Breaking: Son Little

The genre-hopping soul singer talks about sonic invention, past collaborations, and his self-titled solo debut.

BACKSTORY: The artist once known as Aaron Livingston commands as many genres as he does instruments with his new nom de rock, Son Little
FROM: Born in LA, grew up in Queens, lived for a stretch in Philadelphia, but now calls New Jersey home
YOU MIGHT KNOW HIM FROM: His guest spots with The Roots, his work with RJD2 as Icebird, his production for Mavis Staples, or his 2014 debut EP Things I Forgot
NOW: Releasing his soulful, exploratory debut LP on Anti-

Last year, while touring through Europe in the fall as Son Little, Aaron Livingston felt extraordinarily at ease. Shows were going well and, without his phone, he felt happily disconnected, free from the distractions of life back home in the States. “I was feeling very unburdened, unusually so,” says Livingston, remembering. “Then I was just suddenly slapped awake.”

The abrupt rousing came from a French journalist who caught him up on the news about Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. “That was a buzzkill,” says Livingston, a hint of sarcasm emphasizing the understatement. It wasn’t long after his return to America that Livingston wrote “O Mother,” a spare, mournful soul ballad in which he sings with a raspy tenor, “Can I love the world and hate how it makes me feel? / ’Cause I don’t wanna kneel / Is there anyone who’s got my back for real?”

The New Yorker called the song a sequel to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” and iconic gospel singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples—whose recent EP Livingston produced—called it a “masterpiece,” heralding the tune as a sort of contemporary anthem for the disheartened ethos of black identity in America. In a recent interview, Staples said, “I’m looking at the world seeing the ’60s all over again. These young black men, and white men, too, they need to hear ‘O Mother.’”

“It’s so easy to sit at your laptop and make an orchestral masterpiece without any instruments. It forces you to mess around and try different things, if you really wanna make something that sounds different.”

Despite the apparent timelessness of Livingston’s music, billing him as a throwback act would be a mistake. On his debut album, Son Little, Livingston blends blues, southern rock, R&B, and soul with elements of reggae and psychedelia to craft a distinctive, incredibly modern sound—songs that are both highly imaginative and entirely human. A good example of this stylistic blend is “Cross My Heart”—a cut from his debut EP Things I Forgot and the first song he wrote as Son Little—in which Livingston’s voice channels a young Stevie Wonder while he strums a dusty blues lick over blippy R&B percussion and a driving hip-hop groove.

Sonic invention is key to Livingston’s process. “There’s so much you can do without trying now,” he says. “It’s so easy to sit at your laptop and make an orchestral masterpiece without any instruments. It forces you to mess around and try different things, if you really wanna make something that sounds different.”

Livingston honed his taste for experimentation through collaborations with The Roots (his vocals appear on 2004’s “Guns Are Drawn” and on 2011’s Undun) and RJD2, with whom Livingston released an album as the indie-funk act Icebird.

“Both of those artists are open to putting sounds together that maybe most people wouldn’t think to combine,” says Livingston. “They both encouraged me to do my own thing and not worry about what other people said.” Although so far, in Son Little’s case, the words of other people have not been something to worry about.

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