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.