Biography (April 2021)
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
“One thing’s clear, it’s just great to be alive”
Steve Louw sings those words on “Don’t Wait,” a song that arrives not more than a few tunes into Headlight Dreams, the first album the singer/songwriter has released in nearly thirteen years. Such an extended hiatus effectively resets the clock for an artist like Louw, offering an opportunity for the rocker to reintroduce himself not only with his fans in his native South Africa but to listeners around the world.
Headlight Dreams may arrive many decades into a long career yet it serves as a perhaps ideal summation of Louw’s generous spirit and soulful rock & roll. Produced by Louw’s longtime friend and collaborator Kevin Shirley (Joe Bonamassa, John Hiatt, Robert Cray Band, the Black Crowes), the album is a collection of ten sharp and sturdy songs which blend Americana grit with the anthemic, empathetic big music of the 1980s, an era where Louw cut his teeth.
Louw’s career as a professional musician began in the early 1980s, when he fronted All Night Radio. The group released two albums—including 1986’s The Killing Floor, the record where Louw struck up his partnership with Shirley—before he formed Big Sky, the outfit that became his vehicle to stardom in South Africa. Waiting For The Dawn, Big Sky’s first album, arrived in 1990, just as the country began moving away from rule under apartheid, and the group’s music helped soundtrack a decade of positive revolution. Big Sky released four albums over the next fifteen years, including 1995’s acclaimed Horizon, assembling a songbook of South African radio perennials in the process. They also saw their share of industry support, winning the FNB Music Award for Best SA Rock Act in 1996. Two years later, Big Sky opened for Rodriguez on his triumphant tour of South Africa, an experience chronicled in the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. All this acclaim raised Louw’s international profile, leading to his collaboration with Queen’s Brian May and Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart on “Amandla,” a song on 2003’s Nelson Mandela-inspired AIDS awareness project 46664.
Louw entered a period of relative quiet after 2008’s Trancas Canyon, a silence Headlight Dreams breaks in rousing fashion. Louw’s sculpted compositions were captured swiftly, so they retain a sense of freshness. Much of this is due to how he trusts Shirley, who produced Headlight Dreams at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. Shirley assembled a crew of studio pros, including Grammy-nominated keyboardist Kevin McKendree, guitarist Rob McNelley, bassist Alison Prestwood and drummer Greg Morrow to support Louw, surrounding his old pal with a sympathetic band who would instinctively know how to flesh out his compositions. On one occasion, he invited a superstar colleague into the studio. Joe Bonamassa appears on “Wind In Your Hair,” elevating its buoyant and rough-hewn romance with his lovely, lyrical solo.
Bonamassa’s cameo crystalizes how the blend of new and familiar on Headlight Dreams winds up quite beguiling. The album sounds crisp and bright, a by-product of its quick recording, but it’s impossible to ignore how the entire proceedings beat to a passionate heart. That soulfulness rises to the surface on the slower songs, such as the simmering “Get Out Of My Heart,” but it’s also palpable on “Heavy Weather,” an insistent and indignant protest song disguised as an infectious blues.
“Heavy Weather” provides a direct line to the earliest years of Steve Louw, when he was singing in favor of social justice, but no knowledge of his prior work is needed to have Headlight Dreams resonate deeply. Like all meaningful art, it exists entirely in the present, playing upon the past, shared experiences, and personal insight to create an experience that’s simultaneously personal and universal.
Press Release, April 2021
Headlight Dreams is the first international solo release by South African singer-songwriter Steve Louw. Helmed by internationally renowned producer Kevin Shirley (John Hiatt, Joe Bonamassa, The Black Crowes) and recorded in Nashville, Tennessee with top local musicians, the album sees Steve exploring new ground as a songwriter as he addresses issues close to his heart.
Steve’s recording career began in 1984 when he and his band at the time, All Night Radio, recorded their first album, The Heart’s the Best Part. His connection with Kevin – who’s also originally from Cape Town, South Africa – goes back to 1986 when he produced All Night Radio’s second album, The Killing Floor. He also produced Waiting for the Dawn (1990), the debut album by Steve’s next band, Big Sky. The title track – about Steve’s hopes for a new country emerging from the nightmare of apartheid – was a major hit and is considered an all-time SA rock classic.
As Big Sky, Steve released four more successful albums. Horizon (1995), recorded by legendary US producer Shelley Yakus (U2, Tom Petty), won the 1996 FNB Music Award for Best SA Rock Act. Going Down with Mr Green (1997), Beyond the Blue (2002) and Trancas Canyon (2008) followed, as well as a compilation album, Best of the Decade (1999). The latter three albums were also produced by Kevin.
Several tracks off these albums have become perennial SA radio favourites, including One Cut with a Knife, Kathleen, Mr Green, Slow Dancing, Diamonds and Dirt and Strange Room.
Since 1990, Steve and Big Sky have performed to sell-out crowds all over South Africa. A DVD of a concert filmed at Cape Town’s Little Theatre in 2009 captures the band, made up of top SA musicians, bringing Steve’s songs to life in front of an ecstatic audience.
In 1998, Steve and Big Sky opened for Rodriquez on his first SA tour, with the band also backing the US singer-songwriter who, unbeknownst to him, had a massive following in SA and was making a musical comeback after 25 years in the wilderness. The story behind this historic tour is told in the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man.
Steve also co-wrote the song Amandla with Brian May (Queen) and Dave Stewart (The Eurythmics) which was performed by Beyoncé, Bono and Anastacia at the 46664 concert held in Cape Town in 2003, organised by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to raise awareness of the spread of HIV/Aids in South Africa and hosted by the icon himself.
Headlight Dreams sees Steve return to the studio after a 12-year break with a new set of songs and fresh musical inspiration. Says Steve, “I’d taken a 8 000-km motorcycle journey around Southern Africa and a lot of that space and time seeped into these songs. After weeks of riding I started to see things in slow motion and hyperspeed at once and I became mesmerised by the landscape.
“I built the songs around my voice and the acoustic guitar so that the listener would be drawn into a journey through broken open landscapes, seeing images in the peripheral half-light while mesmerised by beams of light . . . time passing, slowing, stopping, speeding, with shadows playing just outside of the picture frame.
“Headlight Dreams takes you through a desperate, dessicated landscape populated with outlaws, gamblers, starving horses and broken lovers . . . the music sounds as if it was made in a distant, more simple time, and moves and breathes as the musicians weave their parts into the singer’s landscape.
“The album was recorded in three days on a 1970s Neve console and other vintage analog gear in an old church building that had been converted into a studio, and with Kevin’s great production and mix it sounds like it. From the first moment I loved the acoustics of the studio and the vibe created by the wonderful Nashville musicians with their great feel and playing, drawing you into a world shimmering in the half-light, just out of reach . . .”
Steve talks about how the lyrics and music came together.
I took a long canoe trip down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon and out again. It was a very spacy spiritual place and it felt like I was on a journey to the middle of the earth . . . I wrote this after the trip.
On one level the song is about the river trip and the journey deep inside the raw power and beating heart of nature, but it also reflects on time, our time on Earth, how we experience it, and how the bonds of deep personal relationships with our fellow travellers nurture our souls.
I played the acoustic guitar using a few African-style riffs and the band picked up on that feel. Guitarist Rob McNelley contributed beautiful slide guitar.
Wind in Your Hair
The song deals with how love changes and builds between two people as life throws up detours and bridges. It’s a love story exploring how two people who love each other but have different needs and desires travel through their life and love. The chorus always kicks back to the joy of love, but the verses take you through a journey of rough and smooth roads and winding passes – and ends at the place they set out for.
I love the way the acoustic guitar opens the song and then the band kicks in with a great tom fill. US guitar legend Joe Bonamassa was in the studio and played a killer solo as he heard the track for the first time.
The chorus says it all:
“Don’t leave it too late (don’t wait)
‘Til you’re standing in front of hell’s gates (don’t wait)
With a pocket full of loose change (don’t wait)
Feeling lost and strange”
Time is moving and so are you – but it’s never too late to get to where you want to go . . .
The song’s about someone on a strange road trip out on roads far from the mainstream, though glimpses of towns keep showing themselves. Reflecting on what he’s been and wished he hadn’t seen, he heads into town . . . and leaves again, back on track. It’s about how we hold our destiny in our own hands, how it’s never too late to be your dream, and how if you don’t stop, you keep moving forward.
Train Don’t Run
My grandfather was a railroadman and in the 1930s my father rode trains looking for work. To me, trains symbolise our attempts to bend nature to our will – and we’re seeing that trying to do that will never work. Silence will always return to the plains, the wind will blow, tracks will crumble and the earth will breathe again. This song has the wide open plains in it; dry cracked earth and a broken land.
The song builds from a driving acoustic guitar and hypnotic bassline to a haunting guitar solo by Rob. The production brings out the relentlessness of the song and of what we inflict on our planet.
This song came out pretty much fully-formed the first time I played it on guitar and has a great chorus. I wrote it from the perspective of realising too late that love can’t be taken for granted – it’s strange that sometimes you can see that clearly only once it’s too late for it to be of any use. Love is fragile and often we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone:
“I had it all, I had nothing left to do
I let it fall right through my fingers”
Too drunk to leave the bar, he tries to figure out his road ahead . . .
The band kicks the door down in the intro and then the song is built around the vocal and acoustic guitar in the verses.
Get out of my Heart
I like the opening line: “I’d rather walk than drive another mile with you.” Two people who can’t figure out if they love or hate each other, or both . . . It’s different to all the other songs but the in-your-face vocal, acoustic guitar riff and weird time signature sucks you into their personal mayhem.
I only had the “get out of my heart” line when I started writing this song, singing along to power chords and a Bo Diddley-type beat, and later wrote the verses. I thought of the song as a rocker and a cry in the dark. We played it that way live and it went down well but I felt the song was too linear for the lyric and I put it aside.
About a week before going into the studio I tried playing and singing the chorus in a different time signature and suddenly the song took on the mood of the lyric, which is pretty dark – and the story came into stark relief.
Once we got the time signature nailed down in the studio I found I could sing the lyrics with the space it needed. I love the sound of the vocal.
The Lost and Found
I’ve always been intrigued by lost-and-found counters and the crazy stuff that gets handed in. Many years ago I took a two-month trip around America on the Greyhound bus. For $99 you could travel as much you liked for three months – transport and accomodation in one package! The bus stations were always in the seedy parts of town and some had lost-and-found counters with weird stuff that had been left on a bus. Who loses a stuffed crocodile on a bus?
I liked the image of someone going to a lost-and-found counter to see if a broken heart found lying around town had been turned in. Seeing a broken heart on the shelf is a hilarious image, and I liked the idea of someone just discarding a heart when they were done with it.
The musicians just tear it up on this tune and don’t let up until the last bar. It feels like a great band playing a Saturday-night gig in a small town in a distant time. I love the way the acoustic guitar drives the stinging electric guitar riffs laid down by Rob on a vintage Fender Jazzmaster.
About a renegade couple running headlong into their future, whatever that may hold – tripping down their road, criss-crossing the lines of the law as they drive into their dream . . . You know it’s not going to end well.
I was looking back and thinking about all of the crazy stuff I’d done when I was younger. I loved the feeling of “full speed ahead, captain!” as you reach out for your dream. I lot of that happened in badly driven cars in altered states of consciousness and had a dreamlike quality . . .
I’d read that children’s minds react similarly to those of adults on acid. I was enthralled to see the world through my own children’s eyes as I could see how they saw the world in a wonderous way. They’re grown now and in this song I’m reaching back.
I wrote this a few years ago at a time when major cities were running out of water due to climate change. The character is walking through dust and gloom on dried-out plains, seeing the landscape change before his eyes. He feels his fear . . .
I was thinking of the beauty of Robert Johnson’s songs and how, in their simplicity and the power of his playing and singing, they captured the time and landscape. Weather is always on our minds. It’s out of our control and can be both beautiful and scary.
We live in a time when natural systems that have taken thousands of years to evolve are being destroyed, and I wanted to write about that. I love the sound of a nightjar calling in the night – it’s comforting in an otherwise scary, dark night and holds hope and promise.
The syncopated acoustic guitar riff and Rob’s killer solo (played on a beautiful Gibson 335 guitar) takes you into that realm.
Queen Bee Maybe
I was working on this song and had two verses but no chorus when a swarm of bees arrived to move into the roof of my house. I called the beekeeper and he came at sunset. He took the queen bee out of the swarm, put her in his wooden box and the swarm followed her in. I had my chorus! It fitted the song perfectly. A great Hammond organ solo by Kev McHendry and swampy guitars create a great stew.
This is the first song we cut in Nashville and it captured the mood of the album, centered around my voice and acoustic guitar. The band settled into the groove quickly and within an hour we had it down. We ended up using the working mix we used while tracking and you can hear the song breathe as Kevin adjusts the faders during the take.