New Magic: Son Little on spirituality, happy accidents and outback revelations

Born in Philadelphia but based all over the world, Son Little crafts hazy, country-tinged soul born from the wandering blues.

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Son Little makes soul music for the hip-hop generation. Born and raised in Philadelphia as ‘son of a preacher’ Aaron Livingston, his rich sonic landscapes, quiet meditations on life and twinkling, off-kilter rhythms invite you to find light in the cracks and gaps of your existence, to explore them and soak in them but never become too weighed down by them. There are honeyed vocals, drawing from the diaspora of America blues and soul and there is playfulness, a magnetic ease to his work, which sees him fall right in step with his idols (think Mavis Staples, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and Kendrick Lamar). With modern R&B, rock and roll and metal all finding their way into his carousel of influences too, we caught up with Son Little to chat philosophy, the road and just about everything in between…

Describe your version of magic to me.
My version of magic… well it’s pretty improvisational! I’m a huge fan of happy accidents and I think sometimes you get two lefts that make a right.

So am I right in saying you believe in the magic of spontaneity?
Absolutely. I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing. What I end up with is never what I thought I’d end up doing in the first place (laughs) but it works.

When you imagine the source, the home of the spirit of music, what do you imagine it’s like?
It’s somewhere that I’m always sort of reaching to answer and luckily, I never find the answer. It’s only recently I’ve started to question where it’s coming from. I know that my experiences and the things that I read, the things I see find their way into my music and I’m never quite sure how or why.

Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person?
I always have. I’m maybe the rare spiritual cynic (laughs) but I always feel like I need to leave a little room for something miraculous to happen and those things do. I think if you leave space for that and you allow for the almost unbelievable to occur, it does.

You wrote much of the album in a remote part of Australia, is that right?
I wrote a quarter of it there but I came to feel like it was the centre or the core of it. The record really took shape while I was over there.

What impact did that kind of ageless, alien landscape have on the album?
Well on one hand you have these cities that -more than anything else – just remind me of Southern California, of home and at the same time yeah, there is an alien landscape. I flew from the south up to the northern territory and normally on a plane I’m reading a book, I’m listening to music… in this case I was staring out the window. I’ve never leaned out the window and stared at dirt for so long.

Where do you want to record next? Can you foresee any other strange terrains that you’d want to go to?
That’s a good question. You know, I think there really is something to just keeping your everyday surroundings and routine, that helps. But then if you’re bored you can just run into habits. But sometimes if you get out of your comfort zone it brings about and makes you think of things in a new way…I like warm places!

It’s interesting how a setting or surrounding can be absorbed almost without intention.
Yeah! I’m a big believer that the actual sounds of a place, where you are…whatever instrument you play, these little sounds or types of sounds always make their way into the recording.

You’re influenced by aspects of jazz, soul, blues and rock and roll. What would people be surprised to hear you draw inspiration from?
I came up as a big Beatles fan but in later years I had these little record store adventures. I mean now it’s not really a thing, this was 6 or 7 years ago but I remember for some reason – and I’d seen this plenty of times – one day the album cover for Black Sabbath’s Paranoid jumped out of me. It’s not often I buy records just because I like the album cover but I’ve rarely ever been disappointed when I did that. I went back and I couldn’t stop listening to it and ever since then I’ve been a monster fan.

Did you go the farewell concerts?
I did, I did. I’m a big fan of the first four Black Sabbath albums. Their really intense kind of heavy sounding stuff in the early 70s, I’m all about that. Since then, we’ve had all this speed-metal and death-metal and all this stuff evolved after that. I feel like you go back and what you don’t hear are these songs… I mean it’s a love letter to weed, you know they’re kind of like scary hippies, a super hard jam band! I go back and listen to those songs now, they’re still scary sounding. That’s never quite happened again. Collectively we kind of forget the essence of something once the time has passed and Sabbath that’s a band that is judged by who they influenced more than who they were.

Are there any books or philosophers that have influenced you lyrically or just in your day to day life?
Well, you know I’ve been accused before of pondering or evoking existential dread (laughs). I had a particular reviewer who used that phrase. To be honest, I thought he was pretty dead on. There was a point in school where I read a lot of some of those guys, Camus and stuff like that and you know that stuff’s significant. Books have often been part of my inspiration and have shifted my thinking about things and influenced my writing in that way. They rattle around my head a lot.

What comes through from reading that kind of material?
I think it’s a deep kind of meditation about where you are in your thinking and life, taking stock of what’s going on in your own head and the ability to kind of go back and read your own mind. I come back a lot. I think you have great sadness sometimes and that can lead you to create art. And that is a good thing but you know we’ve lost a lot of artists due to their coping mechanisms or loss of coping mechanisms for life. And I don’t think that Jimi Hendrix, Elliot Smith and Kurt Cobain wanted to die. They didn’t want to die at 27, 34 years old, that’s just where circumstances led them. So, you kind of start to think…but when your demons help you earn a living…you don’t want to throw the baby out the bathwater so-to-speak. I think it’s hard to figure that out, so I wrestle with that sometimes.

Do you think there’s something about musicians and their surroundings that kind of creates that sadness and unease?
It’s certainly not restricted to musicians but I think yeah, we consume live music mostly at night, there’s lots of alcohol, there are lots of drugs. If those things aren’t there, those things won’t happen. Not to mention when you’re touring, you’re keeping very odd hours. That can be very exhausting, the travel itself and the demand on your time, so it’s not surprising that people end up addicted to…well when you have access to something that turns you up, something that turns you down, it can be volatile. But you see the same thing with actors.

Is the dialogue starting to open up?
It’s hard when people have addiction and mental health issues. It’s a very harsh kind of thing that people don’t usually want to talk about. I mean if you have any problems with your mental health you don’t want to tell anyone about it, there is a stigma to it even now. It’s not your fault, you know if your brakes fall off…or you suffer some kind of trauma, that’s not your fault but we’re trained to feel like it’s a knock on our character and it really shouldn’t be. That if you drink too much it’s because you just don’t have the strength that the rest of us do… we’re just starting to come out of this way of thinking. I think as a society we’ve just got to think fast because there’s too many who are suffering like that and it really doesn’t have to be like that.

Son Little – New Magic is out 15th September on ANTI-

Follow Son Little on Twitter and Instagram
Photography Marc Lemoine
Words Jasmine Cowler

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