In the fall of 2016, Son Little found himself in the remote city of Darwin, Australia, wrapping up a long tour. He had been swamped since his self-titled debut album came out in 2015, touring and working with other musicians’ projects, and had been yearning to write again. He finally found his chance under Darwin’s starry, tropical night sky, but was in need of a guitar. Luckily, a blind Aboriginal singer Gurrumul (who passed away soon after earlier this year) lent him a guitar. It was a lefty guitar, so Son Little had to play it upside down, yet he still found enough inspiration to write five songs in just twenty-four hours. Three of those songs would make the final cut on Son Little’s sophomore album. New Magic was released this past Friday, and it is a sonic departure from his debut; he will be playing a 21-and-over show at the Club Cafe in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Sept. 21.
Little won a Grammy in 2015 as a producer working with soul legend Mavis Staples. But as a songwriter and performer he is part of a generation that is defying definition, and fusing genres and production techniques to create songs that sound both primal and fresh. Artists like Little or New Orleans' favorite son Trombone Shorty may be too ambitious to top the pop charts but they have gained critical acclaim and a loyal following. In an interview with The Tartan, Little cites a wide range of artists such as Gary Clark Jr., Curtis Harding, Anderson .Paak, Tame Impala, and Grizzly Bear as part of this new wave who are “chipping away at the same sort of monolith, the same sort of strict genre based music.”
Born Aaron Livingston in Los Angeles, he grew up listening to rock, jazz, and R&B. His family migrated across the country, ending up in Queens where he discovered hip-hop. After spending high school in suburban New Jersey, Livingston returned to New York to attend Columbia University. He was unhappy there and dropped out, later enrolling in Temple University in Philadelphia, where his musical career really began to gather steam. There he met The Roots, playing music with them and featuring on a song on their album undun. But, slowly, the music in Livingston’s life began to die out. He grew unhappy again, bouncing from job to job. “I got to a point where I almost fell out of love with music,” he said, “I felt like I was over it.”
A few years later, however, Livingston would rediscover music and songwriting, ironically finding himself by taking on a new identity, Son Little. This fresh persona helped free him up to break down those genre walls he found so confining.
He described his debut album Son Little, which was released in 2015, as a “rebirth,” returning him to his love of music. The project was a revelation, as he combined blues, R&B, soul, rock, hip-hop, country, and electronic to create a unique fusion. The genre-breaking sounds of his first record were important to him because he strives to avoid the “tight, little, three-word phrases to describe what [genre] something is.” With his music, he said, “I get to those three words and then it’s six words and then ten words and now I’m writing you an essay about what this is because there’re so many things that warrant saying.”
Songs like the grooving “Toes” or rowdy “The River” fall more towards rock, with energizing guitar riffs and drum beats, while the mixture of acoustic guitar and a twangy riff on “Carbon” lend it a country vibe. The heartfelt “O Mother” bleeds with soul, “Lay Down” is simple but soothing, and the sparse opening track “I’m Gone” sounds like blues from another planet. Most of the album sounds heavily produced — the tracks are deeply layered and he uses many unusual and hard-to-place sonic elements. He has always liked to experiment with creating bizarre sounds, and says that while on tours “we’re all in the van and I might take my laptop or my iPad out and just make beats.” In fact, he had been experimenting on his laptop on the van ride just before this interview.
However, despite messing around with electronic music in his spare time, Son Little says that he does not add in many computerized sounds in production, and that “almost everything that you hear in my songs is something that I played out in the studio through some combination of gadgets.” Furthermore, most of these sounds come from “traditional instruments: guitar, bass, drums, synths, which is becoming a traditional instrument in a way, and electric piano.” His ability to create such odd yet captivating sounds using mostly traditional instruments reveals his versatility as a musician.
His sophomore effort, New Magic, sounds more raw and less produced. For Son Little, “new magic is just like the old magic.” This mantra ushers a return to basics for him, with the album taking on a more stripped down, acoustic vibe. “Most of these songs on this new record, these songs are rooted in the lyrics and the melodies, kind of the grooves, not necessarily the instrumentation but the feeling of it,” he explained.
While it is still recognizable as Son Little, the vocals are less smoothed over, showing off a smokier, more emotional side of his voice that wasn’t as apparent on the first album. This change was not intentional. Instead, he would just like for “whatever feels natural to come out” and for the shift in style “not to feel forced.” This approach also ties into how Son Little thinks about the magic of music. For him, there is a certain mystery to it; he doesn’t quite know where it comes from but the music, the magic is there within him.
The album opens with “Kimberly’s Mine,” and the muted strums of the acoustic guitar and ambling piano line immediately signal the simple, more old school sound of New Magic. This is followed by the mellow lead single “Blue Magic,” its bouncy guitar and calming harmonies making you feel like you’re floating among the clouds. The much more dark and eerie “O Me O My” is next, and Son Little describes the tone as “looking around and seeing a society crumbling.” The tender “Mad About You” is another highlight. The track shows off the emotion in Son Little’s voice — as he yearns for love, his vocals become rougher, but it’s these imperfections that make the song feel beautifully real. The way Son Little cries out over fuzzy guitar on the ominous “The Middle” makes it sound like a Brothers-era Black Keys song, until the solemn, delicate strings kick in. The album closes with “Demon To The Dark,” a slow, sincere dialogue with Washington Phillips, a deacon and little known musician from the early 1900s whose music was deeply religious, in which Son Little pleads for forgiveness and asks for direction in life.
Son Little will play in the Steel City later this week, and since much of his library, especially Son Little, incorporates many electronic sounds, the live performances may sound different than his studio cuts. He says that he and his band have gone back and forth on how to incorporate these elements, sometimes playing them on loops in the background and sometimes excluding them. His attitude has changed recently, however. “Rather than try to replicate what is on the record, we try to capture the essence of each song as best as we can with what we have.”