Son Little.Shervin Lainez

Block Heater: Son Little cedes a little control on record, Aloha


The story of Son Little’s third album, Aloha, is destined to be forever linked to an unfortunate accident involving the Philadelphia musician’s demos and a crashing hard drive.

Promotional material surrounding the album tells the cataclysmic event: The very detail-oriented Little lost 12 detailed demos, which he had not backed up. Rather than sink into despair, or try to reproduce what he already had, he started from scratch and eventually bashed out a record in an eight-day blast of creativity.

Little, who was born Aaron Livingston, laughs when asked if he is tired of telling the story.

But he acknowledges the sudden loss of months, if not years, of work is truly central to Aloha and perhaps even future endeavours, upending his modus operandi and general attitude toward recording and freeing the self-described “meticulous planner” to think outside the box.

“It’s the old rule, when you get lemons — and in this case I gave them to myself — you make lemonade,” says Little, in a phone interview with Postmedia. “It definitely felt catastrophic at first. But you got to look at it as an opportunity for a different future than the one you imagined. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

To be clear, the 12 songs on Aloha do not sound as if they were slapped together in a haphazard fashion. Not unlike his sophomore release, 2017’s New Magic, Aloha is a masterful run through soul, R&B and folk that possesses both retro elegance and an indie-rock edge. Little wrote the new songs. He played most of the instruments on the album. But for the first time, he enlisted an outside producer. Little had been impressed with the work that Renaud Letang had done with singer-songwriter Feist, among others. The French producer proved to be a savvy choice for an artist who was willing to cede control. Well, a little bit of control anyway.

“I was just looking to change as many things as possible without throwing out my entire concept or methodology,” Little says. “I was trying to put myself in situations that maybe I’m not as comfortable with. I wanted to really see what’s the effect of having another set of ears and somebody with a lot of experience shaping records.”

“He’s a guy who understands working with people with strong ideas, maybe borderline stubborn,” he adds. “I think that was part of it, too. It’s always been a question. I’ve talked about using other producers at times but always ended up deciding against it. So much of what I do is full-formed. It’s questionable what a producer would do. But Renaud was the perfect person for that because he’s really good at working within an artist’s ideas and really adding to that situation as opposed to just taking away control or trying to enforce their own esthetic on things. Renaud is really good at understanding someone else’s vision and esthetic and getting on board and adding to it and enhancing it.”

Perhaps due to a compressed timeline, Little ended up writing a good number of the songs on guitar, which means they should fit in nicely to the musician’s solo set at Calgary’s Block Heater on Feb. 21 at Studio Bell. Little is among the performers who make up the festival’s Black Future Month focus.

While Little could never really be considered retro — granted, his impeccable vocal stylings can recall everyone from Sam Cooke to reggae artist Sizzla — he has always maintained a healthy respect for what came before him while also looking ahead. The son of a preacher who introduced him to jazz, Little’s music travels through a number of fields in the continuum of black music. He first entered the spotlight as a collaborator with The Roots and RJD2, appearing on numerous tracks by both artists. Aloha features everything from the smooth and synth-heavy suffer to the funky 3rd Eye Weeping and the melodic, intimate ballad, don’t wait up.

“I’m fascinated by the way these forms relate to each other and combine and give birth to one another,” he says. “You wouldn’t have reggae if it wasn’t for the influence of American R&B artists. A lot of that style grew from a seed. They were listening to Sam and Dave and Stax records and that progression of influence gives you Bob Marley and the Wailers and those sort of things. Working in reverse, in the ’70s when those guys started making dance records and taking the vocals out and processing the vocals with delay and you have dub music. That comes back to the mainland and becomes hip-hop. I feel like those things are all really closely related, so it never seemed like a stretch to take elements of all of them and mix them together.”

Son Little plays Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. at the Flipp Realty Hall at Studio Bell as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Block Heater. Block Heater runs from Feb. 20-22 at various venues. Visit