Photo by TJ Sun
Sometimes you have to wonder if Lukas Nelson ever gets tired of talking about other people: his father, his father’s friends, his own famous friends and collaborators. Sure, those people do have a history, a pedigree, names: Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young.
This is even before getting to new pals such as Bradley Cooper, who, after watching Nelson and his band, Promise Of The Real, perform at a festival, signed them to be his character’s backing group in A Star Is Born and took on Nelson as an advisor for the shoot. And Lady Gaga, who came away from A Star Is Born with a new songwriting partner in the film’s soundtrack co-producer, Nelson.
That’s a lot of very well charted territory before we even get to the country rock/Americana/rock hybrid which is the stock in trade of Promise Of The Real. No wonder half his interviews don’t even get to his own songwriting.
Does he ever feel the burden of both music’s history and his own?
“No, no, no, no, no,” the genial Nelson says. “No. I think there is an un-ending tap from a well, an infinite source of creativity in songs and an infinite number of possibilities to refine what we’ve heard before, to take what we love from our heroes and our mentors, and filter it through our experiences to become who we are as songwriters.”
That’s great in theory, but harder to stand out from the crowd, or from the past, even a decade into this band’s history. When was the first time that he thought he had stepped away from his mentors and heroes and carved out something that was unequivocally Lukas Nelson?
“Well I’m not really trying to step away from it as much as I am trying to capture a feeling I get,” he says. “I grew up basically as a product of the ‘60s explosion of love, a revolution. Both of my parents were very much a part of that love revolution and the cultural icons that formed through the generation became my mentors and heroes.
“So when I write I want to continue the flowering and the spreading of that love in my own way, filtered through my history and my experiences. The new music I am creating is much more cosmic and asking deeper questions. We’ve got a record called Turn Off The News And Build A Garden, coming out in I think May, or June, and that is an evolution, continuing the energy and the vibe that I want to perpetuate on the planet.”
While being a believer in music’s ability to change your life and the duty of those who can do it to create music that might change your life, Nelson is not one for looking out for that meaning while he is writing. That’s a level of calculation he just isn’t comfortable with.
“You just write what comes to you: you feel more than think. For me, just because I know how songs are structured from the way I grew up, when I wrote a song like Find Yourself, I was feeling that, I was needing to say something about it, and it just came out of me poetically.”
Even if he won’t peer too deeply into the how and why, Nelson is, he insists, still learning about the what. So, giving into the inevitable line of enquiry to those famous names, I ask him what he learnt when Promise Of The Real played as Neil Young’s band. The answer it turns out is in some ways more of the same – and some of the cosmic.
“It’s more than a mental construct, it’s a feeling. You grow at certain levels musically and to get to a point where you start blending the zen of existence together with your expression and art and it just goes deeper and deeper and deeper,” says Nelson. “At a certain point you can’t talk about it because you don’t know what it is. It’s kind of like the Tao.”
In case you feel tempted to comically mouth “om” as you read that, thinking this is some way to divert talk of the mechanics of making music, and the practicalities of playing with the likes of Young, Nelson doesn’t confine his less conventional thinking to trade talk.
After all, he did sign off this call by saying “If I sound out of it it’s because I did smoke a lot”, in an apple not falling far from the tree comment.
When we speak, during North America’s polar vortex/winter freak out when parts of the country were experiencing temperatures heading towards -40c, Nelson is in Alaska for a gig. If that seems like a foolish, out of the freezing pan and into the dire move, like a lot of Nelson’s life choices it turns out to be a smart one.
“It’s beautiful out here,” he says cheerily. “It’s 30 to 40° warmer in Alaska than it is in the midwest right now.”
You get the feeling with Nelson, who argues he had a gig and “the show must go on”, that even if he had been in the polar vortex he’d have taken to the stage.
“It’s part of my deal with the cosmos: [in return] I get to play music for a living.”
Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real play Meeniyan Town Hall, April 16; The Corner Hotel, Melbourne, April 17; Factory Theatre, April 18; Bluesfest, Byron Bay, April 20.
(A version of this story originally appeared in Rhythms Magazine)