Reflecting on 2016 and chatting music history with Son Little

It’s about 4:30pm on a Sunday and as I rise to meet Aaron Livingston, aka Son Little, in the foyer of a five star hotel in Adelaide, a very officious hotel concierge begins pointing at him shouting, “You cannot drink that in here sir!” Before long, I realise he’s referring to the beer in Aaron’s hand. We’re about 10 metres from a bar but the staff refuse to let him walk that ten metres with an open bottle. He’s just returned from a soundcheck at the secret venue for The Porch Sessions gig he’s playing that evening.

Perplexed by this concierge’s manner he asks, “So what should I do?” I turn to him and say, “Let’s just go outside.” We meander out onto the street and he takes the chance to roll a cigarette. As we shoot the shit about baseball (I’m wearing a Red Sox tee) and compare it to cricket, I realise this guy is the exact amount of cool you’d expect a musician who writes songs like his to be.

Since releasing his debut self-titled album late last year, Aaron has only released one more single. But that doesn’t mean it’s been a quiet year. Since I chatted with him over the phone this time last year, he’s toured the world comprehensively. “I didn’t really know what to expect from that (the release) so it was cool to get people’s reactions. And then I did a bit of headlining.” Well, that’s an understatement.

He tells me that while he admires critics, it’s the fans’ opinions that he was really interested in, “You play a show in a place you’ve never been and you’re like, ‘No-one is gonna be at this show, who would come to this?’ and then the rooms would be packed and it was pretty cool. I’ve been impressed with how far we’ve been able to ride this out. A lot of different opportunities have presented themselves across the course of the year.”

Mentioning that he’s been impressed by how every so often more people will discover the album, I take the chance to ask whether that means other artists as well as fans. “It’s hard for musicians because we’re all doing the same thing. In the US there’s the festival season from March through August and we’re all zipping all over the place doing that and even if you’re inspired by someone, it’s hard to act on it because you’re rarely ever in the same place.”

The conversation turns naturally toward social media and Aaron remarks that he enjoys the immediacy of knowing the day after someone becomes a fan of his. Upon hearing this, I mention that I feel like the kind of music he makes is almost naturally incongruous with the popular internet-driven culture. I’m probing for an insight into how someone as clearly gifted as he is sees the use of social media. And I get one.

“There are some artists that are really natural when it comes to promoting themselves. I wouldn’t put myself in that category, but I’ve had some meaningful interactions on social media. Generally speaking, we all have a problem a short attention span these days. Audiences, to some extent, may be forgetting how to behave in the live music scenario. They’re more focused on documenting stuff than they are on experiencing them. And I’m definitely guilty of that too.”

Aaron grew up with a father who was a preacher. Even the quickest of passes by his album will reveal the gospel influences. But there’s much more than just religion that’s fuelled his sound and so I pose the question of what else he draws inspiration from. “A lot of things setback my recording of this record and I really felt compelled to reflect the changes that occurred in me during that time. So most of the songs that ended up on the record reflect where I was at that moment more than culminating things from the past. Whatever you hear when you’re young though, it’s very difficult to remove. For me there was a mixture of music from the church and a lot of Jazz, R&B, Rock and Folk. Which is why I think all those things fuse together on projects like this.”

That’s what is so wonderful about Son Little’s music. It’s a genuine fusion of so many sounds. In the end, how did all the genres we currently have come to be? Through fusion of existing sounds. I think artists that can do what Aaron does in looking for the next genre are so very important. Of course, being a pioneer has made Aaron’s career difficult at times.

“It’s something that makes certain people very uncomfortable at times, not being able to place my sound.” I suggest that by that he means record executives. Laughing he says, “They would certainly be amongst the people that find it uncomfortable.”

For the next few minutes we carry out a pantomime of artist vs. label in a boardroom. Fun.

As Aaron quite rightly points out, in the context of human history, the concept of categorising musical sounds into marketable genres is still very new. Without disappearing down the rabbit hole that is everything that’s wrong with capitalism, I mention that R&B is an example of a genre that has changed significantly as driven by the record industry. I cite the recent concerts that have celebrated R&B artists of the 90s. Artists that sound nothing like what was originally considered Rhythm and Blues.

On this, Aaron says, “The definition of R&B has definitely narrowed. I’m not sure why but it has. And what you’re saying, I’ve definitely perceived as well. I obviously get asked all the time how I write my songs. It wasn’t until I’d answered the question a million times that I realised that it’s inevitable to measure yourself against other artists. For me, the artists that I’ve always tried to stack up to are Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye but also The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.”

When I hear him say that, I realise why I’m so enamoured with this man’s music. It’s a rare and brave thing to try and match artistry of that level.

“If you list any full record of any of artists like those, they’re all their own category. Prince does not sound like Stevie Wonder at all.” From here it snowballed into a wonderful conversation that, if we’d let it, may have actually fallen as far back as the invention of sound recording. Thankfully it didn’t, but the salient point was that an artist, no matter how hard they may try to emulate another artist or a particular sound, can never totally remove their origin from their music. Aaron gives the example of Mick Jagger trying desperately to sound like Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Plant trying to sound American without being able to completely remove his Britishness.

So for Son Little, as leading edge as his music may be, and as much as it might reflect where he is at today, it will always sound a bit like the deep south gospel music he grew up with. But what do artists like Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Howlin’ Wolf and Son Little all have in common? A distinctively beautiful voice. And that is ultimately why you should go and see him at your earliest convenience.

The good news? Aaron is now in the midst of writing and recording a new Son Little album.

If you’re in Darwin, check Son Little out at the Studio Theatre this Wednesday 7th December. Tickets.