What is the new magic of music? If you trace the path of a plan back to its beginnings, what do you find? Is it a tree, growing from seed with deep roots planted in fertile soil, branches arcing out in all directions? Or a spark in the dark, an electrical charge? Is it a waterway, with swirling currents raging to create a river? Or is it a snowflake, falling from on high and dropping down to earth with a singular splash?
For Son Little, the genesis of a musical idea—the magic—remains largely a mystery. But his kinetic ability to summon that energy all the same, to command it, hold onto it, and set it in motion, is the stuff of alchemy.
“The magic is this well I can draw from; you can’t necessarily see it, you just have to believe that it’s there,” he says. “If you believe, then you can reach your hand down in there and get it wet. But if you don’t feel like it’s there, it won’t be.”
Son Little, the singer and songwriter born Aaron Livingston, is the easygoing musical alchemist of our time. He is a conjurer, and much like those of his heroes Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix, his songs are deconstructions of the diaspora of American R & B. Deftly he weaves different eras of the sound—blues, soul, gospel, rock and roll—through his own unique vision, never forced, always smooth, each note a tributary on the flowing river of rhythm and blues. The currents empty into an estuary, and into this well water Son dips his bucket—trusting innately in the magic’s existence. And now, with his second full-length album, New Magic, he has delivered a profound statement, a cohesive creation that captures the diverse spirit of American music in a fresh and modern way.
On the heels of his 2015 self-titled debut and the 5-song EP, Songs I Forgot, that came before it, Son Little found his reach steadily growing. His song “Lay Down” had been played over seven million times on Spotify, he had toured the world with artists as diverse as Leon Bridges, Kelis, Mumford & Sons, and Shakey Graves in addition to his own headlining runs, and also became a Grammy Award winning producer, earning a 2016 Best Roots Performance award for his work on Mavis Staples’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” But in the midst of all this success, so too did he find that the window for writing new songs was shrinking. Where his previous releases had been culled from various eras and scattered sessions early in his career, he now craved an opportunity to sit and write a new album in a distinct, unified direction, one that would establish his place in the world of black music. The only problems were: when, and how?
“I was on the road so much and found myself wanting to write, but I couldn’t really find time or space to do it in the way I wanted,” Son Little says. “I was playing around with beats or messing with chord changes; I had all these little fragments, thinking I would later piece them together. I kept the wheels turning by doing those exercises, but I knew it would feel really luxurious to be able to sit down by myself and write something from scratch. I was really hungry to get in that space and chisel out something new, without being interrupted by sound checks and rides in vans and radio. All that stuff is cool and I was having a blast touring, but a crucial part for me was missing. I wanted the writing to be broken up as little as possible.”
In the meantime, all that motion was filling him with both confidence and inspiration for the next step. The limitations he encountered while performing a debut record with so much studio sorcery via a live band onstage each night were influential in terms of how he began thinking about a followup. “I’ve often been a guy who was somewhat hiding behind the guitar,” he says. “Getting used to being out front and exposing the guitar and my voice, and leaving a lot of space in the material, all really inspired me and got the wheels turning for what I would do with the next group of songs.”
Sometimes, in order to see the stars, you have to get far away from the city lights. Finally, in the fall of last year, Son Little found himself in such a place, and it was there at the end of a tour in the remote, tropical Northern Territory of Australia that he looked up in the sky and saw the perfect alignment. Benefitting from several hours free on a string of consecutive days as well as the excitement of alien terrain and the inherent magic in a borrowed instrument, he felt things starting to come together.
“The Northern Territory is a place where things are moving a little slower than anywhere else,” he says. “There were these big crocodiles and enormous bats, just wild things I’d never seen. I found myself with a few hours to kill a couple days in a row, and I set up in the hotel and just kinda followed the process: I found a rhythmic idea I liked and then sang and played a little guitar over it. Like a tip jar in a cafe that fills up after the first dollar goes in, you need that first little piece to slide into place and then the whole thing comes together. I ran off five songs all in the same day.” (Three of those songs, “Kimberly’s Mine,” Charging Bull,” and “Mad About You,” would make the album.)
That process to which he refers stems from an experience he encountered while writing a cornerstone of his early material, the soul-scorching, chanty-like “Your Love Will Blow Me Away When My Heart Aches,” one of few moments of inspiration he can still visualize. The song came to him while standing in his bedroom; beginning with a couple of words and a tempo, Son Little started to pound his fist on the dresser and made up the song’s melody on the spot. “I was banging on the dresser, and then I don’t know what happened. There was no melody, no words...and now there is. I know now that if I get part of the melody, a phrase or two, and a tempo, then the rest will follow. So I wanted to follow that pattern for the new songs and let the idea grow from that without worrying about what the production would sound like or which guitar to use. I was more focused on finding the song and the arrangement.”
But, as it happened, the guitar seemed to find him, too. “All those songs in Australia were written with one mic and an acoustic left-handed guitar I was playing upside-down,” he says. “It was borrowed from the Australian singer Gurrumul, a blind Aboriginal musician with this angelic voice. I needed a guitar and he was nice enough to loan it to me; I took it upstairs and all those songs came out of it. You hear people say guitars have songs in them, and that one certainly did.
Whether or not Son Little was aware at the time of the overt connection to his pair of R & B heroes—Stevie and Jimi - that lending presented is unclear. Let’s, again, chalk it up to the magic.
“Those two dudes are a little bit alone there; I can’t see how there can be a higher level of musical genius after Stevie and Jimi,” he says. “I do think of both of them as R & B guys, but