I had the pleasure of spending some time with Son Little upon his visit to Manchester’s Soup Kitchen last November, where he was playing with label mate Curtis Harding. He really enjoyed my company, look:
The illustrious Now Then magazine published our interview here, but below you can find the full version of our conversation.
Lay Down, embedded below, is the first track leaked from his self-titled debut album out in October on Anti-.
Reinventing oneself is never a light decision to make, but it’s one that’s given new drive to Philly resident Aaron Earl Livingston.
Until recently best known as the voice of ‘Sleep’ on The Roots’ 2011 album ‘undun’, plus as half of the duo Icebird with esteemed beatmaker RJD2, Aaron also carved out a niche for himself as an independent bluesman which the likes of Okayplayer have referred to as a modern-day Bob Marley.
Now signed to Anti- (sister label to Epitaph) and pouring his heart out under the name Son Little, his debut EP is entitled ‘Things I Forgot’. Consisting of a trio of songs written as the concept of Son Little was being born, together with two that now fit that identity, it’s a beautiful statement of intent that promises much more to come.
It’s a cool Manchester evening when I catch up with him in the bowels of the Soup Kitchen, hunched over a table in poncho and fedora, softly spoken and a little groggy, reflective and eager to share.
How would you sum up Son Little for those unfamiliar with you?
I’m a songwriter, and a soul singer, an R’n’B singer. Among other things. That’s probably the gist of it.
Cross My Heart (Son’s debut track) was written around the time of Trayvon Martin’s death and is an homage to the departed. Does it remain pertinent now?
It does. Obviously we’ve been playing these shows away from home but I’m hearing about things that are going on in the case of Ferguson. You know… it’s really disappointing. I wrote the song probably a little more than a year ago. Not that I expected this scenario to end or be fixed, but to have it become more and more relevant is extremely disappointing. I’ve been finding myself on stage really thinking about those things.
Does travelling offer different perspectives around that?
You can’t help, when you go to new places, but to pick up on the differences probably first. I think in some ways the differences are subtle but I know in a certain way as a black male in America you feel like there’s a target on your back. This is after centuries of struggle to reverse that scenario. I don’t feel that here. Or anywhere we’ve gone. Not that it’s perfect, everyone gets along and there’s no hate or prejudice or racism but I don’t feel like there’s a target on my back because of my race. To come here and be removed from it somewhat, feel that type of relief and then look at the news, and see: yep, America’s at it again. Not that it ever stops. But it’s kind of embarrassing to feel like the place you live is… stuck. That’s how it feels, it’s like we’re stuck with this mentality that does not wanna let go.
You feel like you’re representing America?
Absolutely. Obviously I would never presume to speak for anyone other than myself and especially not a whole race or country of people but it’s a simple fact that I come from America, I have things to say, I’m speaking my mind in my own way in front of people that haven’t been to the places I’ve been so I can’t help but represent those places.
Does that feeling inspire you to write?
It does, I feel like I’m full of words and music right now. I’ve seen a lot of things since we left and had a lot of time to think. Maybe not that much time to actually write the way I would normally do it – if I’m not at the gig or going to the gig I’m asleep. And I’m away from all my gadgets and toys but yeah, it’s an inspiring thing to meet so many people and see so many things you’ve never seen before. To get that perspective away from your home.
Have certain places been particularly inspirational?
Definitely Paris. We were in Paris last month and we had a hell of a time getting there, we were all exhausted but as soon as I got in to the city I felt something. I’ve been back there twice and each time whatever it was I felt is developing which is very interesting. I was in London a couple of years ago and there’s a similar feeling there – a very different feeling, obviously, but another place I felt a connection to maturing the more time I spend there.
And chances to make connections with people, too?
Some, yeah some. Probably not as much as I would like. I very much like being in a new environment, meeting new people and seeing how they think about things, how they’ve lived. Those things are really interesting to me so in these instances where I go to a place I’ve never been, and then don’t actually have time to do anything is kinda frustrating sometimes. Having had a very significant time in Paris there were some connections made that I think in a very natural, human way where I could see things developing which is very cool. Tiny bit of that in London as well. We played with a group in Paris a few days ago that are all Londoners – that’s a connection that we made that could bear fruit in the future.
You’ve left your Aaron Livingston archive up on Bandcamp. Are there parallels to be drawn between Son and Aaron? (Note: the archive has since come down)
(Laughing) To be honest, I forgot that was even up there. I thought about it not too long ago actually, I couldn’t remember if they were still there or not. Obviously they’re connected…
Nothing to hide then…
Not at all. Those recordings are very cool to me, very important to me. They’re really the building blocks for what I’m doing now. When I listen to them I hear little flashes of the things that I’ve come to build now.
I always wanna go onwards and upwards, you know. I think the more focused and more, just exploring a lot of the same themes and finding new ways to approach the lyrics and production that kind of stuff just really excites me endlessly. Finding a different tone lyrically, a different way to express things I have in mind. And the production sids of things too, finding different ways of approaching the sounds and combining the sounds, getting better at shaping them, to be it seems like an endless world of fun.
I imagine working with The Roots would have honed your live skills and working with RJD2 your production set?
That’s pretty accurate, very accurate even. I mean The Roots… even just seeing them from the side and seeing the preparation, watching the soundcheck, rehearsal, I was on stage with them a few times – the moments on stage doing the show are probably on par with the moments I spent rehearsing. It’s like a how-to instruction manual. My experiences with them have been incredibly educational for me. And like you said, RJ is like, like a wizard, his sense of production in the studio is just… he’s really a tirelessly hard worker and very open as far his philosophy and approach to creating things, he’s very open to ideas. He’d be like, ‘Is this cool or not?’ and you’d say, ‘Na,’ and he’d get rid of it. ‘We’ll do another, we’ll do it again.’
That’s a hard thing to learn. That’s a lesson I learned from both of those artists, both have a very keen understanding of that.
That must be hard to do, let go.
It can be, it definitely can be. I’ve played around with samples myself. In a way, if you’re really putting yourself into it, it probably is not the same. This phrase that’s come come up a lot in the past year or so – you have to be able to ‘kill your babies’, it’s a hard lesson, you know. But sometimes, that’s what has to happen in order to get the song you need, the sound you need, the records you need, you have to dispense with things that you may really care deeply about. Or at least, put them aside, so that something else can materialise. It is hard to do. As I’m riding around here in Europe one of the things that we see a lot is we’ve been on trains a lot here in England and France. As you get close to the station, there’s a wall and it’s full of graffiti. Some really brilliant pieces, a whole wall fall of them, which is something that we used to see in America – we gave birth to those things And that went from something simple where a guy steals a spray can and writes his name on something, and it turned into these really big fully realised art pieces taking up a whole subway car – or two. All done in one night, and the next night it’s gone. And that’s, there’s a lesson there those artists had to accept from the beginning that this creation of mine is finite, I can put everything I have in to this and it just gets washed away like a sandcastle.
You have to give it away. To some extend that can mean giving it away to your audience, but it also means giving it away to the universe. Basically, we have gifts and that’s why we’re able to do these things. But can anyone explain where the gift came from in the first place? No. So it doesn’t really belong to you, you have to be willing to give it up. In some ways, you didn’t do anything to get it. It belongs in the ether. That’s a hard thing to learn. That’s a lesson I learned from both of those artists, both have a very keen understanding of that.
So what about the genesis of the Son Little idea? Was it a full length album you had in mind first?
That’s a good question, because initially when the idea was developing I had a lot of songs (I always have a lot of songs) that I pictured as a full length, originally. It would have been Aaron Livingston’s greatest hits, Volume One (find Volumes 0 and -1 on his Bandcamp page). Once I started working with Anti-, I sort of re-imagined it.
Why was that?
I got in a space where I felt like i had a lot more material at my fingertips that was ready to be expressed. And I’m always tryna make it better. It felt like a different thing altogether, like starting from zero. The way it started to crystallize was coming up with Cross My Heart – it felt different to me. Maybe it was a subtle difference. I had the name Son Little by this point and that’s a very different way for me to do things – I have this name, what is that?
I was sort of brooding on this idea of just creating an entity from scratch. The idea of it came together before the music. I didn’t really set out to to make the music any particular way – once I’d made Cross My Heart I felt like: here it is. My gut told me to just continue and see where that took me. Your Love Will Blow Me Away was the next thing I wrote, and then The River.
The other two songs are things that I had sort of lying around, I would love one week and not the next. I felt like once I looked back through the lens of where we’re at now, those things fit to me. The tone, the lyrics, the energy, it all fit with what I was doing and that changed my perspective on what I’m doing.
So what’s the masterplan? To be brutal, how will you continue to make a living out of this?
I think you gotta be on your toes and be creative making money. For the most part record sales are not there and you’re not going to make money that way, for most people it’s always been pretty questionable at best if you were going to make any money from your record. Touring is obviously really important, if you can (product) place things it can be really helpful – but all that stuff to me goes against the way I’ve always done everything, to aim for things like that, so I wouldn’t catch myself doing that sort of thing. As far as format goes, I’ve always loved great albums and that’s always going to be the goal.
I had done that a little bit, where I would just make something and put it out, a blog here and there ould pick it up. Which I was never really expecting. Even though what I wanted to do was a full length – but it seemed to make sense to roll something out, put a song out. Much in the way of what we were talking about before with graffiti writing, it’s a gift, just here it is. Let it live its own life. You can always do another one. That one got away, so what, do another one. We’ve been fortunate because the responses have been really good. It’s been fun to do that. I’ve been amazed and impressed just how much I’ve been able to do with so little.
Having now had this experience, I would love to put music out every week!
The record label are supportive?
Anti – They’re amazing man, they’re great. They have really gotten behind these ideas, and generated ideas, they really help me see a lot of different ways that I can approach disseminating art.
I’m getting a bit more hands on with the video aspect now, I’ve aways had an interest in that as well, so I can’t describe how exciting that is for me to be able to really… it’s really cool. It’s a lot of fun, having the chance to make another video.
Do you have songs mapped out for the full length?
I have more than the songs laid out for the full length. I feel like there’s always… throwing things out, sometimes when you throw something out you get something back, quicker. Music is funny like that – all forms of art can be this way, you can have long periods of nothing. I might say I’m going to write all week – four days go by, I can’t stand anything I did. On the fifth day, I write three songs. By the seventh day, three songs are pretty much done. When you tell someone about it, they ask how did it go? ‘I wrote three songs, check ‘em out!’ ‘Whoa, these are great, did you do these in a week?’
The reality is no, I did these in one day but those three days that nothing worked are just as important as the one day where it did.
You seem to be resilient enough to make mistakes or change your ideas.
My parents, my family in general, are resilient people, I feel like I got it from them. I’ve made lots of mistakes. You make a mistake, you’re still here. What are you gonna do, fold up? I think you’re completely right. You make a mistake, all you can do is pick up the pieces, figure out why it didn’t work.
I’ve had some moments where I was maybe… tired of it. Probably needed a recharge. I used to paint. That’s something I remember painting – thinking ‘this is cool’, then all of a sudden this looks terrible. It’s always those times, walk away and do something else, completely different. Could be family, push ups. Anything that puts you in a different frame of mind, allows your mind time to resolve whatever the issues are, whatever you’re stuck on. There is a a resolution, you just don’t know what it is. Sometimes it can’t be your conscious mind that works that out.
I heard your mum gave you a slap when she heard you singing Purple Rain. Is that on your list of favourite albums?
Ha, ha. It’s right up there. I would say… (Hendrix’s) Electric Ladyland. That’s hard actually because I could also say Band of Gypsys. Nas, Illmatic is one. Amazing record. In that vein, Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest was big for me.
Why that over the others?
Something about the overall, really cool vibe I think. I love most of their stuff, all of it really, that record has a lot of samples from a specific time period. An era of jazz that I heard a lot growing up too. That’s a very perfect synthesis of things I felt close to. New thing – hip hop – combined with this thing engrained in my head.
Maybe they grew up with that, those records were in their houses too. I heard (John Coltrane’s) Blue Train 80 million times, that’s engrained, part of my body. Anytime I hear something that really captures that kind of mood, it does something to me. Illmatic is similar in that way, because it has so much of that, that DJ Premier style of all these little pieces of all this great, great music. Nirvana, Nevermind, is important for me. Just kicks ass. There’s no bad songs on that album.
Out of all the ones I just mentioned, the only one that has a song I don’t like is Electric Ladyland because those albums always have… no offence, but I’m not a huge Noel Redding fan (bassist for the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and there’s a Noel Redding song on there and I’m like, what this doing here? Other than that, that record is perfect. At the very least it doesn’t fit, whereas as widely ranged as Jimi’s music was, it all just goes together somehow. Like The Beatles – you listen to any of those later records, some of the songs are stylistically very far from the other ones, Paul McCartney doing all that throwback depression era stuff, but they fit together somehow – the mood and the intent somehow glues it together. Revolver and Rubber Soul, I really love the sound of those records.
I’m a fan of the Beatles probably as much as I am mildy obsessed with everything about them historically, from their studio to the way they wrote, all that stuff is very interesting to me. Just watching the progression of styles. I think each wave had something had something cool, compelling about that is different even though the writing – I mean the writing changes a lot too – template of the pop star.
Have you come up with a name for the album and is it going to get a vinyl release?
I got an email about the EP and realised I had forgotten to give them the name – hence Things I Forgot! Son Little was like that – sometimes you come up with a name for something. it’s the idea first and the name comes to mean something after. You name a kid, you don’t know anything about the kid. The kid starts to grow and the name means something – maybe most things are like that.
I would love to get something on vinyl from here on out. I love listening to vinyl, there’s something different about putting a vinyl record on a player. I know that whenever I listen to music that way, I’m much more likely to listen to something multiple times. Is that cos I’m too lazy to get up and change it? Maybe. But I think that’s a real test of how you really feel about something. You play one side, then play side two – if you’re really feeling it, you’re gonna get to what’s supposed to be the end of the record. Next thing you know you’ve listend to it five times in a row and it sits on the turntable for a week or two. You play it every day.
I think that with iPods and iPhones they’re great tools, it’s very cool to walk around with thousands of songs in your pocket, but it drfinitely alters the expereince. Unless you force yourself, to restrict yourself to the old ways of doing it..
Even just the ability to just press a button, and it skips. CDs did that too but a least with a CD was a contained physical object – which unfortunately sounded a lot worse than anything that came before it… initially anyway. I think something’s lost in digital if you listen to things that way. Most people probably who are just growing up now just don’t have a concept of that. They’re really not accustomed to listening to full length albums – can you go backwards? I don’t know.
Vinyl sales are up though. I think sleeves must be a big part of that.
That’s amazing. Something to read while you listen to it, it’s an experience. Liner notes. That’s part of it definitely. You might not think about that all the time, but you miss them. Maybe while you’re listening, you think, ‘let me get all the information on this group so I really understand what’s going on’. You ask someone, ‘you heard this?’, they say, ‘yeah, it’s really good’, then you realise they only ever listened to one song. They don’t know anything, and didn’t really bother to try and find out.
Even doing some of these shows – we’ll be almost done and then we’ll play Cross My Heart and I see people go ‘OOOhhh that’s this guy,’ – which is cool but there’s a certain throwaway mentality. It’s just another song, of which I have an unlimited amount…
Things You Forgot is out not on Anti-.
The album Son Little is out in October.