Recently Named "New Artist of the Year" for King & Country Band Member Joel Smallbone Hits the Silver Screen in the Movie Like A Country Song
Written by Kelli Gillespie
It’s not uncommon for family members to be involved in the same business. Whether it is in education, law enforcement, farming or medicine, siblings gravitate to what they have known or experienced growing up. But, when the “business” is the music industry, it often followed with rivalry and comparison. Not the case for the Smallbone family. The wildly popular band, for KING & COUNTRY, features two brothers – Joel and Luke – but their sister is well-known singer Rebecca St. James. Add Joel’s wife, singer Moriah Peters, and you’ve got one extremely talented bunch sitting around the family table. Risen visited with Joel Smallbone to talk about his soon-to-be released movie Like A Country Song, working with his family, and maintaining his Christian walk through it all.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in Carlsbad, California
Risen Magazine: You and your brother Luke make up the band for KING & COUNTRY; your older sister is Christian artist Rebecca St. James, so clearly you have a musically gifted family. What was your house like growing up that it produced so much talent?
Joel Smallbone: I’m one of seven kids and when I was a boy in Australia, some of my first memories were bands and artists coming through the house. My father was a concert promoter so he would bring all these groups to Australia from America. I remember as a four or five year old, sitting in front of a vinyl 45 record player just staring at covers of bands. Stryper was one, they always had these flamboyant covers and I was kind of enamored by the music, and the sound, and the visuals, and that is something that has never really died in any of us. I think we sort of liken ourselves to the Australian version of the Von Trapp family (Austrian singing family from The Sound of Music). Obviously my brother travels with me as the other half of for KING & COUNTRY, and my father manages us, and in some way, shape, or form, my other brothers are intertwined as well. Rebecca wrote on some of the stuff, so we’re all there somewhere.
Risen Magazine: With so many family members involved, how are you all able to work together so effortlessly and not have turmoil mixing business with family?
Joel Smallbone: We had a really defining moment as children with my father being a concert promoter, when he lost a quarter of a million dollars on a tour that went bad. Six kids at the time, mom was pregnant with the seventh, dad was about 40 years old, and that was the moment he said, "If there is ever a time to take a risk, take a chance, and move half the world away, it would be now." So we packed 16 suitcases, sold what little we had left, and moved from Australia to Nashville, Tennessee. He had been offered a job, and that was the first time I ever came here [to the United States]. A month after he got here, he lost his job. So we were literally on the other side of the world sleeping on beds made out of clothes, in a furniture-less house, no car, and not enough money to fly back to Australia. We sat in a circle and we really had no other alternative except to just pray. And it was we believe, through those prayers, that one, we were knit really strongly together as a family; and two, we saw unexplainable, miraculous things happen.
We prayed for everything. First we prayed for a car, and the first Thanksgiving we were here, we were over at some folk’s house we had never met before, but we were invited through a friend of a friend [to join them], and at the end of the night the host, the father, walked up to my mother and said, "I really feel like God is prompting me to give you the keys to my brand new minivan." We also didn’t have any [medical] insurance obviously so there was no way for my little sister to be born in a hospital, but someone anonymously paid for the whole thing. People would drop groceries off on our doorstep; a few schools found out we didn’t have any furniture in our house so they went out and collected a whole bunch of furniture, threw it in the trunk, and came and dumped it out at our house. We saw God do amazing things… so this was the moment for us, getting back to your question, where they say, three strands of cord are not easily broken. There are nine of us, so nine strands of cord are not easily broken. We really knotted together and it has never been the same since. That’s how we can do this now; that’s the foundation. So frankly, we love it! I have four brothers and every chance we get to work together, we’ll take it. I prefer to work with them over anyone in the world.
Risen Magazine: All of you ended up in Christian music. Was there ever a discussion about another genre? Was this always where each of your hearts were?
Joel Smallbone: I am a Christian and I do take very seriously the last thing Jesus said before He left the Earth. I’m paraphrasing, "Go out to the whole world, every nation, and transform people into people like me and you." So I see myself, and Luke would second this, that for KING & COUNTRY is a group of musicians who write stories about life. Now we’ve been very fortunate that Christian radio has taken a huge liking to some of our songs and we love that. Just as quickly as we’ll play in churches, we’ll play The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, we’ll play in a club or a theatre, so we’re unabashed about our belief in Jesus and that we want to serve Him, but at the same time we’ll write songs about break-ups and just life. There was a time where I made a clear divide in my mind where I said, "No it’s only going to be mainstream, or it’s just going to be Christian." And in the end I thought it was a bit legalistic. I decided I’m just going to write music for people and whoever loves it and gets behind it, so be it.
We had a really defining moment as children with my father being a concert promoter, when he lost a quarter of a million dollars on a tour that went bad.
Risen Magazine: What does being a Christian mean to you?
Joel Smallbone: The day before yesterday I flew back in from El Salvador. I was there as part of a child advocacy trip, and I found myself sitting in this shack that couldn’t have been larger than probably an 8’ x 8’ space. It was powerless and waterless. We were invited to have lunch with a family whose child was part of this program. When we walked in my initial thought was, "It’s so dark in here, there are no lights, we need to switch them on." Well, then you turn around and realize there are none. We sat down and had fast food for lunch and we listened to their stories. The woman talked about how her grandson had been impacted by this child advocacy program and had been introduced to Jesus, and he had taken [that experience] back to the family.
Being the boy’s grandmother, naturally I asked, "Where’s his mom?" She said when the boy was 40 days old, his mother was kidnapped by gang members and killed. This grandmother was the one that had to identify the body four days later when they recovered it. So here we are probably six years on and she reaches up and pulls down a picture of her daughter off the wall, so proud of her, but obviously saddened and hurt at the same time. Underlying that whole thing was hope and peace and understanding. I’ve never sat with a family apart from Jesus and [experienced that]. I’ve only seen despair. People can argue, "I need proof." But the fact of the matter is none of us were there when the big bang happened, none of us were there when creation happened. No matter how you slice the cake – you’re atheist, you’re agnostic, you’re a Mormon, you’re a Christian – it all takes faith. In my 29 years simply put, what I have seen is proof through people like that grandmother and her son, that Jesus exists. And that’s why I do what I do. Not because of religion, or some institution, but because I believe Jesus walked the Earth two thousand years ago; I believe that He was who He said He was and that He wasn’t a looney toon, and as a result He asked me to respond by giving my life to this cause, so I do.
Risen Magazine: When it comes to your relationship with God, what does that look like practically in your life regarding prayer, devotions on the road, quiet time, or Bible reading?
Joel Smallbone: If I came to my wife in the morning and said, "Darling, I’ve got thirty minutes. This is your thirty minutes that we get to hang out and then I’m off." Or I came back to her at night and I reprised the same statements, "I love you. I’m so glad you’re my wife and now I’m going to go to bed." Then I think she would wave a flag and say, "This doesn’t feel authentic or real." I think we are dangerously close when we perceive our relationship with God of doing the same thing. We sit down and pray the same monotonous prayers, we do the same monotonous reading, and I do think prayer is as absolutely essential as communication is. I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and reading it is important, otherwise we don’t have a clue. But with that said, there are so many other components like mentorship, which is huge, leaning on others that have gone before you. We are kind of a band of brothers out here and we’re all either married or engaged, or dating and there is a very serious commitment to relationships both with family and vertically [to God]. Day to day we pray before we go on stage, we have a devotional before we go on stage and we have spiritual conversations, but we’re not legalists.
Risen Magazine: Speaking of your wife, congratulations on your marriage this past July to recording artist Moriah Peters, who you actually met at your brother’s wedding. How did you know she was the one and what is it like both being in the same industry?
Joel Smallbone: First of all, the fact that we met at Luke’s wedding is just ironic and serendipitous and so many different things. I knew pretty fast when I met her. I came into that wedding as a single guy thinking, "It’s my brother’s wedding, this is the last place I’m going to meet my wife." After the ceremony and during the reception, I turned around and there she was. I will never forget that first glance; I was just so taken off guard. The more I got to know her, the more I realized how wonderful she was.
Music [careers] can create competition and rivalry and I would have to tie my marriage back to faith. We are functional in doing this together because there is no rivalry or conceit but when there is, we talk about it and we work through it. We have such camaraderie and deep understanding. I say I’m going onstage and she knows what that feels and looks like. If she were a doctor, she just wouldn’t have that same understanding. It’s been a very rich thing for us.
Risen Magazine: Your debut record came out in February of last year  and quickly topped the charts, earning you Billboards "New Artists to Watch." What did it feel like to not only get to be doing what you love for a living, but also to have the awards and fan support?
Joel Smallbone: First of all, there is no greater compliment than people listening to your song on the radio, buying your music, or voting for you for an award. You make music for people. I don’t care who you are, if people aren’t buying your music, you might as well hang your hat. What’s held us is that for KING & COUNTRY was forged two years ago, but Luke and I have been working on music for roughly seven years. So there was a lot of time before this that we really ironed out the reality of who we were, what we were trying to say, where we were going; and I feel like in some ways we were prepared for success because we had each other, and we had these years of failure frankly, before something hit.
Risen Magazine: You star in the upcoming film Like A Country Song with Billy Ray Cyrus, how did you get involved with the project and was acting something you always wanted to add to your resume?
Joel Smallbone: If I had to title myself anything, I would title myself as an artist; and art can be a thousand different things. Even as I boy I would sing with my sister that traveled, but just as quickly I would run out on my parents farm with my brother and our Super 8 camera and do little short films. Film and music were always both loves and passions. In fact, if I was going to be honest, film probably came before music. But more recently with for KING & COUNTRY and the way my life has kind of been geared, music has absolutely taken the forefront and it’s been a beautiful thing. But through music, specifically with Like A Country Song, there have been doors opened into film.
Johnny Remo, the director of Like A Country Song, saw on a blog the music video of one of our songs – very theatrical, very dark, post-apocalyptic telling of prisoners, and this escape and metaphorical things. He was captured by it and when he saw me he said, "That’s Jake" the lead character in this film. Through a long list of providential circumstances we were able to figure out a way to carve out 15 days of film schedule. It was a crazy and daunting time, especially playing the lead, and being an American trying to wipe out this Australian accent.
Risen Magazine: Billy Ray Cyrus plays your father in the film and is a great example of a singer that has been able to maintain a TV and movie career and at times integrate his music and even work with family members too. What did you learn from him?
Joel Smallbone: He was in an interesting spot filming, just with his family and working through very big questions in his life and where he was going as a man. On this side of things, I’ve been thrilled to see the decisions that he has made. You could tell he was in the dark night of the soul, if you will, while he was working on the film. It sounds awful to say this, but I think he’d tell you too, it played very well into the film because the film kind of works through a lot of the things he was working through at the time –betrayal, loss, hope, risk, relationships, and family. We had great report, and he was very gracious to me from the moment we met. I’ve really had a heart for him since we met and we’ve communicated on and off, bits and pieces since then… he’ll send me a text here or there. He calls me little brother and will say, "Pray for me little brother…" I’ll say, "How are you doing today mate?" And we’ll have a bit of an exchange. I have nothing but good things to say about him. As a man and as a professional I thought he was exceptional. We didn’t have too many moments together on the film, but I thought the moments we had were very dynamic and captured the right thing.
In my 29 years simply put, what I have seen is proof through people like that grandmother and her son, that Jesus exists.
Risen Magazine: In the film your character Jake acts above the law and his behavior impacts his singing. Being a young up-and-comer yourself, with much success, what are you learning are the best ways to deal with added exposure, wealth, fame and fan access?
Joel Smallbone: I’d love to sit down with Jake – and in some ways I did have the chance to sit down with him for a few months – and dive into his psyche. Jake is the kind of guy that I would judge pretty quickly, honestly. He’s the kind of guy that I would meet and say, "You pompous, arrogant…" and I’d have a few other words for him. [Laughter] The beauty of the story is, when you lean into him and see the majority of the things that were done to him, he didn’t have control over them. There are so many people that have anger management issues or addiction problems or struggle with depression, or being arrogant, because of things that were done to them in their past. I’m not saying it excuses them and we all have a choice and a responsibility, and we’ve all been dealt different hands – some are fortunate and some are unfortunate – we’ve got to make the most of it. But it does give you the liberty to show grace.
Risen Magazine: All too often people turn to a substance like alcohol when they are out of options or to cope with decisions, or suppress feelings. How do you handle disappointments or missed expectations?
Joel Smallbone: Well, I’m an impetuous person, so I’ve had to overcome that. When I’m upset, my first reaction is [snaps fingers] deal with it. Not only am I going to deal with it, I’m going to go straight for it. I’m not going to skirt around, I’m not going to be passive-aggressive; I’m going to go for you. And I’m going to let you know how I feel about it. So the first thing I have to do personally is I just have to take time. Time is key. But I would also say, [another key is] working through an issue and doing the best to see it from another perspective. I think that is for life in general, but particularly in conflict. Finally, I think dealing with it is crucial. The rug was not designed to have things swept under it. It was meant to be walked on. It’s not easy, but I think it’s the best way to handle things.
Risen Magazine: What would you say to an individual who may feel that they have messed up too much, or that God couldn’t use them after all they’ve been through?
Joel Smallbone: I would honestly, without any religiosity attached, say, "Go and read the Bible," because it’s made up of murderers and liars and scoundrels, and thieves, and they are the heroes of the stories! These awful people are the benchmark of our belief system. So if that doesn’t give you faith that no matter what you’ve done, you can become the person that you’ve been designed to be, then I don’t know what will. But for me, I take such solace in their mistakes. Not that I feel at liberty to make them, but I feel as if they understood. And in some way God understands.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Winter 2013