Interview: Lukas Nelson Finds Inspiration in Stillness for New Promise of the Real Album ‘A Few Stars Apart’
In March of 2020, Lukas Nelson moved back in with his family.
The COVID-19 pandemic was shutting down much of the United States, including the music industry. Nelson could have booked it back to Hawaii, but leaving his parents — country icon Willie Nelson, who is now 88, and his wife Annie — "would [have made me] feel like a real piece of s--t," he admits with a chuckle.
"I mean, a lot of people were stuck away from their families and didn't know what to do. So I just consider myself extremely lucky to have been with them at the time that this all went down," the younger Nelson reflects. "In a way, it was divine timing that I could be with them, and it gave me a really great chance to spend more time with them, consecutively, than I had spent in a long time."
In addition to his legendary father and his mom, Nelson's quarantine group included his younger brother Micah, who performs as Particle Kid. Put three touring musicians in one place — especially during a global pandemic, when doing much of anything outside our homes involved quite a bit of uncertainty — could have proved to be a difficult situation, but Nelson says despite a bit of early "whiplash," it went very well.
"I mean, we're pretty adaptable people," he reflects. "I think people who like to travel a lot tend to be more adaptable — especially travel like we do. You know, we're really at home everywhere you can lay your hat."
It also helped that Nelson, as he admits, "really needed a break." He was "starting to feel fatigued" from a busy few years: Since 2016, he'd released three albums with his band Promise of the Real, one with legendary singer-songwriter Neil Young and a soundtrack for a Daryl Hannah film (Paradox), and worked as a musician, producer and actor for the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga remake of A Star Is Born and its accompanying soundtrack, to say nothing of tour dates.
Still, Nelson says, he "wanted to make the best of the situation" and was ready to be as creative and productive as he could while hunkered down with his family. "I felt like I had a lot of time on my hands that I never had before, and I wanted to use it wisely," he says.
Nearly immediately, Nelson started songwriting, first inspired by Homer's Odyssey, which he'd been reading. "But then, once I started writing, I got really into a zone, and I started writing about, sort of, everything that we were going through and experiencing," he notes.
"It wasn't literal, necessarily — it was more about, like, questions I'm asking myself in my soul: Can I be still? Am I happy being still?" Nelson continues. "You know, these are questions that I never even really considered, because I didn't see a way off the the wheel, so to speak."
Nelson and his band Promise of the Real's newest album, A Few Stars Apart — released on Friday (June 11) — is a product of that questioning. Though its songs are not entirely from Nelson's pandemic writing sessions, several reflect his answers and the skills and tools he picked up that will help him "keep my peace and my inner stillness ... and also make decisions that are more conducive to being healthy ... and making sure that I can play music for a really long time."
"Leave 'Em Behind," which will likely remind listeners of Neil Young, speaks of extricating yourself from toxic people and moving past previous traumas with the support of trustworthy loved ones and friends. "My only hope is that somebody may hear that song and suddenly find within themselves the power to do that," Nelson says of the song, which urges its protagonist — a woman caught in an unhealthy relationship — "If you love yourself, you gotta leave 'em behind."
"More Than We Can Handle," meanwhile, tells the story of a couple who lose everything in a flood — everything, that is, except each other. Listeners will hear shades of Nelson's father in his voice as he sings about the pair's optimism and determination to find a way through tough times together.
"No matter what happens around them," Nelson explains, "they will just do the best they can. And if they can't handle it and they fail, well, at least they'll go down hand in hand with love."
Promise of the Real met up with producer Dave Cobb at Nashville's RCA Studio A in October to record A Few Stars Apart. Nelson didn't mind spending that time mentally going back to the early days of the pandemic, he says; in fact, for him, that wasn't a bad place to be.
"[At that time], I was meditating twice a day and having dinner with my parents and playing poker with my dad ... and so playing all these songs live will really be, I think, an uplifting thing for me," Nelson reasons, "because the whole period of time that I was quote-unquote stuck at home, I was very, very at peace."
Nelson has realized that he could be — that he wants to be — one of those people who can not only be still, but thrive with quiet time. Like the couple in "More Than We Can Handle," he's ready to focus on the good things he's already got.
"I'm not the person who wants more and more and more," he says. "I just want to cultivate what I have and make it bloom really, really well and beautifully."