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Lukas Nelson On Staying Home And Focusing On The Music

Mar 31, 2020
Originally published on March 31, 2020 2:28 pm

"Entirely Different Stars," from Lukas Nelson's newest album, Naked Garden, is a song many people might relate to right about now. It's a fantasy about grabbing that special someone and blasting off to a less troubled planet.

Nelson is a powerhouse musician in his own right: He co-wrote music for A Star is Born with Lady Gaga, and his band Promise of the Real frequently plays with Neil Young. He's also Willie Nelson's son, and while Lukas Nelson and his band were supposed to heading out on a tour to promote Naked Garden right now, instead he's hunkered down with his family on his father's ranch outside Austin, Texas.

Willie Nelson is almost 87 and has continued touring despite some health scares. Lukas Nelson says it's not so bad to see his dad taking a break.

"He's doing incredibly right now. He may be getting the most rest he's gotten in a long time," he says. "We're just hanging out. We're playing a lot of chess and dominoes, staying informed but not getting too bogged down with the news. And we're writing music."

There was also the small matter of hosting a digital music festival. Willie Nelson's yearly Luck Reunion "anti-festival" would have been held on his ranch March 19, but the family and the organizers were forced to cancel due to the coronavirus. Instead, they renamed it " 'Til Further Notice" and hosted it online. The Nelson family and artists including Lucinda Williams, Paul Simon and Kurt Vile livestreamed performances from their separate studios and homes.

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NPR's David Greene spoke to Lukas Nelson about missing the human connection of playing live and music taking on new meanings as times change. Listen to the conversation in the audio link above and read on for highlights.


Interview Highlights

On 'Til Further Notice and missing the connection with a live audience

It was obviously different. Nothing will ever substitute for genuine human connection. There's a symbiosis between the musicians and the crowd that's irreplaceable. There's an energy transfer that happens when you're out there playing, and good Lord do I long for the times. "On the Road Again" has never been more poignant. It takes on a whole new meaning, that song now, when we can't get on the road.

There's nothing like it, and there's nothing like holding hands and hugging and kissing. That's the one thing that separates us from being computers ourselves: We have this sense of organic connection and touch. My hope is that people will value it more than ever after this is over.

On using music to help block out chaotic and stressful news

I've never felt so inspired to just sit and practice. I've sat and learned an entire classical [guitar] piece called "Classical Gas." Mason Williams wrote it back in the '60s. It's challenging, and I've never had the time to really sit and learn it before. I was always so busy with things that I thought were important — and that were actually important as well. Life has forced me to sit with myself, and I've actually been practicing transcendental meditation every day, doing two meditations a day. The only thing you can do in this time is make the best of what you have.

YouTube

On the prescience of "Focus on the Music" and the title track of his last album

Sometimes I'll write a song and I won't realize the true reason that that song came to me until years later. I'll be so grateful that I wrote that song seemingly for another purpose, but songs can take their own meanings and it can go through transformations — the meaning can transform into a different meaning based on what's happening.

The last record, with Turn Off the News (Build a Garden), I almost wish I hadn't called it that. I don't want to be preachy, that was just how I was feeling at the moment and I wrote the song and people resonated with it. Now, it's taken on a whole other meaning and people are really resonating with that song more than they ever have because I think they are forced to slow down enough to understand that the most important things are in your immediate area and around you.

On focusing on the things that matter if you're otherwise safe

There's a lot of beautiful things that will come out of this, and a lot of maybe not-so-beautiful things. That's the way the world works: There's always a positive and negative side of everything in life, really. It just depends on how we look at it and your perspective. That's my great fear, is that people will forget how to have human connection, but based on the folks I've been communicating with and I've seen and the love for live music, I think it would take a lot longer than a few months in quarantine for people to forget that.

That's the only way we can come out of this without going to a dark place. We can choose to look at it in a negative way or a positive way. I think it depends on our own level of peace inside, and joy, and whether we want to cultivate that or give in to our darkest impulses and let our fear take over. I think our greatest lesson now is to confront fear itself. Dad said "99% of the things you worry about never happen." Was it Roosevelt who said "The only thing we need to fear is fear itself"? I resonate with that, wholeheartedly. We can't give in to fear. I think we should stay informed, but with the exception of listening to a little NPR every once in a while, I think we should turn off the news and build a garden.

NPR's Vince Pearson produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So if you're stressed out, trapped at home, wishing for somewhere safe to be, here's a song that you might relate to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENTIRELY DIFFERENT STARS")

LUKAS NELSON AND PROMISE OF THE REAL: (Singing) Going to take a ride, the good kind of ride, the want-to-get-lost-in-space kind of ride. The sun and the moon and the evening tide will disappear below.

GREENE: It's a fantasy about grabbing someone special and blasting off to a less-troubled planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENTIRELY DIFFERENT STARS")

LUKAS NELSON AND PROMISE OF THE REAL: (Singing) I'll buy us a nice little farm a thousand light-years south of Mars. I'll give you loving underneath entirely different stars, entirely different stars.

GREENE: The singer here is Lukas Nelson. He is a powerhouse musician in his own right. He co-wrote with Lady Gaga for the movie "A Star Is Born." His band, Promise of the Real, often plays with Neil Young. And that song you heard is from the band's new album. Lukas Nelson also happens to be Willie Nelson's son. They even sound alike. And somehow talking to him was reassuring. Lukas was supposed to be on tour. Instead, he is hunkered down with his family on their ranch outside Austin, Texas. His dad, Willie, is almost 87. He has kept touring despite some health scares. Lukas says it's not so bad seeing his dad taking a break.

LUKAS NELSON: Yeah. I mean, he's doing incredibly right now. It's kind of crazy. He may be getting the most rest he's gotten in a long time, which is great. You know, we're very, very grateful to be so lucky.

GREENE: Well, tell me more about your dad. I mean, you say he's getting more rest than ever. What does he spend his day doing, and what are you guys doing together?

NELSON: Well, we're all just hanging out. We're playing a lot of chess. We're playing a lot of dominoes. We're staying informed but not getting too bogged down with the news. And we're writing music.

GREENE: Writing music and even putting on a music festival. Willie Nelson hosts the festival every year around this time. This year they had to do it online. The Nelson family and other artists were all livestreaming their performances from their separate studios and homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NELSON: (Singing) I think I fell in love with you again.

Take one, Dad.

GREENE: How different was it to do something that is supposed to be a big live festival all online?

NELSON: Well, it was obviously different, and nothing will ever substitute for genuine human connection. There is a symbiosis between the musicians and the crowd; it's irreplaceable. There's an energy transfer that happens when you're out there playing. And good lord, do I long for the time - "On The Road Again" has never been more poignant.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: I imagine.

NELSON: It takes on a whole new meaning, that song, now when we can't get on the road.

GREENE: Well, I know you and Promise of the Real have a new album, and we'd be normally talking about just that. But there's at least one song on there, probably more, that really felt appropriate for this moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOCUS ON THE MUSIC")

LUKAS NELSON AND PROMISE OF THE REAL: (Singing) I got to focus on the music. Focus on the harder things, focus on the peace that music brings.

GREENE: There's something really meditative about that. Like, I almost needed it. I mean, I have this image of you sitting there trying to lock stuff out for a few minutes. Does music help you do that right now?

NELSON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I've never felt so inspired to just sit and practice. I mean, I've sat and learned an entire classical piece. I had never had the time to really sit and learn it before. I was always on the go so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOCUS ON THE MUSIC")

LUKAS NELSON AND PROMISE OF THE REAL: (Singing) Let the music carry me merrily and gently down the stream.

NELSON: Life has forced me to sit with myself. And I've actually been practicing transcendental meditation every day, and it's really been - the only thing you can do in this time is make the best of what you have and in any time, really, and that's what I'm trying to do.

GREENE: Well, you've been trying to connect with people, uploading these songs onto YouTube, you know, from your home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SOUND OF SILENCE")

NELSON: (Singing) Hello, darkness, my old friend.

GREENE: What do you feel like you're trying to do when you do that, when we see that?

NELSON: Well, first of all, it's for my own sanity. I'm a performer. This is what I do. This is what I believe I was meant to do. And our only avenue to do that now - because that beautiful connection of live music has been temporarily stalled, now we have the gift of technology, and we have ways to connect with people all over the world. And people are all in the same boat. They're all just sitting in their homes. And what can they do? They watch movies. They listen to music. And so this is my job. This is what I do. This is my calling.

GREENE: And so in that spirit, we asked Lukas to play for us. It's a song from his last album that feels relevant. It's about tuning out the noise, even for just a minute or two. It's called "Turn Off The News (Build A Garden)." And do you have your guitar there?

NELSON: Sure. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN OFF THE NEWS (BUILD A GARDEN)")

NELSON: (Singing) I believe that every heart is kind. Some are just a little underused. Hatred is a symptom of the times, lost in these uneducated blues. And I just want to love you while I can. All these other thoughts have me confused. And I don't need to try and understand. Maybe I'll get up, turn off the news. Turn off the news and build a garden, just my neighborhood and me. We might feel a bit less hardened. We might feel a bit more free. Turn off the news and raise the kids. Give them something to believe in. Teach them how to be good people. Give them hope that they can see, hope that they can see. Turn off the news and build a garden with me.

GREENE: Lukas, that was wonderful. I think we all needed that. Thank you.

NELSON: Great.

GREENE: Hey, all the best to you and your dad and the whole family.

NELSON: Hey, all the best to you. Thanks for calling. And anything you need, I'm here. I'll be right here (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF LUKAS NELSON AND PROMISE OF THE REAL SONG, "FOCUS ON THE MUSIC")

GREENE: Lukas Nelson there. His band Promise of the Real is out with a new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUKAS NELSON AND PROMISE OF THE REAL SONG, "FOCUS ON THE MUSIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.