There are times in life when an artist creates something so unique and so special, it’s simply hard to let it go. It’s not unusual of course; sequels are borne from that exact proposition. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real applied that precise proposition when it came to their new album, Naked Garden, effectively spinning off from the effort that came before, 2019’s Turn Off the News. Looking back, that set of songs had a prescient title, one that now offers apt advice at a time when every day brings more and more worries and reports of increasing casualties from the deadly effects coronavirus
To be sure, Nelson’s intent wasn’t to dwell on those warnings when the band conceived of the new album. Far from it. Promise of the Real was so enthused about the vibe and vitality they found in those earlier sessions that they chose to simply celebrate the results by offering outtakes, early versions and various tracks written during those same sessions. It is a sequel of sorts, a companion piece that provides added insights into the group’s creative process, even to the extent of including studio chatter and impromptu dialogue that allows the listener to be a veritable fly on the wall while listening in to the proceedings.
“We’re not necessarily revisiting anything,” Nelson explained, speaking by phone from his home in central Texas where he’s been ensconced since the pandemic forced the group to cancel a planned worldwide tour. “We recorded everything at once and put it out in parts. These songs all came from the same sessions. We went into a big production mode with that last one, but for this, we decided to keep it as sparse and raw as we could. Hence the title, Naked Garden. It was kind of inspired by the later take on the Let It Be album, Let It Be Naked. It’s a Basement Tapes kind of thing. That was kind of the intent.”
At the same time, Nelson was eager to capture some sense of spontaneity. “When we left those sessions, it was like ‘Man, we already have the record.’ But we had produced that first record a lot more. This is it in its untouched form. Some of my favorite songs from those sessions were saved for the next release, and now here it is.”
Not surprisingly, a double album was considered, but in the end, at the record company’s behest, they opted to put it out as two releases instead.
“It meant we didn’t have to go back into the studio and we could put out some new product now, which is kind of amazing, especially at this time,” Nelson says. “The band’s out of work. We can’t tour and that’s their bread and butter.”
Nelson himself isn’t complaining however. Like everyone else, he’s simply trying to make the most of his time while sequestered from a terrible situation.
“We’re pretty lucky,” he admits. “I’ve got my family around. We’re doing some podcasts. I’m writing new songs, I’m tending the garden, we’ve got our horses. I’m pretty grateful. We’re just waiting it out here.”
He said that he’s currently committed to reading Homer’s “Odyssey,” and that he’s so enthralled by the book that he’s been inspired to write a song. “There are allegories in it that can be used today,” he muses. “It’s pretty cool.”
Of course, as most people realize, Lukas is one of Willie Nelson’s offspring, which seemed to make his decision to follow in his father’s footsteps seem something of a given, at least as far as the outside world was concerned. Promise of the Real has also achieved distinction as one of Neil Young’s ongoing backing bands.
“It was right around the same time I started liking girls,” he jokes when asked about his motivation. “Nah, I’m just kidding. I was probably ten or eleven, and I asked my dad one year what he wanted for his birthday. And he said, ‘You know, it would make me very happy if you learned to play guitar.’ So I took that to heart. It was something I could connect to my dad with. I also realized that if I could get really good at it, I could be with him all the time. He was always leaving to go on tour, and I wished that I could go with him. So by the time I was 12 or 13, I was sitting in with his band. I ended up playing in his band for 18 years. Then I started writing my own stuff and got pretty good at guitar. When I was 12 years old, I wrote my first song. It was called ‘You Are It,’ and my dad liked it so much, he put it on one of his records. It was a pretty damn good song, and I realized I had a knack for writing. So I made it my focus and I started honing in on that skill, and gave myself time to develop it. By the time I was 13 or 14, I started focusing on my voice and learning how to sing. I put hours a day into each of those different skills. But writing has always been my ace in the hole. It’s something I know I can do. It comes pretty naturally.”
Even so, Nelson insists that the option of going into the family business wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. “When I was ten or eleven, I didn’t think about it that much, not until it became a passion,” he reflects. “When I was working on my skills, I had other dreams also. I was on the swim team and I was really into competitive swimming. I was a skateboarder for awhile. I kind of played around with a lot of different things. I was really into science, mathematics, different things. So it took me a while to hone into what I wanted to do. I always wanted to develop my skills for my own pleasure and enjoyment. Eventually it dawned on me that it would be best to make this my life’s journey and make it a job because it would really be a pretty lucky thing.”
Nelson is a singular artist of course, but when you’re Willy Nelson’s son, that description takes on special meaning. After all, like any child of an indelible icon, expectations are inevitable.
“I don’t really think about it too much,” Nelson responds. “I just sort of do my thing. I work really hard. I’m sort of separate from dad in everything but love. I don’t rely on him for anything. I took it upon myself to do this because I figured it would help me in my own search for meaning. I’ve taken care of myself from early on because I knew that it would make me feel better, and that whatever I achieved wouldn’t be anyone’s doing except mine. So I figured I’d better learn to take care of myself and just work hard to do what I have to do. There’s no substitute for focusing on the music, focusing on what you have to do with your life, and just working your ass off. But I’ve been doing that for a long time, and when people come to my show, it’s never like ‘Hey, play one of your dad’s songs!’ If I do play one of his songs, it’s because I want to. I love my dad’s music. I’ll play a show of my dad’s songs at some point down the line, but in the meantime, he’s out there playing and I play with him as much as I can. We love each other and it’s really not a big deal. It’s almost like I could turn the question around. It’s how people perceive me and that’s really up to them. Every new record I put out solidifies my place in the industry because they’re different. I wouldn’t be where I am without my father and his inspiration, but it’s really just a continuation of what this crazy life is about.”
It’s mentioned that one song on the new album, “Focus on the Music,” seems to sum those sentiments up entirely. Nelson notes that it happens to be his favorite track. “I wrote it in a moment of vulnerability,” he says. “It’s really funny when songs take on new meanings as time goes by. I can look at it and say,’Wow, that’s why I wrote that song” although I didn’t even know it at the time.”
Ultimately, Nelson has no doubts that he’s doing what he was meant to do. “There’s a lot of things to worry about, but I’m pretty confident in my own abilities as a musician and a songwriter and a performer,” he insists. “Sometimes insecurities can come into play and maybe I have them with other things. But with making music, I don’t.”