Analogue Music | Son Little

Son Little

By Matt Conner

Aaron Livingston can blame it on the hard drive, but he'd likely find another reason to stall things.

The man known as Son Little says he works best when his back is against the wall, creatively speaking. Give him a deadline and he'll wait until the last second to do the work. Say what you will about the man's creative process, but there's no arguing with the beautiful results.

Son Little's new album, aloha, was recorded in a Parisian studio in just eight days, beginning to end. Months of pre-production, of fleshed-out demos and sonic ideas, were lost when a hard drive suddenly flamed out. Suddenly Livingston was under the gun with studio time booked and flights waiting. An album was due and he was starting from scratch.

Fortunately, Son Little had decided to work with other collaborators—producer Renaud Letang (Feist)—in the space between albums, which gave him some help and perspective as he began again. In only eight days, aloha was born, a reflective R&B companion to 2017's wonderful New Magic.

We recently sat down with Aaron to ask him about his craft and the emotions of losing it all before starting again.

"Nothing is more motivating than a lack of time. I had a week-long mourning period, and then I had to shake that off and start over."

Analogue: I read something about a completely lost hard drive, and I'd love to start the conversation there. Was this one of those emotionally crippling, lost-all-my-stuff moments? What exactly happened to it?

Aaron Livingston: Well, I don’t really know what happened. One day this thing worked, and the next day it didn’t. Which hadn’t happened in a long time. I think I got a little sloppy there. Didn’t really back a lot of the stuff up. [Laughs] But the idea was for me to really flesh out these demos as much as I could, and then go to France to work around them. Tighten them up. Add bells and whistles.

Without those demos, people get kind of attached to certain sounds and the way it’s been mixed, and it’s hard to get that out of your head. We had some great starts, but a few of the songs had really produced a certain sound, so that was painful and kind of paralyzing at first. Nothing is more motivating than a lack of time. I had a week-long mourning period, and then I had to shake that off and start over.

Analogue: Were you staring down the barrel of a deadline at that point?

Aaron: Yes, because the logistics of the thing was more complicated than before and I was flying overseas to do the recording. The studio time was booked, and my flights were booked, so I had to have the studio and the producer and the engineer. They can’t do their job if there’s nothing to record, so yeah it was kind of inspiring, in a way.

Credit: Shervin Lainez
Credit: Shervin Lainez

Analogue: If I’m putting myself in your shoes, I’m almost wondering if it’s a sign. Did that enter your head at all?

Aaron: I think the main difference for me is that what I had been working on up to that point had an upbeat quality to it. I think what was called for was something a little more reflective and, for lack of a better word, somber. I don’t know that I would have gotten to that point had I not lost what I lost. The changing of the season affected things, too. I lost the drive in September, and I kind of rebooted in October, and by the end of October, by Halloween, I’d already been in France for a week. So it’s a different mood. A different time of the year. I think the music reflected that.

Analogue: When you realized that the mood shifted, were you trying to recreate some of what you had while it was still fresh? How much do you allow it to fade and start again?

Aaron: I think initially my thinking was that I could, because I don’t have all the parts of what I’d already done, but I have these crude sketch mixes of some things. But those were the sort of most minimal, the ones where I’d done the least. My idea was for this to be a more collaborative process than it has been in the past. But even at square one, I was just sort of bringing what I had and we listened to what I had sketched out. I think in general, we tended to lean towards, 'We should just start these from scratch.' It was kind of an excitingly perilous task: not having a lot of time and no real particularly clear blueprint of how to do it. You’ve got to just make a move without knowing what comes next, and hopefully string a bunch of moves together. I think it’s a good example of what the creative process almost always is. It’s an active space.

Analogue: Do you work best under pressure?

Aaron: Yeah. I mean, I think that one way or another, I always tend to be in that scenario, for various reasons. If I have six months, I spend four months doing what appears to amount to absolutely nothing and then I do it.

Analogue: You mention a vision for greater collaboration. What informed that?

Aaron: I don’t know. I think I might have just been bored. I think I had been for the past two years. Working on the first couple records, I think I learned a lot. I learned a lot through what I was doing, which was mostly in isolation. And just talking to friends and reading up and occasionally going into other studios, seeing how other people work, that was all fascinating and informative. I just got to a point where I felt like I could get to a different gear with some responsibility given to other people. Having another set of ears, perspective, on hand, turned out to be incredibly nice.

Analogue: You’ve got production experience working with others, being that outsider who comes in. How much do you take from those experiences and apply it to your own music?

Aaron: Yeah, I could see how I react with someone and how much of what the artist is doing, the psychological warfare going on inside the artist. It can be kind of like listening to yourself. The producer can see the real image, not clouded by vanity or fatigue, uncertainty or doubt, or just someone being overly perfectionistic. So I think I started to really get more comfortable in that position, learning to be calm and steady, pushing in a certain direction, or being a cheerleader for a minute. Just finding what the artist needs to get the best out of the performance. There’s nowhere to do that to yourself. I wanted to see what that felt like.

Analogue: It’s hard not to notice a song called "Never Give Up." Just curious if that was born or was influenced by your process through this?

Aaron: You know, it’s funny, because that song, I started it about a year earlier than anything else. It was just kind of sitting there. It sort of has a weird role. That year before, I was kind of pushing to start working on the record. Some things came up that made that kind of impossible at that time. So I had that song sitting there. I thought about trying to push out a single by itself. We ended up not doing that, either. I think it really was kind of stubborn. It refused to go away. It became this cornerstone, so when I lost all the stuff, there was the one, still kind of sitting there. It was kind of a rallying cry for me saying, 'You can do this! Keep going!'

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