After 25 years as one of the globe’s most renowned artists, Luke Steele is starting again. He’s ditched the avant-garde costumery and the stage makeup characteristic of Empire of The Sun, and gone solo.
With a quarter century run-up, you might think his solo endeavour would be overcooked in parts. It’s true that Listen to The Water is 25 years in the making, but it’s far from overdone. With this record, Steele made a point to cast aside any of the cryptic references he first learned from growing up in Perth’s indie scene and instead has opted to write music in which he lays himself bare.
“I think I’ve had to go through what I’ve gone through, which has just been so much in the last 25 years, to write an honest song. I feel like I’ve finally reached that point,” he says. “[…] It’s like the makeup’s off, everything’s off, and I’m talking about things that are on my heart.”
“It’s like the makeup’s off, everything’s off, and I’m talking about things that are on my heart.”
Luke Steele is speaking to Rolling Stone from the home studio at his ranch in Northern California, up near the active volcano Mount Shasta. There’s a glowing pink neon sign behind him, depicting the name he gave his new home: Luke Steele’s Eccentric Farm. Steele moved to the ranch with his wife and two children after ten years living in Santa Monica; and while it’s a far cry from Silicon Beach, it suits him. Amid the pandemic, the Steeles haven’t left their sanctuary in the Californian wilderness. They’re now used to the bears, snakes and scorpions, and have used the isolation as an opportunity to create art together as a family. “My wife’s the director and then the kids are kind of, you know, the actors,” he says of the videos they’ve been making lately.
If people are a product of their surroundings, Luke Steele is El Dorado, a promised land discovered after two decades of soul-searching. Listen to The Water is a lesson in how Steele sees the world. His lyrical observations are on point for a man of his status, and the spontaneity in his music keeps fans guessing as he draws them into new territory. “It’s been great to kind of let go of the reins of the horses and just understand that sometimes the magic is in the discovery,” he notes. “If you know what it’s going to be at the end goal, it’s probably going to be boring.”
Sitting in his neon-lit studio, Luke Steele has the face of someone destined for stardom. It was never the makeup and costumes that made him a public figure—although he’s wearing a hint of eyeliner today. Steele’s aesthetic has always been deep and interesting but lightly etched with a magnetic sadness. In Steele’s world though, sorrow is an opportunity for growth.
“I struggle a lot with the power of the mind,” he acknowledges. “It’s kind of like the strength of the pendulum. When it’s up, it’s like they say, ‘nothing is as powerful as a transformed mind’. I’m like the best in the world. But then when it swings the other way, it’s the things that can get conflicted in your mind, they can just send you to the dark depths of nowhere land.”
“I struggle a lot with the power of the mind.”
Steele talks deliberately when he recalls the time his wife Jodi (or Snaps, as he calls her) was pregnant and he told her his vision of their future together. The vision, which included a house by the ocean, a house in Los Angeles, travelling the world together and him selling out the Hollywood Bowl, was uncannily prescient.
“My parents-in-law just looked at me like, ‘You’re a nutcase’,” he laughs. “And even my parents, you know. But we did all that. We sold out the Hollywood Bowl. We lived by the ocean, we travelled the world…” Steele’s face changes, he stops smiling. “But then when I fall, my mind’s so powerful that I believe with conviction of the dark side. I get caught in these patterns and I can’t get out. And it takes eight to ten months of meditation and realising this is a lie that’s been played out. Like the devil’s just been playing this on repeat, until now he’s captured your mind. So I always talk a lot about that; you know, there is nothing as powerful as a changed mind.”
Steele’s iterations over the years, both musically and personally, were just the pieces needed for this final mosaic. Whether it was his formative years in alt-rock band The Sleepy Jackson, where he learned to navigate the music industry, or his globetrotting, chart-climbing double act with Nick Littlemore in Empire of The Sun—a project which holds strong and is one of Australia’s most commercially successful exports—Steele is a product of a life in the limelight, but he has retained artistic integrity despite it. Steele isn’t the fair-weather type when it comes to his collaborations either. His projects, both old and new, largely remain active. The two aforementioned projects formed golden stepping stones to co-writes with acts like Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Yoko Ono, and led to ventures like his electro-pop project H3000 with producer-artist Jarrad Rogers, and DREAMS, his technocrat alliance with Daniel Johns.
“Daniel Johns would always say to me, ‘Be a rock star while you can’. And I would always say, ‘Yeah, yeah…’ but I never really understood what he meant till now. You have to go full octane,” he adds, perhaps remembering the ‘one to three smashed guitars’ quota at every Empire of The Sun show. “And then there is a point where that effervescence fades. And the tapestry changes and you see it through a different lens. And not saying I’m like 430 years old, but you have a different energy and vision for it all.”
One of the turning points on Listen to The Water arrived a couple of years ago when Steele performed an industry showcase to the gatekeepers of the music industry. He tells me he performed four records worth of songs and after this 45-song marathon, he felt it had no impact.
“I pine for the power of influence,” he professes. “It felt like data and algorithms had taken over industry ears and no one had emotional responses to music or melody anymore.
“[…] I sort of realised, well, you know, ‘has the door closed on my power of influence?’ Has that effervescence of the years gone? Like Toy Story, you throw it out.”
Following that industry showcase, Steele decided to get real and raw with his fans, penning what is now track six on the album. “Gladiator” is a swirling insight into Steele’s heart, where realism and blunt candour mingle with graceful pedal steel guitar from the exalted Dan Dugmore (James Taylor, Lionel Richie, Stevie Nicks).
“No one wants ruins, everyone wants the gladiator
No one really needs words, they just want the action.”
Never one to shy away from opinion or conviction, Steele’s move to America 12 years ago saw him censor himself politically during Donald Trump’s controversial reign as President. “I said some stuff about that, about the last guy that was running this country, and people were like, ‘I’m going to come around and kill you’.”
Nowadays, that censorship is limited (kind of) to social media. Steele is more like Bob Dylan in the way he proffers his political views: it’s all in the music.
“I don’t know how these people have the energy [to send death threats],” he shakes his head. “Since when did the soccer mums and the truck drivers, and even journalists, have the energy to get a PhD in science?,” he stops himself. “I promised myself I wasn’t going to say that.”
In reality, Luke Steele is less eager to impress than to be understood. As Empire of The Sun wrapped up recording sessions for their fourth album in 2019 with producer Jacknife Lee up in Topanga Canyon, both members began to look inward. Nick Littlemore went on a retreat to clear his head and Steele felt his solo record calling.
“It sort of began around that,” says Steele, referring to the end of his eight months in Topanga Canyon. “After working on Empire, which is so dimensional and has so many moving parts, I needed to counteract with something completely opposite, just me and a guitar.
“I think sometimes it’s like it can become so big. It turns into a mansion, you know, a castle; you’re building a hotel every record and it’s just yeah…” his voice grows faint. “You just kind of want to go to the island and go fishing or something.”
On the title track which kicks off his new record, Steele shares his angst about the modern world with the listener. Written around the same time he and Littlemore were making an Empire of The Sun album in October of 2019, “Listen to The Water” rebels against Steele’s previous work. Through wallowing synths and tingling guitar lines, Steele’s wistful words give us questions rather than answers (“Why does the radio sound like plastic? / Why are the people so aggressive?”). But that’s exactly the point.
“[Empire of The Sun had] been to Japan a couple of times and it was becoming this conceptual, like, Japanese thing. It was quite heavy, and then one day I said I just need to start with this you know. I need to start this new chapter.” You can hear the edge of excitement in his voice. “It was like that Jerry Maguire moment. Like, I have to go, ‘Who’s with me?!’
“And it just started. ‘Listen to The Water. Listen to God, listen to my daughter’, you know. Why does the radio sound like this? I still get confused about that. Why is someone singing about shaking this or shaking that? How has that changed since John Lennon? How did we end up here? Why do you get depressed? Why does the clock stop? And it was just all these things that I started throwing out. It wasn’t so much a story. I think it was more like the miracles with the madness and the questions and the answers.”
“It was like that Jerry Maguire moment. Like ‘I have to go, ‘Who’s with me?!’”
Being Luke Steele means having access to world class players, a handy advantage when it comes to a long-awaited debut album. He’s the artist who co-produced Beyoncé’s “Rather Die Young” single in 2010, who incited Jay-Z to pull over in his SUV in Times Square when he spotted him, to wind down his window and open the conversation with one drawn out word: “Steeeele”. However, being Luke Steele, the new solo-album-making Luke Steele, means keeping his collaborators to a minimum. Listen to The Water features just two other musicians: lauded Nashville-based pedal steel player Dan Dugmore (who worked as a member of Linda Ronstadt’s Band for 14 years) and LA-based percussionist Brian Kilgore, whose credits are as varied as they are impressive, from Aretha Franklin to Daft Punk.
“When I was down there [in Nashville] you’d say, ‘I’m working with Dan Dugmore’ and people would stop, put their drink down,” Steele grins.
The veterans of their craft collaborated with Steele both in person pre-COVID and via Zoom after the pandemic hit in early 2020. Both helped Steele strip back his sound. You won’t find any complex vocal layering, no meticulously built distortion, zero auto-tune. It’s raw Steele, volunteering his most powerful instrument, his own voice.
“Not to downplay what I’ve done before but it can kind of become you know,” he pauses. “I became so porcelain and hi-fi. Like this shiny figure kind of thing. Where I’m really quite a mess.”
“[Working with Dugmore and Kilgore] cooled the palate,” he says. “I think sometimes I’m like a chef of sounds and just trying to find those ingredients that work with my voice. But luckily I found them, you wouldn’t want to be waiting too long for that meal.”
“I became so porcelain and hi-fi. Like this shiny figure kind of thing. Where I’m really quite a mess.”
Steele mines his own life for material on Listen to The Water, digging into the deep cuts and shallow bruises of his past (“Bullet Train”, “Get Out Now”) as well as the moments of pure sunshine and gratitude (“Pool of Love”, “Two of Us”). The entirely instrumental track “Bullet Train” was written the morning after Pete Lusty, Steele’s former manager of 15 years, lost his battle with cancer.
“He was a really classy guy,” Steele says fondly. “He had a James Bond boat with the wooden panels […]. When he got married his suit was custom made in Savile Row.
“We had a lot of good times together, we travelled the whole world and he was instrumental in changing not only my life and my music, but my family’s life forever. And I just imagine him on this train, this really classy bullet train. Just ascending to heaven. I just did that piano piece in two hours.”
Sparse, warm, inviting, and under two minutes long, Steele never entertained the idea of adding lyrics. “You know that instinct in your heart when you know something is finished,” he says.
Conversely, the song “My Boy”, written about his son Cruise, owes its power to the lyrics.
“My boy, please stop crying
‘Cause when I go you will see clearly
All the things your father taught
In a world that’s lost itself
So please, please stop crying tonight”
Steele was on a post-show flight from Miami in 2018 when he found the song about his son’s infant years in his voice memos. “It’s funny with that song because my memory is pretty good,” he says. “I have a memory like an elephant, but with that song I can’t remember ever writing it. […] It’s an amazing thing with songs, sometimes they disappear and then they turn up at the strangest time in your life.”
It may have taken Luke Steele 25 years “to write an honest song” and release a solo album, but it has never been the finish line that interests him. Steele is far more at peace asking questions than preaching certainties. He collects his observations of the world like talismans, drawing from his experiences to imagine a new reality which he reflects in his music.
“I’m still as confused as ever,” he smiles. “And that’s why it was great to do the record. It’s been great for me to start this chapter because I think I’ve got about six million songs to write.”
This interview features in the March 2022 issue of Rolling Stone Australia. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.
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