Lukas Nelson | Sooner or Later It All Gets Real
Lukas Nelson isn’t sure that the word “outlaw” still means what it used to. The term has long applied to many an American iconoclast working in the country or roots genres, chief among them Lukas’ dad, Willie Nelson.
“Back then, it was the truth,” says Lukas. “Now, you know, weed’s pretty much legal. ‘Outlaw’ doesn’t usually enter my mind except when people are singing it, and they’re signing with some major corporation. That kind of weirds me out.”
To this end, Nelson folds the history and mystique of outlaw culture into his songwriting more than he would by repping it as a personal lifestyle choice. He’s certainly a traveler—just before chatting with Flaunt, he returned to L.A. from a multi-day run of shows in Colorado with his band, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, (bassist Corey McCormick, drummer Anthony Logerfo, percussionist Tato Melgar and multi-instrumentalist Logan Metz, that left them snowed-in at Telluride. On the same trip, Nelson also managed to squeeze in some meetings with local growers for the family marijuana business, Willie’s Reserve—a trade he channels into a gorgeous historical fiction about a family of moonshine bootleggers on the tune “Runnin’ Shine,” off Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real’s most recent self-titled LP.
Contrary to the outlaw stereotype, Nelson’s not travelin’ on to escape from anything so much as he’s running toward his light. Earlier this year he took home a BAFTA award for his massively successful collaboration with Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga and the rest of the composers on A Star Is Born, co-writing eight of the film’s songs and performing in the onscreen band. He’s spent much of he last five years touring the world with longtime family friend Neil Young, backing him up for epic sets and unpacking trunks of memories that helped propel Young into a still-flowering creative renaissance.
This June, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real releases Turn Off The News (Build A Garden), a fantastically heady album of topical, existential numbers that fuse road-dusted Americana with eastern sounds, rocksteady grooves and other unexpectedly eclectic jams, seamlessly melded by the band’s potent communal chemistry.
With Nelson deeply and personally invested in so many projects, one wonders how he is able to switch between writing for himself and writing for other people so effortlessly, transitioning his focus from someone else’s project back to a personal frame of reference.
“I grew up doing that—I’d play with my dad in his band when I was a kid, then I’d do my own thing, so I learned how to do both at a young age,” he says without a hint of self-importance. “I feel like it’s kinda nice to have both skills, too, you know?”
“To be able to be a member of a band, it’s like a sports team—I used to play a lot of sports as a kid. I used to be on a swim team and played soccer, played golf. All of these things require you to have a team mentality. So when I’m out there I’m just taking care of myself, making sure I’m in a good headspace, trying to eat well and exercise, do yoga and meditate, keep my head clear so that I can be the best for whatever project I put my mind to.”
Nelson’s mindfulness is another skill acquired from his upbringing, something he learned from his dad’s legacy of balancing activism and enlightenment with high vibes and good times. “He’s just being present,” Nelson says. “It’s putting all your efforts to doin’ the best you can do when you got it.”
Staying so present can burn an artist out, though, prompting them to withdraw or sometimes disappear altogether. This is part of the sentiment behind one of Neil Young’s greatest forlorn tunes, “Too Far Gone,” an idea that surfaces in Lukas’ original A Star Is Born tune of the same name, and that he also recites the lyrics to Turn Off The News opener, “Bad Case.”
“‘Too Far Gone’... that’s the ‘gain the world/lose your soul’ conundrum,” says Nelson. “There’s an easy way to lose yourself in this industry, and that’s what the name Promise of the Real means, ironically.” The band took its name from Young’s On The Beach classic, “Walk On.”
“There’s a lot of ways you can do something,” Nelson continues. “Some ways, you step on other people and lose your soul. Other ways might take you a lot longer to get there, but you’re enjoying yourself and you’re comfortable with yourself.”
This idea of taking the long, high road resonates with Nelson on many levels. Though Bradley Cooper based some of his character Jackson Maine’s stage presence and mannerisms around Nelson while writing A Star Is Born, Nelson never fell into Maine’s tragic arc because he makes a concerted effort to stay healthy and surround himself with the right community.
Nelson remembers the recording of Turn Off The News as a series of productive hangouts, and the strong community of friends who contribute to these songs makes us wish we were hanging out, too. Willie and Neil both make appearances, along with Margo Price, Kesha, Sheryl Crow, sister-act Lucius (who collaborated with the band on their last LP, too) and more.
The album’s many bangers speak for themselves—opener “Bad Case” charges out the gate with wisdom about not wanting what you can’t have, while the Kesha-featuring country-fried number “Save A Little Heartache” grooves along with a Jamaican lilt. The most tender moment, “Mystery,” finds Nelson working with his dad and brother, Micah, to re-record a song he wrote about his first girlfriend when he was 18.
“So all these guys, we’re in a circle, and we all love each other,” says Nelson. “They say ‘a rising tide lifts all ships.’ Surrounding yourself with grounded people is key. People with the right intentions. I believe in intuition, but have this theory that highly intuitive people are actually just highly observant people who have a solid subconscious memory retainment and are able to pick up subtle things, make quick unconscious judgments and decisions.”
Of course, it takes a steady and mindful frontman to make such wise unconscious judgements on the fly. The way Nelson tells it, he fell into a place of leadership naturally. He says that part of being a strong leader involves recognizing the strengths in others and “understanding when there’s somebody who may be adept at a certain situation. That’s why I think a good leader will step back and allow somebody like that to influence them. It’s really a situational matter.”
Through understanding his diplomacy and level- headedness, it’s easy to understand how Nelson has made a name for himself, emerging as an iconoclastic torchbearer of thoughtful American music without heaving to fall back on his father’s storied legacy, or seeking fame via the fast track of entitled nepotism.
“You make decisions a lot of times, you make decisions,” Nelson says. “Concentrate on getting so good at what you do that people can’t help but be impressed and inspired, tell their friends and wanna be around it. Make people’s lives better. That’s really what matters in art, and why wanting to be famous is what’s wrong with the world right now.”