Since forming 10 years ago, the buzz surrounding Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real has been quietly intensifying. During that time, the 28-year old singer/songwriter/guitarist and his bandmates have played hundreds of shows and major festivals all over the world and built a devoted underground following. Lukas’ profile continued to rise when he contributed three songs and heavenly vocals to his dad Willie Nelson’s 2012 album, Heroes, their voices blending with potent DNA. Then two years later, life took another turn skyward when Neil Young decided to make Promise of the Real his touring and studio band. Young has guided the grateful young musicians ever since as they’ve backed the legend on tour around the world and on his two most recent albums.
These experiences were undoubtedly invaluable, but none of what has come before will prepare you for the cosmic country soul of Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, the band’s new, self-titled album, a mesmerizing, emotionally genuine, endlessly rewarding work set for release on Fantasy Records. From the epic “Set Me Down on a Cloud” to the climactic “If I Started Over,” the album delivers one sublime song and inspired performance after another.
“I knew I had a lot of good songs that transcended the cultural boundaries between rock & roll and country,” Lukas says of his vision for the album. “I wanted to get the songs as pure as they could be. We owe a lot to Neil; we made this record after coming off the road with him for two years. Neil’s been mentoring us, and we’ve been absorbing that energy, and I think it shows. We got acclimated to a different level of artistic expression. We’ve grown.”
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, produced by song-shaping specialist John Alagia (numerous Dave Matthews Band LPs, John Mayer’s Room for Squares) was recorded at The Village Studios in West Los Angeles. Promise of the Real’s six-piece line-up now includes longtime bandmates Tato Melgar (percussion), Anthony LoGerfo (drums) and Corey McCormick (bass, vocals) along with new members Jesse Siebenberg (steel guitars, Farfisa organ, vocals) and Alberto Bof (piano, Wurlitzer, Hammond B3). Stefani “Lady Gaga” Germanotta (who convincingly plays the role of Bonnie to Lukas’ Delaney) added her signature vocals to the rousing “Carolina” and “Find Yourself,” while Jess Wolfe and Holly Lessig of the Brooklyn-based indie-pop duo Lucius provide backing vocals on five of the 12 tracks, evoking Exile on Main St.’s ecstatic, gospel-rooted harmonies.
The band’s many influences can be discerned in the opening track, “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” a soulful country rocker that features Lucius’ spiritual vocals and an extended solo underscores Lukas’ tasteful guitar virtuosity.
The lilting, pastoral “Just Outside of Austin” features a guitar solo from Willie, while Lukas’ 86-year-old Aunt Bobbi plays piano. “It’s a love letter to Austin, something like Roger Miller or Glen Campbell would write,” he said.
“Runnin’ Shine,” one of the album’s first-person character studies, is written from the perspective of a young moonshiner trying to outsmart the law while hurtling along Appalachian back roads in a souped-up car loaded with homemade booze. “Perspective is huge,” says Lukas. “If you’re able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and you can relate to them, it’s really hard to hate them, even if you don’t agree with how they live their life.”
Two of the album’s most breathtaking songs, “Find Yourself” and “Forget About Georgia,” vividly retrace the turbulent final stages and bittersweet aftermath of the same doomed love affair. “After the relationship ended, I had to play Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” every night when I was on the road with my dad, which made it literally impossible to forget about her.” Introduced by a wistful four-note guitar lick that reoccurs throughout the arrangement, “Forget About Georgia” unfolds to a “Layla”-like outpouring of romantic yearning, as the band stretches out behind Lukas’ emotional guitar soloing. Not surprisingly, it’s Young’s favorite song on the album.
Inspired by the big ballads of Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, Lukas delivers a full-throttle vocal on the closing track, “If I Started Over,” at once a cosmic rumination and a rapturous expression of romantic devotion. “The song is asking, what if, after we die, we just come back? What if we have to do the same dream again until we learn the right lessons?”
A seasoned veteran at 28, Austin-born Lukas grew up in Maui, while spending much of his time during school breaks in his hometown and on the road with his dad. “I had a lot of passions growing up,” he says. “I played soccer, I was on the swim team, living a Maui lifestyle, surfing and skateboarding. I also loved singing and wrote my first song when I was 11. I became obsessed with guitar, playing eight to 10 hours a day. I knew what I wanted to do from a super-young age, and I made my life about it.” He and his brother Micah played in bands together in high school, and they struck up a friendship with Uruguay-born Tato Melgar, a skilled musician then making his living as a landscaper, who taught the brothers the basics of drumming.
In 2007, Lukas headed to the mainland to attend L.A.’s Loyola Marymount University. A year later, after meeting LoGerfo at a Neil Young concert, he dropped out of school and started a band with LoGerfo, Melgar and original bassist Merlyn Kelly; he named it Promise of the Real, referencing a line in Young’s 1973 song “Walk On”: “Sooner or later it all gets real.” When McCormick joined two years later on bass, the POTR lineup was set. The band woodshedded; averaging more than 200 shows a year. Drawing on Lukas’ lineage as well surrogate uncles like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and the classic rock and roll of J.J. Cale, The Band, Clapton era Delaney and Bonnie and of course mentor Neil Young, they began to develop their own distinctive style of American music.
Young befriended the band after checking them out at Farm Aid several years back. “Neil got in touch after that, and we started talking by email,” Lukas recounts. “Eventually, he asked us to record with him. So we recorded The Monsanto Years and played some shows together, and we fell in love with each other musically, one thing led to another and we became Neil’s band.
“What’s happened with us feels similar to the career trajectory of The Band,” he continues. “They were already a great band when they started working with Dylan, who lifted them up, which is similar to what Neil’s done for us. He’s also given people a chance to hear what we’re doing and what our own songs have to offer. Then we played the Desert Trip with Neil, along with Paul McCartney, the Stones, the Who and Dylan. That was incredible.”
Those two weekends in Indio last October turned out to be extremely fortuitous. “We met Lucius at Desert Trip,” says Lukas. “They were playing with Roger Waters—and still are. Then they came to the Bridge School Benefit, where we really got to know them. I love Jess and Holly—they really enhance the record.”
Bradley Cooper also saw Lukas play at Desert Trip, and right afterward contacted a mutual friend about helping him on the new film he’s directing and starring in, a remake of A Star is Born. “At first I was just helping him out, and then I started writing with Stefani (Lady Gaga), who’s in the movie. We connected and she and I became really close. I got very involved in this film and ended up bringing the band into it as well.”
Coming of age in a celebrated musical family, Lukas Nelson learned early on that true originality is hard won, never given. Doubtlessly blessed with a measure of musical ability, it’s clear that his natural gifts have been honed by a singular devotion to craft and a deep appreciation for the sacrifice a creative life requires. Elated by the way things have come together so beautifully, Lukas is gratified that POTR have earned this moment and seized the opportunities that have led to this album—all perfectly capturing what he’d heard in his head 18 months earlier.
“It’s just amazing how things have flowed,” Lukas marvels. “It feels divine in a way.”
Nikki Lane’s stunning third album Highway Queen, out February 17th, 2017, sees the young Nashville singer emerge as one of country and rock’s most gifted songwriters. Co-produced by Lane and fellow singer-songwriter, Jonathan Tyler, this emotional tour-de-force was recorded at Matt Pence’s Echo Lab studio in Denton, Texas as well as at Club Roar with Collin Dupuis in Nashville, Tennessee. Blending potent lyrics, unbridled blues guitars and vintage Sixties country-pop swagger, Lane’s new music will resonate as easily with Lana Del Rey and Jenny Lewis fans as those of Neil Young and Tom Petty.
Highway Queen is a journey through heartbreak that takes exquisite turns. The record begins with a whiskey-soaked homage to Lane’s hometown (“700,000 Rednecks”) and ends on the profoundly raw “Forever Lasts Forever,” where Lane mourns a failed marriage – the “lighter shade of skin” left behind from her wedding ring. On “Forever” and the confessional “Muddy Waters,” Lane’s lyrics align her with perceptive songwriters like Nick Lowe and Cass McCombs. Elsewhere, “Companion” is pure Everly Brothers’ dreaminess (“I would spend a lifetime/ Playing catch you if I can”). She goes on a Vegas bender on the rollicking “Jackpot,” fights last-call blues (“Foolish Heart”) and tosses off brazen one-liners at a backroom piano (“Big Mouth”).
“Love is the most unavoidable thing in the world,” Lane says. “The person you pick could be half set-up to destroy your life with their own habits – I’ve certainly experienced that before and taken way too long to get out of that mistake.”
In 2014, Lane’s second album All or Nothin’ (New West) solidified her sandpaper voice beneath a ten-gallon hat as the new sound and look of outlaw country music. Produced by Dan Auerbach, the record’s bluesy Western guitars paired with Lane’s Dusty Springfield-esque voice earned glowing reviews from NPR, the Guardian and Rolling Stone. In three years since her Walk of Shame debut, Lane said she was living most of the year on the road.
Growing up, Lane used to watch her father pave asphalt during blistering South Carolina summers. She’d sit on the roller (“what helps smooth out the asphalt”) next to a guy named Rooster and divvy out Hardee’s lunch orders for the workers. “My father thought he was a country singer,” Lane laughs. “He partied hard at night, but by 6:30 AM he was out on the roads in 100-degree weather.” That’s the southern work ethic, she says. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but I was privileged with the knowledge of how to work hard, how to learn and to succeed when things aren’t set up for me.” Creativity was an unthinkable luxury, she adds. “When people told me I should try to get a record deal for songs I was writing, I was like, ‘that’s cute – I’ve got to be at work at 10 A.M.’”
“Becoming a songwriter is one of the most selfish things I’ve ever done,” Lane says plainly. She describes writing her first song at age 25 like it was a necessary act of self-preservation after a devastating breakup. Many of her early songs, she said on Shame and Nothin’, were about the fleetingness of relationships she believed were permanent, she says. Lane’s main line of work in those days was a fashion entrepreneur (she’s currently the owner of Nashville’s vintage clothing boutique High Class Hillbilly). It brought her to cities around the country, New York to Los Angeles to Nashville. And like a true wanderer, Lane’s sound crisscrosses musical genres with ease, while the lonesome romantic in her remains. Even a soft song like, “Send The Sun,” with its lilting downward strum, is flush with bittersweet emotion. “Darling, we’re staring at the same moon,” Lane sings lovingly. “I used to say that to my ex,” she says with cheerful stoicism, “to try to brighten the long nights, stay positive.”
Highway Queen is poised to be Lane’s mainstream breakthrough. “Am I excited to spend years of my life in a van, away from family and friends? No, but I’m excited to share my songs, so they’ll reach people and help them get through whatever they’re going through. To me, that’s worth it.”
“Lay You Down” is one of those unexpected moments for Lane. “That song was inspired by something Levon Helm’s wife posted on Facebook when he was sick with cancer,” Lane says. “I was just so moved by her telling the world how much love he felt from people writing to them, and moved that because of the Internet, I was able to see that love – even from a distance.” The song became surreal for Lane and her band when her longtime guitarist, Alex Munoz, was diagnosed with cancer while they were playing it. “It deepened my perspective and the importance of keeping everyone safe,” says Lane.
On the record cover, Lane looks out on wide, unowned Texan plains, leaning on the fearsome horns of a massive steer. Wearing a vintage Victorian dress, the stark photo invokes a time before highways existed. The symbolism isn’t lost on Lane. Highway Queen was a pioneering moment for her as an artist.
“I was always a smart girl, always had to yell to be heard,” she says, “But this was the first time in my career where I decided how things were going to go; I was willing to take the heat.” Lane included the bonus track “Champion” as a small testament to that empowerment. “It makes a point,” Lane says with a smile, “That I appreciate what you’re saying, but get the fuck out of my way.”
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