Robert Smith, lead singer for The Cure, once remarked that the idea of reinvention was bizarre. Philly singer/songwriter Aaron Livingston would disagree. The man who made a name for himself lending his beautifully dour vocals to tracks with The Roots and, most famously, producer RJD2 for a joint album called The Abandoned Lullaby, has reemerged as Son Little. Why the change? To put it bluntly, freedom. While his music with past collaborators have allowed him to pull together a wide range of musical influences, his new solo work, he says, will be more focused.
The first two songs released under his new moniker, "Cross My Heart" and the recent "You Love Will Blow Me Away When My Heart Aches," bring to mind everything from late '60s, early '70s soul to early lovers rock reggae. They're slow moving and purposeful, crafted so each word, carried along with Little's signature fervent vocals, hits home. They're both songs about love, but also of loss and life. They're also songs, Little says, made for the sake of themselves; not for radio or the charts, but just because, as he told me over cups of coffee one recent afternoon in June, he wanted to make them and his label, ANTI, went along for the ride.
Before he embarked on a nationwide tour with Kelis, Son Little sat down with Complex to talk about the new persona, how he didn't want to be a singer, and the true purpose of an album.
Complex: The last I heard from you, was on the Icebird album with RJD2. I thought that was spectacular.
Son Little: It’s good that you started with that. That was a collaboration between myself and RJ.
It brought together a number of disparate types of music. Is that part of your approach to music?
I’ve dabbled with sampling here and there, but I think generally speaking that’s what I do. I just use instruments and voices to do the sampling instead of an actual sampler. I’ve always been drawing a piece from here, a piece from there, a piece from there. When I first started doing it, I was a little clumsier like, “I’m gonna make this sound like Jimi Hendrix," or “I’m gonna make this sound like,” you know, whatever it might be at that moment. And over time it got to the point where I don't think about that anymore. I just start with an idea and let it develop and more often than not it ends up being that kind of mosaic type piece. It's why I’ve been very eager to push my own vision out, because people have seen me with RJ, they’ve heard me with The Roots, they’ve heard me with this person and that person—never a very direct stream straight from me. I’ve been pushing and really excited to get my own direct vision out.
Is that why the name change happened? Is that why you went from Aaron Livingsotn to Son Little?
Was there always a Son Little?
[Laughs] I think those things are both true. There was this girl I used to work with who started calling me Little Son, just playing off my last name. It was kind of a joke, people would call me that sometimes. For years, people who have known me for a long time, would say, “Hey, Son!” and I think one of those moments occurred where I was thinking about if I wanted this to be a direct continuation from the kind of side work that I’d done or something completely different. And just as I was turning that around in my head, I ran into one of these people I hadn’t seen in a long time. They said, “Hey, Son,” and I was like, “Oh, yeah.” I hadn’t heard that in a while. I just took Little Son and reverse it. That’s how I ended up at Son Little.
Of course, when I started saying that to people, they took it all these different directions, which was cool. I like to let people feel whatever they want to, make whatever connections they want to make. For some people, when they heard it, they think, “Oh, like Son House, like the blues musician.” And that’s true. I mean, I study music very carefully, intensely, and I go all the way as far back as I can go. You know, the roots of our whole culture musically, go to that, go to plantations, go to the spots where people went to first hear music in a juke joint or whatever you want to call it.
In your music there are a lot of different influences: jazz, blues, I would say even some roots reggae. As you said, you studied a bunch of them. Which ones stuck to you more than others?
I feel like as soon as I start answering I’m gonna make the question pointless [Laughs]. When I think about it, some of the stuff was there because I heard it so much when I was little. My dad was real into jazz, he played the clarinet and the saxophone, so I heard Coltrane, I heard Miles, even the late Miles, like the 70s fusion type stuff. Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra—that kind of stuff was stuck to begin with. I probably couldn’t get out if I tried. The R&B stuff like that classic Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, you know, Smokey Robinson, that kind of stuff is all stuck. It can’t be removed no matter what I try to do. And there are times when I tried to remove it.
You tried to escape that?
You make stuff that doesn’t sound like that. And it does not work [Laughs]. If the influence comes early enough, there’s really nothing you can do. It’s just there. But everything you touched on is definitely there. You know, when I discovered reggae music, it made a really deep impression on me. And I’ve had periods where I listened to nothing but that. I mean some of my biggest influences vocally are Sizzla and Capleton.
I can see that. What is it about their voices?
I think it’s the voices and the cadences. The way they play with the rhythms. In terms of Sizzla, there’s a certain recklessness to the way that he sings. At any given moment it just explodes into this falsetto where it’s cracking apart then he comes back. That kind of stuff really interested me and I think it also felt really comfortable to me. That was a key part of me finding my own voice—hearing a similarity in what they were doing to what felt right to me. It also allowed me to go back to what I would say is the main branch for me, which is Marvin, Stevie, and Otis Redding, and look at that stuff from a different perspective and see how all those things relate to each other. If you go back far enough with the reggae, you end up back with American soul music. People don’t usually draw those connections. Those kind of connections really interest me to no end, so I’m almost to the point where I feel like I’m like in a hurry to hear everything.
One of my favorite reggae singers is Beres Hammond. I think you can see the link in him between American soul music and reggae.
I love Beres Hammond. He was sort of an entry point for me when I first started getting in to reggae. I actually had this cat that I used to live with, well, my next door neighbor, he was from the Ivory Coast, and that’s like all he listened to. I shouldn’t say all he listened to, he also listened to like a lot of West African music. Actually, that’s how I met him, because I would just hear this stuff and I was like, “Man, what is that?” I had never heard anything like that before. He kind of got me into all that stuff. I had a crash course with this cat and we’d just drive around Philly listening to stuff all day long. That was one of the first times where I really grabbed onto that stuff, 'cause I would be singing along to it. I think vocally, this is just an accident. I guess, not an accident, but people always heard my voice and thought of that stuff, you know? It’s just like a certain character to it that is reminiscent of a lot of those guys.
Talk to me about working on this new project. It’s spearheaded by you, it’s your vision. How different is that from working with a host of collaborators?
I’m really pretty much doing everything, from top to bottom.
Is that daunting for you?
It’s something that I’ve done a lot already. I’m constantly writing stuff, a lot of which doesn’t go anywhere. I just think, “Oh that’s a great idea!” and then go “mmmmm.” I would do that a lot. And I’ve had situations where I’ve been in bands where we wrote some things together. The process with RJ was collaborative but to a point. He loves making beats so that. He wouldn’t want to do it if he didn’t get to just make the beats. It’s a very different experience because, actually, before I did all that stuff I was reluctant to do that kind of project. Because I hadn’t really thought about it. I always saw myself directing a whole vision and I was the last person to look at myself as a singer.
Yeah. I don't want to say I got dragged into it, but the things I did the Roots kind of dragged me into that. You know? They heard my stuff without me... [Laughs]. I didn’t even let anybody hear my stuff. I wasn’t letting anybody. I played it for this one person, and I gave it to somebody and they played it for this other guy. Next thing I know, I was in the studio listening to the stuff with them. And I was like “Man, how did this happen? You like that, huh? Ok.” Another mutual friend introduced me and RJ, and we did a couple songs.
On the one hand it was really liberating because that was when I finally accepted that people want me to sing. Not that I don’t like singing, I love singing, but it took a lot for me to be really comfortable with it. Once I sort of got into with RJ, it was cool because he would just give me stuff like, “Oh, yeah, that’s cool. No, I don’t like that one. This one’s good. Can we switch this up? Turn that around. Double this.” It was cool in a way because I realized how much I really do like making music. Playing with words. Coming up with the melodies, the harmonies. It was like an express lane to the thing I like the most which is creating this story and then embellishing it with harmony. I really enjoy that stuff, and I guess having it isolated like that drove it home to me. At the same time, it left me really eager to go back and re-approach my own stuff.
From a more holistic approach?
Yeah. It helped me sort of clear up in my head exactly what this is and what I should sound like. Also to know exactly what I’m looking for and not really veer off in directions that don’t suit me that well. To just be honest, what I like, or what suits me is a heavily rhythmic kind of guttural. The brain doesn’t come in until the lyrics. And even then it’s like the end [Laughs]. I like myself best when I’m just off the cuff. The feeling is what’s important.
You talked about figuring out what the story is going to be. What would you say the story is for this upcoming project? Listening to some of your music, I feel like it’s about finding out where love fits into this life that we all have and how we live it.
You got it, right there.
I think all the music that really connects, that I connect to the most, have at least two messages at once. There’s always a connection to something bigger. If it’s about the girl that left you or whatever, there’s always something bigger that really connects to the larger human struggle or whatever it is. I grew up listening to great artists, and am still growing up listening to great artists, that made great albums. I probably will never be out of the mindset that that’s what defines a great artist: someone who can make a record that’s 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes that holds your attention. Illmatic, What’s Going On, all five records Stevie made in the 70s, Nevermind, In Utero... I could go on forever with it.
I would like to create something for people to remember. Something that they put on and not have to do anything else. You know that listening to an album or a collection of music is an activity? You don’t have to email someone while you’re doing it. You don’t have to throw it on while you clean your room, while you wash the dishes. You can actually just sit there and listen to it, you know? Part of that is, I think, allowing your giddy love song to be next to a song about the military industrial complex which is next to the break up song. I’d like to do something that speaks to all that stuff and whatever is on my mind, rather than playing it safe. I don’t know if that was the answer to your question.