Track By Track: Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real ‘A Few Stars Apart’
photo credit: Alysse Gafkjen
“This is a reflective record about how to deal with hardship,” Lukas Nelson says, as he considers A Few Stars Apart, his new album with Promise of the Real. “I wrote a bunch of songs at the beginning of the pandemic, and we also had a lot of songs archived that I’d written. Then, once we were all able to travel, I got together with the band to see if we had a good record available to us.”
In August 2020, Nelson convened with his four bandmates in Los Angeles to assess the material. Although Anthony LoGerfo (drums), Corey McCormick (bass), Tato Melgar (percussion), Logan Metz (piano) and Nelson had remained in steady communication following the mid-March cancellation of their spring tour, they had yet to reconnect in person.
Nelson recalls that, over the course of a few weeks, “We sat together and listened to a bunch of material and we all picked our favorites. Then, sort of like magic, it all kind of came together. I think the theme that emerged had to do with what we’re all going through right now. It asks the question, “How does one deal with life when things sort of fall apart around you?” Of course somebody could come up with a different meaning or theme because all of us have the ability to interpret these things in so many ways.”
Once the group selected the songs, their next charge was to pick a producer. As it turned out, the band’s first choice, Dave Cobb, was willing and able. Cobb works out of historic RCA Studio A, so Nelson recalls, “We said, ‘Let’s try and do a little surgical strike into Nashville.’” In the process, they created some new music in the very same building where Nelson’s father Willie had recorded on many occasions.
When asked to name the Dave Cobb project that prompted the group’s enthusiasm, Nelson identifies a few: “Brandi Carlile’s ‘The Joke’ always blows my mind and so does that whole record [By the Way, I Forgive You]. Her vocal performance on that song is insane. It reminds me of The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan. She’s got this incredible ability to get really high and breathy and then go into a sharp high note and bring it back down. Her breath control is incredible. When Brandi sings that song and hits that high note, it’s really emotional. You can tell there’s so much love and meaning in that song, which moves me. I’m also a big fan of Chris Stapleton’s Traveler record as well as the album that Marcus King did with Dave [Carolina Confessions]. There are a lot of great people who have worked with Dave, like my good buddy Shooter Jennings. So he came highly recommended and he didn’t disappoint.”
We’ll Be Alright
I wrote “We’ll Be Alright” a long time ago, but it’s appropriate now. The way that it came together in the studio was sort of as a tribute to my dad; the way we recorded it was very reminiscent of his style of recording. I used a gut-string classical guitar, which I also wove through the whole record. When we went to RCA Studio A, we could see all these pictures of my dad playing that place when he was my age. So it was very inspiring.
That was one of the first songs we did, and it felt emotional to do a song like that in the style of my dad’s songwriting, which is how I approached the lyrics. There’s a magical sort of feeling that I get when I hear his music and I wanted to bring that magic into a song’s lyrics. I wanted people to feel the way that I feel when I hear my dad’s music—I feel like I’m home. And, while I suppose that’s because I’m his son, a lot of people feel grounded when they hear his songs and his music. That’s the emotion I was trying to convey with the lyrics, so I knew that his style would really work well for a song of this nature.
My dad is certainly one of the formative influences that I have—especially in terms of writing—but I have so many others. I was also influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. A lot of my early records are full-on rock-androll records. I suppose I’ve gotten more into this craft of songwriting and the ability to say a lot with just a little—sort of like a haiku would. My dad is kind of a master of these clever turns of phrase and melodies. But I have so many different types of influences, that I let it all flow. My approach is to do whatever the song requires.
Perennial Bloom (Back to You)
That one was written during COVID, in the spring of 2020 when we were being told things would possibly open up in the summer. So it’s kind of a hopeful song about that.
I have a friend who I was talking to quite a lot and there’s one line there: “Someone inside the action pulled me away from the blast.” I was speaking to someone who was very close to what was happening at the time and they were able to help me find comfort just through their friendship. I was grateful for that.
I think the line “Someone beside me actually smiled without a mask” captures what emerged from writing songs at this moment. Pre-COVID, somebody smiling without a mask evokes the idea that they’re being vulnerable or real with you. But, nowadays, we are talking about a literal mask. That alters the way someone interprets the line, although it might eventually change again.
Throwin’ Away Your Love
This is a song that I brought to Neil [Young]. I wrote it in 2015 when we were working with him. We previously recorded a version of it, but we wanted to try it again, and this one’s slightly different. [The song appears on the bonus disc that accompanied the expanded versions of the group’s self-titled 2017 release.] We felt that it had gotten a little lost in the shuffle so we decided to rerecord it with Dave. We wanted to see if it would get a little more attention if we put it on the album—I always really liked the song and, hopefully, more people will hear this record. It feels to me like an accurate portrayal of the pain and anguish I went through while going out of adolescence into adulthood, trying to find my way and figure things out.
When it comes to songwriting, I usually wait for inspiration. My dad told me that Roger Miller used to say that it’s like waiting for the rain to fill up the well when it’s dry. You can’t force the rain. You just wait for the rain to come and fill up the well. That rain could come in many forms of inspiration, and then you have a full well of inspiration that you can draw from. Sometimes you just need to be patient but it’ll come.
A Few Stars Apart
This was written for a friend of mine who passed away in the middle of COVID. I got really into watching the stars on a telescope and, when she passed, I was looking up at the stars and it seemed like she was sort of singing this song to me in a way. Her spirit was writing it with me. A lot of the song is from the perspective of someone who’s gone, who’s passed or who has to leave. But it can really mean so many things to so many different people. It’s about maintaining a closeness despite a great distance. That’s what I see when I look up and appreciate that we’re all only a few stars apart.
“No Reason” was the last song that I wrote before we went into the studio. I wrote it and sent it to Dave, and we were already in Nashville when he sent me back a note saying, “We gotta add this one too.” I really like the drum beat on the song; it’s a good rhythm.
Dave’s sense of arrangement is acute, and he gave us quite a compliment when he said that he was actually happy with a lot of the song arrangements that we’d already put together prior to coming in. We spent a few weeks in preproduction, just getting tight as a band again. We were all really happy to be able to play with each other. We’d been practicing our instruments even in quarantine— really keeping our chops up—but we had such a good time rehearsing. I think Dave was impressed with the band and with our arrangements.
Dave added a number of great little tweaks throughout the record. At the end of “We’ll Be Alright,” there’s another chord that it goes to, which just sort of makes it more wistful. With “No Reason,” Dave had another good idea. He wanted me to extend the chorus. I came in with the line: “I can’t find no good reason why I wouldn’t want you in my life/ I can’t find no good reason why.” And he was like, “You’ve got to extend it.” So on the spot I wrote another few lines: “Just in time/ I finally got things right/ I could leave your love behind/ But I can’t find no good reason why.” I really like how that turned out.
Leave ‘em Behind
This is probably my favorite track on the record because of the groove. That groove is a tribute to Neil, but at the same time, it’s got that Mellotron in the background. Most of my friends find this to be the most emotional song on the record for them, and I tend to agree. The lyrics sort of point to a situation where someone who’s been abused is pulling themselves out of it.
I hope that this song can help give someone strength in a similar situation. The reason that I play music is to impart inner power to people. If you can listen to a song and get inspired to go forth and do something special—or get yourself out of a situation or maybe into a situation—then that’s what it’s all about. So I was happy that this song sort of came through the ether. I feel like my best songs are the ones where I’m not overthinking and I just let it flow.
This is a really fun song and another one that I wrote a long time ago. It’s one of our more lighthearted songs and it’s also a nice sentiment. I’m single now, but I haven’t always been. And, sometimes, people will want to know if I remember them. It might happen after I’ve gone off to the next town—after I’ve had a fun night with someone. Although, that doesn’t happen as often as most people think. But I’m not going to forget about them. I remember most of the faces that I meet. I also have specific memories of specific people that I’ll never, ever forget. So this song was kind of a tribute to that. And you know who you are.
Giving You Away
I wrote this song for a friend of mine who was giving his daughter away at her wedding. It’s another one of my favorites on the record and I think it’s our percussionist Tato’s favorite.
After I played it for the father-daughter dance, the wedding planner came up to me and said how much they loved it. Who knows, maybe if we make a good video and get it out there, people will want it played at their father-daughter dances.
Dave Cobb added a little high piano part at the end that evokes one of those spinning ballerina globe toys. I have not had the pleasure of having a daughter yet—or experienced the joy of having my own kids. But friends of mine that have heard the song—especially friends who have daughters—have said it’s kind of a gut-wrencher, especially at the end, when that little moment comes in. So that’s a testament to Dave’s genius.
Hand Me a Light
I wrote “Hand Me a Light” with my friend Rina [Ford]. She’s a fantastic young artist that’s just starting out. We also sang it together on the record. She’s got a great voice and it’s the only duet on the album. I’m really happy with the way the vocals sound; also the electric guitar has got a sparkle that I like.
I really love Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris and I think this song is along those lines in a way. It’s got that country-waltz sort of vibe. But it’s also got a real epic feel to it. It’ll be fun to play live.
More Than We Can Handle
I wrote “More Than We Can Handle” a while back after a flood in the Midwest. So there’s a lot of water imagery, like “floating on a log.” There’s this phrase, “God won’t give us more than we can handle,” that I’ve had in my head for a long time. I hadn’t heard it in a song yet, though, so I thought I’d give it a try. I really like the way this one came out; it’s a fun, finger-picky, bluegrassy kind of thing. I bet it would be a good song for Greensky Bluegrass to cover.
This one goes to the overarching theme of the whole record about being resilient in the face of challenge. However, it also has a lighter side, which I think is always important to maintain, whenever possible.
“Smile” was written right at the peak of the pandemic, when everybody was full-on locked down. It was probably April of 2020. I was lying in the sun and had this realization: “Alright, this is something I’ve got to face.” So I thought back on everybody and everything—all the things I’ve experienced in life—and, in that moment, it all seemed like a cosmic joke. I thought about all the people I love and I realized that, through it all, I can’t help but smile.
I’ve always tried to keep a sense of perspective. I’m super lucky compared to many people. I make a living playing music, and I wasn’t living in a big city where the cases were super high during the height of the pandemic. I was always sort of in the country, whether it was in Austin or Hawaii. So I wanted to make sure that sense of appreciation came through—I don’t have anything to complain about, in terms of my personal life. There are always ways to look at things where you can find something to be overwhelming and, yes, I was shocked by what was going in the world. But I tried to take it as a lesson in slowing down and cultivating better habits for myself. So it ended up promoting growth for me and I wanted to share that experience with other people.