Lukas Nelson’s Wild Year: Writing Music for ‘A Star is Born,’ Playing with Legends and How ‘Music is Instagram for the Soul’ (Q&A)

Jeff SlateCategories:Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine

Lukas Nelson’s 2018 was the sort of year that most musician’s can only dream of, and 2019 is shaping up to be even better for the front man of the roots rock band Promise of the Real.

Last year saw Nelson back his dad on several great albums, tour incessantly to packed crowds with his band and as the backing band for Neil Young -– something the band has been doing regularly since 2014 — and helped bring the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga remake of A Star Is Born to the silver screen.

This year, as his band continues to tread the boards in support of its fantastic new album Turn Off The News (Build A Garden), which blends shades of 60’s R&B, the Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty, and, of course, Nelson’s key inspiration, his dad, with a host of star turns from the likes of his dad, Young, Ke$ha, Shooter Jennings, Sheryl Crow and more, for a potent mixture of old school rock and roll unlike anything in today’s record bins,

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real have just returned from England, after backing Neil Young at his much hailed performances in Hyde Park and Kilkenny, Ireland with Bob Dylan, while also helping to promote his dad’s Willie’s Reserve marijuana brand and getting word out about Turn Off The News (Build A Garden).

In between dates of what seems like a never ending tour, Rock Cellar caught up with Nelson to talk about the wild year he and his band mates just experienced, the inspiration he takes from the legends he regularly backs and collaborates with, and the craft of music-making he seems to love so dearly, and the young rocker sounded like he had the world at his feet. Which, just maybe, he does.

Rock Cellar: Let’s kick off with your most recent triumph: You just played the Hyde Park and Kilkenny shows with Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Tell me a little about what playing a festival with those guys is like for your band, because, if I know anything about you, you’re all fans, first and foremost.

Lukas Nelson: My goodness, man! The Hyde Park and Ireland shows were fantastic. We got to say our hellos to the Dylan crew, and that was nice. They’ve always been good friends. We didn’t get to stay for his show, but we played our set, it went well, and we all felt pretty satisfied. And when we got to the next show, the Kilkenny, Ireland show, it just exploded.

It was really just amazing. The crowd went crazy. They’re just such a great crowd over in Ireland, anyway. But it was really something. Jeff Beck and Johnny Depp showed up. Everybody was just in awe of Neil and Bob, and it was a celebration of their genius. It was really touching.

We were also mourning Elliot Roberts. He had touched all of our lives. And the, after that, we had some great shows of our own when we were there in Europe. We played Shepherd’s Bush, in London, which was a fantastic success. I loved that place. And then we played Glastonbury, which people enjoyed as well. So we had a great time. Then after the tour was over, we did the Sarah Cox show in England. She was fantastic. We loved working with her, because her team let us record the music live, right there in the studio, the way we like to do it, and we really felt as though we captured some really good takes of those songs.

So that was really cool. Finally, we did BBC Morning Breakfast and talked about the Tao of Pooh, which was sort the inspiration behind the record. It was great. We had a good time. Now I’m just resting and working out and feeling good.

Rock Cellar: There’s a line in your bio that likens the trajectory of your band to The Band. What I liked about it was that you’ve certainly backed your share of legends, as they did, but your tour itinerary feels similar to the way they cut their chops as a band. Like those guys, you guys play anywhere. I saw you here in New York City at the High Line, you’re playing Seattle at a zoo with Steve Earle pretty soon, and I saw a food fest here in New York City coming up in the fall. I mean, you just do whatever gig comes your way, it seems, and I think that’s what made The Band the band they were, too.

Do you feel as though just getting out in front of people as much as possible is what’s helped you hone your sound and make the artistic leaps you’ve made since we first met, about ten years ago? Because you’re a much different band now than back then.

Lukas Nelson: We do 250 shows a year. And me, solo, even more. I play every single day. I perform every day. Over the last 10 years we’ve just done a lot. And we all started long before that. I started when I was eight years old. Plus, these guys are my brothers and my friends, and that creates a certain telekinesis and spontaneity, in the best way, when you’re really tight like that. It’s like a good soccer team or whatever.

Rock Cellar: When I’ve interviewed Robbie Robertson about Music from Big Pink, and then also the Brown Album, he said it was tricky finding their own voice as a band, because they had always backed people up. Even when they were backing up Levon, they really thought of themselves as a backup. So they were finding their own sound on the first album, but he felt it was really the Brown Album where they found who they were as a unit, and who was the best vocalist for this song and that song, was, and so on. I love the first record, and everything you’ve done with Neil, but this album feels like a huge leap forward, similar to the jump The Band made between their first two albums. Do you feel like you’ve really found your voice as a unit this time around?

Lukas Nelson: The thing is, on the first album, that was our voice at that time. And that was a reflection of how we felt at that point. And the next record will reflect how we’re all feeling.

It’s just like taking a snapshot of your soul and putting it out there. It’s Instagram for your soul. Music is like Instagram for the soul. There you go. [Laughter.]

Rock Cellar: A good line! I’m interested in the fact that you guys recorded at Shangri-La, where The Band and so many others recorded. There’s a lot of history in that room; a lot of ghosts in that room. Was that part of the reason, or did you just like the space?

Lukas Nelson: Of course. The energy there is amazing. You’re by the ocean. I sat and meditated for 40 minutes before every session. You sleep there and you wake up there and you’re part of it. And there are no distractions out there. You’re focused. The Village, where we did the other half of the record, in its own way, is like that too. They’re both very different, but very, very important spaces. The Village brings a literal sense of community to the project, which I love. I love having my friends around and I love everybody being there. That’s a really important part of the band. But what Shangri-La allowed us to do was to get quiet with ourselves and focus. So the combination of the two presented the best effort we’ve done so far.

But the road will never end, you know. We’re still just exploring.

Rock Cellar: When I heard about the album, I noticed there were a lot of guests listed. I always worry about that. And yet, listening to the album, it’s very old school, the way those guests are utilized in the record, and very organic. Nobody stands out. There was no like stunt casting, the way there is on so many records these days. It felt as though the guests were there only to serve the song.

Lukas Nelson: “A rising tide lifts all ships,” is my motto. I’ve seen the way that my dad really has set up his life, in that he’s able to help and bring his friends with him. And they’re all able to help him.

We were just trying to band together as many good people as we could to shoot it across the universe in a galaxy that’s moving and vibrating. Ultimately, it’s all insignificant. So why don’t we play a little tune while we die?

Rock Cellar: There are serious moments on there, too. You’re talking about local activism; putting the phone down and taking control of your own life and community. They’re very Willie themes. They’re very Neil themes. These are things that you had to have heard around the dinner table as a kid, but you have your own take on them, too. Talk to me a little bit about why local activism is so important to you.

Lukas Nelson: It’s important to me because I respect my elders. I was lucky, though. I had really great examples of adults to be around. People with dignity. What more could anyone ask for? That’s really what it comes down to. No matter where you live or what class you are, poor or rich, if you have people around you that have dignity and poise and grace and gratitude, then you’re going to learn that. And that’s a good tool. So I had those people around. So I’m grateful for them. The music reflects that gratitude. I know I’ll grow up and I’ll bring other influences in probably, in time. But right now I’m just playing the music that feels most natural to me.

Rock Cellar: The lessons you’re talking about, those are pretty big life lessons. Were there more mundane lessons, sitting around Willie’s dinner table? Obviously, it’s not really mundane, but where did you learn about the songwriting process, or other artistic lessons?

Lukas Nelson: Sure, yeah. But I’ve learned from other places, too. My collaboration with Jamie Hartman and John Alagia to rewrite the chorus of “Bad Case,” on this album. They thought it wasn’t strong enough to really get out there and be sing-along-able. And I thought, “Okay. Well, I’m open.” So we got in there. Jamie Hartman and John. We reworked the thing and we got it better. We got it sounding like a great song. People really love that tune and can relate. People ask me if it’s directed at anybody, and I say, “Yeah. Me.”

Rock Cellar: This record is as live-sounding as they come. It sounds like a band plan. It gives and takes; it breathes in that way. But it sounds like guys who know what they’re doing, and feels polished, too. Were those lessons learned? You had to go through the wringer a little bit with the A Star is Born experience. Were those other lessons that were learned? Good and bad?

Lukas Nelson: Yeah, absolutely. I take everything like it is a lesson. I’m already a whole new guy. That about covers it.

Rock Cellar: How did the Star Is Born experience change you as an artist? Did you see things differently afterwards? A big Hollywood film is a very different experience than making and touring a record, especially nowadays, because they don’t have the reach that they did back in your dad’s day. Did that give you a different insight into the artistic process being involved in big budget movie?

Lukas Nelson: It made me proud that my band was able to take that opportunity that was given and really give them what they asked for, which was authenticity. We had authentic performances in that film. That arrangement of “Shallow” is ours. The way it all starts and builds is a creation of Promise of the Real, with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. So I’m very proud of that, that that song did so well. And I think that it just gave me another shot in the arm of confidence; that I’ll be able to continue to write great, world-class songs.

Movies have the ability to get that out there. They have the money to pump it out and then people resonate with it. But great songs resonate with just an acoustic guitar. There’s nothing there but us on that “Shallow” recording, and it’s beautiful. It’s simple, it’s elegant, and it transcended pop. It got Lady Gaga and Bradley where they needed to be. So I’m very proud of Promise of the Real.

Rock Cellar: Did the experience, and that taste of a hit record, push you to reach harder on Turn Off The News? There’s a very high level of songwriting on this record, and there are a lot of songs on there. It’s not just 10 songs, where five of which are good and five are throwaways. It’s a nice, large batch of really well-written songs. So did that experience push you, do you think?

Lukas Nelson: Oh, absolutely. I knew that I couldn’t put out a record that I wasn’t completely proud of following A Star is Born. And I am. I’m proud of the message, too, especially.

I’m proud of being able to use my platform to bring people together in a positive way, in whatever way they can. Just by loving each other and recognizing we’re all just kind of living together in the dream, even, because that’s a lot, too.

Because that is the idea behind me being a public person. I don’t really care about being number one all the time. I think that if I put things out that I resonate, then that’s what’ll be what’s real. That’s why my band’s name is Promise of the Real. You’ve got to do what really feels right all the time. And what speaks to you. I listen to that inner voice.

Rock Cellar: I hear Tom Petty in your music, but also in the way you carry yourself. There’s some CCR in there, too, and you’re on Fantasy Records, Creedence’s label, which has to be cool for you. But there’s a legacy here that you’ve built separate and apart from being your dad’s son. It’s a long way from when I first talked to you back around Heroes. Obviously, Neil and Willie have to be huge inspirations for you. But is Tom a big inspiration? Is Fogerty? Who are the people that you look to in these crazy times to inspire you to build that “Instagram for the soul”?

Lukas Nelson: You know… of all of them, my father is the greatest example for me in the way that I feel like I want to live my life. I really, really respect him. I probably won’t have as many wives as he did. [Laughter.] But he’s found a real good one in my mother, and they’ve been together as long as I’ve been around, so I’ve gotten a great example of love in my life, and I’m very grateful for that. So he’s the one I look up to the most.

Rock Cellar: Beyond the tour and promoting the current record, what’s next for you guys, do you think?

Lukas Nelson: After opening for the Stones and the Zac Brown for about a few dates and the Newport Folk Festival and a little farmer’s benefit my brother Micah is putting together in Hawaii –- it might be close to 20 shows, all told –- there’s Farm Aid coming up, and Outlaw dates with my dad. But somehow we’ll find time to eat, breathe, and shit.

Rock Cellar: Let’s wrap it up on Farm Aid. The local farmer, the small farmer, is as under siege –- much more under siege –- than when Farm Aid started. Talk to me a little bit about how important local farming is and how important that cause is to your heart.

Lukas Nelson: That’s very important to me. In fact, we try and connect with local farmers everywhere we go. And we try to help bring attention using our social media platforms, and by inviting them to our shows. Sometimes we have pop-up farmers markers at the shows. We did that at Wilmington, North Carolina, and in Kansas City, recently, where we had these great farmers markets in the afternoon before we played.

We told all our fans that were coming to the shows to come early and to check out the markets, so they could get to know their local growers, so they’d see, alright, this is how it’s done. Also, I like to support farms and local farms because it’s sort of a manifestation of the message that I’m trying to get across.

There are things you can be doing in your life that can make your world and the world around you and even beyond you a better place through the domino effect.

I think a big problem right now is the general cynicism, because we watch the news and it looks like everything’s just, you know, shit. But I think that if we all can take a deep breath, and pick what really matters in the world that’s around close to us, and live our lives that way, it will make the world a little bit easier to live in.

That’s really what I meant when I said earlier that the songs on this record are all directed at me, because the whole art expression on this record is directed at no one but me. And I’m talking to myself in a really loud way.

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