After ‘A Star is Born,’ Lukas Nelson breaks out in a big way, beyond Willie’s shadow

Willie Nelson, left, and Lukas Nelson perform at the Producers & Engineers Wing 12th Annual GRAMMY Week Celebration Feb. 6, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Willie Nelson, left, and Lukas Nelson perform at the Producers & Engineers Wing 12th Annual GRAMMY Week Celebration Feb. 6, 2019, in Los Angeles. Richard Shotwell/Invision

“A Star is Born,” last year’s critically acclaimed film, racked up awards and earned Lady Gaga her first Oscar win for Best Original Song and a second nomination as Best Actress.

She wasn’t the only one to break out in a big way.

Lukas Nelson’s work in the film as a songwriter, music producer, consultant and performer helped music fans forget his famous last name and to accept him completely as an artist in his own right.

That famous last name comes from his father, legendary musician Willie Nelson. But Lukas Nelson, 30, has put in the work, spending years on the road, playing in the shadows of the stage alongside the rest of the members of the band Promise of the Real, in support of various legendary performers like B.B. King, Neil Young and of course his dad. For most musicians on the rise, the only hope they’d have to play with such superstars would be to play a hand in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame house band.

Nelson did so by showcasing skills that many guitar players would kill for. The years on the road paid off in the form of the band’s self-titled 2017 album, which earned award nominations and appearances on year-end Best-of lists across the music outlet landscape. It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart.

Nelson spent much of 2018 in his biggest role as a musician to date: as a member of Bradley Cooper’s backing band in the hit film “A Star Is Born.” Cooper originally hired him to fill the role of music consultant on the set, but after observing his chemistry with Lady Gaga in writing sessions, the director felt there was room for Lukas and Promise of the Real onscreen as well.

Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2018, Nelson said, “He looked at me and said to himself, ‘I want this guy to teach me how to present myself as a musician in this movie.’ We just had the look he was going for, and it just kind of kept going [from there].”

This image released by Warner Bros. shows Bradley Cooper, left, and Lady Gaga in a scene from the latest reboot of the film, “A Star is Born.” Surely literal goosebumps are a good sign that you’ve just seen a pretty stunning movie moment, specifically where Lady Gaga’s Ally takes a deep breath and walks out on stage to join Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine and sing her song in front of thousands of people. Warner Bros. via AP Neal Preston

Nelson ended up with numerous writing and producing credits on original songs in the film’s soundtrack, which has received accolades as well.

Nelson is one of the headliners at the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance in Pittsboro, a multi-day event May 2-5 that features dozens of acts from multiple genres across several stages. There’s also camping, food trucks, a kids area, crafts and dance and music workshops.

Previous acts have included North Carolina favorites like the Avett Brothers, Chatham County Line and Tift Merritt as well as national names like the Indigo Girls, Arrested Development and Steve Earle.

Nelson is scheduled to take the stage May 2 at 8 p.m., just before perennial headliners (and festival owners) Donna the Buffalo. They’ll introduce themselves to an audience that may not be that familiar with them yet, but history shows they make quick converts out of most.

A Star Is Born came to life for many fans in Las Vegas, Nevada, on January 26 when Bradley Cooper joined Lady Gaga on stage during her Las Vegas residency.

The News & Observer spoke with Nelson during a break in his tour schedule. Calling from his home in Hawaii, we touched on subjects ranging from Ray Charles to Lady Gaga.

Q: How do you develop a good rhythm of performance as a musician, when your tour schedule features headlining gigs — where you are expected to blow audiences away at the end of the night — contending with music festivals, where you’re going out to play and the sun is basically still up.

A: We really don’t think about that too much, as we’re usually ready to just go out there and try and do my best to play a good show, and that’s about it. I’ve got a good group of people around me that help support me through the travel, and it just kind of works better to put your head down, work hard and leave all that speculation to someone else.

Q: You are rumored to currently be working on the follow-up to your 2017 album. How has that process gone so far? Have you noticed any differences in the creative process this time around, as you have been juggling so many projects over the past year or so.

A: Writing doesn’t really take too much time for me, it just kind of happens. I don’t try and force it if it’s not there. It’s just become so I can do it really anywhere on the road.

Q: In Nashville, you’ve performed at a few special events that introduced you to new audiences in recent months. When you sing at something like the tribute to Ray Charles at the Grand Ole Opry a few months ago, do you find yourself gaining more fans through those appearances?

A: I do think that we’re slowly but surely just gathering fans from around the country, and it’s not exactly pop music the way we play what we play. A lot of people from old to young seem to really enjoy it, so that’s hopefully something sustainable that we can keep going for the remainder of our lives: just continue to gain fans, and then hopefully sell a few records as well.

Lukas Nelson and his band The Promise of the Real perform during the Americana Honors and Awards show, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. Mark Zaleski AP Photo

Q: Lady Gaga made an appearance on your last album, doing backing vocals on a few of the songs [such as hit “Find Yourself”], and you worked together in the development of the music side of “A Star is Born.” I was wondering where you first met her, during the recording of your album, or on the movie set? Also, what was it like being that involved behind the scenes on a film that ended up being one of the most popular of the year?

A: What a great time it was to work on that movie; I enjoyed it very much. I met [Gaga] before we started on the film, when we were still writing for the film, and and it was fantastic. It was just such a great experience, and I learned a lot from it.

Q: Now that you’ve experienced working in film, is working more in film something you’re interested in for the future?

A: Yeah, I think so. If the situation is right, you know, because music is first and foremost my priority.

Q: With the new album that you’re working on, are there any new influences that you’re playing with in the recording studio? Is there anything that you’re really wanting to do on the new album, when compared to the end result of the last one?

A: I think it’s just developing the production style a little more. I think it’s that these songs are a little more complete in there [than the last album’s], but I wouldn’t say they’re better or worse, though. I think it’s just an evolution of what we’ve been doing, and it feels a little more sort of Traveling Wilburys-inspired rock and roll vibe. More of a songwriter/rock ‘n’ roll is kind of what we’re aiming towards, just songs and lyrics, and really good hooks on catchy songs. Something I could have fun playing live, too.

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real play Motorco Music Hall in Durham on Sunday, Nov. 12. Jacob Blickenstaff

Q: When that last album was released, it felt like you had a ton of things going on at the same time as you were expected to be out promoting it. You were working with Neil Young as his backing band on his tour that year, and you’ve worked with your dad for years on his tours, but then you’re expected to go out full time with the band to get the word out on the album. Once it’s time to really get behind the next album, do you think you’ll have to tap the brakes on some of those other projects this time around?

A: I think that we’ve made it work so far, just doing it all, and I think that we’ll continue to do all that.


What: Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance

When: May 2-5. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real is scheduled to take the stage May 2 at 8 p.m.,

Where: Shakori Hills, 1439 Henderson Tanyard Rd., Pittsboro

Cost: Tickets start at $40, depending on the day. Prices differ for camping and children as well as multi-day passes.

Info: ShakoriHillsGrassRoots.org or 919-542-8142

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