Who is Lukas Nelson? It’s a question without a simple or singular answer.
“I’m just wearing the one hat today” he says, both literally and metaphorically, a wide-brimmed nod to his various roles as a frontman, band leader, songwriter and musical consultant. We’re backstage at Black Deer Festival in the UK, where he’ll shortly perform a set on the main stage with his band, Promise of the Real, ahead of the release of new album Sticks & Stones on 14th July.
Those who know Lukas will tell you that he can be a man of few words – sometimes none. He’s certainly a man of deliberately chosen words. Musicians often describe themselves as ‘speaking’ music. It’s the ones who don’t – like Lukas – for whom the description is perhaps most accurate: he’s a doer of music and speaks it by proxy.
“I work hard. I’m singularly focused on writing music and wanting to write good songs that connect with people,” he shares. “I have my influences from how I grew up [for the completely uninitiated he is of course the son of Willie Nelson] and they’re varied. I take what I grew up with and I put it together with my experience and out pours my music. I’m a musician, singer, performer, songwriter, producer. Whatever you want.”
What about philosophical? His songs have always carried the air of considered wisdom, variously suggesting their listeners turn off the news and build a garden, wondering where love goes when it dies, and warning of the need to find yourself before finding a lover. “I guess so,” he replies. Do people ask him for advice? “At their own peril,” he laughs. “I find that I can easily get into a conversation that’s mutually enlightening. You can learn from anyone if you’ve got the right mindset”.
It’s plain to see how he’d find himself in deep conversation even at the lightest of times. There is something slightly otherworldly about him, both by nature of the life he’s lived – he admits later that he had his first kiss on the White House lawn – and by his very demeanour. He speaks slowly, greeting everyone with a genuinely delighted smile, taking hands in both of his, repeating everyone’s name back to them. His eyes are narrow, fixing in on you so tightly that you can’t help but hone in on them with the same intensity.
He appears sometimes childlike, sometimes wizened, neither of which match his actual age of 34. It’s fitting for the new album, which is designed to capture an entire spectrum. “The album is a very joyful celebration of the width and breadth of the human experience, from the depths of depravity to where we are now or where you might be after you come out of the darkness,” he explains. “It’s one of the more fun records I’ve ever been a part of.”
It certainly is fun. From the opening guitar lick of title track, ‘Sticks & Stones’, Lukas and the band remind you that their roots in country music run deep but they are, at their heart, a rock band, helped along by Lukas’ lead voice and a lead guitar. The album’s not just fun but funny too. There’s the wink of a duet, ‘More Than Friends’, with country music’s current it-girl Lainey Wilson, who was top of Lukas’ list to guest on the track.
‘Icarus’ tells the story of a man chasing simple joys against the chagrin of a mother who’d rather he settle down. “Grab the bull by the horns, shear them sheep, milk them heifers baby teat by teat / A little hard work never did no wrong / But who you gonna love when the evening comes?” the track asks. “Always keep a light in your pocket / Never know when you’ll need a fire under your ass” warns ‘Overpass’.
And then there’s ‘Alcohallelujah’. It’s not the kind of title you’d expect to hear on a Lukas Nelson record, but that’s because there’s always more below the veneer, just as there’s always more behind the doors of the Broadway honky tonks you’d expect such a song title to be roared through.
“‘Alcohallelujah’ is not a ‘want-to-drink’ word,” he explains. “It’s an exclamation. The story is about a guy whose life is falling apart. The bar is his church, he’s clinging on to something that probably won’t work out in the end. But it can be interpreted any way - you could say ‘alcohallelujah’ the minute you get sober. I’ve got a lot of friends who are sober and they still like the song. A lot of the great stories are told by people who’ve been through it and lived through it. This is just one of those”.
Is it Lukas’ story? “I stopped drinking,” he says. “I had a really bad experience when I was about 21, 22 – I almost died. Quit for a long time. Balanced my whole life out. That’s what that song is about. It’s about those days, and the song was also a snapshot of that time. I still drink here and there but very little and not to excess”.
His musical influences extend into the past, just as the songs do. He reels off a list of music that helps him to relax, which includes Chopin (specifically Arthur Rubinstein’s interpretations), John Coltrane, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, attributing his Italian roots to his affection for the latter two.
“I like all kinds of music but I tend to lean on the older stuff”, he says. His affinity for the past is perhaps what makes him feel at home in the UK, where he’s been touring. “I like the history, all the buildings are super old, the old pubs. That whole vibe is super cool”, he says, though he’s quick to add “I definitely see a lot of youthful energy around, which is great”. He shouts out Wolverhampton for being a “cool musical crowd” who knew best when to sing along and when to listen.
He points to track ‘Flying’ as “representative of where I’m at now in my life, where I’m just happy being in one place a lot of the time, which is not how I always was”. It’s one of the album’s quieter acoustic moments, where he sings “I just wanna be up on a mountain / Lying near a rocky stream where the water’s clear and blue / I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish that I was lying here with you”.
As homeward bound as it sounds, he reassures that there’s no suggestion he’s ready to abandon the road just yet. “I’ve grown up this way,” he explains. “It is nice to be in one place if you can. The road gets harder as you get older, I think. When you’re younger it’s a little easier. But I’m 34 years old, I’m still young and I still have a lot of energy, but I do have a home and I have dogs and I look forward to coming home when I can”.
It’s that energy that carries through the album. “I wrote a lot of these songs on the road in 2021,” he says. “[It was] the first tour that we came back into after covid. We came out and I noticed a lot of people wanted to dance and have fun and just forget about the world that we’d just been in. A Few Stars Apart was a very introspective, quiet record. I felt that I couldn’t play a lot of those songs live because people wanted to dance so I had to pull a lot of the old rockers out. That’s why I wrote an album chock-full of country rockers.”
Does he think it’s easy to feel joy in today’s world, where avoiding the news becomes a lesson in survival rather than a passive choice? “It depends on your mindset, I suppose,” he ponders. “Everything’s about how you look at it. You can take one thing and look at it a hundred different ways. I think joy is just a choice that you make.”
With that he heads to the main stage, where he remains true to his word. The weather is utterly miserable, opening up to drench the crowds. And Lukas? He simply throws off his hat in jubilation and plays on.
Sticks & Stones is out on Friday 14th July via 6Ace Records / Thirty Tigers. For more on Lukas Nelson, see below: