Steve Louw photo by Jacqui Van Staden
Steve Louw Weathers Thunder and Rain
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.
AH: Had the players heard the music before going into the studio?
SL: I don’t really like demos because then you get wedded to the demos, so with great musicians who have a lot of feeling and empathy, I like to perform a song on an acoustic guitar, and sing it, as if I’m on stage. They then will get the emotion of the song and watch what I’m doing. When it’s fresh in everybody’s minds, we just go in and record it. We usually get it within a couple of takes.
AH: That’s amazing from my perspective, having heard the end results.
SL: With music, it’s like you’re trying to catch lightning in a bottle. It’s not something that you want to bash away at. You want it to be fresh and quick. Everybody’s a little on edge when they don’t know the song, but then they start feeling it intuitively. Once you start playing it too much, you lose the emotion. That’s what you’re trying to capture because you have to convey the emotion to the audience over a long distance. There has to be a lot of emotion in the performance, delivery, and song itself.
AH: Is the recording, then, kind of capturing the musicians as they are discovering the emotion? Or at least getting as close as possible to that?
SL: Yes, exactly. I’ve always liked to do it that way. The first album that I made was a long time ago, in the 80s, with the producer John Rollo, who had worked with The Kinks. We did it that way in a few days. He said, “This is the best way. It’s no good doing another take and another take. Everyone just gets beaten down. If it’s not happening, move on to another song.” So I always come prepared with at least four or five songs so if it’s not happening, we can move on. The great songs all happen fast, and everyone gets it. If the band doesn’t feel the song, the audience isn’t going to. [Laughs]
AH: That makes it even more of a high-wire act!
SL: It is! It is a high-wire act. I like doing it. [Laughs]
AH: You mention Rollo, but you’ve also known your producer on these two albums Kevin Shirley, for a long time, too. Isn’t that true?
SL: Yes, he heard what I had done with John [Rollo] and he said, “I want to do your next album!” And that had come out in 1986. We’ve done a bunch since then. He coaxed me back into the studio for Headlight Dreams. He talked me into it and said, “Come on, we’ve got to make music.” It’s been so great. We have such a great friendship and he’s such a great mixer, producer, and engineer.
He’s also really good with the psychology of the room and has an upbeat personality. He keeps the energy up. If I add something, he’ll make sure everybody is on the same page. He’s basically the link between me and the band, and he knows those musicians really well. It’s a lot of keeping the process going, and not getting bogged down or frustrated. I’m lucky that Kevin wanted to help me.
AH: He sounds like a great interpreter among people.
SL: Yes, he is. I also surmise that he can hear the end-product in his head before we’ve recorded it. He also mixes the song as we are recording. The live mix on the board of the room is often the captured performance. It can’t be recreated, so we often use it.
AH: That’s an amazing ability. Is that something that happened when recording your first album, too?
SL: We had rehearsed for a few months before going into the studio. It was a riot. I had become really enamored of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, so I took a four-track and demoed the hell out of that album. We just made four-track recordings of the band playing, playing, playing. We wanted to get that live sound. We were so excited.
AH: How hard did Kevin have to work to get you work on Headlight Dreams, your first solo album? When did you first realize, “I think I’m going to make a solo album”?
SL: Well, I never stopped songwriting. My deal with Sony South Africa expired in 2008 and the people I knew had left Sony. I didn’t have a record deal and streaming wasn’t a thing at that time. I just kept songwriting, and I have a basic set up studio in my basement. I would do small shows and carry on playing. Kevin just said to me in 2019, “Listen, Stevie, you’ve got to make another record and I’m going to make it happen for you. These are the dates. Just show up!” I just said, “Okay. I’ll be ready!”
But I was scared. I felt like I was going to play with the Yankees but was from the local little league. But once I was there, I recognized everything. Making an album is putting yourself out there, so it’s more finding excuses not to. It’s about exposing yourself. Once I see Kevin, I know what I’m doing, and once I’m in a studio, I know what to do. It’s the barriers in your head that you must overcome, thinking, “My last album didn’t sell well.” Or “I’m out of touch with audiences.” Or what have you.
AH: That’s pretty profound and relevant in many aspects of life.
SL: It’s overcoming self-doubt. You have to have that faith in yourself to translate it to other people.
AH: I think that’s been a big shift in recent years, because reaching audiences has changed so much and avenues for doing that. What it’s come down to is realizing, “I’m a songwriter. I have these abilities. There are people who want to work with me. That’s what’s going to happen.” If you overthink all the other things, it’ll break your brain.
SL: Absolutely! Then, once you embrace the process, you remember that you’ve done it before and can do it again. It’s a magic trick, but I know this magic trick. [Laughs]
AH: The music side of a song like “Mother Don’t Go” is actually quite uplifting, even while the lyrics are some of the toughest and most direct that you might hear someone sing. That’s a really balanced feeling that you create.
SL: That song just came out of a guitar that I traded with a friend of mine, a beautiful Epiphone guitar. My mother died about 20 years ago in not great circumstances, in violent circumstances, in South Africa. I think the lyric came out of that. I don’t think there’s anything in the world like a mother’s love, between humans, or even between horses. It’s the most beautiful thing and the most cherished thing in the world.
To me, the world would be such a better place if it was run by women. Women have such empathy and love in them and I wanted to celebrate that. I was glad to be able to create that song. Coincidentally, Joe Bonamassa liked the song and wanted to play on it. He came into the studio and it elevated the song. The whole band loved the song and it was the first one that we cut. I can remember saying to Alison, the bass player, “This is like magic.” It was a very positive way to start.
AH: It’s not as common to write songs about a mother’s love, though it comes up in country, folk, and religious music more than it would in Rock.
SL: In old blues music, there’s also a lot about a mother’s love.
AH: Good point! That’s so true. A song like “Thunder and Rain” is a very different song, and it even starts out with rage, really. But by the end, there’s that contrast with the speaker saying, “This is not how I was raised. How can we reject this?”
SL: It’s looking at injustice and just feeling helpless. And not wanting to cross the line into behavior which is not how you were brought up. It’s that feeling of powerlessness and outrage at injustice. But the end of the song is, “We’re all born. We all bleed. We all live. We all die. We are the same.” There’s just so much injustice in the world and this is a song against that. Political leaders world-wide seem to be losing their moral compass. People just suffer. You see it in the Ukraine, you see it everywhere. Leaders seem to take power and power seems to corrupt.
AH: Every day, globally, you see a new headline reinforcing this. I talk to people from other countries, and it’s almost always bad there, too. It’s a global situation. But using that imagery in the song, which is very universal, of thunder and rain, makes sure that everyone gets that feeling that you’re trying to convey.
SL: That was the last song that we did in the studio, and I was a little reticent about doing the song. I was exposing myself quite a bit in the song because of the lyric, but immediately the band felt it, and you can hear that in the music. That was 30 minutes, and it was done.
AH: I think the past two years had prepared them for that song!
SL: Yes! [Laughs] Well said.
AH: There are two songs on the album that are sort of opposite to each other, but I think it’s great that they are both on the album. There’s “The Road Fades From Sight” which is a kind of affirmation of a relationship, then there’s “Standing in the Rain” which is about a split or division. There’s that chilling line, “I guess I won’t see you again.” That all works for romantic relationships, but also friendships and family relationships.
SL: The two go well together. “The Road Fades from Sight” is about the love my wife and I have enjoyed and it’s not endless, but we just want to walk together for as long as we’ve got. It’s a nice slow vibe. “Standing in the Rain” was influenced by the fact that I have daughters who live outside of South Africa, in Canada and Scotland.
It was that sense of not knowing what the future held during the pandemic, and whether I would ever see my family again. It was being disconnected. With the pandemic, you went back 100 years in time. Back then, if people went across the ocean, you weren’t going to see them again. We got put back into that time.
Thank you very much for talking with us, Steve Louw. More information about Steve Louw and his music is available here: https://stevelouw.com