Playback – Lukas Nelson: Real as Promised
Lukas Nelson is a chip off the ol' Willie
The 28-year-old son of Willie Nelson backs Neil Young, hangs with Lady Gaga, and steals the spotlight at festivals when he masticates the strings of his electric guitar, but his defining moment is only now drawing near.
"Playback" caught a whiff of Nelson's zenith in July, when he ignited Antone's anniversary with all the soul in the universe and primo material to boot. Those songs arrive Friday on Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real's eponymous fourth album, a sort of mid-career summary that will go down as his magnum opus.
Last week, in the dining room of a borrowed West Austin mansion, Nelson mused on his unusual upbringing, work ethic, and lessons he's learned from his heroes.
Austin Chronicle: The song "Just Outside of Austin" is uncommonly reverential. Where exactly did you grow up?
Lukas Nelson: I grew up in Spicewood and in Maui, and on the road. If I had a break – even if it was a weekend – I'd go see my dad, wherever he was. I went to Montessori schools, first at Casa Montessori over by Deep Eddy, then my mom [Annie D'Angelo] started a Montessori school out in Spicewood called Tierra Vista Montessori. I grew up mostly around Austin until I was about 10, then I started going back and forth to Maui.
AC: Did Maui represent anonymity for you? It must be weird being Willie's kid in Austin.
LN: It gets a little tough. Luckily, my older sisters went though it before I did. They went to Westlake and Austin High and had a lot of trouble with that. Especially in high school when kids haven't refined themselves just yet, people would say unashamedly mean things or they'd be nice to you for the wrong reasons. My mom didn't want me to grow up with this prince mentality, getting special treatment whether it's bad or good. I didn't have that in Maui.
AC: Ever get busted for pot in high school?
LN: No. I've never been arrested. I'm the only one in my family who hasn't though. I never wanted to reflect badly on my parents, so I tried not to fuck up too much. I think pot is pretty wholesome.
AC: This is your fourth album, but it's self-titled and there are several songs pulled from past releases. Bringing everything to the front?
LN: We had a world-class studio with Village Recorder [in Los Angeles], an incredible producer, John Alagía [Jason Mraz, Herbie Hancock, Rachael Yamagata], and we're a better band, so I knew we could get great recordings. We picked our favorite songs and recorded 35 tunes. The record only has a small percentage of that, obviously.
AC: What have you unlocked in yourself as an artist since the last time you recorded?
LN: We've been playing with Neil Young. That adds a lot to your game. Also, we've been averaging 250 shows for the last 12 years. Another thing is I don't drink. I'll have a glass of wine occasionally, a little beer here and there, but I'm not in that mentality. I'm more like an athlete in how I approach my music: I'm on a team and I have to be the best I can be. That keeps us getting better instead of regressing like some bands do when they get a break or get money then start getting into all the drugs, the craziness, or believing they're the greatest thing in the world and they don't have to work. That's not what I learned from Dad and it's not what I learned from my heroes.
AC: What did you learn from Neil?
LN: Same. Neil's always focused. He's just so on his game all the time and he cares about the details. He's involved in every aspect of his career. We just finished another studio record with him in Malibu.
AC: I'm fascinated with the absurdist social babble of "High Times," a weird song for weird times. What were you thinking?
LN: It's kind of a narrative of what's going on: "I'm gonna vote for the funniest frog with the loudest croak on the highest log." Trump looks like a frog to me, but it's also like the Bud Light corporate thing. The whole idea is you're voting for the loudest, most obnoxious person on either side.
AC: How many takes did Lady Gaga need for her backing vocal tracks on your album?
LN: One. It was easy for her. One time she drove with me from L.A. to San Fransisco for one of my shows. We listened to Zeppelin and Beatles on the way. She's a rock chick. She loves music and she sings her ass off. One of her favorite songs I sang at the show was "Find Yourself" and she made me this piece of art, a picture of me that she took, and it says, "I hope you find yourself." It was super thoughtful so I said, "Well shit, you should come sing that song."
AC: In "Forget About Georgia," Georgia breaks your heart, then it tortures you to sing her name onstage when your dad plays "Georgia on My Mind." Did writing that song eventually exorcise that demon?
LN: Just recently I was playing that song at a festival in L.A. when all of a sudden I saw Georgia walk up in the crowd. It was fuckin' surreal, man! She stayed for the song and left after. I looked at her the whole time – right in the eye. Then we started talking and made our peace. It's a good feeling now when I think of her.
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