“It put me in a position I've never done before”, admits award-winning Son Little when describing his unorthodox recording process for his adventurous new album aloha.
The R&B star, real name Aaron Livingstone, was forced to go back to the drawing board after enduring the scenario recording artists fear the most.
He lost all of the demos he was working on after his hard drive fried just weeks before he was due to assemble them all in California.
Worst still, they weren’t backed up and IT experts were unable to retrieve the files.
But this nightmare scenario failed to faze the Philadelphia native. In fact, he thrived on it. He threw himself back into writing new songs at his Petaluma home before flying out to Paris to record the album with producer Renauld Letang.
His self titled debut album was released on ANTI- Records in 2015, home of the likes of Tom Waits and Wilco, and racked up tens of millions of streams on Spotify.
He followed it up with the critically-acclaimed sophomore album New Magic two years later.
Daily Star Online caught up with Son Little at a venue in Shoreditch, east London, to discuss aloha, winning a Grammy with Mavis Staples, and why he vows he’ll never get too comfortable as an artist.
Let's go to the beginning. How old were you when you realised you wanted to be a musician? What got you into music to start with?
“Both of my parents are musical people. My dad thought of himself as a musician early and then ended up becoming a minister.
“My mom has a really uncanny memory for lyrics and melody. A combination of their abilities found itself in me. When I was very young, barely old enough, I decided I wanted to be a writer. As I got older I realised that people read books and when you're a kid your parents might read you poetry. But the poets that anyone cared about are all musicians. I instinctively gravitated towards that to tell my stories.
“I was born in Los Angeles and we moved to New York when I was very young. I came to Philadelphia when I was about 19. I grew up in New York and New Jersey as well. I came to mature musically in Philadelphia.”
Living in New York and New Jersey, did it mould you into the artist you are now? Did it give you that grounding and how did it influence you?
“In some ways the east coast as a whole, Philly, Jersey, NY, Boston and even DC, they all are slightly different flavours.
“But when you put it all together that side of the US is very crowded. It's kind of dirty, it's dark, it gets cold, there’s a certain vibe and intensity to the level of competition to it.
“That's coordinated my development. The early development of hip hop had a huge influence on me artistically, lyrically, production-wise even.
“My dad was a jazz head too which matches the hip-hop production. Being originally from California we went back and forth between the east and west coast. So I would come back from the summer in LA wearing all the wrong clothes and listening to the wrong stuff.
“People around me in school were thinking 'what the heck is wrong with him?' – I thought I was cool but I don't think anyone else did!
“I became accustomed to following what I thought was cool regardless of whatever anyone else thought was cool. I think that counter culture clash between east and west coast is part of what has made me a little unique.”
It must be quite rare for someone in the US to have the best of both worlds. Did you feel musically connected to either one of them?
“Definitely the east coast. I think only recently has that shifted. Now most of the people I know either live on both coasts or they go back and forth.
“Reasonably there's less of a divide than there used to be. It used to be quite distinct. The sound and culture was quite distinct.”
When you got into music were you focussed on one particular style or were you always looking to cross genres?
“Since I began to compose music I have always been all over the place. I have always been very comfortable with hip-hop when I thought about producing and playing instruments. I had a lot people around me who were rappers. They made music and I would make beats for them, hang out with them if I was needed. If the song didn't have enough verses I'd put a verse on, if it needed another hook, I'd put a hook on.
“I kind of came from that culture. One of the beautiful things about hip hop is that it allows all these different types of music from different eras to blend together in one song. I think that culture really is a big part of the reason I've really felt comfortable blurring those lines because I don’t think music is about genre.
“It's not about where you come from, it's about what do you do with it.”
Speaking of Philadelphia, you’ve collaborated with natives RJD2 and The Roots – how was that experience?
Philly for a long time, even now, somehow manages to be under the radar. You see a big pop act like half the time. Usually the musical director of the pop act is from Philly.
“It's such a strong musical community there. It's very competitive but it's tight knit. In some ways it's a formula for a music factory in that way. You have that heightened competition but there's a spirit of collaboration. Everyone kind of knows each other.”
Do you think it needs more recognition as a music hub or do you like the fact it's under the radar?
“I'm a little torn. Sometimes I wish more people would recognise it for what it is but a the same time if you put too much light on something, sometimes you lose what made it special in the first place.
“I think some people already know some of the attention it has got already. I think its position where it is is right. It works.
“Sometimes it can be sad when people rise to the top there and then disappear. It's a special part of my development. I always get nostalgic about that.”
You've also worked with Mavis Staples and won a Grammy for the collaboration on See That My Grave Is Kept Clean – how did you feel about that? Is she someone you respected?
“I was probably in high school when I became aware of her. My friends and I spent our time in record shops and kept digging. I found a bunch of old Staples records. One of my first was her famous records in the 70s, like I’ll Take You There and Respect Yourself.
“I worked backwards from there and listened to stuff from the 60s. I was very aware of that stuff and her composition as a music icon.
“Before I met her I was lucky enough to land on the same label and have a champion on that label that worked close with her and thought we had styles that worked together.
“She's a bright light as a person. Very welcoming, a positive personality. It’s one of the highlights of my life to meet her, be around her and see how she works, and the enthusiasm she brings into a career that is getting close to 70 years long, which is unbelievable.”
Did you ever dream when you'd start working together you'd get the recognition you got?
“Not really, I was just jazzed to be doing it and trying my best not to screw it up!”
aloha is coming out on January 31 via ANTI-. What was the writing process like – from writing ideas on a notepad to heading into the recording studio?
“Like a lot of things, it didn't go according to plan at all. My plan initially was to get myself out in the country, which is similar to what I did for my first record.
“I had less demands on my time. I thought I could be out in the woods and do what I wanted to do. I wanted to get back to that. I wanted to do everything else differently from what I've ever done. I wanted to work with an outside producer. I wanted to give up some of that control.
“I was going to create these elaborate demos and get the ball rolling with them. Then toss out what we wanted to refine it.
“In a lapse of reason I did not back up a hard drive I had and it crashed! I thought i'd be able to get it back. I sent it off and no one could retrieve the data.
“Something about doing it all again feels wrong. I felt like I was better off starting from scratch. I didn't get that month off in the woods I wanted. I had about eight days!
“I wrote as much as I could in those eight days. I flew to Paris and started recording. I felt my way through it there. We managed to get it together.”
In a weird way did it liberate you?
“It put me in a position I've never been in before.
“The golden age of albums people had time and budgets to go into a studio with nothing and create the mood, the album you wanted.
“Nowadays you want to go in with the thing pretty much done. In this scenario we had the experience of going in to a day's work having no idea from day one.
“I went in jet legged, had a coffee, talked a little bit. There was an awkward silence and somebody said "what are we going to do today?" About that, I have no idea! As scary as that is it’s also very exciting. I have enough faith in my ability to think that's great, it means my freshest ideas are going to be on this record.”
Lyrically, was it all completely new?
“I came in with seven or eight now legit demos which were guitar or voice, or a drum machine and voice. What I had was structures that were like songs.
“I had various bits and pieces that I felt confident that if we could get the track and arrangement together, we could work it out. I chipped away at the lyrics as we worked on the music. By the time we got that together it was like ‘are you going to sing?'”
How different is to it your previous releases?
“Some people's approach is to reinvent themselves. I don't know if I'm too old for that but for me I have modes and moods that I go to. This is just a different shade of what I already do.
“This album has a lot of mood or feeling of Paris as I see it because I didn't have anything tied up and did when I went there.
“It allowed the experience I was having at that moment to really sink in. It's funny that I probably couldn't have articulated this before we got to that point but my regret would have been to go to Paris with something that was really northern California.
“Instead I was able to capture this mood that I was in. I was in great, rainy Paris in October, riding the metro to and from the studio and that feeling is really, when I listening to the tracks, that's what I hear. It has a really warm, drinking espresso, faint smell of cigarettes vibe to it.”
Has this experience changed your mindset going forward when planning your next material?
“It adds a certain level of confidence or confirmation that the best thing to do is to be in the moment. That's what keeps me interested in what I'm doing.
“You just think of things you never would otherwise. One of the worst things you can do as an artist is get too comfortable.
“It's a lot easier to get too comfortable than most people think. That feeling like you have the most time in the world is your worst enemy.
Why is the album called aloha?
“Like a lot of things for me there are several meanings for everything.
“I wanted to do a lot of things differently, I had self produced up until that point.
“I was in another country. In a way it's symbolic of me wanting to let go of some of these things to get out of my comfort zone to embrace something different.
“I think ‘aloha’ meaning hello and goodbye at the same time kind of typified that. Calling it that was never the plan in the first place. I was writing at a friend's house called aloha. I had scribbled this on my notebook.
“The guys saw that and when they went to put all the files in the folder. They had just read it off my book. I just didn't have the heart to say anything as they thought I had just called it that, and thought "I'd just change it later".
“And then when we got closer to the time to figure it out, really I couldn't think of anything better than that.”
Who or what influences you now?
“I think I'm a very curious person generally about a lot of different things.
“Music and art is a passion, I'm always feeding on more and more input on those areas.
“If I'm on the road I read a lot. It can be anything from politics to philosophy – there's a lot of music in there as well, but I think a long time ago I came to reject that my music could be influenced by other music.
“I look at the world as research. It's already the case that half of any song you hear is connected to some kind of relationship. It doesn't even have to be romantic, just a reaction between two people that you care enough about to write about it.
“You're already at this point where everyone is talking about the same stuff all the time. But the miraculous thing is that all these different people find their own way of discussing the same things. For me, be as uniquely in yourself as you can. Keep your eyes and ears open all the time to add things that maybe other people wouldn't think of.”
You mentioned about being on tour, how does performing live compare to the recording studio?
“It's good to ask that question because I started music a long time before I really toured. When I first started doing it I think it suddenly occurred to me that a lot of people would probably hate this. A lot of people probably did this as their dream and stopped at some point. It's good that they stopped because if you succeeded your life would've been miserable.
“I thought it suited me very well. It has its moments when it can be frustrating or exhausting but it's difficult to keep up your health and follow your normal routines.
“Like most things in life it's a challenge to overcome that to think about how do I make this work? It's all part of the service of being able to share the music.”
You've toured with some big names – are there any stand outs?
“Everyone I've been out on the road with has been a big experience. What I've learned is to never go in with preconceived ideas.
“I've had a couple of tours where it was clear that either material or music would go very well together with the audience.
“I toured with Leon Bridges and the audience was very ready to accept what I was doing because it's in a similar vein.
“In a different way I toured with Dr Dog and it's a similar thing, they have a similar approach to music.
“By the same token I was honoured with Kellis. She's in the realm of R&B and so am I but in some ways at different ends of the spectrum. In those scenarios there's something to be learned. Being able to observe the way someone else approaches this is a really valuable thing.”
What's next for you in 2020? Have you already got eyes on what you're going to do after the album?
“I have a bunch of touring coming up but I want to turn my attention outward and see what collaborative projects I can come up with.
“I have a few folks I've been talking to so I'm looking forward to that. I'm keeping close to the vest on the names!”
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