„Don’t we all have a special relationship to water? “, singer Aaron Livingston, aka Son Little, grins during our interview. His new record is laced with references to the great blue, the ocean, the salty waves. Its title, Like Neptune, speaks to that entanglement the artist has with the ocean. “I liked the idea of Neptune, the god of the sea as the biggest fish in the sea. But even the biggest fish can get caught on a hook. That is an idea that once I thought of it, I started seeing it everywhere.”
“We are all made of water. The planet is made of water. And the properties of water are something to take note of. Water takes the shape of the container it is in. Right now, if there are any lessons to be learned, it’s how important it is to be able to adapt to change. I think to feel, to be comfortable, and to survive you have to be able to adapt. ” Like Neptune is a record that grew out of a complex journey towards adapting, living with, and growing with a complex past and present. It rings in the deep musical layers and the slippery lyrics that bear so much meaning once you know the story behind the record.
Between Son House and Sun Rah
In the writing process, water was one of the references that kept returning. “When something keeps coming up it is trying to get my attention”, Aaron says. He thinks of ideas as not belonging to anyone but lending themselves to whoever needs them and can realize them. Going back to the roots of his artist’s name, this seems to be the way he has worked ever since. Son Little draws analogies to the blues greats like Son House or Little Walter, but the artist says it was not something that he was thinking about when he chose the name. Rather, like the water, it was one of the recurrent themes in his life. “I used to be called ‘little son’ a long time ago. It came from someone mispronouncing my name – Livingston. For a moment, I was making projects under that name. At the same time, I had a neighbor who would call me his son, even though he was only four years older than me, and we looked nothing alike. That’s how eventually I got to Son Little. It was only after that I thought about the tradition of the name.”
The artist’s name certainly promises big shoes to fill. Son Little walks in those with ease. Over the course of his career, he learned to mold his musical style to a mix of textured beats, raw vocals, and soulful guitar riffs. During the interview he jokes; “yeah, I think that’s what you could describe my music as – pretty Son House and Sun Rah mixed together.”
Laying Down the Burden
The past echoes in Son Little’s music beyond the connection to the blues and soul greats. The new record grew from Aaron working through childhood trauma of sexual abuse in intensive therapy sessions. Sparked by the artist digging up old writings, he took the forced break of the pandemic to explore those things simmering in the back chamber of his emotional household. Aaron talks about his experiences openly and emphasizes the importance of addressing these things.
“It is only mentioned once in my oldest diary”, he says. “The oldest diary and the youngest version of myself. The rest of the notebooks, even though they might have been influenced by it, do not mention it. You do not see it in the words. ” Like Neptune is not a record that sets out to tell a story of trauma and sexual abuse, the words don’t speak that tale. But they are the words of an artist profoundly shaped by working on dealing with his traumatic experience. Aaron describes it as the “paradox of the record” and the reason why he feels like in order to talk about the album he needs to provide the background.
“I am not the same. What you are looking at is a person that has carried a great burden and put that burden down.”
In the process of writing the record, the trauma of course did not disappear. I guess there is no such thing as getting rid of a trauma, there is just living with it, acknowledging it, and dealing with its repercussions every day. A path to healing wounds with the hope that one day, you can shoulder your way into the coat and go about your business without flinching at the touch of raw bruises. That is a place Aaron Livingston finds on Like Neptune. For the artist music has always been a sort of refuge but in the past, he noticed his thoughts and creative impulses, not moving freely. Something inhibited them and forced them to move around a hardened cloth of untouched emotions – a coping mechanism to keep the trauma shielded away. “I think that is the way the brain works”, he comments in the somber tone of someone who has put in the time to deconstruct and revalue these patterns. “All the information went around it – that terrible event. I wanted to forget. All my energy went into diverting what happened until I was forced to look. At first it grew worse and I wanted to go back to avoiding it. But I realized it cannot be avoided.”
“I had the choice of either confronting the trauma or living this way – miserably. I began facing it and finding tools to work on it that caused it to lose its power over me. It kept and keeps getting smaller. Everything is not perfect for me, but I am at a point where I don’t have to avoid anything anymore.”
Talking about this journey in countless interviews must be hard. But Aaron speaks with, I don’t want to say lightheartedness but with the simplicity, sternness, and a smile on his lips that radiates the confidence he gained. The artist is ready to share the story, to be vulnerable. And it needs to be heard because abuse, trauma, and mental health, are still left out of many conversations.
During our chat, Aaron comments on me jotting down notes with a pencil. “That is how I write songs – real old school.” He grins as he remembers walking into the studio and seeing people on their phones during writing sessions. How rude, he thought until he realized that they were writing their lyrics like that. The artist who used to describe words as the most important part of his music tells me that he has gotten more playful with the lyrics on Like Neptune – to the point where it’s almost like doing crossword puzzles. “I go into writing sessions with a pencil because that way I can change the words.”
Yes, the pencil allows for change and easy editing, but unlike when writing on a computer, it cannot be erased without leaving a trace. The thought existed. And even though it might be erased, it has been thought and will shape the following thoughts. That is what I like about writing with a pencil. It leaves an invisible archive of the path the thought took on paper. Its creative history, the present that does not exist independently from the past – like a metaphor for power structures and injustices that echo until today.
The bold strokes and fine lines of Like Neptune bear the weight and the lightness of everything the artist went through. Son Little embraces the vulnerability and the softness he regained, that he worked for. “I am not guarding that anymore. I feel comfortable being softer, allowing my loud parts to be louder and my quiet parts to be quieter. ” The versatility set free by breaking with preconceived ideas of what he wants or should sound like, talk about, or feel, reflects in the wide range of styles on Like Neptune. Gloria is a tender ballad guided by the raw voice of the singer, 6AM has him backed by a choir of voices, drummer’s upbeat and textured soul groove is mirrored by its melancholic and minimal soul sister playing both sides.
The Fun Machine
Tying it all together is the voice of the singer – and another instrument featured on almost all of the songs. I mistook it for the sound of an organ, and it took Aaron a minute to connect the dots. “It’s not an organ”, he corrects me. “It is the Fun Machine.” What a name for an instrument, we laugh. Aaron describes it as a keyboard-based instrument with pedals that he stumbled across unused in the hallway of the recording studio in New York City. “A funny looking thing as well. The engineer hadn’t used it in so long, he didn’t even remember its sound. The thing was only made for like three years in the early 80s. ” It made it on eight out of twelve songs on the record. And Son Little shrugs, “I couldn’t help it. I wanna give the songs all the energy and life they deserve, give them the ideas that belong to them and not to me. I want to give them what they want – and they wanted the Fun Machine. I guess using it is an example of being like water and adapting to the circumstance.”
Son Little brings our conversation to a full circle. From Fun Machine, to childhood trauma, mental health, and water that flows through all of it – Aaron Livingston knows how to bend yr ear with the way he allows his vulnerability influence the songwriting. The record dives deep, seeps through the rough sands of the shore, and rides a soulful wave that is easily surfed. “Is this a bad time for me to tell you how I feel?”, Son Little croons over smooth RnB. And the answer is no – it is the perfect time to tell us how he feels.
Like Neptune is out now via ANTI Records.