I didn’t care to bring this up over the phone, but the last thing I did before calling Aaron Earl Livingston, aka Son Little, was sing the chorus of his gospel-infused single “Lay Down.” It was also the first thing I did after hanging up the phone too.
Over the weekend, I got to speak with Livingston about his upcoming performance at Union Stage as well as a number of other things, like what it takes to write a song and his budding love for surfing. I was first introduced to his music through his NPR Tiny Desk Concert and we talk about that briefly.
“You play those things from time to time,” he says. “And [Tiny Desk] is a cool one. The folks over there are real laid back and you forget that you’re in an office building.”
The video, in which he also performs “Lay Down,” also gives you a sense of how laid back Livingston comes across himself. He’s from Pennsylvania, but DC’s been a home to him as well. Coming up, his sister and uncle lived here and used to come down to visit.
His sister also sings background for him in the Tiny Desk video and Livingston tells me that she used to perform as a background singer locally for neo-soul acts, including Wayna.
“I would go down there to see her sing,” he says with a laugh.
Recently however, it’s been Son Little’s time. In 2015 he released an eponymous debut record and in September 2017, he released New Magic. He says he’s been working on more material since then. Although he’s reluctant to go into detail, he does say this:
“I’ve written some killer songs in the past few months and I can’t wait to get them out.” I ask him whether we can hope to hear any of this material at Union Stage.
“That’s a good question,” he says laughing. “Some of the stuff, my guys in the band are just starting to hear and it might be an interesting exercise to try those out in front of an audience and see what sticks.”
To give you a sense of his music, his related artists on Spotify include Leon Bridges and Shakey Graves, which is to say that his music is Americana. But Livingston feels a little more difficult to categorize. For example, where Bridges is more evocative of a single style and leans toward a Sam Cooke sound, Livingston seems to span more styles. Think R&B, but with an emphasis on the blues that you’d expect from an artist with a name like Son Little.
The name of his new record, New Magic, came somewhat by chance. Originally, New Magic was the title for the song that he would later dub “The Middle.”
“It happened on a day when I was working on “Blue Magic” and so I think that phrase was in my head. I had a few minutes before heading out to rehearsal and I thought let me try something new real quick, something to cleanse my palette.”
There and then he wrote the chords and chorus of “The Middle,” but at the time, he wasn’t giving the title much thought.
“Just to give it something, some kind of name, when I saved it in my phone, I typed ‘New Magic.’ That song later became ‘The Middle,’ but one day I thought, ‘what am I going to name [the record]’ and it just hit me—it popped into my head and made sense.”
Musically, however, the songs are quite different. “The Middle” describes some sort of liminal moment where the character is voicing some will for change whereas “Blue Magic” rolls unencumbered like the surfers in the music video.
Livingston tells me that “Blue Magic” is about the creative process and how good creative energy feels.
“I worked on it in a hotel room in Hawaii, and I had just gone surfing for the first time. I had been working on ‘Blue Magic’ for a while, and finished it there and in some part under the influence of surfing, which is one of the closest things you can do to surrendering yourself to the Earth’s creative energy, and the feeling of that… it’s exhilarating, it’s intoxicating.” I ask him if he’s had a chance to go surfing since then.
“One time and I fucking ate shit,” he says, but also strongly recommends I try it as soon as I possibly can.
From what I gather in our conversation, Livingston does a great deal of his work in hotel rooms. He tells me he wrote a number of the songs for New Magic while staying in a hotel room in Australia. I ask him if there’s something about the space that lends itself to songwriting, but he laughs off my pointed question.
“I don’t know if it does. But it’s kinda the name of the game. If you wanna do it, you gotta make it work and everytime I do it, I think I get a little bit better at it.”
The songs that he wrote in the hotel room in Australia were also written on a guitar that belonged to Dr. G, or Gurrumul, an aboriginal sort of folk musician, who had a voice which Livingston describes as angelic. This is in part the magic which Livingston refers to.
“I had written these songs on what I felt like was in part a magical instrument, on this incredible singer’s guitar, halfway across the world… I could feel the energy in it, knew there were songs in it.”
Another part of the New Magic, Livingston continues, is what it takes to write a song.
“I had been thinking about the need to search for a song within yourself and all the things that have to come together to make that, and when you look back you don’t even know… It’s hard, talking like this, to explain how those things occured. The closest thing I can relate it to is a magic trick which you can’t explain how you performed.”
Son Little performs Thursday, April 19 at Union Stage. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets starting at $20. Follow Son Little on Twitter and Instagram, and check out his music on Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube.
Union Stage: 740 Water St. SW, DC; www.unionstage.com; 877-987-6487