Lukas Nelson On 'A Star Is Born', His Famous Dad & Having 'A Dream Come True' Life

15 March 2019 | 2:26 pm | Bryget Chrisfield

If Willie Nelson's your dad and you get to back one of your heroes, Neil Young, with your band Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real, can life get any better? Bryget Chrisfield discovers that thanks to Desert Trip, Lukas Nelson's rock'n'roll dreams continue to come true.

Nelson (second from right) with Promise Of The Real.

Nelson (second from right) with Promise Of The Real.

More Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real More Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real
"I think Desert Trip, or the call that I got from Neil [Young] to play with him – that was pretty special," Lukas Nelson recalls of the pivotal festival appearance that changed everything for his band Promise Of The Real. "I'd say that's the pinnacle for me, is playing with my hero who I grew up with, and then being able to play with my dad at the same time, you know. And I grew up listening to Neil and rock'n'roll, so it's doubly special for me."

The fact that he gets to front Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real and back his musical heroes sounds just like a dream come true. "It is a dream come true," Nelson asserts. "My whole life is a dream come true. I feel very blessed."

During his Desert Trip (aka 'Oldchella') set, aptly before performing Seed Justice, Young produced a basket filled with little bags of seeds, which he then distributed throughout the front standing section, explaining, "There's a California seed law that says you can't take these seeds from one county to the next because they're organic... So I'm gonna give you some seeds and you can take the seeds wherever you want, and then go and report yourself to the police." Pointing out these seeds were "actually free", Young then cheekily added, "But if you break the law, you might not be, so keep your seeds in your pocket."

After telling Nelson it would have been tricky to get those seeds through Australian customs, he acknowledges, "Right, yeah, you've gotta declare that shit!" But had we declared random seeds at border control, we probably wouldn't be chatting to Nelson today! He laughs, "True, you'd be in jail." 

Also at Desert Trip, Young presented a poster-size placard with a heap of songs listed on either side - one side labelled "electric", the other, "acoustic" - from which he selected the songs they would play, explaining these were the songs the band had rehearsed in advance. So are there any of Young's songs that Nelson would be terrified to hear spontaneously called into the Canadian legend's set? "Ah, no, not anymore," he chuckles. "In the beginning, before I sat and we learned probably, like, a hundred songs; that was really when we knew we could do it, and we learned those songs in five days, and it felt like we knew 'em already, you know? 'Cause we'd been growing up with those songs, we definitely had a headstart." 

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Picking songs randomly and performing a different setlist every night is something Nelson believes "makes for a more impassioned performance". "I mean, it's basically all spontaneity, you know? That's the way I like to operate, at least, and I know that my heroes like to operate that way, too." 

For those who haven't heard the spiel, Desert Trip is also where Bradley Cooper first clapped eyes on Nelson, rocking out beside Young, and decided he wanted to base his A Star Is Born character, Jackson Maine, on him. "I guess he had the idea for the movie first and then he saw me and kinda wanted me to help with the authenticity of the movie, I guess you could say, musically. And so it worked," he laughs. "He did a great job with the movie and I had a lot of fun working on it. 

"I think what he really wanted to capture was the camaraderie between the band on stage and the band leader, you know? 'Cause he'd seen us with Neil, and how we interacted with Neil, and I think he was inspired by that and so he wanted to have somebody from up there help him out. And I think that was a good idea 'cause, you know, it kept a real organic feel to the movie, and the music in the movie, and it really was part of the dichotomy between the old and the new."

"My whole life is a dream come true. I feel very blessed."

When asked to provide some examples of the kinds of things Nelson helped Cooper with in terms of authenticity, he ponders, "Well, what advice did I give him? Well, certain small things like the way you hold your guitar and then there would be things like how you get down with the rest of the band and how you kinda get low in certain parts, like being on a soccer team or a sports team, you know? You've gotta just sort of really link telepathically with the band around you and I think he captured that sort of connection between band members with the Promise Of The Real."

As well as appearing with Promise Of The Real in the film, Nelson also wound up co-writing many of the songs that feature in the soundtrack. He co-wrote some of these songs with Lady Gaga who, in turn, supplied some backing vocals on Promise Of The Real's 2017 self-titled album. Nelson has described his collaboration with Gaga as "really natural", the pair writing songs almost telepathically. Does this happen often? "I guess it doesn't happen very often, but it happens enough," he offers, "We all speak the same language, musicians, so once you recognise someone else speaks that language it's kinda like a telepathy, you know?" 

The first scenes that were shot for A Star Is Born were filmed at Coachella in 2017, the year Lady Gaga headlined, with Warner Bros tweeting out that Coachellagoers wishing to be in the scene should dress in country-themed attire and would also need to buy a $US10 ticket (with proceeds going to Gaga's Born This Way foundation). This was also the first time Cooper sang on stage with Gaga. Other festival scenes were shot at Glastonbury (Kris Kristofferson, who starred in the 1976 version of the film with Barbra Streisand, donated four minutes of his set to the production, with Cooper then introducing Kristofferson to the stage) and Stagecoach in California (between Jamey Johnson and Willie Nelson's sets). We're tipping Cooper came off stage after these appearances thinking that he might just wanna become a full-time rockstar. "I think a part of him does," Nelson allows.

Marlon Williams also appears in A Star Is Born, after Cooper scouted the Kiwi crooner at one of his LA shows. Of Williams, Nelson tells, "I had heard of him briefly, but I was really able to meet him and hang with him [during filming] and it was really a pleasure; he's a great guy."

Nelson is a self-confessed "free spirit" and Nelson admits, "I don't like dogma, and I don't like the sort of dog-eat-dog mentality that a lot of people have on this planet, and 'me first', and if you don't get ahead by stepping on somebody else then you're gonna lose the dream. And I just don't like that mob mentality and I don't think it really makes sense in the long run. I believe in coexisting on the planet and I think that sometimes you have to give as much as you receive in order to do that.

"I just think that respect for different cultures is something that really needs to be preserved, and not just in our country, but in the whole world. And celebration of our differences instead of blaming them for our problems."

After it's pointed out that his words are timely given the Change The Date protests that occurred around the country in relation to Australia Day, Nelson opines, "We should definitely go out of our way to make sure that cultures realise that our wounds between us aren't fresh, you know? We should go out of our way to make these people feel good and taken care of in our society since we stole everything from them." 

He's very vocal on his socials about injustice, often reading out personal statements from sheets of paper. The first gig that Promise Of The Real played with Neil Young was actually at the protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, where his dad also performed. "That's right, up in Nebraska," Nelson remembers. 

On whether his dad has offered him much advice over the years, Nelson contemplates, "Well, he gave me advice but he was very careful to let me pave my own path, I think. You know, if I asked for it he'd give it to me but he let me be my own person and make my own mistakes, I guess, and do my own thing. Luckily I didn't make too many mistakes; I just made enough to where I could grow." 

While trying to recall his first-ever public performance, Nelson confesses, "Um, I can't remember, I was too young, haha. It must've been–maybe I was four or five years old, I can't remember. I'd go out and play percussion in dad's band and then I remember as I got older I'd sing one or two – he always got us [Lukas and his brother Micah] to get up on stage and sorta play if we felt like we had something to say." 

Considering Nelson has been surrounded by music pretty much since the womb, we're curious to hear one of his earliest memories of being moved by song. "Well, I remember connecting to this song my dad used to sing to me from Red Headed Stranger. And it was, um, [bursts into song and sounds exactly like his dad], 'Don't cross him/Don't boss him/He's wild in his sorrow/He's ridin' and hidin' his pain' – it's Red Headed Stranger, so that's probably what my first [musical] memory is."