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Neo-soul artist Son Little retraces his gospel origins 

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click to enlarge Livingston: A high-tech version of Son House? - ANTHONY SAINT JAMES
  • Anthony Saint James
  • Livingston: A high-tech version of Son House?

When Philadelphia-bred Aaron Livingston was just a kid, he didn't think there was anything unusual about having a Presbyterian minister dad, or spending every Sunday morning with him in church for his fervent sermons.

"It's like with anything," recalls the artist, who now records and performs as Son Little. "The way you grow up? That's your norm. So I got used to watching my father talk to everyone at the same time."

Still, the young Little would get restless in the pews, so much so that his mother would have to take him outside before he unintentionally disrupted services.

"And whenever that happened, I would always speak to my dad like we were in the house," he says. "As I was walking out, I'd go, 'Uh, dad? Are you coming with us?' And all the people in church got a big kick out of that."

Little's religious upbringing would leave its mark on the future neo-soul artist, and in ways he never suspected at the time. When Little began making music as an adult, he couldn't help but think back to all the choir psalms his father fluidly sang and conducted in chapel.

"I think I developed my love of harmony from that," says the musician, who released his acclaimed full-length debut, Son Little, on ANTI Records last October.

And because Pastor Livingston never rooted himself within one vocal range, neither did his son.

"He always liked to meander around the different parts," recalls Little. "He might sing a tenor part one day, then a baritone part the next. And that really piqued my interest in improvising and trying different harmonies, and putting myself in different places inside a chorus."

That informal education has paid off. After a retro-smooth introductory EP, Things I Forgot, the artist's musical gifts have become even more apparent on his debut collection, which is full of skeletal but rafter-raising R&B anthems like "Carbon," "O Mother," "Doctor's In," and a Robert Johnson-meets-Sam-Cooke processional called "Loser Blues."

Currently, Little is promoting the album on national tour with another old-school soul revivalist, Leon Bridges. Can we get an Amen? Indeed we can.

In sculpting his own approach, Little also cites sonically inventive albums you might never expect, including Paul and Linda McCartney's post-Beatles Ram. "I also like the one before that, McCartney, as well," he notes. "I think they're both still really relevant now."

Little, who lives in New Jersey, says he can't remember all the humiliating straight jobs he worked while crafting his musical persona. But he always had faith that his art would one day prevail. Along the way, he learned that even his own rules were made to be broken.

"I was trying to focus on combinations of drum machines, drum sounds, and guitars with voices, of course," he explains. "And I didn't mean to do this at first, but I have to mention Son House, because I realized that there was a similarity there. I was listening to his records, where all you hear is him stomping his foot and singing. So I just started doing a more hi-tech version of that."

It was Andy Kaulkin who recognized another similarity. The savvy ANTI Records honcho who'd signed Little began playing the artist's early songs for church-reared labelmate Mavis Staples. The two talents were soon bridging the generation gap with writing and recording sessions that yielded the Little-produced Your Good Fortune EP. Earlier this year, it earned the gospel-soul legend a Grammy with its version of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean."

But penning "One Love," Little's contribution to Staple's Livin' On a High Note covers album, turned out to be a deeply educational experience. "I had to figure it out — how do you write a song for Mavis Staples?" he says. "But just her way of looking at life — she had such a positive energy — it was just contagious. So with Mavis, you just learn without trying. It's just a vibe you absorb, and she has that effect on everyone."

Little has also collaborated with fellow Philly natives The Roots and RJD2. "There are so many different sounds out there," he declares, "that you really sell yourself short when you close things off. We have so much access to different genres now, it's just a waste for people to pigeonhole themselves."

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