In the two and a half years since Christian brother duo for KING & COUNTRY released their third studio album, Burn the Ships, bandmates Joel and Luke Smallbone have leaned heavily into collaborative projects with artists of an array of genres. They’ve reshaped and reimagined songs off the track list, duetting with the likes of pop singer Tori Kelly, Christian hip hop artist Lecrae and — most notably, for country fans — Dolly Parton.
Next Friday (March 26), for KING & COUNTRY will bring together all these duets and remixes in a deluxe edition of Burn the Ships, a project that they undertook in part simply to tie together all the versions that have spawned from the album’s songs in a tangible, easy accessible way.
“In a roundabout way, it’s kind of like filing documents,” laughs Luke, speaking to Country Now over Zoom from his home in Nashville. (The Australian-born brothers both reside in Music City these days, and have dual citizenship.) “It feels like it’s a little bit wrong if we don’t at least give our supporters an ability to get [all the versions] in one place.”
Though the duo released two albums prior to Burn the Ships, their latest album found for KING & COUNTRY both expanding their fanbase and innovating the way think about making music, both changes they attribute in part to the collaborations they’ve worked on.
“Let me say first, it has been a great honor and privilege for us to collaborate with so many talented artists,” says Joel. “Each time we have collaborated and they have brought their own uniqueness to the songs, it has challenged and pushed us in our own musicianship.”
“Collaboration, in my mind, is what makes music so special,” adds Luke. “You walk into a writer’s room, and you don’t have anything…and you come out with a song. It’s almost like, music is, you put it into a blender and out comes some type of smoothie. It takes different personalities to make something like that.”
Specifically, working with country artists has been rewarding because of some similarities between that kind of music and the duo’s own home genre. “In the pop world, it’s about the hook; it’s about the way it makes you feel,” Luke continues. But country is very similar to Christian music, I think, in that it’s about, ‘Can it inspire you? Can it actually make you wanna change, a little bit, as you go about your day?’ I think the two kinda intersect a little bit.
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“And the other thing is that the people in country music are some of the kindest people in the world,” he adds. Case in point: The duo’s team-up with Dolly Parton, one of the most universally adored artists in the genre — and music as a whole.
“Everyone loves Dolly, and we were always fans of the work she did both musically and philanthropically. Our connection with Dolly began when my wife and I watched Dumplin’,” Joel recalls.
Eventually, the idea of working together led to phone calls, and Parton listened to for KING & COUNTRY’s “God Only Knows” and decided she wanted to sing on it.
“She said, ‘I just think it’s a great song. I’d be honored if you’d have me.’ I was like, ‘Honored if we would have you?!” Luke relates with a laugh. “She’s as funny as can be, but she’s a really, genuinely kind person. I think that’s what people respond to…She’s just a great person, one you wanna root for, and part of it I think is because she likes to root for other people. She’s a very fun, very charitable person. I really don’t have enough good things to say about her.”
It wouldn’t be the last time for KING & COUNTRY dabbled in the country genre. Since then, they’ve put a country version of their “Together” — originally a collaboration with Tori Kelly and Kirk Franklin — featuring Hannah Ellis and Jackson Michelson, two of their labelmates at Curb Records.
That new configuration of the song, Luke explains, might never have been created if it weren’t for the situation that unfolded over the past year and all the uncertain circumstances that came along with it. It began as an idea between the two brothers while they were in Canada doing a string of shows last March, and had to make the abrupt decision to call off their tour before the border to the U.S. shut down.
“While we were in Toronto, I leaned over to Joel and I said, ‘Hey man, we’re talking about new songs and the next thing we’re gonna do: With everything going on, ‘Together’ just feels like the song for now,’” He recalls. “‘If we fall, we’ll fall together, but when we rise, we’ll rise together’ — I mean, I need to hear that.”
for KING & COUNTRY draw inspiration and new perspective from every artist they work with, and as Nashville residents, they’ve got some of the greatest country songwriters in the world right in their backyard. The duo haven’t written off more country duets on their upcoming fourth album though Luke jokes that they don’t want to outstay their welcome in the genre.
On a more serious note, he adds, all the collaborations they’ve done thus far have served the songs. “On ‘Together,’ it was very obvious that we should have somebody like Tori or Kirk Franklin be a part of it. And that’s what got us then to Hannah and Jackson. So we gotta make sure we let the art lead,” he reasons. “If we write a song and it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, Carrie Underwood would slay on this’ — maybe at that point we reach out to Carrie Underwood, you know?”
In the meantime, the band is hard at work in the studio. The past year has sharpened their skills for innovation, and their practiced knack for versatility is getting put to good use.
“In a way, crisis always demands innovation,” Luke points out. “If you look at the world’s history, [people] didn’t usually come up with — whatever it might be — when things were great. Pretty much everything we have today, there was once a need for.”
As musicians in a pandemic, that has meant being open to new forms of creativity, and new ways to stay connected to fans, even during a time when they can’t be physically together. “I would say going into this next album with the experiences we’ve had has really opened us up sonically,” agrees Joel, “to find fresh and new ways of creating music.”