Lady Gaga’s Ally may have been the titular character of A Star is Born, but another star has been rising almost as fast since that movie became one of last year’s biggest hits. The fingerprints of Californian musician Lukas Nelson are all over the film. He and his band Promise of the Real appear as Bradley Cooper’s character Jackson Maine’s backing band, he co-wrote and produced nine songs on the platinum-selling soundtrack, and was initially hired as Cooper’s “authenticity consultant”.
Thankfully the role didn’t extend to teaching Cooper how to wet yourself authentically at the Grammys, but Nelson, 30, certainly sounds the part of the lifelong rock ‘n’ roller when we speak. He’s a delightful, rambling mix of pure-hearted positivity, environmental activism, eastern philosophy and passion for the craft of songwriting, plainly not cut out for a job in a bank. That can be attributed partly to the fact that he’s the son of Willie Nelson, country music legend and probably the world’s most famous stoner, but as he releases his fifth album, his own path is becoming more distinctive.
“I’m just following in the footsteps of the people I admire. I think that’s all anybody can do,” he tells me. He has also spent plenty of time soaking up the style of another rock giant, Neil Young. Promise of the Real have been Young’s backing band (alongside Crazy Horse) since his 2015 album The Monsanto Years, and will perform with him on a daunting double bill with Bob Dylan in Hyde Park next month. “We’re grateful for every second we get with him,” he says. “He just wants us to sound like ourselves. He’s a really great leader in that way.”
His family background, as one of two sons to Willie Nelson and his fourth wife, Annie D’Angelo, admittedly gave him a head start over many guitar-playing hopefuls. At just 11, he wrote his first song, a wistful ballad titled You Were It, which his father ended up recording for his 2004 album It Always Will Be. “I’d absorbed so many songs since I was a baby. I paid attention. I loved the music,” he says. “So that first song came to me floating in the air. It just started playing in my head when I was riding the school bus.” Since the age of 14 he had been playing on stage with dad. When he was 16, his parents prevented him from taking up an invitation to join Dylan’s backing band so that he could finish school.
However, in his late teens he decided to drop out of studying music at Loyola Marymount University in LA, to try to make it without the financial support of his parents. “I had my Siddhartha moment,” he says, referring to the Hermann Hesse novel. “It’s the story of the Buddha, basically – the prince who’s born with everything he could ever ask for, who goes off to experience extremes of emotion to find his enlightenment. I left school, I cut myself off from everything, I went and busked on the street, stayed on people’s couches, washed dishes and played music and learned how to be alone. That was my exit from the real world. Then I started to go down the rabbit hole.”
Promise of the Real self-released their debut album in 2010. Bradley Cooper first saw Nelson and his band at the Californian music festival Desert Trip in 2016, where they were backing Young on an extraordinary bill that also included Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, Paul McCartney and The Who. “I found myself only looking at him, which is incredible,” Cooper said at the premiere of A Star is Born.
“We started hanging together,” says Nelson. “He is a good musician – he’s got music in him. I could be around him and tell him how to look like a great musician. I think he took a lot from me. My friends say, ‘He got you pretty good!’ But he studied a lot of different people. I saw a little of dad, a little of Waylon [Jennings]. And that music is our music, so it’s gonna have the vibe that we put out pretty strong.”
Lady Gaga began to spend time with him too. Before the film was released, she sang backing vocals on two songs, Carolina and Find Yourself, on Nelson’s self-titled album from 2017. “We hit it off straight away. She was a good teacher for me,” he says. “She grew up loving jazz and blues just like me, and has gone on to be an incredible businesswoman and reinvent herself to do all these different things, some of which I’m a fan of, some of which I’m not. It’s nice to see someone giving their whole life to what they do.”
He clearly isn’t such a fan of the glossy electronic pop that Gaga’s reinvented character ends up performing in the film. He’s a roots musician steeped in country and the blues, who recorded his new album straight to analogue tape. He tries to define what musical authenticity means to him: “I think in popular music culture, what really bothers me is that we’ve lost the meaning behind it all,” he tells me. “Everyone’s trying to do it for a business now, but I think people are seeing that lack of integrity and gravitating towards music that is real. That’s why I used the word Real in the band name – it’s about keeping true to oneself. You could write formulaic pop songs all day long and you might get lucky, but as true artists we have to think, ‘What is the meaning of what I’m putting out there?’”
Is it as simple as turning your back on computers? “No, I love music with synths and computers, as long as you’ve integrated humanity into it and it isn’t just for the purpose of selling. I believe technology is ultimately an extension of ourselves. We created it out of natural things. It’s made of the same stardust and elements that created us and the world we live in, so it’s all natural. But there’s got to be a balance between the technology and the humanity.”
Nelson definitely falls on the organic side of the equation. His new album is called Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) and sounds old-fashioned but warmly familiar, with his sweet, smooth vocals strongly recalling those of his father. “I’m not saying ‘Don’t be informed,’ but the news can debilitate you with hopelessness,” he explains. “It’s about localised action. Go out and learn about the people that are around you, build a garden, invite people over, have an outdoor connection, put the phone down, turn the TV and the computer off, go out and be a part of your community – because that’s the only way we’re going to survive.”
He knows that the new music is likely to get much more attention than his past work, thanks to the aftershock of movie success (he thanks me, as a representative of Great Britain, for his BAFTA for Best Film Music) and a guest list that includes Sheryl Crow, Kesha, Waylon Jennings’ son Shooter, and of course Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Lukas’s brother Micah. He sounds completely ready.
“We’re in the middle of a 250-show run for the whole year, so we’re just going non-stop. It’s intense, it’s a lot happening, but it’s great,” he says. “I’m out here bringing something other than just my own face to the picture. I’d rather be a part of something bigger than myself.”
Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) is released today on Fantasy.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real play on June 27, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk) and as Neil Young’s band on July 12 in Hyde Park, W1 (axs.co.uk)