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Interview: Lukas Nelson on new album and returning to live performances

We spoke to the alt-country singer-songwriter as he and his band release their new album.

It’s not easy being the child of a famous musician – especially when said musician is country legend Willie Nelson.

However, over the last decade, Lukas Nelson has fiercely carved his own path. Alongside his band Promise of the Real, he’s released six albums – most recently ‘A Few Stars Apart’ which arrived earlier this month – performed at Glastonbury, played alongside Neil Young and appeared in the latest version of A Star Is Born, which he also wrote several songs for. Now, as the world begins to open back up, he’s preparing to hit the road once again.

I recently caught up with Lukas to talk about the new album, working with legendary producer Dave Cobb, his plans for returning to live performances, how he’s adapted to making music through the events of the last year, and his hopes to return to the UK.

We last spoke a couple of years ago when you were over in the UK – what have you been up to since then?

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Oh! Well, I guess if it’s only been a couple of years then a year and a half of that I’ve been sitting around writing music and trying not to get a virus, I guess. Other than that, let’s see… I probably did a little touring. I was on the road constantly up until this virus hit, and then once it hit we were obviously pretty well grounded.

You’ve mentioned the new music – can you tell us a bit more about your new record, ‘A Few Stars Apart’?

Yeah, well I wrote most of the material while we were on lockdown, and got together with the band shortly that summer I guess, when everybody was hoping that last year’s summer would be more like this year’s summer, and it didn’t come to pass. But there was a window where I got to jump on a bus and go over to meet the band and then go to Nashville and record at RCA Studios with Dave Cobb. We went through a bunch of material and picked what we felt was a really good record’s worth of material, and then sent it to Dave and he agreed to do it. So we kind of just guerrilla-style, surgically went into Nashville, tried not to see or meet anyone really, and got in the studio at that historic place RCA and then split. So really stoked we got to do that. It was kind of a mission, but we made it.

Was it quite a strange experience making a record during the pandemic?

Oh it really was. Especially just to see how different things are in each town, what the regulations were in Nashville compared to in Austin compared to California compared to Hawaii. There was a lot of differences between each one. I won’t really go into the differences or get too political with everything, but it was just really interesting. You know, I’ve always felt myself that I just don’t really worry too much about anything. I just do what I know I can do to be safe and then I don’t let fear really take over. I just trust that I’ll be OK. But it was sort of a harrowing experience to jump on a bus and we were very careful. And then we got in there and luckily the studio was pretty safe and we got in and out of there pretty quickly.

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I read that you’d written over 200 songs that were considered for this project. Was it a challenge to narrow that down?

Well I think somebody misinterpreted that. I didn’t write 200 songs for this project. We went through a bunch of songs – I probably said hundreds of songs because it was just what I had written in the past that hasn’t been released yet, which is quite a lot of material. So with the band we went through all the material that I’d written recently and before that hadn’t gotten released, or that had gotten released and we felt like didn’t get enough attention or whatever. So we just went through a lot of material from the past, the recent past and the distant past, and then picked what we felt was the best record for what we were trying to do.

Did you see any sort of evolution in terms of your writing or approach during that process?

Oh yeah. It’s interesting to see sometimes. I don’t feel like the writing is better or worse, but there are thematic differences of course. Like if I was writing a lot about love at one point, or if I was feeling a little bit mystical and writing something sort of mystical, or if I was more plain language or I was using more prose-style language or trying to wax poetic [laughs]. It’s very interesting to go back and see what you were writing about, much in the same way I think it would be interesting to pick up a journal that you’d been writing for a long time and go back and read it.

One thing I noticed listening to the record was there’s a lot of recurring themes and imagery – things like references to psychology and crime and the river. Was that something you were consciously picking up on or did it happen organically?

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Well sometimes things just sort of serendipitously happen like that. I wasn’t thinking about necessarily a theme. If anything I was writing with a sense of inner resilience and trying to find inner strength, and I think if anything ties the whole record together it’s about strength and hardship – just trying to get through tough times, knowing you can’t control the world around so trying to strengthen your inner world, I think would be a theme that sort of tends to come back around quite a bit in these songs. And then just the way that that’s said varies song to song.

Is that idea of inner strength and resilience the main thing you hope people take away from this record when they listen to it? Or is there something else?

No, you know, once I put out a record it’s like having a baby. That baby can grow up and be whoever it’s gonna be. My hope is that people like it and enjoy it and that they wanna play it and share it with their friends and that young people and old people like it, and that it’s not a polarising record in any way – that it’s something that brings people together. But one can only hope that about their child [laughs].

You’ve got some tour dates this month and then more coming up in the autumn. How are you feeling about being back out on the road?

I’m so excited. I’m just pulling in as we speak to Boulder, Colorado – our first show in nearly a year and a half is tomorrow. It’s so exciting, I can’t even express it really. It’s quite a feeling. And I’m sure that the audience is gonna be very enthusiastic and we’re gonna have quite a raucous jam when we play. It’s gonna be nice.

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Are there any songs from the new album you’re particularly looking forward to playing for an audience?

Yes, there are. A Few Stars Apart I think is gonna be a great one. Wildest Dreams is gonna be a great fun song to play. Perennial Bloom will be really great. Leave ‘Em Behind I think – a lot of people have been saying that’s their favourite, and it’s actually a really great groove to play live and it can stretch out in a jam form and you can do a lot of guitar work with it. So that’ll be really fun to play live and sort of a powerful song that people can sing with us. And then of course the old ones like Find Yourself and Set Me Down On A Cloud and Fool Me Once, Just Outside Of Austin, Forget About Georgia. They’re gonna be real fun to play. I’m really excited.

You’ve also done some Instagram Lives during the pandemic. How did you find the experience of performing online compared to in-person?

Yeah, you know, I kind of got to the point where I said “I don’t really wanna do any more online things”. People were asking us all the time and I liked doing it when it was just sort of raw and in the beginning where it was just me and the screen and stuff. But once it starts getting more produced and trying to be a live show, it just loses some of its intimacy and its magic. And there’s just no real replacing live music. It’s just not the same, and it never will be. We are not robots designed to process organic things like music with streams. If we ever become android creatures and maybe half-robot creatures, then maybe we’ll just be able to download the groove into our brains. But the best way to hear a guitar, drums and our type of music, as opposed to electronic music, which is fine I guess on a screen. But then there’s also the fact that you gotta be with other people. You know, the human connection is really, really important. That’s a big piece of live music, is sweating around someone else and dancing and letting loose and losing yourself in the music. And even that with electronic music, that also applies in that realm as well. So sitting at home and watching a screen is nothing like being out live.

Is there anything you’ve learned from the experience of making this album that you’ll use on any future projects?

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Yes. The thing about it is that each producer records differently that we work with. And Dave Cobb really does it how we like to do it, where he always goes to tape analogue or at least with us, it’s all analogue, 8 track. He was really stoked to do it live like we did in the studio all together. And so I would just like to keep doing that. Dave is a genius and I hope we get to work together again. And John Alagia, our last production partner, his production style was great too and we really loved doing it there at The Village. So it really is a matter of trying to be different every time. And the pandemic luckily didn’t affect the studio that much. Because when we go in the studio we’re alone anyway. We’re together and we rarely have that many people. Every once in a while we’ll have a session where we kind of bring friends in and they can watch and it’s exciting. But for the most part it was pretty much the same.

What does the rest of the year look like for you? Is it mainly focused on promoting the record and touring?

Yes, we’re announcing our autumn tour and I think I will play a show with my dad on August 22nd in Austin, and then he will go on his own – not with Promise of the Real, I’m pretty sure it’ll just be me. And then my dad will go out on his own and I will go out on my own starting September, and I’ll be gone on the road up until end of January. And so I’ll have July and some of August to make preparations, soak up home life again. I’ll be back home at the end of the month and I’ll have about a month and a half to prepare for four months on the road. And I’ll be really happy to get out there, I gotta say.

And lastly – when the restrictions have been lifted and people have been vaccinated and we can travel again, do you have any plans to come back to the UK?

Oh yes. Yes. I’ve talked about it with my manager quite a few times. We are definitely planning on going to the UK next year if possible. Hopefully on the earlier side of next year. It’s just a matter of logistics at this point. I’ll be out for four months so I’ll need at least a month or so to rest. That’s the one thing I’m changing after all of this, is that I’m not gonna just go all year long hard as I can like I did for the last 20 years. I’m gonna try and at least balance a long stretch with a long stretch of rest so I don’t run myself into the ground.

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Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real’s latest album, ‘A Few Stars Apart’, is out now on Fantasy Records.

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