We spoke to Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, bandleader and member of Neil Young's group – about his songwriting work for 'A Star is Born' and his forthcoming album release
Lukas Nelson never expected that a chance meeting with Bradley Copper at Desert Trip festival in 2016 could have led to the life-changing series of events that followed. After seeing Nelson and his band – Promise of the Real – backing Neil Young on stage at the festival, Cooper spotted Nelson and asked him to work as a consultant on a new film he was working on – A Star is Born. “Well, he didn’t have to sell it too much, he’s a Neil Young fan, so that helped to endear me to him,” Nelson tells me over the telephone, laughing about the chance meeting where the two bonded over a love of Neil Young.
Nelson’s eventual role on the project grew to one much greater than that of a consultant. He started writing the bulk of original songs for the project alongside Lady Gaga (who in turn worked on The Promise of the Real’s 2017 self-titled debut album) and also appeared in the film as part of Cooper’s backing band. Cooper even based his character’s mannerisms on Nelson, son of country legend Willie Nelson.
The music for the film has been widely praised, particularly Nelson’s. Reviewing the soundtrack, NME wrote: “A Star is Born is one of the best Hollywood soundtracks of recent years. Far from being Oscar bait, these are songs that could feasibly shine on their own – and ones that feel entirely believable. Along with Best Actor gongs for Gaga and Cooper, a musical gong might just be in order too.”
Nelson’s humility and grounding abounds during our conversation, as does his pride surrounding work on the project. As well as getting ready for the upcoming awards season and DVD release of the film, Nelson is also preparing for his band to continue to support Neil Young on tour this summer (he will appear with Young during his appearance with Bob Dylan at Hyde Park). He’s also set to release a new album in the spring. Here’s everything he had to tell us about that and his work on A Star is Born.
NME: Your work on A Star is Born began after a chance meeting with Bradley Cooper at Desert Trip in 2016. How did Bradley convince you to join the project?
Lukas Nelson: “Well, he didn’t have to sell it too much, he’s a Neil Young fan, so that helped to endear me to him. [laughs]. He played me a clip of him singing a song, and I thought he did a great job, and so I said: ‘Of course, let’s do this.’ You never really can tell [how successful these things are going to be] but we worked hard on it and we’re proud of it.”
Bradley Cooper revealed how meticulously he prepared for the project and how hard he worked on his song craft prior to filming. Were you impressed by his dedication in your initial role as a ‘consultant’ on the film?
“Absolutely, yeah. We worked together for at least a year before we even started filming, and it was a three-year process altogether. It was really good and really special. I’m very proud of him for his efforts on the project, and I think that hopefully, it will have a lot of legs.”
How did the collaborative process work in terms of going from script to song writing?
“There were a lot of different processes; it wasn’t the same [from one day to the next]. I would write a song that I felt spoke to the character and to my authentic self which the character was based on and that [method] kind of worked. When I would write a song, I would send it to Bradley and Gaga. You know, I must have wrote 20 songs and some of them made it, some of them didn’t. I just started writing because I write, that’s what I do. In the meantime, I was collaborating with Bradley on making sure that the singing was on key and that he was holding the guitar right [laughs].
Also, working on the guitar songs, all those guitar sounds that you hear are me through my Magnatone amps and the band [all of whom] played; that’s me [with them] there too. Bradley had a specific idea about that sound so production-wise we would get a lot of work as well.”
You’re obviously very experienced with touring, both in backing Neil Young and touring with your own band. When you did the Glastonbury performance for the film, did it feel more unnatural with it being specifically for the film or just like any other gig?
“It wasn’t unnatural really, because Bradley really came from a love of Neil Young and so did Gaga. [It made sense] to use my band and it just all sort of naturally came together in a really great way.”
You’ve spoken about your enjoyment of working with Lady Gaga on this project and you two seem to have a great songwriting relationship, not least when she wrote for your band’s self-titled 2017 album…
“Yeah I mean, I really love her a lot and I feel like she does a great job with many things. Everything that she does, she puts her all into it. I relate to her in terms of songwriting, and so it really was a pleasure to work with her.
[The songs] were not challenging to write for me; if I am starting to feel challenged, I stop writing. I produced ‘Shallow’ with my band (so you hear my band on there), and we arranged it with Gaga in the studio with those guys. That was a fun project – watching them back her up was really a pleasure.
My favourite that she sang was probably either ‘Music to My Eyes’ or ‘Is That Alright?’ which was one that I wrote. ‘Look What I Found’ was another that I wrote that she also did a great job on. So, you know, it’s great; it’s good stuff.”
Did all the varied collaborations for this project impact your own songwriting?
“Yeah, absolutely. I mean every experience you have musically contributes in and up-skills you for all of the other experiences that come after. I have always wanted to just let music take me wherever it’s going to take me and it has taken me on some pretty incredible journeys so far. I’m very grateful.”
Did you ever envisage that you would do a project like this which is so different from what you’ve done with your band previously? The success of it must feel very special…
“The ambition for me was that I would follow music wherever it took me. Everything involved with music, I was happy to do. If music led me in one way or another, my duty felt like it was to always follow it.
And yeah [the success] is still going on, hopefully forever [laughs]. A constant whirlwind.”
Coming from a musical background, was the transition to film difficult?
“It was really the same. I didn’t really have to change what I do; I was just up there playing music and backing up a legend. Just doing what we do, either backing up a legend or being my own sort of frontman. They are two [separate] art forms but I’ve got both of them down. I like being in a band and being part of the team, to backup someone else, that is another art that I really enjoy, and so it was great and easy.”
You’ve mentioned that your dad, Willie Nelson, has watched the film. What did he make of it?
“He loved it; he really loved it. [My background] is something to celebrate, there is no burden there andit is all about perspective in life, you can choose to look at it any way you want to look at it. Looking at it as a burden would hinder me, so I don’t look at it that way.”
What did you enjoy most about the experience?
“Well, I loved hanging out with Bradley, I mean I really like him as a guy, and I learned a lot from him as a human being. I like how valid he is, and he manages to deal with superstardom and fame in a pretty grounded way. I’m used to that with my father and other guys like Eddie Vedder and Jack Johnson and many of the people who make it but [still] stay grounded. I think that is the most important and most beautiful thing in the world to see, somebody who knows how to handle fortune and give back at the same time. It was a pleasure to meet him and hang with him in that way.”
Bradley Cooper has spoken of how people initially advised him against re-making this film. Was it daunting taking on the project in light of the original Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand version and all its other iterations?
“Not really. I think it was nice to have those templates to look back at. I probably took a few little choice traditions from those old films, and then built upon that for Bradley’s version of it. I think he did a great job writing it. It’s not a good idea to compare or look back; you have just got to do what you do and keep going.
[The response to the film] has been great; it obviously feels fantastic and I’m very happy that it has done so well. I already felt that success when we were acting it and when I saw the first screening of it, I thought ‘well, that’s just great!’ I thought he did a great job and that’s what matters.”
You are back on tour with Neil Young next year and you are coming to the UK to perform with Neil at Hyde Park with Bob Dylan. Are more news on this as yet?
“Oh yeah. That’s gonna be such a blast. We are really excited about that and being able to play Neil’s songs with them and back him up: it is an honour every day. Then Dylan and I have had a relationship too. I admire him in the utmost as a songwriter, and he is one of the greatest songwriters in the world, and to have two of the greatest songwriters in the world in one place is a blessing, you know? I’m looking forward to it. I mean, these are just legends, and they do what they want to do, and we just go with the flow.”
Are there any plans to take the songs from the film out on tour?
“I think there is some talk but I don’t really quite know for sure; it all kind of remains to be seen!”
What’s next for you after this?
“I’ve got a whole record that is pretty much completed and I am supposed to try and release it in April [laughs]. The plan is that we will have it by the time we get out there. I’m looking forward to being on the road this year, just going out and playing music, doing what we do.”
A Star is Born DVD is released on February 11