Lukas Nelson: Sooner or Later, It All Gets Real

Jeff Tamarkin on March 1, 2018

Myriam Santos

Willie Nelson and his wife gave their two boys three valuable pieces of advice when they were young. “Number one,” Willie recalls, “was don’t be an asshole. Number two: Don’t be an asshole.” And number three? “Don’t be a goddamn asshole!”

“That’s true,” chuckles Lukas Nelson, one of the recipients of that pointed parental guidance. “I learned not to be an asshole. It’s a great lesson and it’s given me quite a lot of joy in my life and in love. But I also learned the value of hard work from my dad, just from watching him. And I learned how to treat people. Dad leads by example; he’s humble.” 

“I’ve always believed in treating people with respect and treating people the way you want to be treated. It seems to work,” confirms Willie.

What also worked was letting the two boys—whose mother, Annie D’Angelo, Willie’s fourth wife, has been married to him since 1991—find their own way in life. The couple neither encouraged nor discouraged Lukas, who turned 29 on Christmas Day and fronts Promise of the Real, or his 27-year-old brother, Micah, from following in their father’s footsteps.

“Ever since they were born, there’s been musical instruments around them where they grew up,” says Willie. “There’s a cabin at our place with a piano and five or six guitars. So it was just a natural thing. I didn’t try to push it on them. I kind of let ‘em hear me play, and hear my sister Bobbie [Nelson, Willie’s longtime pianist and elder sibling], and the next thing you know, I see Micah over on the drums and Luke’s playing the guitar. And then the next thing you know, they’re playing good!”

So good, in fact, that both Lukas and Micah—the youngest of Willie’s seven offspring—are now prolific and highly creative artists in their own right. Last summer, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real released their major label debut—easily their most impressive album to date—and they’ve served as Neil Young’s chosen backup band since they met at Farm Aid in 2014, touring with him extensively and collaborating on three albums (2015’s The Monsanto Years, 2016’s live Earth and the recently released The Visitor). Micah also serves as an auxiliary member of Promise of the Real when they support Young and leads Pårticle Kid, a project he describes on his Facebook page as “Folk-a-delic Forest-Funk Space-Punk Avant-Pop Psych- Rock Dope-Scapes.”

In addition, Lukas and Micah teamed with their dad to record this past fall’s Willie and the Boys: Willie’s Stash Vol. 2, which finds the trio putting their own harmonic stamp on country classics, mostly by Hank Williams.

POTR, as Lukas’ band is often called, is coming up on its 10th anniversary this year. The lineup currently includes Nelson on guitar and lead vocals, Tato Melgar (percussion), Corey McCormick (bass, vocals), Jesse Siebenberg (steel guitars, Farfisa organ, vocals), Alberto Bof (piano, Wurlitzer, B3 organ) and Anthony LoGerfo (drums). The self-titled Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real (Fantasy Records), produced by John Alagia (John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band), features a dozen songs composed by Lukas (he co-wrote “High Times” with Alyssa Miller), and follows Promise of the Real (2010), Wasted (2012), Live Endings (2012), 2016’s Something Real and a handful of EPs. Two of the tunes on the new release are remakes of songs that appeared on the last album, another dates back to their debut and one is a longtime live staple.

As far as Nelson is concerned though, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real is, in many ways, the band’s first truly representative release—its music honed by an annual touring schedule of more than 200 shows and countless hours spent writing and recording. “The production is the key,” he says of the album. “The quality of the studio, the quality of the production, the decisions that John Alagia and the band made in the studio—that all led to a higher quality sound. It sounds more cinematic; it’s got more of a weight to it. And we’re a better band than when we recorded those other albums.” 

Cut over a two-year stretch at the Village Studios in Los Angeles, with additional recording done at Pedernales Studios in Texas and Atomic Sound in Brooklyn, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real exemplifies a palpable maturation of Nelson as a composer, musician, vocalist and bandleader. Nelson says that the time spent on the road playing in supersized venues with Young—including the October 2016 Desert Trip concerts in Indio, Calif., where they shared a bill with Paul McCartney—upped POTR’s game.

“Any time you know that your art is going to be exposed to a larger group of people, it influences what you’re creating,” Nelson says. “I think The Beatles had that, on a much more macro scale. They knew that many were listening, so they got inspiration from the anticipation of people waiting to hear what they’d put out next. A true creative type will take that anticipation, channel it and find some relatable stuff—stuff that speaks to a larger group of people.”

Nelson credits Alagia (who also contributes keyboards throughout the album) with helping him realize the diversity and the more expansive sound of the album: “He’s got a lot of great ideas, in terms of arrangements and chord structures. He’s a good songwriter himself. He’s got a great voice. The songs that he writes have a great sense of melody. We didn’t change the songs all that much. What John gave us was a level of comfort to be who we are in the studio. He had a lot of great ideas that we put into practice.”

Young also provided useful input. “We have a crazy cosmic connection with Neil,” Nelson says. “We speak each other’s language and we learn so much from him. I’m in awe of his attention to detail, focus and work ethic. He helped me on this album with the song ‘Forget About Georgia,’ just a couple of refrains. He’d say, ‘You should sing that part again because that’s a great hook.’ He loved the part where I’m talking about Ray Charles. At the end of the first solo, I was going back into [the line] ‘Just forget about Georgia,’ and he said, ‘No, you should go back to Ray at that point.’ So I put that in there. And he had some production ideas.”

The “Ray” line that Nelson is referring to arrives midway into the plaintive eight-minute-plus country-blues-tinged ballad. Following his delivery of the verse, Nelson’s longing vocal gives way to an audacious and affecting guitar solo, a perfect paradigm for his straightforward, fat-free playing style. The song is one of the two remakes from Something Real, which was released on Marco Benevento’s Royal Potato Family records, and is an undeniable highlight on an album filled with potential hits. “Set Me Down on a Cloud” is the 2016 set’s other redo, and the story behind it is simply heartbreaking.

“I was playing in Ashland, Ore., and there’s a place called Jackson Wellsprings, which is a hot spring where they have gatherings,” Nelson says. “We were staying there and, after the first night, I woke up to a letter at the door of the bus—a long, beautifully written letter that told us about how this lady and her husband had been at the show the night before. She said it was the first time she’d been able to feel any positive feeling at all since she’d accidentally run over and killed her 4-year-old daughter. She asked me in the letter to please write a song about it, so I wrote ‘Set Me Down on a Cloud’ but it takes on new meanings as it goes out.”

Another standout is “Just Outside of Austin,” which Nelson says was inspired by his love of the songs of the late country singer Roger Miller. Willie sits in on the uptempo, mostly acoustic number, playing his legendary “Trigger” guitar, and Bobbie Nelson adds piano. Micah Nelson also guests on the album, playing piano and banjo on “Runnin’ Shine,” while Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius stamp five of the album’s tunes with their superb vocals.

But perhaps the most eye-opening guest credit belongs to one Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta—better known as Lady Gaga. She’s credited with background vocals on “Carolina” and “Find Yourself.” The latter tune is a song that’s been in the band’s repertoire for at least a few years.

“Bradley Cooper is doing [the film] A Star Is Born, which comes out in May, and when I played Desert Trip with Neil, Bradley was there,” says Nelson. “He saw me playing and said, ‘I want that guy to consult with me on how to be an authentic-looking rock star on the screen.’ I met Lady Gaga though him and we became really good friends. She’s an immense talent. She’s the real deal. She came and saw one of my shows and became a fan of the songs ‘Find Yourself ’ and ‘Carolina,’ so she sang on them. We wrote a bunch of music for the movie and I wrote a bunch on my own. I got my band to do the music and they ended up acting in the movie as well.” 

How, you might be wondering, did the son of Willie Nelson nd his way to fronting a rock band and hanging with the likes of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper? Simply by following his muse.

Born in Austin and raised in Maui, Lukas Autry Nelson realized at a young age that his situation was not like that of the other kids he knew. The move to Hawaii provided perspective. “Mom decided to raise us there, which was a great idea,” he says. “Not as many people are obsessed with Willie Nelson there. They love him but, in Texas, it’s a whole other deal. [In Hawaii], I was just a privileged kid. I went to a Montessori school, then a private school, then I was homeschooled for a couple of years. It was a pretty normal childhood, but I was traveling all the time and was never home for more than three months at a time, ever.

“I’m grateful for my mother’s influence in my life because she made me work for everything that I’ve had and never spoiled me,” he says. Growing up, Nelson struggled with what he calls “the ‘why’ of it all. Why is it that some of us are born with a lot and some of us are born with nothing?” He continues, “As a kid in a privileged upbringing, I had everything but I didn’t understand the meaning of any of it. I wanted to understand more about the world. I wanted to understand about people who go through so much pain. I wanted to be a part of the world I was in. I really turned inward and started studying spirituality and all the different religions of the world, and figuring out what makes me tick on a human level.”

Nelson’ first dream was to be a fighter pilot, then an Olympic swimmer. Eventually, music took hold. He wrote a song called “You Were It” that Willie recorded. That was when, Nelson says, “I felt that maybe this is what I’m supposed to do. I put all my effort toward playing guitar, playing music, and I put the same effort that an Olympic athlete would put toward doing [their sport]. I practiced all the time. I didn’t have a girlfriend; I didn’t have anything. At one point, I decided to leave the nest, so to speak, and I cut myself off  from my parents financially. I don’t take from them any more than they’ve already given me—from birthing me and raising me. It gives a lot of meaning to my life.”

With the 2008 formation of Promise of the Real, whose very name comes from a line in Neil Young’s 1974 song “Walk On”—“Sooner or later it all gets real”—Nelson’s direction in life came into clearer focus. Now, he says, he’s seeing tangible results. So is Willie. “I think they’ve got what they need,” says the 84-year-old legend. “They have confidence, talent, and a love for the music and a love for the fans. There’s a lot of great high-energy exchange out there when those boys play—a lot of positive energy going out from them—and the audience is throwing it back. I’m really proud.”

“Hopefully, in the world that I’m trying to create for myself, this is just the very beginning,” Lukas Nelson says. “It’s baby steps. I feel that we’re young and we’ve still got so much potential for more. Dad didn’t make it until he was 40 years old and, even as a songwriter, he was struggling. I’m 29 and I think that if I just can keep working and honing my skills and keep putting in the practice and the effort, I know that it’ll pay off somehow. It has paid off in so many ways and I’m very grateful for that; the joy of watching my art develop is the reward. And also, the joy of being able to do something I love for a living gives me a sense of deep meaning. I’m able to make other people happy at the same time I’m making myself happy. I really couldn’t ask for anything more.” 

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here