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sonlittleIf you caught one of Son Little’s shows on his Australian tour last year or have heard his debut self-titled album, you’ll know that the guy’s unique take on American roots music is both refreshing and powerful. The new-soul, rhythm & blues artist, whose real name is Aaron Livingston is about to release New Magic, his second album (out Sept 15). Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips recently had a chat with Aaron about his Australian tour last year and the creation of New Magic.

Leading up to my interview with Aaron Livingston, aka Son Little, I’d been listening intently to the contents of his wonderful new album New Magic. I’d zoned in on the final track Demon To The Dark, drawn in by the line in the song, “Mr Phillips, can you hear me?”. It was an eerie but warmly familiar experience to hear Aaron’s voice greeting me with, “Mr Phillips, how ya doin?”

The Mr Phillips who is the subject of the Son Little song Demon To The Dark is Washington Phillips, a gospel singer from the early 1900s. “Mr Phillips was this old blues musician … a blues gospel hybrid,” Aaron tells me.  “He played a Dolceolo. Have you seen it? It made the most amazing, inspiring sound.” In fact Washington Phillips, a preacher like Aaron’s father, had quite a fondness for obscure zither-like instruments such as the Phonoharp and Celestaphone in addition to the Dolceolo. On the album track, in which Aaron has an imagined conversation with the preacher, he also tried to emulate the sound of the instruments played by Washington, using an Omnichord instead. Combined with Aaron’s innate sense of space, the result is intoxicating.

It’s that great sense of space and dynamics in Son Little’s music that creates such an engaging atmosphere. Knowing when not to sing or play is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to all musicians. “I think earlier on I was just trying to sing as little as possible,” Aaron says in response to my comment. “As a performer I like the spaces myself. It gives you an opportunity to listen in a way that you can’t while you’re singing. As a listener I always enjoy that in music, it gives it a depth that is pleasing to me. Anyone who is like-minded and feels the same way will enjoy that aspect of my music … I hope.”

Much like his vocals, Son Little lays down his instrumental tracks in an evocative yet unwasteful fashion too, never over-done, always executed in an understated but intriguing manner. As you dig deeper, there’s more to be found. I wondered if his recording method was to add more then subtract later or vice versa …
“I have definitely done that,” he says.  “I probably did that a lot more on the first record. I was probably a little more settled into what I wanted before I started. I’ve found in a lot of cases, I can get a sense for where the line is and stay just south of it. I think if I was going to show you the whole picture, you’d probably find a strange refrigerator track on songs or a vacuum cleaner solo or pots and pans falling down the stairs that didn’t quite make it.” I suggested he might get a little ‘Brian Wilson’ at times. “Ha ha you know, you want to get there! You don’t know how much further you should go sometimes but if we could all be Brian Wilson, we’d be doing alright.”

In a spell of inspiration, Aaron wrote five songs in the Northern Territory while on tour in Australia last November, three of those; Kimberly’s MineCharging Bull, and Mad About You made the final album cut. Clearly Aaron was in an acoustic guitar, songwriting mood when he was here. At his Melbourne gig at the Toff in Town, he asked the audience’s permission to continue playing acoustic guitar all night, despite being armed with all kinds of electronics. “The best laid plans right?” is how he sums up the Australian tour.  “I had a lot of pretty interesting electronic stuff that I was doing … that I wanted to do but it was just something in the air. I was playing venues around Australia and it just felt so good playing acoustic and thumpin’ on the side of it, stompin’ my foot and that was enough for me.”

Aaron had borrowed a few acoustic guitars while on tour in Australian but the one which delivered the album songs was a left handed guitar that he played upside down. It was a guitar which was loaned to him by the recently departed Australian artist Gurrumul.
“I borrowed a bunch of guitars while I was over there,” he recalls. “The last one belonged to Gurrumul. I liked a lot of the guitars I played but that one was the one with the songs in it. I didn’t get to meet him at all. I only knew him through his beautiful music and also through his guitar that he used to make that music. I regret not meeting him but he was very sick at the time but I was very grateful that he let me use the instrument. It had some good energy in it. It just goes to show that you never really know where the inspiration and energy is going to come from. You know, I couldn’t have made that story up if I tried yet it has become this central, precious part of it for me.”

While Aaron enjoyed his Australian concerts immensely, felt comfortable here and was inspired to write a bunch of new songs in the Northern Territory, he was a little more cautious of the local wildlife. “I was watching birds while I walking down the street but they were watching me back!” he laughs. “They don’t do that at home and there’s huge bats too. They are very scary for someone coming from my area of the world where the bats are like the size of a mouse but there … they are like cats, flying cats. Very frightening. They say fear is one of the most motivating feelings you can have. That might be what first got me started.”

As well as being inspired by new surrounds, Aaron also tapped into America’s past with the songwriting for this album. The tracks Blue Magic and O Me O My have an old school soul, R&B feel about them.  I asked Aaron if he was channeling anyone in particular with those two songs. “I hadn’t really thought about it much until yesterday but O Me O My I guess is Ray Charles,” he tells me. “He’s not someone I necessarily grew up listening to but I guess the last couple of years I have gravitated into some of that real bluesy Ray Charles stuff. I think looking at all eras of R&B … there’s so much … Otis Redding, Philly International stuff from the 70s … Delphonics, Stylistics … a little bit of that in there … Blue Magic does anyway.”

And when might we see Son Little back in Australia performing the new album?
“I can’t wait to come,” he says. “I couldn’t tell you when because I have a lot of miles to eat up before I get there but I hope it’s next year. I’ll be prepared this time for the creatures that I will run into.”

You know they’ll be waiting for you Aaron …

“I know they will Mr Phillips.”

Son Little’s New Magic is released this Friday September 15th on ANTI- Records.

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