Lukas Nelson Talks Writing With Lady Gaga, Gigging With Neil Young
When Bradley Cooper went to Desert Trip in October of 2016, he didn’t view the festival as a casting opportunity for his upcoming Lady Gaga–starring directorial debut A Star Is Born. But then Neil Young took the stage and Cooper’s eyes wandered over to his guitarist, Lukas Nelson. Not only was the 27-year-old son of Willie Nelson crushing everything Young threw at him – from a gentle, acoustic “Comes a Time” to a wild, frenetic “Cowgirl in the Sand” – but he looked like a movie star while doing it.
“Bradley is a huge Neil Young fan,” says Nelson on the phone from Australia where he’s playing festivals with his band Promise of the Real. “He looked at me and said to himself, ‘I want this guy to teach me how to present myself as a musician in this movie.'” Nelson was originally just contracted to be a music consultant, but once he began writing with Gaga they discovered such a great chemistry that Cooper brought him and Promise of the Real on board to serve as his character’s onscreen backing band. “We just had the look he was going for,” says Nelson. “And it just kind of kept going.”
Lukas grew so close to Lady Gaga that she agreed to sing background vocals on his song “Carolina,” which appears on Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real’s 2017 self-titled LP. Check out a new video for it below.
We spoke to Lukas about working with Gaga and learning to act as well as his upcoming run of shows with Neil Young.
What did you learn from your acting experience in A Star Is Born?
The hours are a lot worse than musician’s hours. [Laughs] That’s a lot of hurry up and wait. As musicians, we get a lot of time off. It’s a blessing. That said, I do think I’ll be doing more acting in my life. It’ll be down the road since music is always my first priority.
I’m sure when you formed your band back in the day you never imagine you’d be backing Lady Gaga in a big Hollywood movie.
Exactly. I never had that in my head in any way, shape or form. But years ago, Bob Dylan did offer me a job to go on the road. I sat in with him [in 2004] and he made the offer afterwards, though my mom forbade it. That was OK since I was working on developing my own band and I was playing with dad. My mom wanted me to stay in school. Back then I said to myself, “Well, if that ever happens again. If there’s anybody besides Bob, because that ship sailed, but if Neil [Young] were to ever call and asked me to play with him, I would.”
I spoke to Sean Lennon years ago and he spoke with me about the burdens of always being seen as “the son of …” Did that ever bother you?
I don’t really see that as a burden. Sometimes people think that I grew up with everything handed to me, which I can understand. And while I didn’t grow up poor, my parents did and they taught me the value of hard work, so I work hard. I mean, I can’t really think about what other people are going to think about me. All I can do is prove to myself that I am the human being I want to be. Hard work is really all I think about these days. I just think about working hard and writing and being creative. Hopefully everything else just unfolds in its own natural, cosmic way. It sort of already has.
On your newest album, you have a song called “Forget About Georgia” about a breakup with a woman named Georgia. Does she know about the song? How does she feel about it?
She knows about it. She’s fantastic and I’m very grateful for the moments we shared together. She’s doing her own thing and I’m happy with it.
What inspired “Carolina?”
We’ve played there quite a few times and every time I’m surprised at how much I just really love it and how beautiful it is. The people there love music so much. I just find it to be a fantastic place. I wanted to write a song about it.
How did Gaga wind up singing on it?
She came over the studio one time and we played it for her and she loved it. She was like, “I hear these harmonies,” and I said, “Well, go put ’em on there.” And she did. That’s just kind of how it went. It was real natural.
What’s it like to write with her?
Oh, she fantastic. I really feel like our brains work similarly in music. She’s just a super talent. It’s like a dream come true. She’s a fantastic human being. She’s a really great person.
How was she different than how you imagined her?
I knew she was on the level when I saw her with Tony Bennett. I mean, I knew she was an actual musician rather than a just a pop star.
Paradox, the surreal western you shot with Neil Young and Daryl Hannah, has been on Netflix for a couple of weeks. Tell me some reactions that you’ve gotten to it.
Actually, a lot of people really like the music. It’s not really supposed to be this kind of serious thing. It’s supposed to be out there and zany. I mean, we recorded it in three days and it’s a whole movie. Because Neil and Daryl put it out, some critics are going to have expectations, but I just think it’s fantastic. It was so much fun to do.
I love the version of “Peace Trail” that you guys shot in the tent.
That was right after he recorded the album with [Jim] Keltner and those guys. He showed us the record and that was the first time we ever played it. With Neil, it’s always spontaneous and beautiful. It’s a blast playing with him. He’s so energized and he seems like he’s got this new lease on life.
Your set with Neil at Farm Aid in 2017 was the best set I saw all year even though it was just 45 minutes.
We didn’t rehearse anything. We went in his truck about 30 minutes before and we practiced a couple of songs that didn’t wind up being in the set. When we got onstage, he threw all these songs at us, one hit after another. That was kind of historic, that set. It was incredible.
So you walked out not knowing you’d open with “Fuckin’ Up?”
We didn’t know anything. He just called it out as it was going.
You’re playing a festival with Quebec with Neil in early July and Arroyo Seco in late June. That seems to be it for the summer, but then there’s Farm Aid in September. Are you doing any more shows with him around that time?
I think so, but I don’t know. I can’t speak for what he wants to do. All I know is those two festivals are confirmed and there may be other ones. I just know there’s talk. I couldn’t say anything else on the record. [Shortly after this interview, it was announced that Neil Young and Promise of the Real would play an Outlaw Festival date in Saratoga Springs, New York, on September 23rd.]
Fair enough. What are your future plans for Promise of the Real? Are you working on new songs?
I’ve got about 20 new songs. We’re back in the studio. We’re working hard. We’re working this record hard. It’s been in the Top 10 of the Americana charts since we released it. It went to Number One for a few weeks and we’ve still got other singles to promote, like “Forget About Georgia” and “Carolina.” “Find Yourself” still has a lot of life in it. It just seems to keep growing and growing. The YouTube video is getting 5,000 hits a day. Every time we play it, people sing along.
I have so many songs that I don’t know what to do with them. It’s going to take years and years to get them all out. Maybe one day I’ll just release like 50 songs in a box set or something. [Laughs]
It does seem like in the past year or so you’ve really started to break out.
I would say so. It’s kind of interesting. You can kind of see the momentum on social media. I keep getting more Instagram followers. It seems like we’re reaching people my age or the younger generation. I’m trying to write songs that are relevant for times now while staying true to my roots in rock & roll and country. It’s nice to seeing the momentum picking up. I just keep my head down and keep working hard. That’s all can do until the day I die. It’s like Neil and my dad and B.B. King and Dylan, Paul Simon, all these guys.
When I was younger I used to respect and idolize Stevie Ray and Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. They were my teenage idols, but as I got older I kind of realized I didn’t want to idolize people that didn’t last long as opposed to people who achieved a legendary status in life and not in death. I’ve changed my philosophy as I’ve gotten older and I’ve tried to adopt better practices in my road life. I exercise and eat well so I can continue to do this for a really long time. My intention is to have a long and lucrative career like the legends that I grew up watching and are still around doing it.
There’s a great scene in Paradox where you’re playing “Cowgirl in the Sand” at Desert Trip and the look on your face is just rapturous. How does a moment like that feel?
There’s no describing the feeling of playing for 80,000 people with one of your greatest musical heroes in the world with a band that I created and my brother, literally, and my other brothers. Being up there was the most incredible thing that I’ve ever, ever been a part of besides when I play side by side with my dad every night. I don’t even know how to describe that. It’s like reaching some sort of spiritual pinnacle and discovering that life is just a dream and now I’m merrily, merrily floating down the stream.
Are there any Neil songs you aren’t ready to play on a moment’s notice? If he calls for something like “Sample and Hold” or “T-Bone,” are you ready?
Not really. If I feel like there’s a song I don’t know and he wants to call it out, I know music enough to where I could fall in line. If I know the key and I can watch for a verse and see what’s happening and play the right notes in any song. It only takes me about 30 minutes to learn any given song. It just comes as natural to me as cooking breakfast or something.
It was great to great to hear “Revolution Blues” and “Vampire Blues,” songs he hasn’t done in years and years.
Yeah. It’s fantastic, man. It’s just so cool to be part of Neil’s musical journey. It just keeps getting better and better and we keep learning more and more. That’s the bottom line.
In new mini-documentary, Willie Nelson talks about being a father on the road, and sits down for a remarkable performance with sons Lukas and Micah. Watch below.