Interview: Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real Honor Diverse Influences + Heroes on ‘Turn Off the News (Build a Garden)’
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real didn't originally plan on naming their second studio album after what ultimately became the title track, "Turn off the News (Build a Garden)." At first, they were ready to name the project after another one of its songs, "Civilized Hell."
""Civilized Hell" is a tribute to all the badass women in my life," Nelson tells The Boot. "Which started with my mother, but it's a tribute to every badas woman I've ever known, and I've tried to bring them all into the fold, [contributing to the track and the album]."
That's why the group wanted to include so many inspiring female musical guests: Margo Price, Kesha, Sheryl Crow and many more make appearances on the record. The more he thought about it, however, the more Nelson realized that he wanted Turn Off the News' message of inclusion to be even broader.
"Then what we decided, ultimately, was that the concept [of "Civilized Hell"] was a sort of sub-concept in culture itself, and a more overarching theme is this: I'd rather just turn off the constant stimulation of devices and reach out to the people around me and connect in a real, human way," he continues. "And I think that, man or woman, that is a universal theme and concept, so it ultimately felt like a more all-inclusive title for the album."
"All-inclusive" is a good descriptor for the group's new project, and the impressive list of featured artists doesn't just include women: Neil Young, Willie Nelson and more also appear on Turn Off the News. Having the legends whom Lukas Nelson counts as "teachers" so directly involved in the project shaped how its was recorded, and even affected the decision to include two versions of its title track (one acoustic and one electric, though the singer points out that he mostly decided to record an electric version for greater radio appeal).
"But also, Neil and Sheryl both thought it would be better if we had a version that didn't have 'f--k' in it," Nelson adds with a laugh. "Sheryl wanted to show her kids the song, and she didn't want to have to explain the word 'f--k.' And so it just made it a more accessible song in many ways, I think, and it's fun. I love it. Sheryl sings incredibly."
Still, the acoustic version -- the original recording of the song -- holds too special of a place in the band's heart to relinquish it. "That's Neil Young on the pump organ there," Nelson relates. "That's a really special version ... and live, I gotta say, the acoustic version makes a heck of a lot more sense. People can hear every word. When I play it live, I mostly try and play the acoustic version."
The stylistic leanings of Turn Off the News are about as sweeping and diverse as you might expect, given the range of artists who contributed to and inspired it. Nelson and Promise of the Real expand on their countrified rock 'n' roll roots on the project, taking cues from soaring pop anthems as easily as they do from the folksy protest albums of the '60s.
Though the record has sociopolitical inflections a-plenty, Nelson doesn't think of it as a traditional protest album. "It is and it isn't. Because I'm not really asking anybody to do anything on this record," he muses.
"Even in [the lyrics]: 'Turn off the news and build a garden, just my neighborhood and me. Maybe I'll turn off the news," he adds, explaining that his worldview on the record is pretty localized to the immediate world around him, without a direct call to action on a global scale. However, some strains of worldwide impact still shine through, even if he tries to keep the project's philosophy close to home.
"I realized that if everybody did that, the world would be a better place," Nelson concludes. "If we all just shut off the machine and focused on the organic, it'd be great."
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