You have to wonder how Lukas Nelson ever finds time to sleep. When Paste reached him on the phone recently, he was at the end of a long day in meetings in Los Angeles before taking off on a three-night acoustic mini tour with Shooter Jennings. He’d just come off playing at the Music Heals benefit with The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir in San Francisco on February 29, a gig that he sandwiched in after a playing a few dates with his father, Willie Nelson, while awaiting the opportunity to go on a “few short tours” in support of Promise Of The Real’s new album, Something Real. As if that wasn’t enough, later in the month Lukas and his band are heading to Australia for a series of dates, including the prestigious Byron Bay Blues Festival. They won’t have much time to unpack once they touch ground on home soil again as they’ll be joining Neil Young again for an appearance at The New Orleans Jazz Festival before heading off to Europe with him for a string of concerts that’ll keep the band busy until the middle of the summer.
All of this attention would certainly go to most people’s heads, but Nelson appears to take it all in stride. He readily admits that he’s been very lucky and that he’s been blessed with a lot of opportunities that most people don’t have. He’s not the type of person who lets things go to his head, and when asked about his success, he downplays his ability and gives equal credit to the other members of his band. And, in typical Nelson fashion, when asked about the appeal of his music, he deadpans that “our music goes over best in places where people smoke a lot of weed.” When I tell him that his music sounds great even without pot, he clarifies that “I’m really talking about how people who are familiar with the culture and the way of thinking that produced our music are going to find something they can relate to and accept in it. Not everybody gets what we’re doing.” As much as I’d like to agree with him, and admit that it’s impossible to ignore the counterculture vibe and references within his songs, Lukas Nelson, like his father before him, makes music that crosses boundaries and will find a large audience outside of the pockets of hippies, skateboarders, surfers and back-to-the-landers who have been following him for years. It’s about time.
Paste: Every time I look online, I read about another show you’ve played or someone you’ve sat in with. Between recording and playing live, I wonder if you ever have any time off. You’re one of the busiest musicians I’ve ever met.
Lukas Nelson: Well, I don’t know about that. Right now, I’m stuck in traffic. I’m in L.A. and I’ve been driving around for the whole day and going to meetings.
Paste: I guess that’s the less than glamorous side of being a musician.
Nelson: You can say that again!
Paste: You have a new album coming out called Something Real. It’s been quite a long time between releases for you. Your first few CDs came out in pretty quick succession, and there’s been a lot of expectation and anticipation around this one.
Nelson: That’s true. I hope it will be worth the wait for everyone because we’re pretty proud of it. There are some good songs on there. But, you were just talking about how busy we are, and funny enough, Something Real is actually a record we recorded two years ago. It just took a whole lot longer than we thought it would. What happened is that we recorded a whole batch of songs for another record for a label to check out and somehow it didn’t happen and they didn’t pick up on it. So, we went back in the studio to record some more stuff. The songs we recorded for the first record were released as a little bootleg called The Bootleg Sessions that we sold at shows and on our website.
Paste: The bootleg had some really fine songs on it. A lot of artists wouldn’t have wanted to start from scratch again after a record label passed them by. You must have a lot of ideas burning a hole in your imagination if you can afford to sideline a whole album’s worth of material.
Nelson: Well, we really liked the songs from those sessions, but they didn’t get picked up, so we moved onto something else. I write all the time. I’m really lucky that way. So, yes, about a year after we recorded the songs for the new album, it was picked up by a little record label called Royal Potato Family. It was actually set to come out a while ago, but then we got really busy with Neil [Young] and of course we really wanted to work with him, so we put our own album on hold for a bit.
Paste: Can you tell me a little bit about how the songs on Something Real came together?
Nelson: We recorded the album in an old house in San Francisco, and it was a pretty weird experience. The house we were in had a lot of spirits, and I don’t know if I really believe in that kind of thing, but you could feel a lot of energy emanating there. There were presences and things I couldn’t explain that started to trip me out, but they all contributed to the vibe of the record and all of that energy was definitely imprinted in the music. I think that there’s a really cool flow to this record, and I can’t wait until everybody gets to hear it.
Paste: There are a lot of different colors and moods on this record. Some of the songs like “Set Me Down On A Cloud” and are very moody and reflective. They sound like they’ve been around for a long time. I mean, they’ve got a timeless sound. “Forget About Georgia,” especially, sounds like it could become a standard one day.
Nelson: Thank you. I was writing from real life on that one.
Paste: “Something Real” finishes with a cover of “San Francisco,” the old Scott McKenzie song with the line about “flowers in your hair.” It’s somehow the perfect finale to an album. It’s not exactly classic hippie music that you guys play, but there really is a vintage San Francisco vibe that resonates in a lot of the songs.
Nelson: You’re right. The album does have a San Francisco vibe to it. It’s where we recorded the album and where we lived at the time. Right now, I don’t live anywhere except on my bus because we’re out on the road so much. But, we had a great time in San Francisco while we were there, so it’s not surprising that there are a lot of references to San Francisco in the music. “Ugly Color” was written there.
Paste: It’s one of the strongest tracks on the album.
Nelson: I think so, too. It’s a song that’s told from the point-of-view of a homeless man on the street. It’s a very hard place to be poor, and that’s part of what is going on in the record. You can never tell why a person becomes down and out. It could be heartbreak or it could be simple bad luck. There’s more in there, too, about San Francisco, but of course the most obvious reference is when we did the old Scott McKenzie tune…
Paste: Was that Neil Young playing the organ on that track? It has that spooky feel that he loves.
Nelson: [laughing] No, that was me playing the organ! It was a very funky old instrument. I think it was more than a hundred years old, but that was Neil singing backgrounds over the guitar solo on that track. We had fun.
Paste: I was watching the Neil Young film retrospective a few days ago online. During the q-and-a section, he told Cameron Crowe that he was recording another album with you and your band and that the experience was effortless and like nothing he’d ever done before.
Nelson: I think he must have been talking about the live recordings from the shows we did together. He’s putting something together for release.
Paste: I can’t wait to hear that. Your band really brought a fresh approach to his music. You have a flexibility that touches on all the strengths of all of Young’s different groups from The Stray Gators to Crazy Horse and the space in between. You inspired him to play better than he has in years.
Nelson: Well, thank you. I think he’s getting better all the time. It has been amazing, a real blessing to play with him. I can’t wait to go out with him again in the late spring and summer.
Paste: One thing that people always remark on when they see your live show is the chemistry between all of the band members. You’re really tuned into each other when you play. Maybe for this reason, as different as your music is, you often get compared with The Grateful Dead.
Nelson: That’s a compliment! Well, I mean, we have fun together and we’re brothers. We’ve been doing this now for a long time. We’ve put in our hours together and we still get along. There’s something to be said about that. I don’t know. We have a good relationship and we love each other. We have our things but overcome them and make each other laugh. That’s important, too.
Paste: Your name is front and center, you know, you’re called “Lukas Nelson and the Promise Of The Real,” but there’s a real group dynamic going on, and I get the sense that a lot of true collaboration going on.
Nelson: Oh, absolutely there is! Tato [Melgar, the percussionist] is prevalent on the record. Anthony [LoGerfo, drums] and Corey [McCormick, bass] are featured front and center. Everybody’s got their own moment where they shine. My brother Micah’s on the record, too. It’s definitely a band record.
Paste: More than anything, I think that with Something Real you’ve narrowed the distance between your live and recorded sound. Up until now, I don’t think you’d made a record that has really captured what you do on stage.
Nelson: Thanks, and I’m glad to hear that. I really feel that way, too. I can’t wait for you to hear our even newer stuff. We’ve almost got another record’s worth of material together.
Paste: I wanted to ask you about how you approach songwriting. Some of the new material like “Forget About Georgia” really shows that you have an intuitive sense of what it takes to create a really good song. You write with the same economy and directness that I hear in your dad’s music. Can you talk a little about what you’ve learned about songwriting from him or any of your other mentors?
Nelson: Well, he influenced me to becoming a songwriter when he recorded the first song I ever wrote and put it on his album It Always Will Be. I was 10 or 11 years at the time. It had lyrics like “I am fine, All the pain is gone/I once had a heart/Now I have a song,” and he liked it so much he put it on the record he was making at the time. That was a pretty good vote of confidence. [laughs] And, when I think about it that’s been my theme ever since—”I once had a heart, now I have a song.” I haven’t recorded that song myself, but I’d like to. But, back to your question. As far as what I’ve learned about songwriting, it comes down to simplicity. There’s a definite wisdom in simplicity. Put what you have to say in simple terms. Eloquent, but subtle. I think that’s what people gravitate towards in a song. They like simplicity and melody. They have to go together. If you simply write great lyrics, but your song is rambling and there’s no melody or no culmination to it, it won’t be a memorable song. You can create epiphany in music and inspire people if you can create a good melody to go along with simple and poignant lyrics. That’s what my dad and guys like Bob Dylan really excel at. I feel like I’m getting better and better at it. It just comes with time and practice.
Paste: With your dad’s music and certainly with Dylan’s, no matter how great the lyrics are, the songs would have only a fraction of their power if there were no great melodies to support the words. Take almost any Dylan song and play it on the guitar without singing the lyrics, and you’ll pick up on the beautiful melodies.
Nelson: That’s how I feel. It’s what it comes down to. To be a truly great song, you have to have both good lyrics and a beautiful melody. It’s very hard to have one without the other and have it be anything memorable. But, in today’s music scene, I think that lyrics are becoming less and less important. What I’ve come to realize is that if you listen to a song sometimes the lyrics don’t have to be as “good” (to use that word) if the melody is great. That’s the kicker, really. The melody is the secret to songwriting. I’m just working this through, but a lot of stuff I listen to on the radio has lyrics that suck, but the melodies are so catchy and the hooks are so good, it doesn’t matter. The melody is what moves your body and soul, so what I’m trying to do is get those melodies, but achieve a certain “realness” in my lyrics that people can relate to as well. And once you’ve got a great band that can execute songs so that the lyrics, rhythms and melodies are all good, you’ve got everything.
Paste: One of the strengths of your band, you play intensely but none of you are showoffs. I can see places in each song where you could “go off,” but you don’t, unless it serves the song. That’s not a reserve you see very often—especially in rock or jam band music. You suggest, don’t bang on the head—
Nelson: I learned that from guys like JJ Cale, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. These guys that I look up to have all told me that simple is better and less is more. I really take that to heart in everything I do, especially when I’m recording. It’s harder when I’m playing live because I’m in the moment, but at the same time I think I’m getting better at that. It’s an ongoing practice. It’s a lifetime practice, really.