Photo Credit: Joey Martinez
For over a decade, Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real have been hard at work honing a country rock ‘n’ roll sound that has roots planted deep in the past but keeps its eyes forward and feet moving into the future. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real’s bluesy, country rock style manages to sound both vintage and contemporary, and the band draws on many influences but never simply impersonates them.
The last five years have seen Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real do everything from recording with Neil Young, appear in, co-write and co-produce the music of last year’s hit film, A Star Is Born, release two albums of original material with a third out in the next few weeks, and tour extensively all over the world, in addition to also backing Neil Young or performing with Lukas’s father, Willie Nelson. Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real’s self-titled 2017 album rose to number two on the Billboard U.S. Country chart and was nominated for Duo/Group of the Year at the Americana Music Awards, while the soundtrack for A Star Is Born opened at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart.
CULTURE had the opportunity to catch up with Nelson recently and hear all about his band’s new album Turn Off The News (Build A Garden) available on June 14, his experience working on A Star is Born, his activism and of course, his excitement about all things cannabis.
How did you all find the time to get this album completed?
The actual tracking only took us about 10 days at most. We went into the studio and basically recorded it live; we did three takes of each song and picked the best ones. There was also about an hour of pre-production beforehand where we decided how we were going to arrange the songs and everything. So we actually ended up with 20 tracks done in our first six-day session at Shangri-La Studios. Then we went and did another three-day session at The Village Recorder, where we did our last record, and ended up with another eight or nine tracks. So, we had about 30 total to choose from. Then we just had to narrow it down, pick the tracks and mix those—and that all happened in the span of the last year-and-a-half.
Were the songs on this album written in the last year-and-a-half, or are some of these older tunes you’ve been working on?
The song “Mystery” from the record is one that I put out on our first EP ever back in 2009. But that recording was actually the second version of the song, and the one that we’re putting out now is the way I originally wrote it back when I was 18. The only ones we revisited were that one and the song “Something Real” because I really wanted to get another recording of that one down too. The rest of them are new.
Photo Credit: Joey Martinez
One big thing that happened for you in that time frame was your work on A Star Is Born. Was sitting down and writing with a pop star like Lady Gaga a radically different experience for you?
Interestingly, when Gaga and I were writing together we seemed to see ear-to-ear, so to speak. She comes from her world, and I come from mine, but she knows jazz music, blues and the roots of music in general. When you know that language, you love a good song, and that’s what I pride myself most on—good songwriting. I don’t like to limit myself to a certain genre when it comes to that. I like a good melody and lyrics that speak to me, and if that’s the case then it doesn’t matter what instrumentation necessarily surrounds the song, how you produce it, or how you present it to the world. It’s all a matter of taste.
“As a public figure, I feel that I have a way to create the world that I want to see in the way that I can. I’m not advocating turning off the news completely and being ignorant. It’s putting down your phone, turning off your TV for a minute, going out and getting involved in your local community.”
You decided to work with John Alagia again for this album. It seems like every release prior to this one and the one before have had different producers. What made you decide to continue working with him?
Well, I love John. He’s a good friend of mine, and I like his approach. We’re pretty raw as a band and are more on the Neil Young or The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street end of things. I like his ability to put a polish on our sound when we work together; it really balances out into something great. I think that’s why we work so well together. We both have our approaches, but we both come from the same place and love the same types of music. We both love great songs, and John is an incredible songwriter. In fact, for our new single, “Bad Case,” John and his friend Jamie Hartman, who is also a great songwriter and works at The Village, gave some ideas that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of to make the song more accessible to people. I want to reach all types of worlds, though not the ones without soul, but I’d like to reach the soul of all genres.
Photo Credit: Joey Martinez
From a production standpoint, was there a particular type of sound you wanted to achieve?
You know, when I wrote “Bad Case,” I felt Tom Petty. I felt him in my spirit, I was missing him, and it really came out that way. We got Adria Petty to do the music video for it, and it’s going to be fantastic; it’s beautiful. I miss all of the songwriter rock ‘n’ roll of people like The Beatles and Tom and all of the other folks who inspired me. Even Clapton and Jimi Hendrix had these amazing songs with rock ‘n’ roll in them. They weren’t just great sounding guitars with lyrics masked by production that you couldn’t really hear which seems to be the style happening in this age. I’m not a fan of it. I want to hear what people are saying, and I want the lyrics to touch me the way a good poem does.
“I don’t think there’s a marijuana enthusiast in the world that isn’t at least a little bit happy now that things are going our way.”
On the topic of lyrics, with a title track like “Turn Off The News (Build A Garden),” was it your intention for this record to be more of a direct commentary on the world we’re in today than some of your previous albums?
Oh yeah! But in a way that’s hopeful. My idea while we’re touring on the release of this record is to reach out to all of the farmer’s markets in the towns we play as much as we can and go to the farmer’s market, play for free and encourage the people who attend our concerts to come out and support their local farmers. As a public figure, I feel that I have a way to create the world that I want to see in the way that I can. I’m not advocating turning off the news completely and being ignorant. It’s putting down your phone, turning off your TV for a minute, going out and getting involved in your local community. That way you can be consciously a part of what’s happening in your community, and you can make efforts to ensure that on a local level, things are going well. I think that will trickle into the macrocosm of our society and create a domino effect if we all work that way. Turn Off The News (Build A Garden) is really a call to action.
Is it at all challenging for you to find your creativity with so much unrest happening in the world around you?
I don’t know if it’s a challenge, no. Creativity is born of inspiration, right? And you can get inspired by something very small. Depending on your level of observation and connectivity to the world you could get inspired by just the way someone looks at you one day. I think creativity is about being present in the world and observing. If things are going well around you, then that’s something else to be writing about. Some of the greatest Motown songs are about being happy. Songs don’t have to be born of unrest. But I actually think unrest provides more material, because it provides the challenge of overcoming challenges.
Photo Credit: Joey Martinez
I’d imagine at the very least it must bring a little bit of solace to see something like cannabis legalization gaining such mainstream acceptance on a national level?
Yes. I don’t think there’s a marijuana enthusiast in the world that isn’t at least a little bit happy now that things are going our way. I imagine it’s kind of like the way prohibition was back in the day—when you couldn’t drink, people still drank, and when you couldn’t smoke, people still smoked. The irony is that probably a lot less people smoke now because a lot of times people want to do things that are illegal just to feel like they’re giving the finger to the man, especially young kids. I think we’re growing up in a time now where a lot of kids don’t smoke weed, because their parents were stoners, and they want to do the opposite of what their parents are doing.
I’m just glad that hopefully people won’t be getting arrested and thrown in jail for this little plant like they used to be, especially minorities. I think that’s the best part of the national decriminalization that’s happening as well as the exploring of the medicinal qualities too because it’s really good for you. But really, I think the worst part of it was that people from minority communities were being thrown in jail for something as small as having a joint. Unfortunately, they’re still being thrown in jail for silly things, but at least that’s one thing that can’t happen to them anymore.
“WILLIE’S RESERVE put out a ‘Promise of the Real’ sativa strain of weed, and it’s great!”
As a son, does it make you proud to see something that your dad has been harassed for and working so hard as an activist on for so long finally being taken seriously as a social issue?
Oh absolutely! It’s a complete vindication for him! WILLIE’S RESERVE™ is doing fantastic and to have that company now, I’m really proud of him!
Speaking of your dad’s company, I’ve heard you’ve got your own strain out through them. Can you tell me about it?
Well yeah, WILLIE’S RESERVE™ put out a “Promise of the Real” sativa strain of weed, and it’s great!
To get back to the music, you have an all-star lineup of collaborators on this record including Kesha, Margo Price, Sheryl Crow, Lucius, Neil Young and your dad. How did you decide who you wanted to work on with?
You know, our friends just kind of came along. We worked with Kesha on a great song that might be coming out on her next record, became friends during that process, and she heard my song “Save A Little Heartache” and asked if she might sing on it. I said, “Yeah! Absolutely!” I’m just really grateful to have a relationship with her, because she’s a super sweet person. I love her very much, and she stands for what’s right. One of my favorite quotes is, “A rising tide lifts all ships.” When you’ve got a community of people of like minds and intrinsic values of how they want to see the world, the music, and the love, it almost doesn’t matter what genre it is; if you can lift each other up then you can make the world a better place with art.