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Son Little On Writing In Wine Country, Recording In Paris And Playing With The Legendary Roots Crew

Son Little

Photo by Shervin Lainez

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Son Little On Writing In Wine Country, Recording In Paris And Playing With The Legendary Roots Crew

The Philadelphia R&B artist recalls his time recording at Paris' Studio Ferber and how a series of unfortunate events helped create the smooth vibe on his new album 'aloha'

GRAMMYs/Feb 4, 2020 - 01:31 am

Being a musician is a bit like being a meteorologist: It's hard to predict the exact moment a creative expression will arrive, just like it’s hard to predict how much rain will come. When it does, though, it’s incredibly important to be prepared. R&B raconteur Son Little (real name Aaron Livingston) kept his songs on a hard drive, but just as the weather can change without notice, so can one's luck. Last summer as he was preparing to leave Philadelphia to finish writing his new album in Northern California wine country, the hard drive died. He lost everything. He had no back-up.

Naturally, Livingston was devastated. "I kind of thought I'll plug it back in tomorrow and it will work, but it didn’t," he recently told the Recording Academy. "I was depressed for about a week or so and then I just started facing the reality that I’m gonna have to cook up some new ideas because the show must go on," he added. So as the summer faded over Petaluma, Calif., Livington spent eight days penning a bunch of new tunes. He then took them to Paris and recorded at Studio Ferber —opened in 1973 just inside the Eastern Périphérique—with renowned French producer Renaud Letang (Manu Chao, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Feist).  

While his first two albums, Son Little (2015) and New Magic (2017), were rooted in the blues and have a neat rock 'n roll swagger, aloha is soaked in smokey, mid-'60s soul. After producing his first two records himself and, in 2017, winning the Best American Roots Performance GRAMMY for producing Mavis Staples' "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," this time with Letang behind the board Livingston was able to capture the duality of letting go of old feelings and embracing new ones. Losing his original demos, writing in solitude in California and living the French lifestyle for a few weeks all helped give aloha the smooth, laid-back vibe he had hoped for.

Livingston recently spoke to the Recording Academy about recording in Paris, writing music in the brittle Northern California woods, and testing his mettle with Philadelphia's legendary Roots crew. Our conversation has been condensed for clarity. 

During your time at Studio Ferber in Paris, were you able to form a daily routine?

You know what, I had a blessing in disguise. When I first got there—on either the first or second day—I crashed out in an Uber and I left my phone in there. So I ended up riding the Metro instead of getting Ubers and I guess I did get into a routine, riding the Metro with the local folks every morning and blending in as much as I could. And their method of working is different to what I’m used to — [in the U.S.] folks tend to grind out these marathon sessions, whereas [in France] they’re really measured about how they do things. It’s like you get your lunch and go to your nine-to-five. We'd show up in the morning, have coffee, work until lunch, sit down and have a nice lunch together, then work until the evening and go home. 

Places like Studio Ferber tend to have a lot of old instruments lying around. Were there any that you became particularly infatuated with?

It’s funny, a lot of studios you go to have 50 different vintage guitars and you can get lost among all the choices—you play the part on a '64 Strat and then you decide that maybe you should try it using the '67 ES-335 [Gibson guitar]. I went to play bass and Renaud said, "I think you’re going to love this bass." And he brings out this thing that probably weighs as much as I do. I forget the model, I think it was a '75 or '76 Gibson recording bass, but I had never seen one before. This thing was the heaviest guitar I have ever touched. It has this unusual sweeping EQ, almost like a phase inversion switch, that you would never see on most guitars. So I played this bass on pretty much every song and there was kind of this beauty, or simplicity, to that. I think we were probably two weeks in before I asked, "Is there another bass here?" I guess we could have found one, but we didn't need it. Over 25 years [Renaud] has come to feel that this is the best bass, so why not trust the guy that has been working there for two decades?

Up until this album you've produced all your own music. You've even won a GRAMMY for a song you produced for Mavis Staples. What did you gain by handing that responsibility to someone else?

I guess going in I had some concern that maybe there would be some trouble, but the positive aspect of having someone else in the control room objectively evaluating my performance was invaluable to me. One thing Renaud really excels at is getting a sense of an artist's intent. I think he really understood and appreciated what I was trying to do, what I wanted to get out of the music, and how I wanted it to sound, so he became like a watchdog for anything that I might do that he felt was working against my own wishes. It’s surprising how often you stray or get knocked off your square by overthinking or being overly critical of your own performance. I guess the demon that every performer deals with is doubt, that desire to be perfect, and sometimes that gets in the way of your real goal, which is to make something great. Having a second brain that was less critical than my own and even more focussed on the end goal was really just a beautiful experience. 

You wrote the songs for aloha in a house and an adjacent barn in Petaluma, Calif. Can you describe that setting?

Well you know, it's very brown. Everything is sort of golden brown up there and unfortunately these past two summers it’s been very rough, the whole place is like kindling. At that time it felt like it was the last bit of summer—summer was kind of fading—and it’s a beautiful time to be in Sonoma County [wine country]. It’s not far from San Francisco, but that area is very open, it’s very rural. A lot of people thrive on the action of a city for their writing, but I've learned over the years that my creative process is really enhanced by solitude and silence. I only got about eight days this time—my hope is to always have more—but it was enough time to quiet my mind and fill the space with ideas.

The pace of this record is a little more laid back than your last twoit has more silence and you optimize that space beautifully. How much of that comes from the topics you sing about, and how much comes from external factors, such as writing the album in solitude in the summertime and having someone else produce it?

It's hard to say what’s more influential. I hear the environment in there, but I don't know if that's the dominant factor. I do think that a song like "suffer" was really waiting to emerge for me, and I think the same could be said for a lot of these songs—"About Her. Again" comes to mind. Both in the immediate aftermath of losing the drive and making the trip up to the country, it really opened up the space for me to have a more contemplative mood that made everything come together and make sense to me. Like I said, the stuff I was working on previously really didn’t have that mood at all. In hindsight, it’s hard for me to even imagine those songs being aloha. It’s hard for me to picture what that would have been like, it just wasn’t the right moment for it. I miss some of that stuff I did, but in a way I'm glad I lost it. 

This album is about letting go of old feelings and learning to embrace new ones. Can you give any examples of where those two things intersect?

There's a couple of cases where, because of my negligence, I had to do things a little quicker than I had originally planned, and it led me to re-evalute some older pieces that had been hanging around for a while. Some of these songs I had written over the years—"mahalia" is one, and "hey rose" is almost a mish-mash of different poems I had written that came back to life and resonated differently. 

Early in your career, you had the opportunity to work with the legendary Philadelphia rap group The Roots. What did you gain from that experience?

It’s a really tight community and they're really supportive people [who] are really positive and are champions of the arts, and of each other. But at the same time, it’s fiercely competitive and there’s a real culture of excellence. I remember my first experiences playing around those people—I would get up on the mic, grab a bass, a guitar or even drums here and there—and while [they] were supportive, you had to be able to do your thing, because while you were on bass there were six world-class bass players standing right there. So if you jumped up there you had to really come with it and give it everything you had, and [be prepared to] fall on your face sometimes.

I think that's maybe the most valuable lesson that you can learn, that you can crash and burn and still get up and get back to it—it’s all about what you have in your heart. I guess more than anything else, if you’re in a place where half the room is these incredibly gifted artists and you want to differentiate yourself from them, you kind of have to realize that whatever you’ve got, it’s uniquely yours. And if you do that to the best of your ability, then you’ve really got something. I think [playing with The Roots] really taught me to be the best version of myself and not worry about what everyone else is doing. My experiences there were really good because they rewarded me for being myself—there were no rewards for just blending in—and that’s among the most valuable lessons you can learn as an artist. 

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Allen Hughes' "The Defiant Ones" Wins Best Music Film | 2018 GRAMMY

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Allen Hughes' "The Defiant Ones" Wins Best Music Film | 2018 GRAMMY

Director Allen Hughes' four-part documentary takes home Best Music Film honors for its portrayal of the unlikely partnership that changed the music business

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 02:09 am

The team behind The Defiant Ones celebrated a big win for Best Music Film at the 60th GRAMMY Awards. The crew awarded include director Allen Hughes and producers Sarah Anthony, Fritzi Horstman, Broderick Johnson, Gene Kirkwood, Andrew Kosove, Laura Lancaster, Michael Lombardo, Jerry Longarzo, Doug Pray & Steven Williams.

In a year rife with quality music documentaries and series, the bar has been set high for this dynamic category. The Defiant Ones is a four-part HBO documentary telling the story of an unlikely duo taking the music business by storm seems better suited for fantastical pages of a comic book, but for engineer-turned-mogul Jimmy Iovine and super-producer Dr. Dre, it's all truth.The Defiant Ones recounts their histories, their tribulations and their wild success. These include first-hand accounts from those who were there in Iovine's early days, such as Bruce Springsteen and U2's Bono, as well as those on board when Dre and Iovine joined forces, such as Snoop Dogg and Eminem.

The competition was stiff as the category was filled with compelling films such as One More Time With Feeling, Two Trains Runnin', Soundbreaking, and Long Strange Trip. 

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Portugal. The Man To Aida Cuevas: Backstage At The 2018 GRAMMYs

Photos: WireImage.com

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Portugal. The Man To Aida Cuevas: Backstage At The 2018 GRAMMYs

Also see James Fauntleroy, Reba McIntire, Latroit, and more after they stepped off the GRAMMY stage

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 05:39 am

What do artists do the moment they walk off the GRAMMY stage from presenting, accepting an award or performing? Now, you can find out.

Take a peak at Album Of The Year GRAMMY winner Bruno Mars, 60th GRAMMY Awards Host James Cordon, Cardi B minutes before her electrifying performance of "Finesse," and more!

Also see Best Pop Duo/Group Performance GRAMMY winners Portugal. The Man posing with their first career GRAMMY Award, Best Roots Gospel Album GRAMMY winner Reba McIntire right after she walked offstage, Best R&B Song GRAMMY winner James Fauntleroy, Best Remixed Recording GRAMMY winner Latroit, and many more, with these photos from backstage during the 60th GRAMMY Awards.

Getting The Latest Music News Just Got Easier. Introducing: GRAMMY Bot. Find it On KIK and Facebook Messenger 

Bruno Mars Wins Song Of The Year | 2018 GRAMMYs

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Bruno Mars Wins Song Of The Year | 2018 GRAMMYs

The Hawaiian native takes home Song Of The Year for "That's What I Like" at the 60th GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 08:11 am

Feeling the 24K Magic, Bruno Mars' successful progress through the categories he's been nominated in at the 60th GRAMMY Awards picked up another one at Song Of The Year for "That's What I Like."


Christopher Brody Brown and Philip Lawrence co-write with Mars under the name Shampoo Press & Curl. The other winning songwriters for Mars' hit tonight in this category are James Fauntleroy and production team "The Sterotypes" — Ray Charles McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus and  Jonathan Yip.

For additional "Finesse" on stage at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, Mars was joined by Cardi B for a reprise of their 148-million-views hit remix.

The Album Of The Year GRAMMY Award wrapped up the night and wrapped up Bruno Mars' complete rampage through his six nominated categories — now six wins.

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