With his sophomore album, Son Little adds some color to his bluesy spectrum
Since we last witnessed the sad and sultry work of neo-bluesman Son Little on his 2015 eponymous debut, the seemingly solitary Philadelphian/Jersey-ite has blossomed into quite the collaborator, producing music for iconic soul queen Mavis Staples (2015’s Your Good Fortune EP) and working with additional songwriters for artists other than himself (e.g., with Eric Krasno for Griz). Now, the Los Angeles-born Son Little, known to his mother as Aaron Livingston, has crafted an album, New Magic (Anti-), that’s less overtly mournful, with an anthemic single called “Blue Magic (Waikiki)” that’s downright chipper, and a directness to his songcraft that puts might and music over mood and ambience.
Perhaps part of his cheer stems from the fact that he doesn’t feel quite so rootless, moving again (“And for good?” he says quizzically) to Pitman, N.J., after a long layover in Philly, where he hung out with fellow Brotherly Lovers RJD2, Icebird and the Roots.
“I couldn’t bear to think of myself like that, just endlessly wandering,” he says. “So now Pitman’s not far from Philly, but just far enough off the highways to make a difference. It’s kind of nice to be around the grass and the trees for a while.”
Another part of opening his eyes was working with Staples, the legendary Stax R&B singer, gospel godmother and now labelmate. Livingston recorded her singing Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and Roebuck “Pops” Staples’ “Wish I Had Answered,” along with two brand new compositions from Son: the bass-heavy, cut-and-paste “Your Good Fortune” and the Gatling-gun funk of “Fight.” These searing songs seem to be a turn in his production and songwriting.
“The process is shocking now that I think of it,” says Livingston of his time with Staples. “I was pretty young when I first knew who she and the family were in terms of their singing. Now that I’m older, I can’t believe what they’ve done—and what she’s done—from a writing perspective. She’s impossible to rein in, and that’s great. I think I’ve tried to approximate that with her voice as a singer and a writer.”
Livingston doesn’t seem to just be talking about the holy-rolling Ms. Staples. “I woke up in the middle of the night after having dreams about my vision for her record,” he says. “Then I woke up with a way to do it, first the verse and the chorus and that was it—so powerful. But how could it be anything but?” Apparently, Staples especially loved the two songs from Livingston, as she’s been “dying to tackle something new and out of the ordinary,” he says.
Dreamlike or not, that sort-of wake-up-and-do-something-new feeling is what eventually came to fill the blunt, crisp New Magic, with Livingston siring several new approaches to his brand of modern blues.
The main thing that Livingston wanted to do with New Magic was to make sure that he wrote songs without any thought of the production. “I don’t mean to say that the first album was so bogged down by its overall sound, but there was much attention given to its mood and its ambience,” he says. “I wanted to focus on the intricacy or directness of the song, the structure, the process. I wanted to really separate the song from its sound.” The same focus that he gave Staples on “Fight” is what Livingston allowed himself on “The Middle” and “Charging Bull.”
Also different for the singer/songwriter was its feeling from dark to light, from the overt sadness of the first album to the brighter feel of “O Me O My” and “ASAP.” Is Livingston conscious of such good cheer?
“I don’t know that I set out to write a lighter record,” he says, holding back a laugh. “I did, however, want to bring more colors into the spectrum.”
Fewer shadows and shade, and more tone, make New Magic bristle. “When I made that first album, I just didn’t know about playing those songs live—especially since there were so many downtempo tunes—or who I would be going forward,” he says. “So I don’t know if being happier or lighter is a thing, but I do know that I’m happy at where these songs are going.”