I had old traditional Country songs, like “Long Black Veil” in mind when I wrote, “I’ll be Back”.
It’s essentially an acoustic song in its structure, story, and heart, but recorded in the context of drums and electric guitar, with a great Hammond solo by Kevin McKendree.
The acoustic guitar riff, doubled with Doug Lancio’s great mandolin playing, is the song’s beating heart and sets up the verse, the chorus, and the narrative.
I think of “I’ll be Back” as a modern folk song. Its story of the triangle of deceived husband, star-crossed lovers, and murder is one that keeps playing out through centuries.
The acoustic instrumentation sets the backdrop for the song, one of dusty plains, small-town intrigue, and broken love.
EXTRACT FROM BIOGRAPHY Louw celebrates the restorative, nourishing love on “Mother, Don’t Go,” an insightful, insistent tune graced by guitar wizard Joe Bonamassa, who brings out the song’s incandescent spirit as he intertwines his playing with that of Doug Lancio, a guitarist who has just entered Louw’s orbit.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine
In 2020 I had been in my home on our farm for more than six months when I made the trip to Cape Town. I had been playing the only guitar that I had with me, an old acoustic. In town, I traded with my buddy, Willem Moller, for a beautiful 1964 Epiphone Casino.
When I got home, I took the Casino out of its case, and the first thing I played on it was the riff on “Mother, Don’t Go”. The riff took me to the lyric, to the beauty of a mother’s love. It’s a simple song, and its simplicity celebrates the joy and longing for unconditional, selfless love.
For all his accomplishments and accolades – including a SAMA nomination for best rock album with Headlight Dreams – Steve Louw has a genuine and disarming affability to him as he greets me over Zoom from a predictably rainy England. Since he started becoming active in the scene 1981 he’s built a name as one of SA’s finest blues singer-songwriters and shared stages with the likes of Queen’s Brian May and Beyoncé.
In more recent years he’s found himself recording with the highly-esteemed likes of Joe Bonamassa, a veritable blues legend who opened for B.B. King at the age of twelve and never looked back, and Doug Lancio who played guitar with Bob Dylan on his Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour in 2021.
These are just two names in a list of heavyweights that producer Kevin Shirley, whose CV includes production on Aerosmith’s Nine Lives and Iron Maiden’s Brave New World, brought together to work on Louw’s latest album Thunder and Rain which rallies against 21st century hopelessness with familiar and achingly tender blues-rock strains.
Once we’ve made our introductions I ask if recording with such acclaimed musicians was as daunting as it seems which he confirms was the case with Headlight Dreams, his comeback album after a 13 year hiatus,but assures me that the second time round was easier. It would have to be since they only had three days to learn, record, and mix the album – on top of which they had to find a way around losing one guitarist to another professional commitment and the other to unexpected personal reasons.
To my surprise that doesn’t seem to have been too big a hurdle. The picture Louw paints of their time in the studio is one of impeccable professionalism. “You’ve gotta just have the songs prepared so it’s not that stressful,” he says before adding that, “everybody knows their instruments, the drums are tuned. It’s just ready to go.”
Louw’s the first to admit that he’s not the most technically-oriented musician, erring more on the organic side of making music so, even though the band was learning his songs they would end up playing the role of panel-beater, correcting Louw when he, unknowingly, added or changed beats. “For me it was like, oh shit I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says with a laugh but, in my opinion, things turned out just fine – Thunder and Rain evokes a myriad of emotions and paints pictures that border on tangible.
Recording the album saw Louw jetting off to Nashville so I ask how a musician from South Africa managed to get himself to the point of recording at Ocean Way Studios, who have worked with the likes of Kings of Leon and Avril Lavigne, with the cream of the crop and that famous old adage rears its head: it’s who you know. “It’s only because I knew Kevin when he was in South Africa and we were making records.” Shirley was on his way to becoming a world-renowned producer when Louw was getting active in the industry and it was his know-how that helped him navigate the music world’s messy waters.
Louw’s journey from first recording with Shirley to releasing Thunder and Rain has been a long one so I put forward the question of the blues’ place within the modern world to which he says, “Well it’s like a tiny niche market… ja, it’s very small.” There’s a quick and nervous laugh that follows, after all it’s not easy for niche markets but he doesn’t let it get him down because, to him, music isn’t about how much demand there is, it’s all about expression and connecting with people, “even if there’s ten people, one, it’s great.”
“I don’t think, as an artist, you can ever get through to people by … saying I’m going to do this kind of music because I know there’s a lot of people who will buy it,” says Louw, reinforcing his approach to making music – he’s not one to pander to an audience. “Obviously it’s gotta be in tune and in time … but the heart of the song will always be you on a piano or a solo guitar singing to someone and they’ve gotta get it.”
Since we’re talking about the practicalities of being a professional musician, I ask if he plans on experimenting with his sound at any point to which he says simply, no. “I write the songs that I write, not consciously as blues songs or rock songs”, but rather songs that are trying to say something, the blues is just the most organic way he knows how to get that something across.
I venture further and ask why he’s so steadfast about the genre and open the door to his life-long passion for it. There’s the slightest crack in his voice and a wistfulness in his eyes as he peers off into the distance searching for the best way to define the indefinable. “I find a lot of spirituality in the blues” is what he ultimately settles for, his casual demeanour doing little to hide the depth of its meaning.
That friendly, easy going demeanour that Louw greeted me with exists in equal measure in his approach to music. Through genuine love and never-ending passion for making things that matter, even if it’s only to one person, he’s navigated the unforgiving waters of the industry and found himself at a pinnacle most can only dream of.
Celeb Savant, Barret Edelstein, sat down with South African singer and songwriter, Steve Louw. Steve tells us about his decades-long journey in the music business, being part of numerous bands – most notably, Big Sky – culminating in his current solo career. He shares his experience of the 1985 Concert in the Park at Ellis Park during Apartheid in South Africa, and the difference between collaborating and creating music in a band, compared to being a solo artist. Barret and Steve dive deep into the world of social media, digital vs physical music sales, and how Steve creates a live experience for the audience.
As Steve Louw releases Thunder And Rain, his second album in as many years, he speaks to Nils van der Linden about finding inspiration in nature, facing his mortality, the power of keeping things simple, a life lived through music, and that one time he shared a stage with Beyoncé.
Steve Louw’s been a fixture of the South African music scene since the mid 1970s, first travelling between folk clubs in his Volkswagen Kombi to perform originals and blues covers on his 12-string Ibanez.
By 1986 he’d recorded two albums with the band All Night Radio. The first was produced by The Kinks collaborator John Rollo, secured after impressing The E Street Band’s Little Steven with a cassette of live recordings. The second was produced by Kevin Shirley, whose CV now includes Joe Bonamassa, Iron Maiden, The Black Crowes, and Led Zeppelin.
Inevitably All Night Radio broke up. “It was just too much touring, too much in the Kombi, too much together, too much fast food,” he laughs in a Cape Town coffee shop just around the corner from the studio where they’d recorded that first LP.
Louw continued, debuting his new band Big Sky with 1990’s Shirley-produced Waiting For The Dawn. Its title track became an anthem of hope and reconciliation at a time of political transformation at the southern tip of Africa and paved the way for and an ongoing creative partnership with Shirley, several more albums, and multiple hit singles.
South African artist Steve Louw recently released his second solo album, Thunder and Rain, building on his 2021 collection, Headlight Dreams. For Louw these are both new ventures and a return to very familiar territory since he’s a lifelong songwriter and musician. He made two records with his band, All Night Radio, in the 1980s, and became more well known as the leader of the band Big Sky, releasing five albums and becoming a major fixture in South African Rock music. Louw released his final album of that era in 2008 and returned to music in 2021 taking a singer/songwriter approach and teaming up with friends old and new in the process.
On Thunder and Rain, Louw recorded in Nashville with Grammy-nominated keyboardist Kevin McKendree, guitarist Rob McNelley, bassist Alison Prestwood, and drummer Greg Morrow, with Doug Lancio serving multi-instrumentalist. Joe Bonamassa also joined in. It was producer and old friend Kevin Shirley who had convinced Louw to record again, and he brought his magic to this latest effort as well. While Headlight Dreams explored themes surrounding life’s journey, Thunder and Rain is comprised of songs written almost entirely during the pandemic period, so handle some more emotionally raw content. However, the core of the album is clearly about human beings and the storms that we weather in relationships and in society.
I spoke with Steve Louw, in what turned out to be his first interview about his solo work for American readers, about returning to recording, his approach to capturing songs, and the themes that caught his attention for Thunder and Rain.
Americana Highways: It hasn’t been that long since your first solo album came out. Were you already working on this collection by the time it was released?
Steve Louw: Yes, a lot of these songs were written during the lockdown period, when things were pretty severe. This album was then recorded in early 2022, this year. I wrote all the songs in that period between March 2020 and March 2022. I had plenty of time! It was great. My wife and I have quite a remote cabin in nature, and we were there for months at a time. It was a good place for songwriting.
AH: What sort of natural surroundings did you have?
SL: It’s on the sea. It looks very similar to Big Sur, with cliffs plunging to the sea and then a mountain range very close to the sea, so it has high rainfall and a lot of trees. There’s a lot of bird life and animals. I found myself talking to the animals. [Laughs]
AH: I heard that for Headlight Dreams, some of it was recorded in Nashville, just like this album.
SL: Yes, it was recorded in the same studio, and with pretty much the same band. With Headlight Dreams, there’s another guitar player. But there’s the same crew, producer, engineer, and the same room. We managed to do them both in three days each. As long as everyone knows what they are doing, it’s basically a performance.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration, like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc., play?
It’s what I love to do; it’s the beauty of creating something out of nothing. It’s an unconscious process, channelling what you’ve seen, heard, and felt and reflecting it back to others differently.
It’s like being a sounding board for spirits.
For you to start, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a ‘visualization’ of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I always try to let the song find me rather than looking for the song, so no, I am down on the chance side of the scale.
If something good comes in, a riff or a phrase, I will zone in on that and try to build it.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way? For example, do you need to do research or create early versions?
I like to be around my own space, with a couple of instruments lying around, maybe different guitars with different tunings. Fretting and playing around in a new tuning or a different key using a capo can create strange chords which can get you to another place or lead you onto a new path. It can make a song take on a whole new feel.
On the song “Train Don’t Run”, off my last album, Headlight Dreams, that happened.
I was in Vancouver without a guitar, so I bought a small travel-size guitar with a unique voice. When I returned to my hotel room, I put a capo on it and played high up on the neck; it led me to the riff and chorus of that song.