Over the last year, Lukas Nelson and his band, Promise of the Real, have released songs that feel like they serve as a salve at a perfect time. In 2019, they released “Turn Off the News,” and the album Turn Off The News (Build a Garden), a song and album concerned with the here and now, and how, eventually, too much information and time on our devices and being sucked into meaningless things on social media leaves you feeling empty, and unable to enact any change. This year, during the early days of COVID-19, his band released Turn Off The News’s companion album, Naked Garden, with a song called “Focus On the Music” as its centerpiece, a song about how even when everything else in the world has gone to shit, there’s at least your record collection there to keep you company.
“I wrote that song with the feeling that at the time, OK, maybe I was bummed out about a girl or something, and whatever I was bummed out about, it could be that the world is falling apart around you, but what kind of... What's always there when I need it? And it's music,” Nelson tells me from the Nelson family ranch down in Texas. “I can always turn to it. Whether I didn't have any arms or legs, I could still sing. If I didn't have a voice to speak, I could still write. It's always there, music. Life is music, basically, so it's a really nice place of solace I can go to, and I think a lot of people can relate to that sentiment.”
Naked Garden is every bit as powerful as Turn Off The News, but it’s got a looser vibe, drawing inspiration from the Beatles’ Let It Be...Naked and Willie Nelson’s Naked Willie as signposts for how to make albums that strip back the artifice of the studio, and present the songs in their most forward way. Featuring eight originals from the News recording sessions, and seven alternate takes and B-sides, Naked Garden showcases Promise of the Real as one of the finest big screen heartland rock bands working today, with no strings, and no magician’s tricks. They’re just a rock band making great songs and great records.
We called Nelson recently to talk about the album, what his band is doing after COVID-19 passes, and how leaving in studio talkback both demystifies and shows the magic of recording sessions.
VMP: Last time we talked, I don't know if you remember this, we talked about your favorite Willie Nelson album being Naked Willie. And it just struck me that your current record is Naked Garden, so was that like a direct inspiration, or no?
Lukas Nelson: It is a direct inspiration, and also Let It Be... Naked, that's another direct inspiration, and so between the two of those, I'd say it's just a stripped down sort of record. The idea is to put it in its raw form.
During that interview, you also said that you guys recorded like 35 songs when you were doing the sessions for Turn Off The News. Were these songs largely from those sessions? When you guys were recording, did you conceive of the Naked Garden as being part two to that other record, or was it an entirely different thing, these songs were picked for a different reason?
No, it's definitely part two. That's what we were thinking. We wanted it to be part two of the record. We wanted to release that first record as a double record, but it just didn't sort of work out that way, and so it made more sense to do it this way. And now we have some product to put out, and some new music to put out during this time, so ultimately I'm really glad we did it this way. You know?
Talk me through the decision to leave in a lot of the studio talkbacks on this one. It really feels like you're in the studio with you guys while you're recording it.
Well, if you'll notice, the Let It Be... Naked record, the Beatles record, has all the talking, and I really like that. I think it makes people feel like they're really a part of the recording, and it also shows, because so much music [is] done with so many overdubs, and it's produced so slick, that people forget that there's really actual musicians playing it, and a lot of times people aren't doing a lot of the music that you hear now live. But we wanted to really show people that we were doing it live, that we're getting these sounds as they come out. We did it to tape, you know? It's a process that we wanted to show people, and it also sort of speaks to the musicianship of the band, that we wanted to make people feel like they were in a room with musicians. You know?
Sure. Yeah, it's like you’re demystifying your process, in a way.
But almost in one way you're demystifying it. In another way, it's also sort of there's a mystical quality to musicians being able to capture that kind of tight sound live, too, you know? That's a pretty mystical thing in itself, and it's a lot easier to sort of do it all overdub, and make it sound all perfect afterwards. But to get it like that is a more difficult thing. It's what they used to do, but they don't do it so much anymore. So, I think that's important to show. In a way, it's kind of like saying, "Hey, this is a pretty mystical group of guys, you know?"
It’s a chance to show the band is tight as hell, right? That you're able to do that in the studio. It's like a flexing moment, right? This is what you guys are capable of.
Yeah, in a way, a lot of the records you put out don't really show what... Our strength is a live show. And so, and it's really hard to capture that live. That's what we tried to do.
Speaking of the live show, “Entirely Different Stars” starts out this record, and that's kind of been a centerpiece of your guys' live shows for a minute now, that big fan favorite. How long did that evolve in the studio, and what did it feel like to get that one down on wax?
Well, see, the thing is, it was born two years ago or so, and we did it in the studio basically first. We arranged that whole arrangement, and then we started playing it live because we liked it so much, and we thought we were going to release it on the record, but a year later we ended up releasing Turn Off The News (Build a Garden) without that song on there, so we were still playing it live, though. You know what I mean? It's just one of those things that we started doing live in the anticipation of releasing it, but then it didn't get released until a couple, few years later.
That's a song that I think for a lot of people who have seen you guys live, when you found out it was going to be on Naked Garden, it was like, "You need to listen to this record, because this song is finally here on the record." So, it made an anticipation for that coming out, you know?
It's been feeling like people want that song, so I'm glad to finally put it out.
Some of the songs on this record are alternate takes of some of the stuff from Turn Off the News. It made me wonder, how many different arrangements are you guys typically doing on your songs? Because you know, there's multiple versions of “Civilized Hell” on this, and how does that part of the writing process work for you guys, the arranging part?
It's a really interesting question, because that song specifically had so many different iterations. I mean, there's a version of Shooter Jennings and I doing that song years ago.
That song I wrote in like 2011 or something, and I just haven't really found the right way to put it out yet, and so now we finally just said, "Screw it, we'll put it all out." Put every version of it.
Yeah, so how are you guys deciding on what the right arrangement is for each song? Is that a thing you guys feel in the studio, or do you know after?
It's a thing we feel in the studio, like we will spend a couple hours before we record. We'll try and work out an arrangement, so to speak, and then once we kind of get that, we'll only do two or three takes of it, and if it feels right, we'll move on. If it doesn't feel right, we'll just stop. But you know, that song really came together, and I'm pretty proud of it. I'm proud of almost every version of it, so... Actually, I am proud of every version of it. It's kind of one of those things that you just kind of like say, "OK, well, this is my favorite for right now." But that might change, you know? It's hard to say.
Yeah. Putting it out three ways allows you to have many favorites of it.
Yeah. Exactly. Kind of have to just... You don't have to really pick or choose, necessarily.
Your last album, you had “Turn Off The News,” which is really this song that was about needing to slow down and figure out how you can affect things in your immediate world, and then this happens, the coronavirus stuff. It feels like you're really just tapping into how it feels to be alive right now or something. I don't know if I necessarily have a question there, but yeah, your songs, it feels like you're predicting these things that people need to reckon with, you know?
It's really important to slow down and take stock of what's around you and how you can help. And the garden is a metaphor, you know? It doesn't have to be a literal garden. It could be sort of the garden of your family. Cultivate the flowers of your relationships. It's kind of like you could take it to have a literal meeting, which is also really cool and important, or a figurative meeting, you know?
I guess there's no way of knowing this right now, but what's next for the band? When this is over, I assume you guys are going to be going back out on the road, right?
Well, we've got a really special video for “Civilized Hell” that we put together that's I think going to make people really happy, and really cool, and it's in collaboration with a super important artist in the world, and it's really cool, and we were lucky to get that artist involved, and that'll come out in the next few weeks or so. We're working on some stuff that we put together with Zoom where we do some songs from the record as a show and put it together for fans.
And then I'm working on and recording demos of songs for the record to come after this, so I've always, I've got a lot of stuff happening.
So, what are you doing right now? Are you in Austin? Or where are you right now?
Yeah. I'm in Austin. I'm just chilling. We're at the ranch, and it's a beautiful day outside. Getting some fresh air. We're really lucky, man. We're really lucky. There's a lot of people that don't have the simple sort of luxury of fresh air, and so I'm enjoying that. I'm sort of taking count and stock of my blessings, and waiting for this to pass, and I fully realize that I'm luckier than most, so I don't have one bit of complaint, you know? I think that I'm happy to do my duty and stay away, and social distance, and that's fine. I needed the break, to be honest. I was going so hard, and I didn't see an end to it, and so in a way I'm grateful for it, although I can't wait till where we can all gather again and get out there for live shows. Because that's really what makes my heart soar, and I'll never complain about a long tour again after this.
You guys were probably going to be starting pretty soon, right? Would you be on the road right now?
Oh yeah, we'd be out on the road right now. What really sucks for the music industry is that the small businesses, the promoters that run legendary places like Cain's Ballroom, and little small theaters, and clubs, those kinds of places are in real danger of not being able to ever come back, so I think it's important to try and support those places as much as we can maybe when we come back from this, or figure out how we can help donate.
And also family farms, small family farms, all of their distribution network has been decimated, and so they're really getting hit hard, and restaurants, and small places. Not the corporate ones, but the small businesses are really having a hard time. That's where we got to focus our efforts, you know? There.
Yeah, and it's like when this is over, it's like your support of local business has arguably never been more important when this is over. It's the number one opportunity to make sure that those businesses thrive is going to them often and early as we can, you know?
That's it. That's it. As soon as they open restrictions, put on a mask and go do it.
You can buy a Vinyl Me, Please exclusive edition of Naked Garden here right now.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.