Son Little grew up watching his father preach in church on Sundays, speaking of spirituality and ethics to a rapt congregation from the pulpit. All eyes in the room were fixated on the orating church leader. During the week, however, Little’s father would spend time around the house, peacefully humming into his clarinet or saxophone, enjoying simple melodies.
Though Little (born Aaron Livingston) didn’t think much of it at the time, these examples of public-speaking prowess and solitary musicality helped shape his early musical career.
Little, whose mother worked as an educator in New Jersey public schools, attended Princeton High School in the mid-’90s. There he played clarinet in the school’s award-winning jazz ensemble, Studio Band, under the tutelage of Dr. Anthony Biancosino, who later was famously (and exaggeratedly) portrayed as the unnerving music teacher in the movie Whiplash. Little also played in local rock bands (including one named Black Water Tribe).
Later, living in New York City after high school, Little found himself called to Philadelphia and moved there on a whim, despite having never spent time in the city. He began to play music in small cafés, improvising with other artists.
“When I moved to Philadelphia I was looking for something different, a different vibe altogether,” Little says. “Without having spent any time there, something about the city spoke to me. It drew me in.”
Soon after, his break would come. The city of Philadelphia offered the singer a space to experiment. He played clarinet and sax with poets and other creatives as they read their works. He started to play guitar and write his own songs. Eventually, he began playing his own shows.
In 2004, just a handful of years after high school graduation, Little appeared on The Tipping Point, a critically-acclaimed studio release from the famous Philadelphia hip-hop band, The Roots (currently the in-house band on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon). Appearing on the frenetic standout track (as of this writing, the song has more than 5 million YouTube streams) was a milestone for Little, who is credited as the song’s co-writer. He was on the map.
“I really learned a lot about music from watching The Roots,” Little says of his time with the band. “It was an unusual crash course in collaboration.”
In 2011, Little collaborated with classic hip-hop producer RJD2, releasing a joint LP together called The Abandoned Lullaby. For a small-town public high school alum, this was another significant achievement. But it was not to be Little’s final exposure to fame. In 2015, he released his self-titled solo debut to critical praise, and in 2017, the singer released his beloved follow-up LP, New Magic.
In 2020, after stints collaborating with Portugal. The Man and Mavis Staples, Little took perhaps his biggest step forward with the release of his third solo full-length album, aloha, a soulful and expertly crafted 12-song delight that showcases his ability to craft deft songs and sing them like an all-time great.
To talk about aloha is to talk about Little’s steady creative growth. For the artist, the album marks an important moment of maturity in his life as much as it does a professional achievement. It is warmer than past offerings, Little says, which is the result of the artist putting less pressure on himself to make or achieve something he thinks others want from him. Instead, he says, he focused on making what he wanted to make. But it took a risk.
aloha is the first album on which Little enlisted an outside producer, entrusting some of the creative work that he normally would have undertaken himself to another’s ear and ability. And while Little was enthusiastic to work with the new producer – indeed, he’d selected him – it was still a nerve-wracking proposition. Enter producer Renaud Letang, a former Feist collaborator and, as it would turn out, the perfect man to record aloha.
“The one thing I was both excited and nervous to find out about was how would I behave in a situation where we disagreed,” Little explains. “But nine out of 10 times when we disagreed on a certain take, I could quickly tell he was right even before I began listening to the one that I thought was best.”
As an artist, Little says he often – perhaps too often – tries to outdo himself. He attempts to top his most recent achievement and tends to lose a sense of objectivity in regards to the bigger picture of his career. But working with Letang, he says, allowed him to let go of this intense burden of control and let the music come to him. No longer was he chasing down a perceived goal; instead, he was finding the music from a more internal place.
The result is an album that moves fluidly from song to song, as revelatory as it is intimate. On aloha, Little sings of lost love, worldly paradoxes and a push to never give up on a dream. It’s a record one can listen to in full while doing chores around the house or inspect song by song for its layers and lyrical skill. In the end, however, Little says the LP feels like a “more relaxed version of myself” compared to any other record before it.
“I’m a musician,” he says, “but I’m also a person. I guess that’s a superficial way of saying the album is a bit more – it reflects more growth and sensitivity. I’m learning to be less hard on myself and maybe even less hard on other people at the same time. I think that comes across.”
Indeed, aloha is not some bombastic work. It is instead noticeably calm and spare. But the reserved nature does not in any way diminish its potency. The record’s opening track, “hey rose,” inspires Elvis-like hip shaking. The third song, “mahalia,” is a swaying romp that features the keen lyric, “This life’s full of promises we keep but we never made.” The eighth track, “don’t wait up,” highlights Little’s raspy vocals; hearing the track, one might imagine Little in an empty church, playing the organ as the moonlight beams through stained glass windows. It’s minimalistic and profound.
The essence of aloha, though, is vulnerability. This is perhaps most clearly displayed on the album’s final song, “after all (I must be wrong),” a sweet, lullaby-like tune admitting fallibility despite a great deal of loving sincerity. But without focus, determination and resolution, that signature sincerity could easily be lost. So the album’s penultimate track “never give up” is likely the record’s most important. It’s as much the personal mantra of a hustling and hungry artist as it is a hit single for a rock club.
“There are times when you get pushed beyond your limit,” Little says. “It happens to people all the time. It’s happened to me.”
To be a full-time professional artist can be draining. Despite the glamour, it’s a difficult task to manage. One’s office is almost always the next city away, the commute only outdone by full-time airline pilots or truck drivers. While artists know this is a difficult routine to maintain, it’s maybe their concerned mothers who feel it most acutely, worried about their children on the road. And Little’s mother, now retired, is no different.
“She’s a worrier,” Little laughs. “But she’s slowly warmed up to the idea of me being a musician. I think she always saw the cutthroat, vicious, cruel reality of the business – and actually she’s completely right about that. The business can be very unforgiving. But she’s proud to see what’s happening with me these days.”
Ever since the early days with his high school ensemble teacher Biancosino and garage rock band Black Water Tribe, Little has known that music fueled him. He’s been grinding at a career for nearly two decades and, as a result, has had to internalize the struggles and the joys of the job. Today, however, his résumé bears the marks of a truly successful artist. He’s earned millions of streams for songs and music videos like “Lay Down” and “Your Love Will Blow Me Away When My Heart Aches,” and he’s appeared on NPR’s coveted Tiny Desk Concert series, during which he sang harmonies with his sister, Megan.
“I was sitting in a green room at Austin City Limits,” Little says. “And I read on the wall, ‘The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.’ That’s a quote by Hunter S. Thompson. It just makes me laugh.”
Yes, measuring progress in the music industry can be difficult. In an age when some tens of thousands of songs are posted to the internet each day, it can be hard to stick out, and it’s even more difficult to maintain a long career. A musician can play a club in a city one year to a total of nine people, as Little did in the Pacific Northwest some number of years ago, and come back the following year and play the same club to a packed house. Life is fickle; the music industry is often even more so. But Little credits his early years in Philadelphia for helping to establish his sturdy foundation.
“There’s something about Philadelphia,” he says. “That’s where I became mature as a musician. It was the beginning of me finding my voice musically.”
Of course, getting to collaborate with a few Hall of Famers didn’t hurt either. With The Roots, Little says he learned the possibilities of seemingly limitless collaboration, sometimes working with a room full of people on a single song.
“There are so many different ways that they did things,” Little says. “A whole village and community goes into everything they do, down to the lyrics. Sometimes it would take a whole room full of people throwing ideas back and forth. I learned a bit of creative flexibility.”
Working in the studio with the Ohio-based RJD2, Little says he learned what it was like to collaborate with an “egoless” artist, one who is just as willing to jump into a new project as he is to dump a longstanding one.
“He doesn’t mind taking big risks and having them fail,” Little says of the producer. “That’s a valuable lesson. I’m still trying to get better at that.”
And with Mavis Staples, Little says, he learned what impressive talent looked like up close and in-person – talent so big that it demands authenticity.
“You can do all the planning in the world,” Little says, remembering what Staples told him, “but sometimes you have to just close your eyes and let it fly.”
But while his creative escapades have taken him around the world to play in clubs and recording studios with legends, Little also takes solace in the fact that in many ways, wherever he goes, the people he encounters share something very simple. From his parents to star singers to music fans and famed producers, at the core, Little says, people are just people.
“I think there’s something very comforting about how much the same we all are,” Little says. “Being a professional musician, you gain incredible insight into this idea. You see people doing the same things in different places all over the world. But in the end, it’s all about the Golden Rule. That’s probably my favorite thing I’ve learned from doing all this.”