Even before for King & Country released their best-selling new Christmas album A Drummer Boy Christmas, brothers Joel and Luke Smallbone, who comprise the four-time Grammy Award winning duo, were already getting recognized for their distinctive take on the holiday classic.
“I was flying somewhere and I’m going through TSA and one of the agents looked at me and goes, ‘Oh! You are the “Little Drummer Boy” guy! Aren’t you?’ And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s what it’s come to,’” Joel Smallbone tells Sounds Like Nashville. “That was, at very least, a shot in the arm of like you’re doing something right.”
The siblings’ unique interpretation of the beloved Christmas tune earned them a standing ovation on CMA Country Christmas in 2019. “We released a Live in Phoenix video of it a couple years prior and it had hundreds of thousands of shares and millions of views and so at that point we were like there’s something really special about this,” Joel says, “but I do think that the CMA Country Christmas took it to a whole national level.”
for King & Country will be performing on Good Morning America Christmas morning, an appearance that is sure further solidify their reputation as the current kings of the Christmas season. A Drummer Boy Christmas, the duo’s fourth album, debuted at No. 2 on the all genre Billboard Holiday Albums chart behind Carrie Underwood. The Curb/Word Entertainment duo are also in the midst of their A Drummer Boy Drive-In: The Christmas Tour, which continues through December 20, and has been selling out.
The seeds for the new Christmas collection were actually planted years ago before the Australian born brothers had taken the Christian music industry by storm with their potent songwriting and riveting live performances. “We were such a zealous baby band,” Joel says of their launch in 2012. “We were just so thrilled that we could actually do a concert and people would come. I mean a small amount granted, but people would come to the shows so later in the year and we were like, ‘We should just do a Christmas tour.’”
They didn’t have a Christmas album out or even a single back then, but that didn’t dim their enthusiasm for launching a holiday tour. It was in preparing for that early Christmas trek that Joel and Luke created their in-your-face rendition of the well-known holiday standard. “‘Drummer Boy’ has been not only such an inspiration for us as far as our Christmas catalogue, but it was such a vulnerable time in the band’s history in general,” Joel shares. “That song and that tour really shaped who we are as a band. So it was important that the namesake and the spirit of the new record was built around that song.”
Luke agrees. “The album has really been eight years in the making since the start of the band,” he says, “so when the hardships of 2020 happened, we thought that it would be the perfect year to put together our first ever full-length Christmas record. We wanted to try to create timeless music, which is quite a daunting task. The goal was to create a Christmas album that you could listen to while putting up the tree, or drinking cocoa by the fire, Christmas music that wouldn’t date with time. So we put a lot of strings, orchestral sounds and some bits of choir to fit with some of the classics.”
A Drummer Boy Christmas includes for King & Country’s renditions of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which bookends the album as prologue and epilogue as well as “Joy to the World,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel (featuring NEEDTOBREATHE), “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Go Tell it On the Mountain” (featuring Gabby Barrett) and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
“One easier decision to be made was what type of Christmas songs should be on it,” Joel says of selecting material. “You have the sentimental songs like ‘Frosty The Snowman’ or ‘Jingle Bells’ on one side of the street and then on the other you have ‘Silent Night,’ ‘Joy To The World’ and the spiritual catalogue. It was very clear to us that our involvement with Christmas, at least with this time in human history, should be very deeply spiritual. So all of those others, as much as I love them, all of those other feel good Christmas classics got thrown off the table very quickly and it became about telling the story of advent into celebration.”
The album also includes two new songs, “Heavenly Hosts” and “The Carol of Joseph (I Believe In You).” “It’s such a daunting task to go and write a Christmas song among all the classics, so when we knew we had to write two originals, we tried to take it from a different perspective,” Luke says. “‘Carol of Joseph’ is from Joseph’s point of view. He’s engaged to this girl who is pregnant and that would be quite scandalous at the time, and then he’s raising this boy who he’s not the father of. We just wanted to feel the emotions of Joseph and talk through what it looked like from his point of view. The music of it really fits in with the other styles of classics we recorded for this album by tying in all the strings, the classic melodies and rhythms.”
On “Heavenly Hosts,” Joel said they wanted to focus on some of the “unsung heroes of the Bible” and found inspiration in the scriptures about the shepherds. “We focused on the shepherds because although they’ve been kind of glorified 2,000 years later, in that date and time from what I understand they were the night shift workers. They were the social outcasts,” Joel says. “It was a dangerous job. They were sleeping through the day, working through the night and yet, the first corporate proclamation of Jesus coming to earth was to these folks. We just thought what a beautiful and sort of upside down way of God to do it.”
The duo started working on the album at the beginning of 2020 when they invited British singer/songwriter/producer Matt Hales (who performs under the name Aqualung) to write songs and work on some pre-production. From there A Drummer Boy Christmas became a very international affair. The project was executive produced by Hales. The orchestral arrangements were handled by Davide Rossi known for his work with Coldplay. It was mixed by Ben Baptie who has worked with Ellie Goulding, U2 and Adele, and mastered by Dave Kutch known for his skills with such acts as Dua Lipa and The Weeknd. “It has been quite the journey trying to do it in the midst of a pandemic,” Luke says. “From producer Matt Hales in Bath, England to string orchestration by Davide in Copenhagen, to recording with our band in Nashville, or mixing in London, this album has truly been a global creation.”
“We had all of these different people all over the world touching our songs at different points in the process,” Joel affirms. “This record ended up bouncing around to all these different places across the globe, so it was sort of an international piece of music before it was ever even released… But we tracked the bones of it over one week. We went into the studio and cut two or three songs a day. We tracked the strings and redid some of the vocals, but a predominant amount of the record was really captured in a sort of serendipitous weekend at the end of June or beginning of July.”
Tedd T. and Benjamin Backus co-produced the songs with Joel and Luke, and they enlisted two of their favorite artists to contribute guest vocals. “I’ve always said that you shouldn’t have a feature on a song unless the song really calls for it,” Luke says of engaging Barrett for “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and NEEDTOBREATHE on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” “The voices that those two bring to these unique songs really bring it up to another level, to the point that we rerecorded our vocals for ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ because of how great Bear’s vocals were.”
Joel agrees that NEEDTOBREATHE lead vocalist Bear Rinehart’s performance challenged him. “I was so moved and so overwhelmed by Bear’s presentation on that song that I had to go back and re-track my vocals,” Joel says. “I remember turning to Tedd T, who did all the vocal production, and we both nodded at each other like, ‘You’ve got to go back and re-sing’… I will never forget the first time I heard that song when he sent it back because it literally just took my breath away. We felt like Bear really represented the advent of the record and Gabby really represented the celebration. Hearing her vocal on it is really lovely.”
Like many artists recording a Christmas album during the summer, for King & Country employed a few decorative touches to get them in the holiday spirit. “It was in the middle of quarantine so we were all socially distancing,” Joel says. “We were all in separate rooms in the studio, but we did bring in some Christmas lights and wreaths,” he says. “I wore a sweater one day and we sent someone out to Starbucks to get hot chocolates one day. You almost got in the mood until you walked outside and it was blazing hot, but for Luke and me, going back to our childhood [in Australia] Christmas falls in the dead center of summer because it’s the Southern Hemisphere. So it didn’t feel that unnatural to be singing Christmas carols in the middle of summer.”
The Smallbone family moved to Nashville from Australia when Joel was seven-years-old and Luke was five. There are seven kids in the Smallbone family including their sister Rebecca St. James, also a Grammy winning Christian artist. “We enjoyed music, but I don’t think any of it would have happened had we not moved,” Joel says. “There would be no for King & Country. I wouldn’t be doing this as a job—not because I don’t love it—it’s just you can’t really do it in the same way in Australia. Australia is the same size as the United States, but there are 23 million people versus 350 million people. Literally, the amount of ears that you can get to is phenomenal, so we owe a lot to America.”
The Smallbone brothers also say they owe a lot to the Nashville community. When the family first moved from Australia in 1991, their parents struggled financially to raise their large family. “Dad lost his job and mom was pregnant with our little sister,” Joel recalls. “We had no car and mom made our clothes. It was really our community who gave us opportunity. We raked leaves. We mowed lawns. Our first grade school class found out we couldn’t give each other gifts that first Christmas because we had no financial way to do so, so they funded our whole Christmas. So you just can’t separate for King & Country and the Nashville community because if it weren’t for the kindness of Nashville, we wouldn’t be here.”
So much has change for the brothers in the years since they moved to America. They released their debut album, Crave, in 2012. It peaked at No. 4 on Billboard’s Christian Albums chart, and remained on the chart for 41 weeks. They followed up with their successful sophomore album, Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong. in 2014 and then released Burn the Ships in 2018, which featured the hit singles “Joy” and “God Only Knows,” which won numerous accolades including the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song and the Billboard Music Award for Top Christian Song. The duo recorded a version with Dolly Parton and performed it on the 2019 CMA Awards.
This holiday season the brothers have been busy with A Drummer Boy Drive-In: The Christmas Tour. “We’re so grateful for the chance to be touring during this time,” Luke says. “It’s not fancy. Sometimes we’re in the middle of a field. Sometimes we’re in gravel lots, but the crew and band are just thankful to be out getting to do what we love, and we were excited to find a way to make it work. When we were planning this tour, we asked ourselves what else can we do to help? And so far, through Compassion International we’ve had a thousand kids sponsored, and have collected close to two thousand gifts through Salvation Army for local families in each city. It’s been so cool to see the generosity in this season through all the hardship, people wanting to give back.”
The brothers are happy to be performing for their fans again. “It’s different for sure,” admits Joel. “You don’t have that eye-to-eye level, to be able to really engage with an audience, but at the same time it has a whole different charm. It’s almost like a tailgate party. While distancing, people show up an hour or two early and get their spot. They’ve got their chairs or their blankets, their signs and lights and the people have really done it up. So it becomes a whole optimum evening affair versus just showing up, sitting in your seat and then leaving. I do greatly miss the really deep interaction, but at the same time having a new way to connect in a time where no one is physically connecting, I’m counting my blessings versus looking at the inconveniences.”
Both Joel and Luke are hoping their Christmas album brings cheer this unusual holiday season. “It’s a lonely Christmas season for many and still a very frightening Christmas season for many,” Joel says. “Being able to offer a 44 minute and 49 second soundtrack of both longing and hope, we’re very proud of that. . .The spirit of the season and Jesus and putting a real exclamation point beside the great hope that he offers is something that we’re very excited to be able to do. This is such a meaningful record to us.”