Aaron Livingstone was born to a preacher and a teacher in the U.S. with a restless childhood that saw him drop in and out of schools. He found his feet musically as a young man playing with acts like The Roots and RJD2 before embarking on a solo career as Son Little. His music is primarily steeped in the blues, but no genre is off limits from hip hop to electronica as he continues to blur traditional musical boundaries. His self-titled debut album was released last year to wide acclaim and this week he commences his first tour of Australia. Trevor Jackson is a fan of the man’s music and was more than happy to take the opportunity to talk to him.
Where did the name Son Little come from?
It’s a funny story – some years a go a friend of mine had been mispronouncing my name for quite a long time as it turns out, but I hadn’t actually noticed, instead of pronouncing my last name as “Livingstone” she was saying “Littleson”, which I thought was hilarious and a nice little variation on my name, so it seemed like a good name to use for this project.
I first heard you with the release of the Things I Forgot EP. The opening track on that disc The River just blew me away – it was the blues, but it was played through an R & B filter that made it sound both ancient and contemporary at the same time. Do you see yourself as someone carrying on the blues tradition but extending it into new territory?
I don’t know if that’s exactly what I’m doing. I have a lot of respect for the artists who work in these established forms, whether it’s blues, rock or jazz – I just can’t help it but pay homage to those artists but at the same time I have to stay true to myself. I’m always looking to reach out to find new ways of expressing myself.
That EP also contained the stunning Your Love Will Blow Me Away, which is now also on your debut album. Again, this was the blues but delivered like a soul song. I’m curious to know what kind of music you grew up listening to?
My parents had a lot to do with it, although they had slightly different tastes – they sort of met in the middle with Motown stuff like the Temptations and the Four Tops, so that kind of music was well ingrained in my head, along with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. I remember I was about 10 years old when my mom bought me a CD of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, which was one of her favourites.
But you know all of those Motown artists that people think of as R & B, or the Beatles that are thought of as rock or pop, it doesn’t really matter what labels you put on them because they were all weaving their own different styles into their music. I think the best way to follow the traditions that went before you is not to sound like they did, but to write honestly and that’s what I’m dedicated to doing.
It’s a really interesting musical palette you work from – blues, soul, gospel, hip hop, electronica – you name it. Do you intentionally set out to mix those genres to take the blues in a new direction or is it more of a natural flow in the way you embrace and process different types of music?
It’s not so much deliberate as I think it is inevitable and increasingly now I think, especially here on the east coast of the United States – we’re all jammed up against each other. Even if you grow up listening to jazz you can’t help but hear some hip hop and if you’re listening to hip hop you’re still gonna hear a little bit of country, or maybe the music on the Latin radio stations.
I think it’s unavoidable that at some point those influences are all going to bleed into each other. Increasingly at the moment it seems to be electronic music, but then really almost everything these days could be classified as electronic music (laughs). Once I got a hold of drum machines and synths I became fascinated with them. It’s exciting to find ways to integrate that stuff into a more traditional setting.
You produce the sounds you create – are you a musician first or a producer – or is it all just part of the same process for you?
That’s interesting. I know that way back I was always intrigued with the producers, even when I really didn’t know what that term meant. I began to recognise names attached to the music I was listening to like Quincy Jones and I’d just be looking at the credits and there would be the artist and then there was this other person, but what they did I had no idea, yet it was always intriguing to me.
The way I work those roles are certainly different. When I’m making my own music there’s a need to switch back and forth mentally between the two roles in order to get the best result. Because something that may be good for the singer or the performer isn’t necessarily gonna be good for the producer. I mean if I’m wearing the producer’s hat how am I gonna keep the singer in line – it’s not easy (laughs)! And to be honest when I’m being the producer it involves me staring at the wall for a lot of the time. I’ll be thinking “I’ve no idea what to do – I’m just gonna sit here until something happens (laughs)!
Mavis Staples was obviously impressed with your studio chops – how did you end up producing an album for her?
We have a mutual friend in Andy Kaulkin at Anti Records. It was really his brainchild I guess when he suggested that I might want to do something like that. When the Things I Forgot EP came out he played it to her and she really liked it. I was holding my breath waiting to find out thinking she’s probably gonna hate it, but then when she liked it this whole other fear came over me, it was like: “how do you write a song for Mavis Staples?”
So you were in awe of her?
I try not to be in awe of people generally, but it’s kind of hard not to be with Mavis. Her energy alone as a person is something else – she’s just oozing this soulful, immense talent. Then you think about the things that she’s done and all the branches on the tree of American music and she’s right in the root. You just don’t meet too many people like that, let alone get a chance to work with them.
Mavis may be well into her 70’s now, but she has a track record of embracing more experimental ideas in music. Some years ago she did a fantastic cover of Talking Heads’ Burning Down The House, a song that you wouldn’t ordinarily connect with someone like Mavis Staples and more recently she’s collaborated with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as well. Was Mavis open to the more adventurous ideas you were throwing at her?
There were things that I wondered about. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to do her thinking for her on that level. I didn’t really want to censor myself sonically without giving her the opportunity to hear what I was hearing. And really it was great because everything I tried and let her hear she was into. It felt good because it was an affirmation of that idea.
You know it’s not so important the instruments you use, as opposed to the feeling behind it, but the fact that she gravitated to the sounds meant a lot to me. When you think about it she’s been produced by Jeff Tweedy, Prince, Curtis Mayfield, John at Muscle Shoals… I mean the list goes on. So I just thought to myself, I could surround that voice with anything I want and nothing was ever going to stop that voice!
You mentioned that when you’re working in the studio that it’s more about a feeling than the instruments you choose. Technically you’re obviously very savvy, but to me it sounds like you have more of an emotional connection when it comes to making music, whether it’s your own music or producing someone else is that right?
Yeah. My proficiency in the studio is a result of trial by error more than anything else. I’ve learned a lot over time but always for me it’s about getting the essence of something. Even on the technical side of things I probably do quite a few things that don’t play by the rules, I just try to trust my ears and trust my gut and hope that everyone else does too.
*Son Little plays Brisbane’s Black Bear Lodge on Thursday, November 24.