Welcome to Breaking, a Colorlines series where we highlight under-the-radar artists of color. For this installment, we profile Son Little, an R&B/soul singer-songwriter.
Name: Son Little
Hometown: Philadelphia/Los Angeles
Sound: Classic guitar-driven R&B and soul, rooted in vintage electric blues but rebuilt with contemporary sonics and minimalist beats.
Latest Project: “Son Little” (2015, ANTI- Records)
Why You Should Care: Son Little is a rare kind of musician. He pulls from some of the best of of R&B—from its roots in electric blues to its current interplay with pop and electronica—without compromising its timelessness or innovation.
The singer/guitarist, who has worked with The Roots and RJD2, sits between all of these sonic spheres and he manages to rise above them through his innovative music. You might not guess that, though, when you see him on stage.
Holding an electric guitar and often suited in nondescript clothing like a beanie and flannel shirt, he doesn’t do the theatrics many successful R&B artists lean on. Even when we ask him about the record—over the phone while he’s rehearsing for his Philadelphia homecoming show—he’s soft-spoken, with heavy pauses in his speech as he searches for words.
But when Son Little, whose real name is Aaron Livingston, opens his mouth to croon on standouts such as “Your Love Will Blow Me Away When My Heart Aches” (video above), his voice fills the room with a warmth as transcendent as the best gospel singers (which makes sense, given that his father’s a preacher).
This quality puts him in conversation with church-nourished soul greats like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, although he doesn’t claim much affinity to that music of the 50s and 60s that brought the church’s sacred bliss to a secular audience.
In fact, when asked about if he has a connection to the era of Stax and Motown dominance—something presumably detectable in his crooning tenor and warm-toned guitar riffs—he offers a surprising response:
"No, not necessarily. Just the tools and sounds that people used are really appealing. Things that, you know…microphones and preamps that are built to military specification, that has an effect. And also, just the spirit that you had to make do with a certain amount of imperfection. That is a little bit foreign to us now, because it’s so easy to make everything perfect. It’s kind of refreshing to hear something that’s not perfect."
The record mixes electronic beats and random sampled sounds with understated bass and guitar lines and live drums to make the old seem fresh and organic. On album opener “I’m Gone,” (listen above) a repetitive bass synth refrain is layered under reverb-drenched group vocals incanting “You get, what you get, so don’t expect shit” in between ethereal guitar soundscapes, sounding like a dejected Greek chorus from another dimension.
Lyrically, Son Little pays homage to the thematic core of old blues and soul— romantic yearning, disillusionment, spiritual crises and existential guilt. He does his most interesting work on “Go Blue Blood Red,” and “O Mother,” the album’s most “political” tracks. The former describes “a nation under guns” whose leaders compel its subjects “to get your ass in line” so much that they’re treated like animals. "What’s on your mind you wretched knight? "So cloudy you can’t see/I’ll dig the words, uncage the birds just so they’ll sing with me." It’s a screed to frustration in a culture where messages about what’s right and wrong don’t actually connect with anything real.
“O Mother,” on the other hand, is a heartfelt appeal to vilification and being made into a scapegoat by society. “Can I love the world and hate how it makes me feel? Cause I don’t wanna kneel,” he cries in the chorus. The song, released as a single in March, was inspired by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—news that Son Little only learned from a French journalist while he was touring in Europe. As he described in the New Yorker, he understood that the relative welcoming he felt in Europe was just a temporary reprieve from the ugliness back home: "Imagine you’re chained to a wall, and you fall asleep and have a beautiful dream," he said. "And then you wake up and slowly remember that you’re still chained to the wall."
When we ask if he sees himself as a "political artist," though, he is reluctant to accept the label. “It’s tricky to label yourself a political artist because people’s politics change. It’s important just to remember that we’re all people with our own problems and responsibilities, and we can’t really go around lecturing everyone by your own whims.” he explains [over the phone]. “You can walk a mile in my shoes but you can’t ever step in my feet, you know?”
So, Son Little’s politics are manifest in his artistry more than anything he says in an interview. Give his newest record some time, and you’ll get a sense of how this plays into his creative mission.
Check out Son Little’s self-titled album, out now on ANTI- Records, and see him on tour in North America this fall and spring.