OKP Exclusive: Son Little Shares The Music + Stories From His Brilliant Self-Titled Debut LP [LP Stream + Interview]
Photo by Eddie Pearson for Okayplayer
Big things are coming from the man named Son Little. The Philadelphia-bred songwriter and modern blues troubadour has finally unveiled his long-anticipated debut LP, a self-titled effort that offers us a inside glimpse of his battered and beautiful soul. The guitarist and vocalist, whose given name is Aaron Livingston and who has recorded alongside RJD2 as Icebird, has traveled a long road to arrive at his current sound, a harrowing blend of sharp blues guitar and simple, hypnotic drum machine loops.
But in music, great things are worth the wait, and anyone who placed bets on Livingston to deliver is now being repaid in full. Son Little is a fulsome record that reaches deep into your heart. On it, Livingston offers out a hand to the shaken and strung-out. From politics to personal self-doubt, Livingston charts hardships as a means of correcting course towards a place of hope and by the time its final track fades away, you're left realizing that what this is...is a revival. Okayplayer sat down with Son to discuss his process and what lies beneath many of the individual tracks on his new record. Click through to get the backstory of the album's below, and stream the music alongside the stories, courtesy of NPR's First Listen. (If you're in NY, catch him live tonight at NPR's CMJ showcase at Le Poisson Rouge).
OKP: Are these songs "blues" in the sense of translating a personal experience into a song directly? Do you have a particular experience or story behind a lot of these works—and would you be able to share the backstory"
SL: I think there’s some of both. Some of them are kind of descriptions or riffs on particular moments. Some of them are more a general feeling or of a period of time. And then some of them are more like almost wordplay, but associated to a topic.
“Cross My Heart”
SL: That’s the first song I really did where I knew it was someone. I was trying to make something upbeat, and then it completely, horribly failed.
Sad things happened to me, and the mood shifted. I had a friend die a couple years ago, around that time and that was something I was still trying to process. That same week was the George Zimmerman trial, which changed the mood. I think in a way it was just a way of dealing with it. More than trying to make any kind of statement, because I don’t know exactly what the statement is, but I personally was having a hard time dealing with it, and so that was how I worked through it. It made it clearer for me, and when we play it I can summon some part of that feeling, or maybe just the release of those feelings. It’s kind of an ongoing thing.
I used to be "Little Son," when I was writing on my own. I ended up flipping it around—I was conscious of the blues connection there with Sun House, even though that wasn’t why I did it, it was just a happy accident. That was the direction I was going in.
OKP: Tell us about that--can you define the difference between Little Son and Son Little?
SL: Son Little is certainly closer to the moodier side of things. I think a lot of times, I’ve been resisting what my natural inclinations have been, which is a lot of times towards that—a darker mood. I try to pick it up and try to break out of that. And with this stuff, I really went towards it, instead of away. If it’s going to be dark, then let it be dark. These are dark times.
OKP: Are they dark times for you personally?
SL: I think in general it’s pretty dark, man. I’ve had my own moments, for sure, but generally speaking...
I always liked messing around with drum machines and sometimes putting drum machines together with things you don’t normally hear. You don’t usually hear a straight blues riff with an 808 behind it. That’s always intrigued me, so it was kind of a starting point for everything that I've done since then.
"Go Blue, Blood Red"
>>>Stream & Get The Backstory For "Go Blue, Blood Red" (via OKP Premiere)
SL: “Nice Dreams” is fun--it’s kind of about how people can just turn anything into drugs. Any kind of substance—sugar—or any activity or way of thinking can become an unhealthy habit. I was kind of playing around with that idea...and it's also somewhat based on that Cheech & Chong movie. It’s one of the less popular. It was the first one that I saw and it stuck with me in my head. I've always wanted to write a song related to that movie.
OKP: Talk to us a bit about your composition process?
SL: I don’t necessarily have a sequence of how I do things, but it’s one of three things. If it’s not lyrics or my voice and melody, then it’s guitar, or drums. Those three things tend to be kind of the meat of the writing process. I try to open a blank page and add whatever comes to mind first. Sometimes that has more to do with where I am than how I’m feeling about it. If you listened to my voice memos—go back a couple months and you’ll hear [makes booming drum noises].
OKP: Do you have to go to some place, a special spot to write where you can shut things out, or can you sit in a café and write?
SL: I like to be in the bat cave, but I’m not usually there, and sometimes it doesn’t work that well. Sometimes, lately, I’ve been sort of of the mind that the more choices you have, the harder it is to do anything. If I have very little around me then I just use whatever it is that I have. If I walk around just with a book, then I’ll write in that. Sometimes I’ve only got my phone, and I sing into my phone. It’s just as good as being in the studio with a million instruments around you. At some point you do have to get somewhere to record, but up to that point I think sometimes I feel like I’m better off not writing things down and not really working through an arrangement so much, or working on specific parts or sounds. I just feel like so often I go to the studio with somebody, you do a thing, and there’s the idea “We can always change this and replace that” and you end up swimming in choices that you’d be better off just waiting and doing it all at once.
“Your Love Will Blow Me Away”
SL: After listening to Son House stuff, his approach--of just voice and maybe a drum somewhere--really stuck with me. Obviously "Your Love Will Blow Me Away" developed into more than that but that’s how it started. Even process-wise that song...I wrote it on my dresser, basically, started singing it and hit the dresser for a few minutes and it was really great. The idea was already very complete without any instrumentation at all.
OKP: So do you bring the dresser onstage?
SL: I should! Just take the top off it, or one drawer, and bring it with me.
SL: I wrote a bunch of these songs over the winter in Woodstock. Up there it’s cold and snows a lot, and I was just stuck in the house. I was just trying to get all of this stuff done, staying up all night with this song and it just wasn’t working. I thought, "This is a dead end and I have to try something else. So I started doing the simplest thing possible. I recorded the drum beat for “Doctor’s In,” went back and listened to it and thought ‘This is cool but it sounds weird. Something’s off.’ I hadn’t been asleep in a long time and in hindsight that’s got something to do with it. But I went back and listened to it and I realized the feel was exactly what I wanted, but it just didn’t sound right. Then when I looked around I realized I had unplugged all of the microphones except one. The one that was still plugged in was in the couch. So it just had this muffled…it’s not how you’re supposed to do it. I started laughing about it. I added a little something else and it just kind of came together. It was an important moment for me because it drove home the point that nothing’s ever perfect and things don’t have to be. It just has to be what it is. Sometimes those weird accidents turn into your favorite things. That was a well-timed event, because I think I was wrestling with a lot of things and trying to force things to be a certain way and sound a certain way or what have you.
SL: "O Mother" and "Cross My Heart" both are really close together in a way. They’re both kind of an emotional response to; my version of protest. Having been away from home for a while, on tour kind of camped out and moving around France a bit last year, I just sort of gradually started feeling comfortable in a way that I’m not used to feeling.
Right in the middle of that, the protests in St. Louis and New York intensified, and I saw cops in riot gear and rubber bullets and tear gas. I really had not been paying attention--I was doing what I was supposed to do over there. I felt angry, and I felt disappointed and guilty somehow, because I wasn’t at home. It doesn’t make the most logical sense, but I thought “Who am I to enjoy this?” I just got tired out and exhausted of that feeling--being invisible or discarded or discounted. To be always misjudged. I don’t know if people realize how accustomed people can become to feeling that way and what that does to a person. Feeling like you’re always a suspect and people are viewing you that way. Just that you’re untrustworthy or uncapabable or uneducated. It’s exhausting for people.
OKP: You felt pretty free of that in France?
SL: For the most part, or at least to a real degree. I was getting used to not worrying about that. There’s not the same pressure. But at the same time there are people in France that have that feeling, but it’s not me. And that’s a whole other level of it too. I’m just not accustomed to being not stigmatized, where there’s other people that are.
OKP: It seems as if “Cross My Heart” and “O Mother” were written close together. Were they?
SL: Not really. It was at least six months between them, maybe more. I actually tend to play them back to back. "O Mother" is all questions, and "Cross My Heart" is more like a story. It’s expressing a kind of fatigue with this idea, that we’re out here saying #BlackLivesMatter because we’re tired of feeling this way. "Cross My Heart" is kind of saying that, but with "O Mother," that fatigue becomes complete exhaustion. There’s nothing else to do but ask the question. Clearly stating the case is not helping. I just asked the question—why is this, what can I actually do, even just to continue experiencing life this way?
OKP: And "River" does have some of that, doesn’t it?
SL: “River,” I think of as shaking things up. It’s a little bit more loose and not as concerned about anything, really. I feel like it’s a different type of energy.
SL: Sometimes I feel the need to really use a traditional blues form. It’s blues, really in form only, with all kind of other things you don’t normally find there. But the idea is conceived like a blues song. The lyrics were just there. That day, I really opened my book and thought “Oh, well let’s just make this music.” It was really reductive in the way that I took things away and scaled back and took so many words away and repeated things instead.
OKP: Finally, let's talk “About A Flood"” and “Real Goodbye”? It's always interesting as to the track that artists select to close their album--the place where you want to leave people. What place did you want to leave them in—which one of them is the true closer?
"About A Flood"
SL: I think thematically for the record, they are where they are for pretty good reasons. I really did think about those being in different positions. “About a Flood” I think is kind of the true end. It’s also the last song that i wrote during the time that I wrote all of these songs, and it’s almost like gathering my feelings about all of it. Including the experience of writing it. Like I said, there have been are dark moments in a dark time in general, and I’ve had my share of those. It’s almost like you just want to find ways to rise above it. To take negatives and turn them into positives. But at the same time, I usually find if I’m really down about something, that I spend too much time on it and can miss something else. Another opportunity or something else that you have that’s positive. There’s a line about “Catfish all around,” and that’s just the idea of really being aware of what you have. Different kinds of wealth that a person can possess. That song means a lot to me in that way. It really summed up a lot of things for me.
SL: “Real Goodbye,” I think of the style of it—it’s something I had the music for for a long time, it’s something I play a lot, whenever i pick up a guitar. It’s comfortable. I just sort of mindlessly play it. The production of the song doesn’t sound like it’s that way, though. I did something very different. And that, to me, in a musical sense sums up a lot of what I did. And what I’ve been doing is coming up with an idea and sometimes just translating it into something completely different. Maybe the baseline become the vocal melody, or the vocal melody becomes the baseline. Or the bass gets edited out. I had this thing that I’ve played on guitar a thousand times, and then I turn the guitar track off.