Son Little on new songs and creativity in a time crunch

FRENCH CONNECTION: Eclectic and in-demand musician Son Little recorded his most recent projects — the five-song EP ‘invisible’ and the forthcoming LP ‘aloha’ — at Paris’ iconic Studios Ferber. Little plays all the instruments but for the first time worked with an outside producer: Renaud Letang. Photo by Shervin Lainez

The just-released video for Son Little’s single “Suffer” from his forthcoming album, aloha, is all moody twilight and soft focus. Two gorgeous characters played by Indira Reyes and Ituka Bright Laka act out a tragic romance, elegantly choreographed to soulful beats and Little’s dusky vocal. So how much input does the musician — known offstage as Aaron Earl Livingston — have when it comes to pairing imagery with his songs (in this case, a track dealing with the suicide of his uncle)?

Unfortunately, “it’s not like music, where you start with nothing and there’s no deadline,” says Livingston. Instead, there’s a marketing push, “and it’s like, ‘We need a video today.’” But Livingston hopes to be able to approach video-making from a more collaborative perspective in the future. The musician returns to Asheville on Sunday, Dec. 1, for a show at The Grey Eagle with support from local singer-songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling.

In fact, collaboration is clearly important to Livingston, from producing soul legend Mavis Staples’ album See That My Grave Is Kept Clean to a recent feature on the track “Goddamn” by Deva Mahal (daughter of bluesman Taj Mahal) as well as projects with The Roots and RJD2.

For aloha (set to drop at the end of January) and his recently released EP, invisible, Livingston tapped French producer Renaud Letang (Feist, Manu Chao). It was the first time the musician had turned over the reins, production-wise. The result, according to a press release, “is his boldest, most self-assured statement yet.”

The EP offers a taste of the full-length, and both share the tracks “hey rose” (skank guitar, hand claps, a dark heart emanating from an infectious funk groove) and “about her. again” (thick and bluesy with long pauses that allow the musician to dangle the listener over a building swirl of desire before dropping into soul-drenched melody). The two songs share little in terms of genre, and much in terms of vibe and emotional potency.

Yes, Letang’s influence is felt on the collection, but what about the place where it was recorded: Studios Ferber in Paris (where artists such as Jane Birkin, Serge Gainsbourg and Catherine Deneuve have tracked projects)? “It’s hard to put your finger on what exactly the vibe is there,” Livingston says. “That’s why we have that phrase ‘je ne sais quoi.’”

He adds, “I’d been there many times. … I could feel it seeping into my subconscious and informing the music.”

He went to Petaluma, Calif. — a place of sun-drenched, golden hills — to write for aloha and invisible. But, after losing a bunch of demos, according to a press release, he rewrote the album “in only eight days at a tiny house and its adjacent barn.” That, perhaps, gives insight into the pulsating urgency of the songs. But what matters most to the creative process, Livingston says, is silence.

“When I was young, I could work on music anywhere, in any environment,” he recalls. “When I first started living on my own, when I was in New York, when I was in Philly, it was total chaos around me. I lived in houses with a bunch of people around me and I just did what I did, no problem.”

He continues, “I came to understand the value of quiet. That’s mainly what I’ve selected for. [But] I think this is the first time I was this intentional about the specific place.”

Born in Los Angeles — though not raised there — Livingston recently returned to that city from his adopted hometown of Philadelphia. It sounds as if he won’t be spending a lot of time there, though. Time (and not having enough of it) is clearly on his mind, from getting into studios to delving into video projects. A lot of the industry in which Livingston is clearly succeeding is on a tight schedule. Still, there’s something about his work that suggests care and thought and patience. A researcher’s aesthetic allows him to draw from a wide swath of sonic eras, ideas and personal experiences.

Take Livingston’s treatment of the song “Skid” from the long-delayed album Black Beauty by ’70s psychedelic band Love. “It had never occurred to me to cover it,” he says of the track, which appears on invisible. “I’m not sure why it chose me at that moment. … I usually like to do something I feel like can be adapted so [I’m] not locked into making a certain type of song.”

Plus, he adds, it’s been validating to introduce “Skid” to a new audience.

WHO: Son Little with Christopher Paul Stelling
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Sunday, Dec. 1, 8 p.m. $17

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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