'A Star Is Born' Songwriter and Coach Lukas Nelson on Working With Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
Bradley Cooper found the missing piece to his musical puzzle -- and the living, breathing inspiration for Jackson Maine, the romantic rocker he plays in A Star Is Born, his directorial debut -- strumming next to Neil Young in the middle of the desert.
It was a balmy October night in 2016, and Young was playing classic rock festival Desert Trip with Promise of the Real, the folk-rock outfit fronted by Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son. After the performance, Cooper asked Nelson to be both a musical consultant and a contributor to the soundtrack of his grittier, twangier update on the classic love story.
Before A Star is Born's much-anticipated release Oct. 5, Nelson spoke about his experience working with Cooper and his co-star, Lady Gaga.
How did that first conversation with Bradley Cooper go?
He’s a pretty serious actor and definitely takes his art very seriously, but in a level-headed way. I appreciate that very much. He came up to me and said, “I’d love for you to come and be a musical consultant on the whole thing.” I said, “Yeah, sure!” Stefani [Germanotta, a.k.a Gaga] came, and we ended up writing together a bunch. I produced it, and it just kind of grew from there. It was an organic sort of happening where we all really had a great thing going together, and then the band wound up being perfect for the movie, so, [Promise of the Real] ended up in the movie as [Maine’s] band. It’s kind of a full circle from Desert Trip to A Star Is Born, with those same musicians he was inspired by -- us with Neil. He just kind of made that the template for what he was doing with this movie, in a way, or at least how he wanted to portray the character.
What was it like working with Lady Gaga?
I’ve been around successful people for a long time, and I know real good talent when I see it, just from growing up in the family I grew up in. She fits the bill. She’s quite a performer; she’s an actress; she’s just an entertainer, you know? When we were writing together, we definitely saw eye-to-eye. We kind of finished each other’s sentences a lot of times when we were writing. It just felt really natural. It’s a great collaboration and it’s a beautiful friendship that we have. I cherish her and her abilities and her heart. Same with Bradley: we’ve become really close friends and we love each other. It seems more like an extended family with those guys.
Does Jackson Maine remind you of anyone?
Me! Oh, man -- he would study how I would hold a guitar, and then he would make it his own. We talked a lot about how to look and feel onstage, being in a band and what it’s like. It was so great to have Promise of the Real there in the movie… He was part of our band and that authenticity really shows.
Cooper was clearly an eager student, so as the person guiding him through that musical education, was there anything that surprised you about that process?
It was beautiful to watch him grow and see the level of dedication he put into it. Nobody will be able to say he didn't give 100 percent and more. I think that that’s paying off for him. A lot of people are excited, and I don’t think they’re going to be disappointed, either. I was surprised at his level of musicianship. I didn't realize that he was that into music and that he already knew so much. He’s definitely a musician; he just hadn't tapped into it, and now he’s gotten the chance to. I hope he continues to do things as time goes by, musically, because he’s got a talent for it. He’s got an ear -- the same with Gaga and acting.
In regards to writing, how did that differ from your experience writing your own music? Was it different to write from a fictional viewpoint as Jackson? Did you change anything up in terms of your approach?
In a way, it was more like playing with Neil, because I’m playing sideman: I’m stepping back from my lead role and playing sideman to other artists, who were Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Having that ability to be a lead, I think it’s also really important to know how to be in a band. The way that I approach my songwriting, I think there’s a lot of me in [A Star Is Born]. These are songs that I’ve written about my own life, and in a way they can be applied to any situation.
You’re obviously very familiar with Kris Kristofferson; you know each other well and have worked together, too. He starred in A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand. Have you and Kris ever discussed A Star Is Born?
No, Kris and I didn't talk about it too much. But I know he’s really proud of Bradley and he’s happy to sort of pass the torch down. This movie’s been made four times, now; the first was in the ‘30s, almost in the silent film era. Then there was a later one with Judy Garland in the ‘50s, then in the ‘70s with Kris and Barbra Streisand, and then this one. There’s actually sort of a tradition of this movie being remade, you know, as time goes by.
Scenes like the ones filmed at Stagecoach and Glastonbury really highlight Cooper’s commitment to that authenticity. Why was it important for him to make those festival appearances?
I think [Stagecoach] was a big moment for him. Actually, we filmed the scene right before dad’s set. Dad actually cut his set short just a little bit to let us come on and film this little segment for the same crowd -- it was right after Jamey Johnson played. It was fantastic. It was a big moment for him to be able to get up there and just take charge and sing and sing it well in front of tens of thousands of people.
That must’ve been cool for your dad, too, to witness your own major Hollywood moment!
I don’t know; I think he was on the bus at the time. He might’ve been chillin’. [Laughs.] I’m sure he heard it!
Do you enjoy musical theater and musical films, generally?
I really loved O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was a great soundtrack and a beautiful movie with good music. That’s the only one I can think of. Of course there was the last A Star Is Born, which was great; then there was that movie with… oh, god, I can’t remember. Whitney Houston --
Yeah, The Bodyguard! Right! I know that Stefani was really into that movie -- it was part of the inspiration, she mentioned, for her, and other movies as well. They all did their research, Bradley and Gaga. This is gonna be a good one. My favorite is probably The Blues Brothers -- the original Blues Brothers is fantastic. It has so many great musicians.
Let’s talk about Stefani’s Americana chops: she’s such a versatile performer, but how did she take to this material?
I think she’s just a consummate entertainer no matter what. Whatever she put her mind to, she’d do really, really well -- she’s just that type of artist. The last record that she put out, Joanne, was my first introduction to her, really; I thought it was just fantastic. I heard her hit songs and they’re all great, but there were some songs that resonated with me on that record. There are some songs in this movie that really resonate with me, the ones with Mark Ronson that she wrote, and the band actually played it, so it was great to be a part of that in a way.
What happens after the movie premieres and you’re back to your life on the road? Will you incorporate these songs into your live shows?
I mean, probably, especially “Music to My Eyes.” There are songs that I’d probably want to play and cover, absolutely. I’ve thought about covering some songs of hers from before, too. “Million Reasons” is a great song; that’s just a classic song. I heard Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead covering that song not too long ago. She’s got a good sense of songwriting and songcrafting and by anyone’s standards, not just an artist in the pop world.