“It’s a small operation,” admits Aaron Livingston as he crosses a fall-painted mountain landscape east of Nashville. Livingston — a/k/a Son Little — and his crew are en route to the next gig on the first tour for his self-titled debut. “Just drums, bass, and another guitar,” he explains of the band tasked with re-creating the big sound of the album’s songs. “The challenge is to represent that with a small number of people. It’s fun, though. The constraints make it more interesting.”
What makes Son Little — which was released in October on ANTI- Records — sound so big isn’t so much a convolution of instruments. It’s more due to the rich arrangements and delicate melding of soul, blues, pop, jazz, and hip-hop. The result is a fusion of soul, trip-hop, and juke-joint blues in a jazz club in Manhattan and is both raw and sophisticated. Livingston says it is simply the result of his everyday experiences.
“I like experimenting and I try to do something unique,” he says. “I never want to just repeat something that’s been done before or remake music from the past. But I have listened and learned from music that’s considered old. In a lot of different ways, that’s brought me to where I am now.”
Where he is now is a frontman, the boss — he giggles at that word. Before he was a collaborator working with the likes of the Roots and RJD2, and more used to a background role. “Before, I worked as a sideman — a singer, a writer — in more traditional bands. I’ve written for other people. This is the first thing where I’ve combined all of those elements I did before. I’m growing into it. I was reluctant to do it in the past. But now I’m enjoying it; it gives me more freedom.”
Livingston’s dusky, earthy voice is at times ethereal and thoughtful, and at others lustily bluesy with occasional gospel undertones. “At home there was always music. I became fascinated,” he says of growing up and hearing Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. Livingston spent the early part of his life living in Los Angeles, but when he was thirteen his parents moved to New York. “We spent a lot of time going back to Los Angeles to be with family. I was bicoastal at a young age, but it just seemed normal to me.”
Culturally though, he became divided. “I notice it more now than I did then. I always liked the trips back to L.A. because of the weather and trips to the beach. I’d bring back little things culturally to New York with me. It contributed to me being different to the people I was around. I was wearing things they didn’t; I was saying things they didn’t. It was probably hard, but I didn’t identify it as that. I had nothing to compare it to, so I didn’t identify as being different. I was able to accept that difference early on in my life.”
Livingston, who is based in southern New Jersey, went to school in Philadelphia to study history, but music quickly won him over. “It’s kind of my adopted home,” he says of the City of Brotherly Love. “I cut my teeth there and got involved in music seriously. I spent a lot of time playing music and seeing music. I was obsessed with it.”
When it came time to record his debut, he knew he needed solitude and to get out of the scene. “It wasn’t difficult at all. When I first started it, I just took a bunch of things to upstate New York in the winter. Winter is when most people are leaving,” he laughs. “I had a whole lot of time to get up and write and try things out.”
What with releasing last year’s EP, Things I Forgot, and touring with artists who underline the scope of his music’s appeal — he’s shared bills with likes of Kelis, Lord Huron, and Mumford & Sons — and producing an EP for Mavis Staples, he’s missing his precious alone time. “I was always content entertaining myself; that part of me has never gone away. I always intended spending a lot of time working on projects. Now, that time is hard to come by. Having the time and space to create is difficult. It’s frustrating if you are the type of person who needs it. I’m eagerly anticipating the next round of writing time.”
As for that intriguingly humble-sounding name, Livingston came by it as naturally as he does his songs: taking some of himself and some of the past and creating something new. “It wasn’t going to be the name. It was just a play on my last name but said as Little Son. Then I turned it around. I don’t believe in accidents, and the name brings to mind Son House. On some songs I can hear his style is a little bit of an inspiration, if you remove everything but the voice and the drums. I didn’t consciously intend that, but it came to take on its own meaning.”
Son Little plays Baby’s All Right on November 12. For ticket information, click here.