On his latest, self-titled album, Philadelphia-based musician Son Little (real name: Aaron Livingston) leans on a little bit of soul, a dash of the blues, and a sprinkling of hip hop elements to create music that's distinctive and personal. It's a world singer/songwriter Doe Paoro (real name: Sonia Kreitzer) inhabits with her music as well. But when the two musicians met up at Downtown Music Studios in NYC to record a collaboration called "Shadows", the process produced a song neither artist probably would have wrote on their own.
"I think every song traveling from the idea in your head to a 'finished' product, you find new things and learn things about the song," Aaron told us when we sat down with the two musicians during the recording session of "Shadows". "In a way, that is the process of putting a song together. You find out what it is."
Aaron and Sonia share a record label (ANTI-) and met when a mutual friend suggest they get together for a writing session. They had never met, but used the writing session that produced "Shadows" to get to know one another. "There's a conversational feeling to it," Aaron suggests. "That was the first time we met. For your first conversation to become a song I think is kind of a special thing."
As for the song, it's a smoldering, slow-burning duet that lightly builds as it cycles along. It's simple in its construction and lyrical composition, but therein lies the beauty of "Shadows". "It's all these ideas boiled down into this really pure statement," Sonia told us. "Things can be very simple and deep at the same time."
In addition to documenting Aaron and Sonia record the song, the two musicians also took us through a lovely performance of the piece. If you like what you hear, visit iTunes or your favorite digital music outlet to take it home with you.
traveling from the idea in your head to a finished product, you find new things and you learn things about the song. I think in a way that is the process of putting a song together is finding out what it is. first recording of this song so we're learning. Every shadow gets its shape from above. - Because I'm determined to hear her sing I've tried to make that happen as quickly as possible, so... Catch me hanging on a line in the rays of a star dying. Even when I close my eyes, see the colors that I left behind. Was your light so bright it stained my mind, neglected to mention that just your reflection could drive me blind. There's a smoldering intensity to her voice that I don't hear. Well just I know that I wasn't hearing it anywhere. And I just like listening to her voice. - And I like listening to his voice. Every shadow is a shape from above. Waiting on a line, could I be received? - Honestly, I don't know because it could be fine there. - Yeah, definitely makes sense. the other takes that you wanted to... - I think there was some nice stuff in the last one. Yeah, so our friend Andy had sent me Aarons music. I was just really inspired by the depth and the clarity. And this was something I really felt when we were writing lyrics together was just all these ideas boiled down into this really pure statement, really clear. And how things can just be very simple and deep at the same time. Which is what I feel when I listen to his music. of talked our way into it. And so I think there's a maybe conversational feeling to it because it's almost like we wrote down our conversation. And that was the first time we met, so for your first conversation to become a song I think is kind of a special thing. Every shadow gets it shape from above. Waiting on a line, could I be... - I like the stuff you were doing at the end too. Heels on the ground and it feels like the light is wrong. Well then, the shadows come and I don't know where to go. - Oh, don't use that. - Yeah, are they rolling? - Whenever you guys are ready. Got my feet on the ground in the place where the light is low. Heels on the ground and it feels like the light is wrong. Well then, the shadows come and I don't know the way to go. And all of a sudden now it feels like the light is gone. Every struggle is its own kinda love. Every shadow gets its shape from above. Catch me hanging on the line in the rays of a star dying. Even when I close my eyes, see the colors that I left behind. Was your light so bright it stained my mind? Neglected to mention that just your reflection could drive me blind. Every struggle is its own kind of love. Every shadow gets its shape from above. Waiting on a line. Could I be received? Given all my time. Did you forget about me? - Yeah, I think we both come to this song from obviously our different experiences but the same unifying idea really. - I think its abstract to a certain extent but we deal with issues of light and dark in people and relationships. I think we probably both had our share of light and dark times. - I think that for me there's a little bit of healing in this song. One idea that I've been thinking about a lot lately is this idea that where you put your time is where you put your love. And even if in the moment that time is filled with some sort of resistance that's still an act of love. And I feel like that's part of where the song comes from for me. - I don't think I can beat that. You're very deep. You're so deep. - No, you're so deep you're just hiding it. - I don't know how you do it.
Playing his songs across the United States and in Europe over the past year, with a wide range of artists and to varying audiences, Son Little has noticed something particular about his own music.
"As I've been going around to different places with this very eclectic mix of other acts, one thing that's struck me about my music is just how American it is," he says.
And while he's not wearing a stars-and-stripes polo while shooting fireworks and holding a sousaphone, his sentiment rings true. Here in this proud, brave land of blurred lines and regional dishes is a musical melting pot that sizzles and smokes, from sea to shining sea. Son Little is stirring that broth.
"Part of what's unique about this country is its intense mixture of things. People in different regions don't always understand each other that well, but music can go places that people won't always go. That's part of who I am and definitely part of the music I'm making, so now more than ever I feel very American."
The artist formerly known as Aaron Livingston knows his nation well. He was born to a preacher and a teacher in Los Angeles, where he learned how to listen and how to play before moving east to New York and New Jersey. He dropped in and out of schools in Manhattan then Philadelphia, and there he collaborated with acts like The Roots and RJD2. He first planted his flag as Son Little with last year's highly praised EP, Things I Forgot, a small collection of big songs that showcased his ability to hop across genres as well as he does state lines.
The pastiche and reach of his music is all over the map, literally. And he can hear a map in his music. In it, he can recognize the places he's lived, traveled, and played to, places explored and discovered. "I hear places in the songs without trying to evoke them while writing. I can trace where a lot of my music came from, as my life and my family touch so many different places. I can hear the Gulf Coast of Louisiana in my voice, the way I say some of the words; I hear New York, definitely in my lyrics. Detroit is a place I haven't spent a ton of time in, but if I explore the music of Detroit, I can hear myself in there, too."
The bins of Son Little's record store are divided into sections called "Tuesday 3 a.m." or "Fluorescent Blues" or "Saying Goodbye" rather than "Rock" or "Soul" or "Pop." It's a space where people can discover fresh sounds they might not have been expecting based on feelings, emotions, and truth rather than imaginary lines drawn in the sand. "I never thought that genres matter, I just mixed them all up and put them next to each other," he says. "Making a mix growing up, I'd put Nirvana next to Nas next to Coltrane; Hendrix next to Naughty By Nature, whatever. I always thought of it that way. I actually feel like it's maybe the norm that people don't even think about it anymore, except in the industry, where there's more pressure to conform. Maybe the landscape is so blurry it makes people nervous, they just want to categorize something. Using band names as adjectives, that's kinda cool but I look at it from my own thing and it's gonna need more band names."
In truth, Son Little's music is devoid of genre, as it blends sounds together into a bright white hotness, like all the colors in the spectrum do when finding focus as one. As the saturation of light increases, color appears more pure. His new full-length album, Son Little, does the same. The sonic elements create visuals and vice versa. The album's cover image is a saturated snapshot of a whirring, suited Son, worked over with long exposures and leaky ink, revealing a brilliant portrait of the blurry artist: the pure man with the pure music. "There's a lot of different colors there and they kinda fade into each other, but the constant for me is the dream, the smudge, the saturation," he says. "Every color there is very deep, very rich; you put them all together and it's the bright light of the sun."
The songs inside follow suit. They teem with small moments creating a bigger picture, a pointillist art piece made from junkyards and viewed from space. Pulling inspiration from the color wheel diaspora of American music, Son Little draws from a deep well, using different buckets to visit and revisit, finding flourishes to add to the core of his songs. There, at the end of "Doctor's In," is a roving banjo; there, at the start of "Go Blue Blood Red," is a keyboard riff culled from a kid's Blue Man Group keyboard; there, in "Carbon," is an electric Howlin' Wolf stomp and start. For Son Little, studio time is a joy, where every good idea leads to four more, so it's back to the buckets.
And all this weaving and digging is in his DNA. It comes easily and honestly, since he is the person he claims to be and has lived the life he sings about. It's all there in his lyrics, the tales of struggle and joy, of fear and fortitude. His words, chosen with care and delivered with skill, address relationships with class and race as well as with people and projects. Vulnerability and virility are sung in equal parts, showing us the actual measure of a man rather than the imaginary bulletproof titan that pervades today's airwaves. In this world so concerned with the "realness" of its artists, in this industry of hyper-categorizing and compartmentalizing every last detail, it's easy to forget what "being true" is all about. Somewhere along the path it became cool to clam up, to stay icy, to keep in line and collect your check. It takes courage to be real, and to Son Little, the only way to be real is to simply be yourself.
"The easy way to describe my audience would be to say it's pretty broad, but the more accurate way of saying it is that my audience is the brave," he says. "It's the people who move amongst different crowds easily, who are open to new things and not waiting for other people to tell them what to like, who are very certain and know what they want to hear. That feeling has been strengthened by all these shows I've played in different markets, with artists who are so different from each other. I meet these people, and the thing they have most in common is that they don't care what the trend is, or what other people think about it, what's it's called. They don't care about any of that shit, they just like what they like and that's that. It's not about gender, age, race, nationality, or any of those things; it's just about how you feel inside, about the world. It's more of an attitude, a sense, than it is a genre or trend. It's not a shirt at Urban Outfitters. It's a lot deeper than that."
To call Son Little, both the artist and the album, brave would be perhaps the most apt compliment you could pay. Like his fearless heroesHendrix, Dylan, Prince, Naswhat he is doing takes guts, but in truth, it's the only way he knows how.
"That's what it's about, be brave, do the thing you're afraid to do. When I look at it now, the whole album is that, every song is that. There's nothing but that. There's some aspects of it that I probably wanted to hold back or edit and just didn't. I think I've learned not to censor the things that make me uncomfortable. On 'About A Flood' I sing, 'What if every tear in me comes out?' That's an as-not-hard a fucking thing as you can say. At the end of the day I have to say to myself, 'I don't care, I said it.' I'm gonna say it. Every single song has an element of that, in the lyrics and also musically. Let it be what it is."