STORY BY DUTCH GODSHALK
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In the opening track of Son Little’s debut, self-titled record, the laid-back and soulful singer seems to explain precisely what to expect from the work to come: nothing.
“You get what you get, so don’t expect a thing,” his layered, hypnotic voice advises during “I’m Gone.”
But he’s not being hard on himself. He’s just urging listeners to keep an open mind.
Stirring a thick broth of buzzes, hums and downward plodding bass notes, the dreamy and undulant “I’m Gone” serves as a fitting entryway to the album, as not one of the ensuing fourteen tracks sounds quite like it. You get what you get, he reminds you. Leave expectations at the door.
Born Aaron Livingston, Son Little explores a landscape of musical influences on the record (released Oct. 16), from modern guitar rock, to swampy blues, to vintage soul, with flecks of roots instrumentation mixed in. The product, surprisingly, is a smooth brew, unique and distinctly American.
With his varied sounds and influences, it’s easy to see why acts like The Roots and RJD2 have tapped the Philly artist as a collaborator in the past.
But there’s more than musical entanglement at work here, and certainly more than freewheeling, blues-rock stompers like early single “The River.” Many of Livingston’s songs contain deeply personal and cultural musings. “I’m Gone,” for example, presents the artist facing the uncertain, even fickle, nature of life.
“It’s the idea that there’s nothing really guaranteed about anything,” Livingston told me over the phone on a recent Friday afternoon. “When I look back at a lot of things in my life, sometimes it seems like there’s a general process of letting go of expectations about everything. Because everything seems to have shades of gray, and positives and negatives.”
His voice is distant and obscured, and our connection is choppy. At times vague clanging can be heard, as though someone were washing pots and pans by Livingston’s side. It takes an amount of straining to make out what he’s saying. “At the end of the day,” he continues, finishing his thought through gales of white noise, “you just gotta make do with what you got.”
There are splashes of current events throughout “Son Little,” too, meditations, Livingston has said, on the protests in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere. “Those events, and different events in the modern world, affect me in different ways, and I feel compelled to sort of explain myself,” he says of his more pained and confessional songs. “If it’s a stronger thing that I’m feeling, I definitely want to express that. Hopefully it will resonate with people.”
One of the record’s early standout tracks, the deceptively lively “O Mother,” has Livingston singing, “I won’t just sit here and let them treat me like a slave. Oh, can I love the world and hate how it makes me feel? ‘Cause I don’t want to kneel.”
It’s not always easy putting such raw emotion into words. There are “some things as men we don’t talk about,” Livingston says on the subject of being openly vulnerable in song.
He adds, however, that if he felt nervous about keeping certain lyrics on the album, then those lyrics must be vital to the music and what he’s trying to say: “That’s why I ended up leaving them in there. If it felt like I had any fear about it, then it was important.”
It seems safe to assume that concertgoers at Johnny Brenda’s Nov. 13 will experience the full spectrum of Son Little’s genre-hopping abilities, from the electric raucous of “Carbon” to the Motown croon of “Real Goodbye.” After all, Philly is where, from 2000 to 2008, Livingston honed his talent, playing the city’s small-to-midsize clubs and bars, many of which are no longer operating today.
“The music scene [in Philly] was incredibly crucial to me,” he says, his voice now coming through crisp, a rare moment of cellular clarity. “In terms of direct influences, people I encountered, artists I encountered, or just the scene in general, it’s really where I cut my teeth … [Philly’s] humbling and inspiring, and really sort of shaped my views about performance and my approach to recording and just playing music in general.”
But even though Livingston’s eponymous album — likely the first of many — might give you an idea of what his Johnny Brenda’s set will entail, it’s probably best not to come out with any expectations. Like Livingston says in the album’s opener, “You get what you get.”
Don’t expect a thing.