FINDING PUNCHLINES: Lukas Nelson talks Promise of the Real, songwriting and legends that advised him along the way
“I have a lot of music I want to put out there, but it’s so hard to put it all together,” singer-songwriter and guitarist Lukas Nelson tells encore last Labor Day evening. “And to finally release [a record] … it’s just nice to have it out there.”
Nelson scheduled our interview amidst days and weeks of travel. “We just landed a couple hours ago in New York,” he divulges. Still, it didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the release of his band’s self-titled work on Fantasy Records, “Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real.”
“I’m really happy with this record, to be honest,” he adds. “It’s my proudest achievement so far, in terms of putting out my own music.”
Thus far it’s received glowing reviews. More so, it’s ranked on multi-genre Billboard charts. “I don’t know how many sales that translates to,” Nelson quips. “But people seem to like it.”
It’s an exciting time for Nelson as a “new” artist—not new in the sense of being a musician on the scene but new to being in the public eye. It was a big deal for him to partner with a record label to help spread the word of his existence.
“That was a big achievement in and of itself—having a record label sign us—because we don’t exactly play pop music,” he adds. “They’re taking a chance and I think they’re happy.”
Nelson’s drawn to storytelling found in country music, as well as heard in soul, gospel, or rock ‘n’ roll: short, quick songs that have punchlines. The latest collection reflects an appreciation of and development within that formula. He’s not trying to “genre bend” or reinvent the wheel with this record.
“I mean, nobody’s really reinventing anything these days—unless you’re playing Indie music,” he says, “which is great—I love some great bands out there that are really doing well. . . . I guess I’m just trying to write in clear, concise, melodic, and lyrical ways.”
This is also the first album from Nelson’s six-piece. Promise of the Real is complete with Tato Melgar (percussion), Anthony LoGerfo (drums) and Corey McCormick (bass, vocals), as well as newer members Jesse Siebenberg (steel guitars, Farfisa organ, vocals) and Alberto Bof (piano, Wurlitzer).
Recorded at The Village Studios in West Los Angeles, “Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real” is riddled with major talents’ influences and contributions. Jess Wolfe and Holly Lessig of Lucius provided backing vocals on five tracks, while Stefani Germanotta (a.k.a. Lady Gaga) sang on “Carolina” and “Find Yourself.” “Just Outside of Austin” features a lovely introduction lead by his aunt, Bobbie Nelson, on keys (she also plays with his dad’s band—Willie and Friends—all of whom stopped over in Wilmington at The Shell on Tues., Sept. 5).
“I was thinking of Roger Miller when I wrote that song,” Nelson explains. “I wanted to write a song with a similar kind of chord progression.”
A long-time fan and friend of Neil Young (he actually met his drummer, Anthony LoGerfo, at a Neil Young concert in 2008), Nelson and the Promise of the Real backed up the legendary Canadian musician on “The Monsanto Years” album (2015). They had made appearances at Young’s famed (now defunct) Bridge School Benefit and Farm Aid (the latter also run by Nelson’s father, along with John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews). Such experiences have culminated in the band receiving top-notch guidance along the way.
“[Neil] helped me with a few songs and had some advice for a few tunes,” he tells. “Dad listened to a few songs I had written. Then he’d say, ‘You should put that one on there and that one.’ . . . They both influenced the record a lot.”
Nelson has continued to develop his 12 tracks on the road. All have received stage time; though, he’s mindful of how well a couple play out in certain venues. “I haven’t really done ‘Breath of My Baby’ a lot live because it’s so slow,” he explains. “It’s just too low energy for a lot of shows.”
Songs are still evolving, too. Nelson plays “Carolina” and “Runnin’ Shine” with an electric guitar to give it more power.
“I think our next plan should be a live record because it’s completely different,” he observes. “I already know that I could do better. And I have a lot of other great songs and there are things I want to fine tune in recording, but I want it a little less polished because the polish kind of gets in the way. I’d like to have a little more rock ‘n’ roll in the next one—that’s what we do live.”
Nelson will head back to the studio later in the month. In the meantime, Wilmingtonians can hear the band live at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Tuesday, Sept. 19.