“Maybe I see it as an ironic artistic portrayal”: Lukas Nelson discusses Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ and smoking weed with dad Willie

The musician and son of country legend Willie Nelson talks pot, positivity on his new album, and the explosion of country trap

Lukas Nelson doesn’t particularly care if people think he’s “riding on the coattails” of his famous father. The 30-year-old musician is a songwriter in his own right – validated in part by the ginormous success of the film he starred in and wrote much of the music for: A Star Is Born.

Now, in the weeks since releasing his second record with his band, Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real, the American artist sat down with NME to chat about Hollywood, Lil Nas X, his newfound philosophy on life, and smoking weed with his pa. Oh, and he wants us to stop staring at our smartphones so much….

You appeared in a A Star Is Born as a member of Jackson Maine’s backing band. How much would you say your character in the film is like you in real life?

“I’d say it’s a combination of me and other influences that Bradley [Cooper – who plays Jackson] chose to use, but I think mostly he was able to capture the camaraderie and the stage presence that my band and I have. Luckily he chose to use the band so I think that really helped capture the authenticity of that interaction.”

What impact did starring in the film and co-writing/co-producing many of the film’s songs have on you and your band?

“It was a fantastic thing to do. At that point, it was the most important thing I’d ever done. It was a special moment in our career to be able to know that we can produce and play on ‘Shallow’, which is one of most awarded songs ever, and it just be a humble band like us. ‘Promise Of The Real’, that band name came from our desire to stay within our integrity. In this type of industry, especially in Hollywood, it’s so easy to be pulled in different directions, temptation-wise, to look a certain way or to play certain music that you know will sell except that it doesn’t really speak to you.

“We’ve been able, luckily, to preserve who we are and still be able to traverse this landscape of popular culture. What [A Star Is Born] helped me to realise is that I care less about the perceptions of people than I ever did: whether I’m the son of some famous person who’s riding on the coattails of his father or whether I’m a hardworking band leader. Or whether I’m an escapist or whatever.”

Lukas Nelson

What are the main differences between acting in a film and performing music in front of people? 

“Terrible hours, my god. Long days, early mornings. Not what I’m used to as a musician! But it caused me to deeply respect the art. I went to a couple of acting classes. I wasn’t completely focused, but I realised what it would take for me to become a good actor. It would take these people – in order to become different people at least for the screen – to actually have to energetically go into those places. They have to energetically bring up betrayal and loss and evil and darkness and all these things that I’ve spent my life trying to balance within myself. You have to be very, very meditative and you have to pick the right roles for yourself. If you’re not careful, you will become those people for a while and that will do damage to your nervous system and to your wellbeing ultimately.” 

Do you see a future in acting for yourself?

“Not presently. I don’t mean, no. The future is…I don’t see much about the future at all. And I don’t see much about the past except for what I’ve taken from it to learn.”

There’s been some chatter about A Star Is Born tour. Has there been any developments – any more conversations around that?

“There have not, sadly.”

Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real

Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real

The title of your new album, ‘Turn Off The News (Build A Garden)’, is interesting. Can you explain it?

“I’ve chosen to follow this path – turn off the news and build a garden – which for better or worse is how I’m feeling right now. I want to put focus on the latter part of that phrase. It’s not an escape; it’s an idea that I have where instead of focusing on these macro issues focus on what’s around you, cultivate the garden of your community – whether it’s to participate in a community by organising events or buying local foods or simply to go help at a homeless shelter. I think that if everybody shut off their phones and TVs for a period of the day, staying informed, and looked instead towards what’s around them and how they can improve the quality of life in their immediate area then that will have a trickle up effect. People talk about trickle down economics. Well, this is trickle up economics.”

What other core themes are there on the album other than making positive changes in a micro sense?

“Ironically with the message, there’s a brevity to it. [The album title] sounds heavy but the record itself is very fun. It’s upbeat and groovy. And it’s completely geared towards people like me who smoke pot and want to have a good time and enjoy life.

“It’s also for people who are at the same time conscious and aware of their feelings, of their desire to grow, of their desire to be better people in life and to confront the challenges in our world with dignity and poise. It’s also got a lot of my friends, mentors and teachers on the record [Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, Margo Price, Kesha, Neil Young]. It’s a tribute to the most badass women of the world, starting from my mother to Kesha. And it’s an accurate portrayal of where I was when I wrote it and where the band was when we recorded this music at the beginning of 2018.”

You mentioned pot and your father [for the uninitiated, Willie’s a big weed advocate]. Did you grow up in the kind of environment with your dad where it was like, ‘Hey, let’s have a joint and let’s jam together’?

“Being on the road, there was pot around but I was not allowed to smoke it. My parents raised me, my mother especially raised me with somewhat of an iron fist and in terms of making sure that I appreciated everything I had and that there was no way I was going to be some lazy pot head son of a celebrity. And for that I’m eternally grateful. They’ve raised me with a sense of self awareness and a desire to improve myself constantly in that I could stand with the same dignity, I think, as anyone on this planet and still be able to work as hard as they could, given the opportunity.”

When the iron fist was loosened a bit, can you remember the time when you first lit up with your father?

“Probably at some point after I turned 18, haha.”

And do you smoke with him now?

“Dad vapes now because he’s got some lung issues – but yes. We’re always playing music. The getting high part of it is more of a way of life. It’s almost a spiritual practice in the way that Rastafarianism accepts it. I consider it a medicine; I consider it a very deep and complex component of my life. It’s been around my whole life and I’ve been with it and I’ve been without it for a while. I never liked drinking. It never worked for me. So this is a vice; it’s a tool I use. If I want to call it a vice that helps me to remember I’m not perfect but if I’m being honest, I don’t consider it a vice. I consider it help.

“You know, when I don’t have it, sometimes I’ll forget to sit back and enjoy life. I’ll get in my head a lot. And if I don’t have weed it means I have to be completely regimented in my meditation schedule and make sure that I get complete exercise and everything. Otherwise I’ll get lost in the neurosis. I’ll get completely lost in believing that all the things I have to do in life will start to pile on and I’ll start believing in my own story and start thinking about myself and my ego and forget that that’s not everything. I have to quiet my mind and remember to be present. And that’s what pot helps me to do. Especially in this very fast pace industry, I need it to take the edge off. And other times I say, ‘Well, I don’t need this right now cause I’m really in a good place. I’m meditating, I’m eating perfectly, I’m on the road, but it’s got a good schedule going.'”

Your music touches on a lot of country rock and blues. Are you a country man through and through or do you take musical influences from elsewhere?

“No, I’m not. This world is so varied in genre. There’s so many representative energies out in the world and I’m influenced by every one of them. Just because I was born in a specific location, it does not inform my character except in a very small part. I was born in Texas and then I was in Hawaii for most of my life and I was in California and I was on the road. That song that Steve Goodman wrote with the lyrics, “Good Morning America / How are you?” [from ‘The City of New Orleans’] – I was literally raised in America. On the road in every city that you know from the Midwest to the east coast. I went to Australia when I was a kid. I’ve been everywhere. And so I would say I play world music. I play music that’s influenced by my exposure to the world or as a human being. And country and rock and all of these things, those are all labels assigned to help – just in the same way categorise us in the same way that we’re labelled white or black or Hispanic or red or blue or whatever – I don’t even like that. And I know it’s cliché to not like labels but at the same time, I have to admit that, cliché or not, I don’t.”

What do you think about the success of Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ with Billy Ray Cyrus and this kind of country trap music crossover that seems to be in vogue?

“I heard it once when I was in Maui. My friend is a surfer. Matt Meola, he’s a professional – one of the best. And he did this surf video, sort of parody of that song so that’s when I first heard it. I think it has cultural relevance. I think it’s what we’re feeling. it’s how we’re feeling. We want to be silly – sometimes we’ll be silly. I don’t know… maybe I see it as an ironic artistic portrayal, possibly. But I don’t know what he was thinking when he wrote it.

“You know, it’s like asking Bob Dylan why he wrote what he wrote. Is ‘A Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ [from Dylan’s 1966 album ‘Blonde On Blonde], a joke song? “Everybody must get stoned…” When he wrote that song, people were saying, ‘What do you mean by this song? Are you saying we should all get high?’ I don’t know. He’s an artist, Lil Nas X, I guess. Obviously he’s saying it pretty good but the thing is it’s hard to tell ’cause all of that style of what’s popular right now is machine. It’s all processed by a machine. There’s not a lot of work – with the exception of my band on ‘Shallow’ and my guitar lick that – that’s the only organic music you hear in popular culture right now. It’s hard for me to get behind that completely because I’m not necessarily a fan of the production style of a lot of pop music right now. I prefer a balance, more like in the indie realm of like Arcade Fire or somebody like that who’s able to take technology and blend it with….”

…organic instruments?

“Organic – no, actually I’ve been struggling with the word ‘organic’ because everything’s technically organic. Plastic is still made up of the elements from the periodic table. We’re all stardust, whatever we are. Everything from the city to the forest is created on this planet from materials on this planet. So it’s all organic. I think it’s a lot about intention, I think I can feel intention and I can feel intention behind a song. Like Cardi B, for example. I love it. I don’t listen to it all the time because again, the production style is not my favourite. But I can see her authenticity – that’s who she is and she’s completely… it’s endearing to me. I’m a huge fan of celebrating the diversity of our world and even though I may not understand a certain culture or be able to relate to it, because I’ve never been exposed to the nuances of it, I can respect authenticity in every situation.”

You’ve got a big gig coming up with Neil Young at Hyde Park on July 12 [Promise of the Real are Young’s backing band]. How does it feel to be working with such a legend?

“It’s a great honour. There’s no greater honour. It’s hard to put into words the gratitude that I have for the mentors and teachers: Neil, my father, Bob Dylan – all these people whom I grew up with idolising in some way and learning from just by observing. And now I get to learn more in a more immediate way. That’s a blessing. I consider myself a student, musically. I’ve still got so much to learn. And I’m grateful that I’ll have – hopefully, knock on wood – plenty of time to learn it as long as I stay healthy and my band stays healthy. And as long as we’re able to be on the road for the years to come.”

Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real’s ‘Turn Off The News (Build A Garden)’ is out now via Fantasy Records