For Son Little, a weight has been lifted. The artist, born Aaron Livingston, had been carrying around the trauma and shame of experiencing sexual abuse as a young person for his whole life. As such, for years, as he kept the secret silent, he “absorbed” anxiety and difficult moments. He built his life around an absence of security, what he calls “a hole.” While he’d built a successful music career for himself, something was always off. Like a person walking down a dark street late at night, wondering at every moment if a stranger would leap out and hurt him, Livingston felt vulnerable and targeted.
This is common amongst those who have been hurt in their childhood in the ways Livingston unfortunately had. But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the world (and Livingston’s touring schedule) shut down, he rediscovered some old writings, disconnected from his contemporary life, and reconnected to his roots. The result was the strength to admit what happened, let loose the trauma and write new songs. Now, Livingston is poised to release a new LP, Like Neptune, in September. And he feels free.
“There was an incredible amount of nervousness around it,” Livingston tells American Songwriter. “I didn’t intend to reveal these personal details of my story.”
At first, he was just going to release an album. But as he talked more about it with his team and label, the truth became more and more evident, more and more public, and necessarily so. Rather than diving away, Livingston says he chose, finally, to face it head-on. He realized he couldn’t tell the story of his new record without telling the story of his difficult past. Now, though, that nervousness has dissipated. Like a kettle built up with steam that’s allowed a release, the heat has been loosed into the world, no longer boiling up inside alone.
“That hole closed,” he says.
Today, the anxiety about potentially having a conversation about the abuse he endured is much less heavy than holding onto the secret. It’s a beautiful turn for the artist, who is truly one of the supreme songwriters of his generation. Perhaps Son Little is not the most known songwriter, but his talent is large. During his career to date, he’s worked with The Roots, Mavis Staples, and acclaimed hip-hop producer, RJD2. His last album, Aloha, which he dropped in 2020 earned praise even though he wasn’t able to tour in support of it. Now, he’s excited to face new opportunities and while his story will always be part of his life, it no longer has power over him.
“I let go of that,” Livingston says. “And whatever anybody thinks after that, that’s on them. I’m free of that.”
Speaking of the past, Livingston’s very first memory is a musical one. It’s so old that, he says, “it’s just a glimmer.” He remembers sitting in the car with his parents and one of them forgot something, so they went back inside to retrieve it. Then “Bennie and the Jets” played on the radio. Elton John singing and banging away at the keys. As he got older, Livingston got a guitar. He’d always loved the concept of writing his thoughts down, but combining them with music gave him a new ambition and one, he thought, would be that much more effective. But this didn’t mean he was high on himself or his efforts. He got better by doing, feeling unsatisfied, and doing more.
“I think it was just by being shitty and not being okay with it,” he says, with a laugh. “I remember pretty clearly writing the first song and how quickly I became dissatisfied with it.”
Livingston explored that feeling of dissatisfaction. It drove him. Simultaneously, it informed him that he loved songwriting. If he didn’t care so much about it, he wouldn’t have stuck with it. But he did keep at it. Spurred on by a biography about John Coltrane, he moved to Philadelphia before he turned 20 years old and later found himself working with big names. This new reality was a bit frightening at first, though. He says he willed it into existence. But if he could do that, he wondered, what harm could he also will into existence? Thankfully, Livingston only used his powers for good.
“I was playing my songs in a studio, which might as well have been the Starship Enterprise,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about that [technical] stuff.”
But he learned. He adapted. Therapy helped, too. He accepted the fact he could, at least in part, shape the world in the way he wanted, with songs and ambition. A career blossomed, albeit one still connected to trauma and shame. After he released his acclaimed record, Aloha, though, Livingston at first felt down. He was disconnected from the cycle of a normal album release because of the COVID-19 lockdown. He wasn’t in communion, so to speak, with his listeners and concert attendees. Little did he know that, when he went back on the road more recently, people were listening and loving his work.
“People have developed very intimate relationships with those songs,” he says. “Without my influence beyond what I had already done. That’s not usually how it works.”
In a way, that experience paved the way for his dramatic sense of honesty even more recently. He’d agonized over the tracks on Aloha, he says. But once they were out in the world, they no longer belonged to him. They were for others. Same with his traumatic experiences. Once he let them out, they didn’t belong to him in the same way. They could leave him, spread out, and vanish like steam. Livingston didn’t anticipate the disruptions of 2020 to lead to personal revelations, but they did. He didn’t have anywhere to be, no timeless to adhere to. So, he spent time in upstate New York, delved into old diaries and journals, and experimented with new production techniques. He found himself.
Standouts on the new record include the hip-shaking “drummer,” contemplative “inside out” and meditative “Playing Both Sides.” Now, he’s got a big tour ahead of himself and he’s ready for the opportunities that (his new) life will present.
“Even when it’s bad, it’s good,” says Livingston, referring to music and his love for it. “I think that’s why it draws people together so much because it can be whatever it needs to be for you.”
Photo via Pitch Perfect PR