Although Lukas Nelson has spent the last several years sharing the stage with both his legendary father (country icon Willie Nelson) and also Neil Young, he’s stepping out into his own spotlight with his new album Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. During our NoiseTrade One-on-One with the accomplished singer-songwriter-guitarist, Nelson discusses the rich multi-genre slant to his own songwriting, what it was like to have Lady Gaga and Lucius contribute vocals to his new album, what he’s learned from recording and touring with Neil Young, and much more!
NoiseTrade: I love the gospel music vibe in your new song “Set Me Down On A Cloud” – both in the instrumentation and in your vocal performance. Which artists and songs have influenced that part of your sound?
Lukas Nelson: Oh man, there are thousands of them! Al Green and Otis Redding, for sure. There’s a great band from Texas called The Bells of Joy that are an old gospel choir that would come sing at the little church near our house. They sounded beautiful. My dad’s done a lot of gospel music and played with The Blind Boys of Alabama.
Gospel music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It’s really important to me and not in a completely overtly religious sense, just in more of a spiritual sense. It’s such a big part of why I play music.
NT: Another one of your new song “Find Yourself” features guest vocals from Lady Gaga who plays your vocal foil incredibly well. How did she end up singing on that song with you and were you surprised at how well she channeled that funky California country groove?
Nelson: She’s a good friend of mine and she’s a bad ass in every way. She came to a show of mine in California where I played “Find Yourself” and she said she really loved it. I told her she should sing on it when it came time to record it and she agreed. We didn’t want to make a big deal out it and put “featuring Lady Gaga” or anything like that because I didn’t want to exploit her and her influence on the song. I just think she sounds amazing on it, like Bonnie Raitt or someone like that. She’s just incredible.
She also sang on another new song of mine called “Carolina” as well. She just adds a great sound to the record and that’s why I wanted her on it. It’s like when Neil Young did his Comes A Time album or sang “Heart of Gold and “Old Man” – he had a lot of artists like James Taylor and Nicolette Larson who were great on their own sing background vocals for him. Bob Dylan too. Dylan had Emmylou Harris sing background vocals on his Desire album. I always thought that was really cool and I feel like Gaga is definitely on that level in terms of talent.
NT: You’ve also got Jess Wolfe and Holly Lessig of Lucius on almost half of the album’s tracks. Did you hear those rousing female background vocals as you were writing the songs or did that element develop once you got in the studio?
Nelson: I usually hear those types of background vocals in my head whenever I’m writing the song. Sometimes I hear a whole orchestra behind me but I also have to live within my means. Luckily, this time around we didn’t have to because we got the best of the best.
NT: I’ve seen your sound described as “cosmic country soul.” Do you feel that sums it up pretty accurately or would it take about 10 more words to describe all the sonic aspects of your songwriting?
Nelson: It might take a few more words but that sums it up pretty well for this record, for sure. Our music is vast and wide and hopefully our sound will never stop growing. I don’t want to limit myself in any way, musically or artistically. I feel the freedom to branch out and write all different types of music because it still fits within what we do because of the musicianship of the band and my songwriting and voice. We’re lucky in that way.
Truthfully, if it were 1975, we’d just be considered straight rock ‘n’ roll. The Allman Brothers were called Southern rock but they didn’t think that. They thought they were a soul band. It’s just a matter of how people want to label it.
NT: With your new album being produced by John Alagia, did you choose him because of how he’s captured guitar players like John Mayer and Dave Matthews on record so you trusted him to do the same with your own guitar-work?
Nelson: Yeah, he’s so well respected in the industry and he’s such an amazing guy as well. We’ve been working together for about 18 months now and we’ve recorded like 40 songs in that timeframe. Even before we had a record deal, we just trusted in each other and believed in the project so much. Lo and behold, we got something out of it with this album. Plus, we’ve just become real good friends.
NT: For the last couple of years, your band has been Neil Young’s de facto band both on stage and in the studio. How did that relationship first come about and what have you been able to pick up from working so closely with him?
Nelson: Being with Neil is like being in a master class with the greatest teacher. I just try to absorb the energy and the focus that he puts into everything he does. It’s an experience second to none. The biggest takeaway for us as a band has been the brevity and the weight that has bled into our own music and our approach to playing live shows. We’ve gotten a shot in the arm of superhero juice from playing and recording with Neil. We’re in the middle of recording another album with him now and all of the songs are just so epic. It’s a spiritual experience for us and it’s been such an amazing adventure.
Working with Neil has also directly led to another huge project for us, which is the film A Star Is Born that’s coming out next year. Bradley Cooper saw us play with Neil at Desert Trip and he called me the next day to ask me to help him with this new movie. I wrote a lot of the songs for the movie and produced them with Gaga. I also consulted with Bradley to help get the rest of the music authentic and right. We’re even acting in the movie as well. It’s going to be incredible. I think people are going to be blown away by Bradley’s talent as a singer.
NT: Finally, you’ve played live shows with your dad for years and even appeared on his 2012 album Heroes. When did you first know you wanted to get into the family business of music and what is the song that you most love playing live with your dad?
Nelson: The reason I started playing music was so that I could get closer with my dad. When I was younger, he was gone all the time and so I learned how to play the guitar so that I could go out on the road with him. I started playing in his band when I was 13. That’s the height of everything for me is going out and playing with my dad.
For a favorite song, I love playing his ballads with him because I feel like nobody does it better. Nobody writes or sings or plays a better ballad than my dad. I love playing those kinds of songs with him that just stop time, so to speak. A song like “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” will almost get me to tears when I’m up there playing with him as he serenades people with that song.