Lukas Nelson

A Star Is Rising

Singer-songwriter Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, is earning his own time in the spotlight. And he couldn’t be more prepared.

This place feels like a shrine to American sound. The building, erected in the 1920s, used to be a Masonic Temple. That’s why there are still long, narrow hallways, decorative antique chandeliers, an old auditorium on the second floor, a few secret passages, and several towering, kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows. Since the 1960s, though, this four-story blockish brick building on the west side of Los Angeles, a few minutes from the Santa Monica Pier, has been known as The Village. The legendary studio has hosted a litany of the most successful recording artists of the last half-century, from Dylan to Cash to Madonna to Snoop to—you get the idea. Good luck naming a famous musician who hasn’t been here. This is where I meet Lukas Nelson. He’s spent quite a bit of time here recently—and seems right at home.

Nelson isn’t famous like the names on the walls here, but it feels like he’s headed in that direction. He’s been a fixture in the world of Americana music for a while now, but in the last two years, the 30-year-old Nelson and his band, Promise of the Real, have toured with Neil Young, recorded with Lady Gaga, and toured and recorded with Nelson’s father—who happens to be country legend Willie Nelson. Lukas and the band also finished a new album, untitled as this issue went to press, that may be out in June. And Lukas spent time coaching actor Bradley Cooper on how to play guitar, and then several weeks promoting Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born. Oh, Nelson also cowrote eight songs on the soundtrack, and his band plays the backing band for Cooper’s character in the film, which managed that rarest of Hollywood feats: earning both critical acclaim and hundreds of millions in box-office profits. At the North American premiere, in Toronto, Nelson sat between Lady Gaga and comedian Dave Chappelle (who’s also in the movie) as Cooper lathered the young troubadour in praise. 

All of this might seem pretty surreal for most people. The celebrity friends. The getting noticed on the street. The calendar that has him on the road around 280 nights a year. Press junkets, long interviews, hanging out in a fabled studio like The Village. Imagine how strange it could feel. 

But not to Lukas Nelson. He’s been around celebrities all his life. He’s seen his father get recognized by strangers for as long as he can remember. When he was a kid, his dad was almost always on the road. (One of Willie’s most famous songs is literally all about that.) So the last few years—well, this is sort of how he imagined it might go.

He’s explaining all of this to me on a sunny Saturday afternoon, during a rare break in his schedule. We’re sitting in the control room of a studio on The Village’s third floor. Nelson’s wearing cowboy boots, jeans, and a pearl-snap shirt, and his long, straight hair—just a shade lighter than his father’s was at this age—is tied back. 

Next to his chair is a control panel with approximately 10,000 knobs, slides, buttons, and levers. Life could look as chaotic as that board if he hadn’t seen this sort of thing before. But he knows which buttons to push, which knobs to turn, and when. He says living on the go is all he’s ever known. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere longer than a few months in my life, without moving,” he says. It feels natural to him. “If I did stop moving, it would be a whole paradigm shift for me, and I’m not sure I’d like it. I like keeping my soul fresh.”

All of which has made the last few years—this “sudden” success—seem normal. Because it wasn’t sudden at all. In fact, his entire life, in one way or another, has been preparing him for this newfound fame. He’s thought about it a lot. “It’s like in a movie theater,” Nelson says. “You sit down, and the lights dim slowly, so your eyes adjust.”

Nelson has definitely adjusted.

When Lukas Nelson was 6 years old, he had a dream. He was singing on a stage, and when he looked out, he saw hundreds of thousands of people. He remembers being terrified. More than two decades later, he can still recall the details.

“A voice told me to shrink down into my chest cavity where my heart is,” he says, “and to look out at the crowd, like all my soul was looking out through the center of my chest.” 

As he recounts the story, he lifts a hand to his brow. “My eyes and head were up here,” he says. Then he lowers his hand to his chest. “But this is where I was coming from. I started to sing from that place, and the crowd went wild.”

Then he woke up. “That was a metaphorical dream [where] I didn’t even realize the metaphor,” he tells me. “That’s where I find my peace: my heart. So I live for my heart at all times.”

This is how Lukas Nelson talks. His voice sounds remarkably like his father’s. Sometimes when they record together, it’s hard to tell one from the other. (He also inherited his dad’s round face and twinkling eyes.)

The younger Nelson, like his dad, is part positive-vibe flower child, part cowboy poet, part wise-beyond-his-years nomad. In conversation, he’s just as likely to quote Taoist philosophy or Nikola Tesla or modern theories in neuroscience as he is to reference the career of Jimi Hendrix. 

Anthony LoGerfo, the drummer in Promise of the Real, met Nelson 12 years ago at a Neil Young concert. They immediately bonded over the music.

“You’d think the son of Willie Nelson would be really closed off and afraid, knowing there are people out there who might take advantage of him,” LoGerfo says. “But Lukas is a big-hearted, kind soul, and really open.”

When Lukas isn’t on the road, he lives in L.A., but he was born in Austin, Texas, and grew up mostly on Maui, the oldest son of his father’s fourth wife, Annie. As a kid, Lukas swam competitively. He surfed. And he played guitar. He tells me the songwriting neural pathways in his brain were established early. “I’ve heard music my whole life,” he says. “I’ve heard what a good song sounds like. I’ve grown up with one of the best songwriters in the world, so I know the general structure of a song. From an infant age, I’ve been hearing it.” 

He remembers being maybe 3 or 4 and seeing his father play in Europe with The Highwaymen. (That’s the supergroup Willie formed with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson.) Lukas remembers the way the entire crowd exuded love for his father. He remembers how happy the music made everyone. 

When Lukas was around 8, he started learning to play guitar as a birthday present for his dad.  When he was 11, he wrote a song, “You Were It,” that Willie actually recorded and put on the album It Always Will Be. The lyrics give an interesting insight into the younger Nelson’s pained view of the world. The chorus goes:

And I am fine

All the pain is gone

I once had a heart

Now I have a song

Getting a songwriting credit wasn’t the kind of thing he’d tell many people back then, but he remembers feeling affirmed as a musician. “I took that as an inspiration,” he says. “I realized I was good at writing songs at that point, and that I either inherited or absorbed that gift from Dad.”

He says he understood from an early age that music was the best way to connect with his famous father. “It’s a language we speak, and I very, very consciously started playing music so I could get close to him.”

Lukas often gets asked some variation of: So, what’s it like to have Willie Nelson as your dad? He doesn’t mind talking about his family, but that question annoys him. It’s vague and broad. And, of course, Willie Nelson is the only father he’s ever known. He says his dad came to his soccer games, attended his swim meets, and watched him play gigs in high school.

“He’s just like anybody’s dad,” he explains. “He’s quiet, he’s funny, he’s witty. He doesn’t take [bull], but he’s also very kind. He is very much like people see him. It’s not like he has a persona in the spotlight that he isn’t. He goes on stage in his tennis shoes, and he walks off in his tennis shoes. He is who he is, offstage and onstage, and in the poker games, and playing golf. He is his own character.”

Lukas Nelson could have been resentful. He could have rejected this life. He could have rejected music, the thing that so often took his father away when he was growing up. But that’s not the direction he went. He believes it’s because he spent so much time as a teen figuring out his identity, building his inner strength. He read the Bible, but he also read about eastern philosophies, meditating, and dharma.

“Discovering, thinking, contemplating life was a big part of my existence back then,” he says. “I did have a lot of pain. My brother [Billy, Willie’s oldest son] killed himself when I was young, and so that caused an explosion of negative energy and pain and resentment in my whole family. I grew up with the aftermath of that.” He pauses as he thinks about his childhood. “I could feel that there was a lot of heaviness going on.”

As he talks about these things, it’s with a certain remove, a peace. He doesn’t seem emotional. He simply understands the world the way it is. 

“It wasn’t all roses, being in the Nelson family,” he tells me. “It never has been. Dad came from nothing, and he had his families. He had three wives before my mother, and it’s not always been easy. All I knew how to do was say, ‘OK, how am I going to just survive in the world? I got to look inward; I can’t look outward because outward changes all the time.’”

He liked surfing and skateboarding, what he calls “the Maui lifestyle.” At one point, he contemplated training to be an Olympic swimmer. But ultimately, as a young teenager, he decided music would be his life, too.  “I chose at a very early age what I wanted to do, based on my knowledge of the opportunities that I had,” he says. “I wanted to definitely take advantage of those opportunities when I was young and really capitalize on everything. People would kill to have the opportunities that I had. Somebody might be an excellent musician and still might not have the doors open to him or her. I realized how many doors were open.”

From that moment on, music was always on his mind. He and his younger brother, Micah, were in bands together in high school. Lukas practiced for eight to 10 hours a day, every day. Because he knew he had to. 

“Otherwise, people are going to say, ‘He had everything given to him,’” he says. 

When he was 14, he started playing shows with his dad. By the time he was around 16, Bob Dylan wanted to take Lukas on tour. His parents didn’t tell him that until after they turned Dylan down. They wanted Lukas to finish high school instead.

After graduating high school, he moved to L.A. to go to Loyola Marymount University. After two years, he dropped out and formed a band. They called themselves Promise of the Real, a reference to an old Neil Young lyric. (The band’s current lineup consists of LoGerfo, Tato Melgar, Corey McCormick, and Logan Metz.) It was around then that Nelson decided to cut himself off financially from his family.

“I realized I needed to go out and really dig, dig, dig deep and find my own truth in music, and find my own calling,” he says.

For years, the band took every gig it could get. Think loud bars, opening slots, tens of thousands of miles on the road, a self-produced album that didn’t get much attention. Then another that did a little better. Then better slots, better money, shows all over the world, festivals like Farm Aid 25.

The same way that Lukas, when he was a kid, would study various religions and philosophies, picking and choosing what he found useful, he and his band seem to pull from a mix of iconic musical influences. Some guitar solos sound like they could have been on a Hendrix or Doors album. Some riffs evoke Mungo Jerry. Some songs sound like vintage Willie. The song “Forget About Georgia” sounds like a sequel to the elder Nelson’s famous cut of Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind.”

In 2012, Lukas sang and played guitar in three songs on his dad’s album, Heroes, and their keening nasal baritones twirled and harmonized throughout. Then Neil Young—who headlined the original Farm Aid with Willie in 1985—asked Lukas and his band to record an album and play some shows with him. Then a few more. Then Promise of the Real became Neil Young’s regular backing band. It still is. Lukas says Young reminds him of his father in a lot of ways. He sees “similarities between their souls.”

In fall 2016, the band played with Young at the Desert Trip festival in Indio, California. Other performers there included Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Roger Waters, and The Who. (The music website Stereogum dubbed the festival “Oldchella.”) 

Desert Trip is also where Bradley Cooper spotted Lukas on stage. Cooper was in preproduction for A Star Is Born, his directorial debut, in which he plays a hard-drinking-and-drugging, gravelly voiced country star named Jackson Maine. Cooper reached out through Woody Harrelson, a longtime friend of the Nelson family. After making contact, Cooper asked Lukas if he could coach him on the nuances of stage presence.

“I realized I needed to go out and really dig, dig, dig deep and find my own truth in music, and find my own calling,” he says.

Nelson says he immediately got along with Cooper, pointing out the actor-director’s musical acumen, his dedication to craft and realism, and the fact that Cooper also meditates.

“Bradley is a fantastic human being,” he says.

In addition to working with Cooper, he started writing songs with Lady Gaga. “We connected, and she and I became really close,” he says. “She’s this force of nature.” (She appeared on two songs on the band’s 2017 self-titled album.)

When Cooper introduced the movie at the premiere in Toronto, Nelson was the first person he brought to the stage, telling the audience: “The music you hear tonight, most of it comes inspired by and curated by an incredible person I saw at Desert Trip, next to Neil Young. And I found myself only looking at him, which is incredible. He’s a huge part of this movie.”

For Nelson, none of this success is surprising. He knows he’s worked for it. He knows he’s grown into what he is now, that he was ready to take advantage of every opportunity. He knows life has prepared him. But fame isn’t exactly a meritocracy. So many talented musicians work ceaselessly and never catch a break. Plenty experience a flash of fame and then disappear. It seems life has prepared him for that, too. He is perpetually even-keeled.

As he talks about working with A-list celebrities, about playing with some of the biggest names in music history, he doesn’t get excited. Don’t get him wrong. He’s grateful. He knows it’s an honor. He also feels like this is still just the beginning.

One of the songs on the new album is called “Turn Off the News” and includes the refrain Turn off the news and build a garden. Nelson also wrote and recorded a song for the soundtrack of My Lit­tle Pony: The Movie. The song is called “Neighsayer,” as in:

I don’t believe that my world isn’t real

I wouldn’t take you from yours

I just wanna find me some magic somehow

Oh, don’t be a neighsayer now

Still sitting in the studio, nearly two hours after we started talking, Nelson tells me that he expects his career arc to be long. After all, his dad got into music in the 1950s and he’s still going strong.

“I definitely want to get old,” he says.

To that end, he runs, he swims, he surfs any chance he gets. He doesn’t drink like he used to, and he tries to eat healthy. (He’s pescatarian.)

Lukas is also still fanatical about learning, just like he was as a teen. In the last few years, he studied physics and chess. These days he’s into calculus. “The only purpose I can find in life,” he tells me, “is to just keep accumulating knowledge.”

That’s what all of this adds up to for Lukas Nelson. Eventually, he looks at a clock and realizes he has to get going. He could spend the rest of the day talking about music and wisdom and his dad and the nature of the universe as he sees it. But he doesn’t have time. He’s supposed to go jam with Stevie Wonder.


Michael J. Mooney is a freelance writer in Dallas. Email him at mjmooney@gmail.com.

Photography by Peter Yang

Originally Published April 2019