basketball match in his late teens and that kind of dashed his hopes of going to college to pursue that.

Around that time I had come to him and said, “Hey, what do you think about just giving this a shot?” It was hard going for five or six years. We really, really pushed hard and there were moments where, I think for both of us, we were just waiting on the other to say, “I’m done,” but neither did.

That’s one thing that I would say to you, “Hey, lean in! If you believe that you are designed to do something, and it has been affirmed and confirmed by those spiritually around you, that you respect, then lean in and lean in for a time. Yes, we make our plans, and God orders our steps but somehow He will do it, even though it might not be on our timeline.”

PM: How did the name, “for KING & COUNTRY”, come about?

JS:Every street sign, every billboard, every newspaper article, became a band name for me, or at least an exploration of band names. As a result, we came up with some pretty awful band names. If you ever try and name a band you will come to find out it’s a tough business! Ultimately we wanted a name of meaning, we wanted substance, and we wanted a name that sort of nodded to this international side of king and country, with the British commonwealth being a part of Australia. We were in the studio late one night, as I recall, working on our first album, and I had walked in with the idea, “All the King’s Men,” as a phrase or as a potential band name. It was actually our producer that swung around in his chair and said, “Hey, what about “for KING & COUNTRY?”

That phrase, as you might know, was spoken hundreds of years ago as soldiers in Britain were charging into battle to bleed for what they believed, to stand for something greater than themselves. They would huddle together and they would chant, “For King and Country.” We thought as young men, as musicians, physically, spiritually—what better name to be known by? Each night when we are announced on stage, there’s a certain nostalgia to what the mission and the purpose and the music is all about. That’s why we “do it, for king and country.”

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.