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Q&A: Lukas Nelson

A fixture in the world of Americana music for years, Lukas Nelson has toured with Neil Young, recorded with Lady Gaga, and learned plenty of life lessons from his country legend father, Willie Nelson.

G.K. Hizer
March 28, 2020

It’s hard to describe Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real concisely. If you had to choose one word, it might well be chameleonesque: sonically, the band shifts between elements of rock, Texas country, Laurel Canyon ‘60s pop, rhythm and blues, and acid-washed blues. Not only has the group been touring on its own, but Lukas has toured with his iconic father, Willie Nelson, and the group has served as the backing band for Neil Young on three albums and a multitude of live dates. Lukas served as a consultant for Bradley Cooper’s version of A Star is Born (2018), co-writing songs for the soundtrack, and the group appeared as the backing band for the film’s Jackson Maine.

To say life has taken Lukas in a multitude of directions is something of an understatement, but he takes it all in stride, centered by his band and love of music. Even amid the flurry of extra-curricular activity, Promise of the Real not only managed to release the 13-track album, Turn Off the News (Build a Garden), last June and follow it with heavy touring. In March, the group released a companion album, Naked Garden.

Life never slows down for Lukas and his crew. Much like his father sang, “The life I love is making music with my friends,” and the road continues to call, as Promise of the Real follows a spring United States run with a European tour in June before returning for more stateside roadwork. Even so, Lukas found time to answer questions before the band arrives April 29 for a show at Cain’s Ballroom.

Q. What was the thought process in releasing Naked Garden so soon after the previous record?
A. We had so much great material to work with. We went to the Village Studios [Los Angeles] right after the Shangri-La sessions [Malibu, California] and got something like 20 more songs. We had so much good stuff that we had to figure a way to get it out.

We also wanted to show the rawer and honest sound of the band. I think people get used to hearing polished records and forget there are human beings behind them. When we’re recording live, I like the imperfections and not cleaning it up too much.

Q. In terms of a musical genre, where do you see the group fitting?
A. I can see us being similar to The Band, not that I think we’re anywhere near as good as they were, but I can relate to that sort of trajectory. They had been a band before they played with [Bob] Dylan, and then it all changed for them. I think the Neil Young thread for us mirrors that a little bit.

Everyone in the band is so talented. Anthony [LoGerfo, drums] has his own record, Corey [McCormick, bass] is working on one, and Logan [Metz, keyboards] has an album out. So, we all have our things going on, but everyone is loving and tolerant of each other. My motto is, “A rising tide lifts all ships.” I learned that from my dad and his band, and I try to carry on that tradition.

Q. There’s a lot that comes with being the son of someone famous. How did you handle that as you launched your career?
A. I think it’s a matter of looking at it with perspective. I grew up in a musical family, and I think I fell in love with music as much as he did. He’s my dad, and that’s part of it, though. I love being with family, being in and around music, and being out on the road. Our policy is you have to put the band’s name on the marquee. You can’t just put, “Willie Nelson’s son.” One time a promoter didn’t like that, and we had to get involved. I love what I do, and I’m just a speck in this vast universe. My dad just happens to be famous, so it is what it is.

Q. Was working on A Star is Born a blessing, curse, or a little of both?
A. When Kris Kristofferson did the last one [1976], it was great for him, but it put a lot of pressure on him to play those songs. It was actually kind of perfect, the way it worked out for me. I wasn’t starring in the film, so my audience isn’t asking me to sing those songs every night, even though I collaborated on eight songs, helped produce the songs, and arranged “Shallow.”

I’m proud of it, and Bradley and Stefani [Lady Gaga], and all the hard work they put into it and the awards they’ve gotten for it.

It’s been the best of both worlds for me. I’ll sometimes play “Shallow” if I’ve got a girl with me who can hit those notes, but people like my music, and it’s been a real organic thing. We can change the set from show to show, and we can play a couple of those songs if we want to, but there’s not a lot of pressure to do that.

Q. Your band is known for touring heavily. How do you manage that and still get along in such close quarters?
A. Luckily, we’re all pretty mellow people, and we don’t push each other’s buttons. They’re my family, and they’re my brothers. I consider them the best band in the world, and they take care of me as much or more than I take care of them. I think the most important part of life is being surrounded by people you care about and being surrounded by music. So, I consider myself pretty lucky.

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
Cain’s Ballroom
423 N. Main Street | Tulsa
April 29: 8 p.m.