The first song on the self-titled Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, “Set Me Down On A Cloud,” is a sweeping, soulful tune that evokes the best combinations of gospel, blues, and rock. The band then goes on to explore a wide variety of sounds: from lightly strummed story songs, like “Just Outside of Austin” to crooning ballads like “If I Started Over” and driving single featuring Lady Gaga, “Find Yourself.” The album feels loose and confident, with several songs extending instrumental sections that expand the emotional tenor of the lyrics. It has been in heavy rotation for me this entire fall and I was really excited to see the group coming to the northeast this November. I got to chat with frontman and songwriter Lukas Nelson about this album and his process for songwriting, the inspiration from his dad, and his obligation to keep the music that has influenced him alive and heard.
RLR: There are so many genres that you draw on for this album—how did you make choices in that sense? How important was it to play a range of styles of music?
LN: It’s funny, it all falls under rock and roll category to me. When you listen to a Beatles record, or you listen to The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, or any Rolling Stones record, you hear different types of songs, but they’re all The Stones. When people say this is such a varied record it kind of makes me confused, because guys like Neil Young and Dylan and people I have emulated, even people like Tom Petty, made great rock and roll records–they’ve got all these different styles, but it’s all rock and roll. It’s different flavors, not different genres.
RLR: There is a thread in these songs of risking vulnerability and intimacy, of sometimes being burned. How do you think about the songs on this album in conversation with each other?
LN: A lot of the songs I wrote a while ago and I picked all these songs and they were speaking to me in the moment when I chose them for the record. We all kind of said: these are our favorites. We have many more to put out but this is how we wanted to introduce the music to a wider audience, with better production, with John Alagia working with us at The Village. It’s got a more cinematic kind of heavy weight to it.
It’s all kind of spontaneous and in the moment, but it’s also very personal. All this music is very personal to me, in that I actually went through it. Or I can relate to it on a macro level. There’s an intimacy to all of it, and definitely an urgency as well.
RLR: What does your songwriting process look like? Does it start with finding a melody on guitar or piano or do you usually start with a lyric, or somewhere in between?
LN: I write all the time. I’ll sing into my phone. I like to handwrite things if I can, but a lot of times it just goes directly from guitar and voice to just putting it down into the phone. There’s scraps here and there–lots of voice memos is my prefered way of writing. I’ll write lyrics down and put ‘em on voice memos and if I have something in my head, I’ll write on anything that’s lying around.
LN: We continue to work with Neil and will as long as he wants to. It’s just an incredibly uplifting and inspiring thing to be a part of, and gives us a lot of energy to push forward and believe in ourselves as a band. We’ve been on the road together forever, you know? And it’s a great thing.
RLR: Recently, you performed “Breakdown” and “American Girl” at a show, and those performances just seemed exceptionally heartfelt. It seemed like it went way beyond what some folks were doing, and wasn’t just “I have to play a Tom Petty song tonight.”
LN: No way, there was no way I felt like I had to; it was something that I needed to do. I was devastated, just completely destroyed when he died and I’ll play his music until the day I die. It’s just a shock, and nobody expected this at all. It’s almost too much to think about sometimes–what a tragedy for his family. I think we need to be playing his music forever and just carrying it forward. I’m going to put his music in my live shows as much as I can. I feel like it’s my duty as an artist who was influenced by him to keep his music around forever, in the same way that dad plays Waylon and Merle and Hank Williams at every show.
RLR: Some people whose parents are as well known as your dad would downplay or seek to distance themselves in some way—but on this album you have “Forget About Georgia,” which references one of your father’s top 5 hits and you’ve recently released an album with your dad and brother. How have you navigated that tension between being yourself and having some recognition because of your dad?
LN: I wouldn’t be anywhere without him. He inspires me to play music. The whole reason I’m in music is because of him, so why would I run from that? But luckily, I was smart enough at whatever age to learn how to play music well enough to stand on my own. Any time anybody sees me live, they come up to me and say, “I heard about you because of your dad, but now I love your music and I see you work hard at it.” And that’s the truth, I work real hard at it: all day, every day.