“I felt like I needed to say something with this record, it can’t be spurious nonsense or love stories…” - hmv.com talks to Lukas Nelson
For the first five years or so of their career, Lukas Nelson and his band Promise Of The Real were a small-time concern. They bounced between labels and built a small, but dedicated following. Then, in 2015, things began to change.
After they jammed onstage with legendary rocker Neil Young at a benefit concert, the group impressed Young so much that he asked them to be his backing band. They’ve been touring together since 2015 and have recorded two albums with the great man.
As well as this, the band got another boost when they collaborated with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga to write songs for the hugely successful remake of A Star Is Born. Nelson helped write six songs for the soundtrack and himself and the band portrayed Cooper’s character Jackson Maine’s backing band in the film itself.
Now, with their profile at its peak, the band have an opportunity to show what they can on their own terms with new album Turn Off The News (Build A Garden).
The album boasts an impressive array of guests, with Sheryl Crow, Kesha, Margo Price, Nelson’s brother Micah, Shooter Jennings, Randy Houser, Lucius, Madison Ryann Ward, Hunter Elizabeth, Neil Young himself and Nelson's legendary father Willie all featuring.
With the album out now, we spoke to Nelson about wanting to make sure this LP had a message behind it, the album’s multitude of guests and his continuing relationship with Neil Young…
Did you have a goal of what you wanted this album to be?
“I was really conscious of the message with this record. I knew I would have the attention of a lot more people after A Star Is Born and I wanted to make a public statement. Some people have interpreted Turn Off The News (Build A Garden) as an escapist view and it’s the opposite.”
“The Build A Garden part of that phrase is the important part. It’s shutting down the external stimuli and focusing on your community. What I want is trickle up economics. If everybody turned off the news and built a garden, the world would be a more positive place. I want people to dedicate themselves to giving.”
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do differently in sonic terms?
“I worked with the same producer, but this time we were working as co-producers. That gave me more control over the process. It was still a very collaborative record, me and the other guys are closer than ever. I think, to use an author’s term, that it's a record that jumps off the page a little bit more.”
You’ve got a fair few guests on there…
“We always wanted to do it like this. They’re our friends, they’re our teachers, they’re our mentors. It was an honour to have any of them lend their talents. We were just grateful that so many people wanted to play with us. A rising tide lifts all ships.”
Is working with people like Margo Price and Sheryl Crow nerve-wracking? Or is it just a good time?
“It’s just a good time. You just want to make sure that we’re honing our craft to the best of our abilities. Making sure everything you do is up to standard, that’s the taxing part of making a record.”
You touched on it earlier with the record’s title, but would you say community is the theme of the record’s lyrics?
“It’s a record about lifting each other up. A record about embracing living a simple life and not carrying the burden of the world on your shoulders. You just need to pay attention to the world around you and not buy into the idea that everything is f***ed. That’s where the news will lead you.”
“Where focus goes, energy flows. People need to remember that. I felt like I needed to say something with this record, it can’t be spurious nonsense or love stories. While I recognise my ego is there and I was born privileged, I feel like I have a responsibility to use the gifts I’ve been given and give back.”
Is there a song on the record that was a real labour of love?
“‘Civilized Hell’ had three or four versions. Different production every time. Ironically, the version that’s on the record is a version that we had written off as terrible. Then we went back to it and said ‘Oh this is great’. Your feelings and your neurosis can get in the way sometimes. You need space. I wrote that song when I was 19, it needed that long to evolve.”
How much touring do you have booked for the rest of the year?
“Between the shows with Neil and our own shows, we’re averaging about 25 shows a month until the end of the year. Next year we’re going to slow it down a bit and be more selective about what we do. We play fast and hard. Neil actually remarked on how tired we were when we played together last time. You can see why so many of our heroes have passed away. Rock and roll is so fast-paced. You can’t abandon personal care. Music needs to lift and enhance your life.”
Neil famously once said it was ‘better to burn out than to fade away’...
“He does pilates on the road! Rock and roll has evolved. It had to. It’s a more sustainable enterprise.”
Neil has a record coming out with Crazy Horse, but nothing recorded with you at the moment. Do you have any plans to go back in the studio with him?
“I’m sure it’ll happen. It’s hard to predict these things. You just have to be grateful when they come. Playing with a master like Neil is a gift.”
How is playing with Neil evolving? Do you have more of a say in what goes in the live set now?
“He encourages all of our ideas. When you pick a good team, you need people with their own strengths. He takes what we have to say on board. Ultimately, he’s the captain and we’re his crew. We offer suggestions and he takes them on board. Playing with him is still fun. If it stops being fun, I’ll stop doing it.”
Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real's new album Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) is out now in hmv stores.