Lukas Nelson talks new album, tour, and the enduring benefits of A Star is Born
In today’s world of information overload, Lukas Nelson offers some sound advice in the form of the title track of his latest album with his band Promise of the Real: Turn Off The News (Build a Garden).
Nelson and the group will be playing tunes from it Saturday as part of the 34th installment of his father Willie’s long-running benefit concert series Farm Aid. Nelson and Promise of the Real are performing alongside a star-studded line-up that includes his dad, fellow Farm Aid co-founders John Mellencamp and Neil Young as well as Luke Combs, Tanya Tucker, Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds, Margo Price, Brothers Osborne, and Yola. The show airs live on AXS at 7:30 pm ET/4:30 pm PT.
After spending part of last year in the maelstrom of the A Star is Born orbit thanks to Nelson’s work on the soundtrack and the quintet’s appearance in the film as the backing band for Bradley Cooper’s character Jackson Maine, the group hits a new stride with Turn Off the News (Build a Garden)
Recorded in LA with co-producer John Alagia, the quintet– bassist Corey McCormick, drummer Anthony Logerfo, percussionist Tato Melgar, multi-instrumentalist Logan Metz, and Nelson– mixes up bracing rock and roll with Americana, soul, country and psychedelic flourishes. The album swings from ecstatic to solemn and hits many points between from the ambling rocker “Bad Case,” an ode to letting go of a toxic relationship that sounds like a lost Traveling Wilburys classic, to the twangy jaunt “Lotta Fun,” which is just that. They invited a few friends and family members into the studio to help them get it right including the elder Nelson, Nelson’s brother Micah, Neil Young, Kesha, Shooter Jennings, Margo Price, and Sheryl Crow.
Crow has known the singer-songwriter since he was a kid thanks to her friendship with his dad and has become a fan and a friend over the last few years having logged miles together on the Outlaw Tour. She lends vocals to the title track and jumps at the chance to praise his spirit. “You know that feeling of being proud of somebody even though you had nothing to do with it?” asks Crow. “I feel that with his record, I feel that way about Lukas. Whenever we’re together we try to sing together and he’s just one of those true friends. He’s cut from the same cloth of old school, loose, ‘let’s create a collaborative experience whenever we’re together,’ and that’s what I love.” Nelson returned the favor by appearing on the song “Cross Creek Road” on Crow’s new album Threads.
Following Farm Aid, Nelson will have a busy fall. Having just finished up the Outlaw Tour with his dad, he hits the road for his own tour dates with Promise of the Real through October and then joins up with The Last Waltz tour– celebrating the acclaimed roots rockers the Band– through November.
Nelson recently chatted with EW about the new album, his musical heroes and the enduring benefits of working on A Star is Born.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was there a single catalyst for the title song where you were frustrated one day and decided “I need to plant some tomatoes!” Or did it grow over time?
Lukas Nelson: I’d come home and the news would be on, all day long. I started thinking, “What’s going to really make me happy?” I think news makes us feel so helpless sometimes because there’s all this s–t happening, and we don’t know what to do about it most of the time except for vote. But you vote once every few years. There are so many opportunities to vote in the local elections, too though, and I think the idea for Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) is “Get connected with what’s happening around you, instead of worrying so much about the worldwide events.” If you could just work on changing the world around you, then you might find that you can find some happiness.
We believe in this idea of planet-wide cooperation instead of this sort of nationalism that we tend to see right now. I hope to one day see everybody working together to create a better world. That sounds so cheesy when you say it, but that’s because the cynicism of our times is so great. It a bad word to be a hippie now and that’s crazy to me because of what the hippies stood for. We have so many people who are frustrated with the system, and yet they’re almost stuck in their misery because t makes them feel cool to be angry.
This whole “too cool for school” attitude, I don’t really understand it, and I’m a young person. So, I’m not the old crazy uncle yelling in the yard here. We need young people to start understanding that we have a choice in a perspective to look at life. You can look at it like a negative, or you look at it like a positive, and you can choose every moment. Sometimes it takes training to do that and surrounding yourself with people who help uplift you.
Which you did on the new album, particularly when it came to inviting women to play. There are so many here: Lucius, Margo Price, Sheryl Crow, Kesha. You have said that you didn’t do it on purpose, but do you think the end result is better because you invited so many women into the process?
Are you kidding? I almost called the record “Civilized Hell,” because you know that song is about the badass women in my life. Without women I’d be nowhere, starting with my mother. (Laughs) She’s the ultimate badass mama. The whole record was going to be called “Civilized Hell” for a long time, but then we thought Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) spoke more to the message of what we were trying to get across.
In addition to all of the women you invited into the studio you also have two very important men on the album: your dad and Neil Young, for whom Promise of the Real has served as a backing band. Obviously, you love and know both of them so well and they have been champions of yours, but they are still music legends, so is it easy to ask them to play on the record or do you get nervous at all?
No. I don’t get nervous about those kinds of things because, to me, I consider them teachers, and I’m not nervous around a teacher. When I want to learn something, I’m careful about how I present myself because I want to present my best self always, but I’m never nervous because I know that even at my worst I’m still pretty damn good. It’s very loving and natural [to work with them], like growing up in a tribe. Kurt Vonnegut called it a karass.
Back in January, there was a beautiful tribute concert for your dad in Nashville where you and your brother Micah gave one of the night’s most moving performances. How did that night feel from the stage side of the equation, surrounded by all those amazing artists there to pay tribute?
I came off stage and I saw my dad’s manager, my mom, and my brother, and I went to hug them and I broke down in tears. I just was bawling crying after that performance. It was indescribably moving to me to be able to do that with my brother there and for my dad, and have him see it, and have him understand.
The last time we spoke you were in the thick of the A Star is Born madness. Do you feel like you and Promise of the Real have gained new fans who discovered you through your work with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga on the soundtrack last year?
Oh yeah, absolutely. A Star Is Born was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me, bar none. Everything I learned from it, I take with me. We were just working on [the soundtrack cut] “Music to My Eyes” the way I originally wrote it on stage today, so we’ll probably pull that out for the tour.
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