Record of the Week: Son Little’s ‘Like Neptune’

Son Little talks new album ‘Like Neptune’

For some people, the pandemic presented a time to sit back and self-reflect as the world locked down but for Aaron “Son Little” Livingston, forced isolation was an excuse to do what he often wants to do anyway — hibernate and focus. The unexpected “freedom” of lockdown set the stage for his latest project Like Neptune.

For years Livingston has been dealing with anxiety, panic attacks and depression and during isolation, he began the process of identifying the roots of his trauma with the help of therapy and boxes full of old books on writing.

“I’ve always felt as though I was making music because I had to,” Livingston said in a statement about Like Neptune. “Something inside compelled me, fueled me. This the first time in a long time I’m making music for the pure joy of creating.”

His last project Aloha was the first time he stepped back from the production side with Renaud Letang steering the ship while Little focused more on songwriting. For ‘Like Neptune’ he returned to producing using apps on his iPad, helping him rediscover the playfulness of making music – a joy you can hear on the song “Drummer.”

There are some parallels between Like Neptune and Kendrick Lamar’s 2023 Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, which deals with generational trauma and therapy, but Livingston’s songs aren’t necessarily about the trauma itself, instead its the way the healing process has informed and enriched him as an artist.

In some ways, Little’s 12 song collection offers a soulful take on mediation music. “6 AM” makes sleeping through an alarm because you stayed up all night sound peaceful. Livingston says he made this album for himself with the hopes it helps someone else in the healing process.

On the Record: A Q&A with Son Little

Marquis Munson: You are currently in Europe right now but you will be returning to the US hitting the road again. You stop here in Nashville on November 19th at The Blue Room; how does it feel to perform these songs on the road again?

Son Little: It’s interesting after a long break I’ve played here and there, but this really feels like we’re in full swing again. So, it’s a little surreal, but it’s great being able to share the music with people again.

MM: Being around the Sound of Philadelphia, how were you effected by the Philly sound and when did you determine I’m going to be a part of creating my own sound of soul music?

SL: Well, that sound was what drew me to Philly in the first place. There is such a rich history of not just R&B and soul, but even jazz in Philly. There is a real spirit of collaboration and improvisation there, which really sparked my interest. It was crucial to my development as an artist. I don’t know if there was any moment where I felt like this was what I was going to do, it just evolved gradually. It just kind of organically developed.

MM: You’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing artists from The Roots to producing for the legendary Mavis Staples, was their anything you took from those sessions that you use in your music?

SL: Oh, I mean, there is a ton. It’s interesting how just a few moments with someone who’s as masterful as Mavis Staples or Black Thought, just a moment or two can really change the whole trajectory of your career in life. It could take me forever to detail everything that I picked up from working with different people. And those are the sort of like big marquee names. But there’s just been countless people along the way that offered advice or just given insight that has been valuable to me and given me a foundation to build on.

MM: Black Thought has been on a roll these last few years. Every time I go on social media there is always this discussion about Black Thought being an underrated MC. But for people who know, he’s been a great artist for a long time.

SL: I’ve been watching this guy for a long time and was fortunate enough at times to be able to really see different aspects of what he does up close. There’s just an intensity and a level of focus with him that is inspiring to a lot of people. I think it’s great that those conversation are happening. But I think people have been watching him have known all along he was in a rare place. Let alone as an MC, but just as a vocalist, performer, and writer, this guy is a giant.

MM: The pandemic was a time for a lot of people to sit back and self-reflect as the world around us stopped and lockdown. What was that setting like for you and how did being in that space help you creatively?

SL: Well, what’s interesting for me, I realized quick that isolated is kind of my default setting [Laughs]. Some people that I talked to it was hard on them. Not being out in the world, not touring, not being able to go out and that wasn’t really an issue for me. If anything, it was an excuse for me to do what I often want to do, which is just hibernate solo. I think that was the big revelation for me was, ‘Hey, this is pretty natural for me to isolate and kind of focus on my internal life.’ But it got me thinking about why that is and really wanted to go further to find a level of acceptance of that. I saw a lot of people just instantly gravitating towards they’re on Instagram live every night addressing their fans directly or on TikTok. Just reaching an acceptance of who I am as a person, as an artist, and not putting pressure on myself to keep up with the Joneses.

MM: Was this also when you started the process for Like Neptune?

SL: Looking back on it now, it was early on. For a couple of the songs like “Gloria” for example, was done around May of 2020. At that time, I didn’t consider myself working on an album. It was just an idea I had. I was adamant at that point on not putting any pressure on myself to deliver an album. I just wanted to get back to exploring the craft of production and writing and sort of divorce it from this more industry born concept where I’m like ‘Okay, I’m producing this record.’ It’s more about what I wanted to hear. Which was the genesis of all this for me in the first place. I had things I wanted to say, maybe didn’t always know what they were, and that’s lyrically and musically it was to just play, that’s where I started. I think when you’re in a cycle of album then tour another album then tour, it’s easy to lose sight of the basic part, which is the energy that led me to this path in the first place. It’s about personal growth and healing, but it’s also about experimentation and play. I think because of that, the isolation, and the break in time, I was able to sort of bring that playfulness back to my work.

MM: Albums like this and Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers it seems like artists are showing more vulnerability discussing generational trauma in their music. Although Like Neptune doesn’t blatantly say this is the subject matter, was there hesitation from you at first that you were revealing too much and letting people too close?

SL: There’s always a little bit of fear there for me. It is very revealing when you write and it’s not all songcraft. It’s real life from the heart and you’re telling your story. There’s always a little hesitation like, ‘Am I revealing too much?’ But in the end, it is therapeutic for me and that’s how this all started. That’s part of why I was doing it. I love the fact that people enjoy what I do but, I’m not doing it for other people. I was doing it for myself because I felt like I needed to. I think more vulnerability is the only way to go. That’s how people can connect with what you do. Despite any hesitation I might have, I think in the end it always shows the reward for being honest in your artwork far outweighs any negative consequences.

MM: When I first listened to Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers and people would ask me my thoughts on the record, I would tell people I don’t think he made this record us, he made it for him with the hopes it will help someone in the process, and I get the same feeling when I listen to Like Neptune.

SL: It’s interesting you brought that up because when I listened to Kendrick’s record, a lot of it really hit home for me. I felt like there were a lot of ways that we were on a similar wavelength and discussing very similar subjects. I’ve had that feeling with him before, but this one in particularly, there’s some real definite similarities there.

MM: So, did therapy and the journals help make discussing this trauma easier for you?

SL: I think so. I don’t know that I was particularly aware of that while I was doing it. But I think, my therapy has helped me remove a lot of guilt and shame from the equation. Which just allows you to open up and again allows you to just play with it. If you have trauma, generational or otherwise, it’s like a road bump. It’s this obstacle in your path and when you’re not dealing with it, the tendency is to kind of talk around and avoid it. If you able to get in and engage with it instead, it just really opens up and there’s so much more that you can communicate. I think you’re right I did all of this for myself, but a great byproduct is that other people can hear what you’re saying and maybe be emboldened to take those kinds of steps themselves.

MM: I know the conversation of therapy and its importance was taboo for a lot of people growing up. You’ve talked about your mother convincing you to go to therapy when you were 19 and you weren’t ready at the time. So, what led to the decision to go back as adult and how important was that decision looking back on it now?

SL: Well, for me and I think that’s probably a common story for people. It’s like here’s this obstacle, this empty space inside you. You don’t want to engage, and, in some cases, it can be dangerous to engage with it when you’re not ready. And it was that for me. But as time wears on, you find yourself repeating and going in circles. Running into the same obstacles over and over. I think stuff just comes to a head in different ways. There were several points where that happened for me where I just hit a point where I just felt like I can’t continue to put band-aids on this thing. I got to turn towards it or it’s just going to eat me up.

I think time, space and really living with it and getting older you become less concerned with what anybody thinks. Because you’re right, a lot of us, we have grown up with this stigma against therapy that it’s for disturbed or weak people. But at some point, it’s about me and my life and how I feel. How I want to feel and how I want to be. And somebody’s judgment of what it means to be in therapy is like, ‘What am I getting out of that?’ Some of it is a bit of maturity, realizing those naysayers they’re not around when you’re going through the difficult stuff you’re going through. They might say, “Oh, therapy for weak people.’ But are they there to pick you up when you’re struggling? So ultimately, it’s just about how you feel and how you want to live. That kind of guided those decisions for me.

MM: How did you come up with the title Like Neptune?

SL: That’s an interesting question [Laughs]. Like a lot of things, the phrase just kind of came to me. I’m finding a lot of water themes for me. I was playing with these ideas of the proverb saying like ‘You want to be like water, behave like water, be able to adapt and take the shape of the container or the environment you’re in.’ So, these kinds of ideas are always floating around for me. But I like this idea of like, big fish eats a little fish and then a bigger fish is the big fish and so on and so on. That’s kind of the idea I was playing with was if you’re the biggest fish in the sea, even the biggest fish get eaten by something, where everything on this planet was temporary. But sometimes people see that and throw their hands up and say what’s the point? But it’s our journey and our relationship with what we have around us, that is the point. I’m finding myself embracing paradox more. It’s making a lot of things easier for me because, there are just so many things in life where somehow a thing and its opposite tend to be true at the same time. So that was kind of the idea like here is the king of the sea, but he still gets caught on the hook.

MM: Your last project Aloha was the first time you stepped back from the production side and focused more on the songwriting, on this one you wrote, arranged, and produced everything with appearance on the percussion from Aaron Draper, a few musicians helping you on keys and guitar, what was the relationship between your songwriting and production ideas for this record?

SL: This was a little different. Like you said with Aloha, I had Renaud Letang producing, but I was still in the room playing everything. So, it was very cool in a sense because I had to really focus on that aspect of it, just getting the sounds and not worrying about the technical part. Due to the way that process worked, I was writing fast. I think the process with Aloha I learned a lot from Renaud. I’ll keep going back to this, but there’s a playfulness that I think I was missing for a while. In the past, I’ve really agonized over lyrics. I sort of beat myself up because I will constantly be writing and rewriting, editing, and changing words. I’ll be changing the lyrics while they’re mastering the record [Laughs]. And I’m like, ‘Maybe I should change this.’ I got to a point of just embracing that that’s kind of the way I am.

So, this time, I tinker a lot with the production, but there was a real spontaneous feeling to most of this. I would get a sonic idea and some of these things are built on beats I made in previous years that were just sitting around. So, in those cases, I’m humming along or singing gibberish on top of the beat until I get real lyrics. I didn’t write anything down for a long time. So, I was just singing over stuff and whatever came out came out, and then I would start to shape it from there. So that’s the thing I’m probably most happy with is that when I listen to it, there’s just an immediacy to it because what’s there on the record is very similar in spirit. So, like you’re hearing my first ideas on all these songs. With some exceptions, certain lines, and words I changed later. But I think more than any of my other material, that first initial idea survives in many of these songs. So, there’s a real immediacy that is pleasing to me.

MM: Do you feel like your production gives you your own sonic signature?

SL: I do. I’ve been playing and experimenting with sounds for a long time now. So, I think I do have my own vocabulary and palate, which is always changing and growing. I have sonically a little world that I go to, and I think each of my records has existed in that world and expanded and added to it. I’ve been experimenting with sounds for a long time, but my methods and understanding of how to capture the sounds has just grown and deepened. Which has led me to search even more for sounds. I’m finding that’s it’s a thing that is automatic for me.

MM: How do these sounds differ from the live stage?

SL: There are certain things that are hard to reproduce without directly using the same sounds or the same effects. I decided real early on that I was never going to worry too much about making the performances sound like the records. I think they’re just different, and there’s certain things that don’t translate that well. Even though I played these parts, it’s a little different when you’re on stage because you want a song to move a certain way. Especially if I’m playing with a band, I really like for people to be able to bring their own style to what I’m doing. I want to choose people who are bringing something to the table, not just trying to duplicate what I played in the studio because it’s never going to sound like the record unless you bring your record to the stage, which doesn’t interest me very much.

MM:  Going back to the album Like Neptune, when listeners hear the lyrics and subject matter of this record, what do you want to be the overall takeaway?

SL: A feeling of hope. If you read the bio on what I’ve said about this time in my life, it can seem very heavy. But I think it comes across when you listen to the record, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s certainly not out there so people dwell on their trauma. Even though without my relationship to trauma and healing, this record couldn’t exist. But the record itself is not about that. The songs are not necessarily about that. It’s not about the trauma I went through. It’s the way this healing process has informed and enriched me as an artist. I’m just more free, more open, and more playful.  I think ultimately the takeaway is, I think the whole world needs therapy. The whole planet got PTSD, how could you not? There’s so much pressure, so much pain, so much suffering. We’re all hurt and sometimes these kinds of problems can feel like the walls are closing in on you. But you live to fight another day and none of it is permanent. So, I think the takeaway for me is having these kinds of things in your life is not a life sentence. There are opportunities there to heal yourself, grow and find light from darkness. I would love for people to just walk away from listening to it and feel empowered.