If the world goes to shit, Lukas Nelson wants to make sure he has a way to listen to his record collection. The country-rock scion is so invested in the physical product that he and his band Promise of the Real were adamant about recording their new album with producer Dave Cobb, A Few Stars Apart, on analog tape. Because as Nelson tells it — and hacker attacks against beef plants and pipelines prove — technology is anything but reliable.
“If technology were to take a dive, how would you listen to recorded music? Everything’s on the cloud. I’d like to at least have my music live in the real world so that if I was stumbling around a post-apocalyptic landscape, I’d be able to find a record player and play it,” Nelson says, grabbing the worst-case Mad Max scenario and running with it. “And then I’d have the tape of the original masters, so that if I really had a hard time and all of my records got destroyed, at least I’d be able to have that tape. I could break into a post-apocalyptic press plant and press my own vinyl. It wouldn’t be lost in the ether of the servers.”
Nelson’s imagination, as you might gather, is an active one. And so is he. When he calls Rolling Stone from his home in Maui to talk about A Few Stars Apart, out Friday, the 32-year-old has just finished building a shed for an outdoor water heater. It’s one of a multitude of improvements he’s made during the pandemic, which he navigated at the Austin-area home of his country-legend father Willie Nelson and mother Annie. Together, they’d play dominoes every day and sing songs with his brother Micah, sometimes posting them online as part of their Quarantunes Evening Sessions.
In the off hours, Lukas Nelson challenged himself to look inward.
“I realized that when this thing started, I needed to go on a little bit of a retreat. I started meditating twice a day. I went on a certain fast, a very, very strict diet. I made sure to do 100 pushups every day. I learned a Chopin piece on piano. Every day when I woke up, after I meditated, I would spend at least an hour on that,” Nelson says. He also read a lot, including Homer’s Odyssey and a book about harnessing sexual energy by the Taoist teacher Mantak Shia. “I was trying to discover a mastery of myself that I had no time to learn before.”
Nelson wrote songs too. Twenty-five of them were “good ones,” he says. When the pandemic cooled a bit, he called up Dave Cobb, whom he met while working on the 2018 film A Star Is Born, booked time at RCA Studio A for October 2020, and rented a bus to take Promise of the Real to Tennessee.
“We did a little surgical strike into Nashville. We snuck in and snuck out,” he says.
Over two weeks he and the band — drummer Anthony LoGerfo, bassist Corey McCormick, percussionist Tato Melgar, and pianist/multi-instrumentalist Logan Metz — pared down those 25 “good ones” into a tight, final 11. The finished product is Nelson’s most compact, streamlined, and focused album yet. While his fast and fluid guitar playing rears its head, especially on the Tom Petty jangle of “Wildest Dreams,” A Few Stars Apart is, by design, a songwriter’s record.
“I have a feeling that people really resonate with songs and lyrics, and when you can connect in that way, I think that it’s almost a deeper connection because you’re actually speaking to someone in their soul,” Nelson says. “Then you use the guitar as a tool to accentuate and bring more emotion to what the melody and the lyrics are doing.”
Opening track “We’ll Be Alright” is a softly strummed campfire ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on Red Headed Stranger. (Nelson’s voice and phrasing sound particularly like his dad’s on the song.) “Leave Em Behind” has shades of CSN&Y in its plucked intro and harmonies. And “More Than We Can Handle” is a gentle prayer, methodically moving forward on a brushed snare and Nelson’s hopeful gamble that “God won’t give us more than we can handle.” If he’s wrong? “At least we’ve got each other,” he sings.
Nelson doesn’t subscribe to a particular religion — he thinks of “God” as a “power that unifies everything” — but spirituality permeates his work, especially the title track of A Few Stars Apart. He wrote it in honor of Nancy Meola, a family friend of the Nelsons, the mother of songwriter Lily Meola, and the longtime assistant to the music manager and Hawaii resident Shep Gordon. Meola died in June 2020 after a battle with cancer.
“Her loss was probably the peak of despair for us during the pandemic. I was in Austin and we couldn’t be in Maui at the time. We couldn’t see her. My mom, being one of her best friends, couldn’t see her,” Nelson says.
Nelson was outside in Texas looking up at the sky and talking on the phone with a friend when Meola passed. Before he learned of her death, he remembers telling his friend on the end of the line, “We’re just a few stars apart.” A new song was born.
“I feel like it was Nancy’s spirit writing the song,” he says of the piano ballad, which ends with Nelson repeating, “You’re not alone” over and over. “It’s Nancy telling us, ‘That’s where I live now. Don’t worry.’ That title track shaped the energy of the whole album.”
After spending lockdown in Texas, Nelson is back in Hawaii. At least for the time being. Plans are afoot to tour behind A Few Stars Apart, and Promise of the Real will launch the record with four intimate shows in June in Boulder, Colorado, Chicago, Nashville, and Austin. He says that Willie is healthy and ready for his return to the road as well.
“He’s really doing great. And he’s excited to get back too. I mean, that’s what he does,” Nelson says, contemplating the influence of his dad, his mom, and the woman he referred to as a “second mom,” Meola. “I got lucky in that I had a lot of good mentors in life.”
Later tonight, Nelson will go back outside for his nightly appointment with the stars. He recently bought an 8-inch telescope and promised himself he’d spend a few minutes every evening gazing upward. “I’m really into it, looking for UFOs and stuff,” he says.
By both looking up and inward, Nelson discovered the path to making an album that could be both personal and universal. And if the apocalypse comes, he has it all on tape.