It’s not as if Aaron Livingston, aka Son Little, did anything wrong on his 2015 self-titled debut album. The Philadelphia singer, guitarist, producer, and songwriter had spent years behind the scenes working with stars like The Roots, RJD2, and others, so there was every reason to expect an impressive first effort. And that’s what Son Little did, layering his sweet-and-sour vocals, pulsing electronic percussion, low-key synthesizers, and, occasionally, his own tangy guitar work into a solid collection of modern soul music. But his new album, aptly titled “New Magic,” is a step beyond the debut in every respect.
Where there were once instruments competing for room in his arrangements, there’s suddenly space. Where his first album sounded ultra-modern throughout, the production style on “New Magic” recalls the sparse funk of Bill Withers’ 1970s work or the tasteful restraint of late 1960s Stax Records productions. The vocals have more room, as well, and Little’s raw, emotional singing is put into the spotlight where it belongs. His guitar also gets more room to shine, though he’s still not a showy or excessive player. And there’s more stylistic variety on “New Magic”: everything from stripped-down acoustic blues to sparse funk to sharp-edged rock, sometimes within the same song.
“I think that with the first record, I really got into the production aspect,” Little says. “I was learning a lot about what I could and couldn’t put into the songs sonically. I think maybe what I took from that was the importance of leaving space, especially for my voice. And for this record, I was so involved with and in love with the lyrical part of things that I wanted to make sure that none of that was lost.”
Perhaps more surprising than the new sound on “New Magic” is the fact that it exists at all. Between his duties with other musicians (Little won a Grammy in 2016 for his production work on Mavis Staples’ version of “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”) and nonstop touring to promote his first album, Little didn’t have time to write any new songs.
“There was a lot going on, and there was a lot going on for a long time,” he says. “I was struggling to find that space to write anything in. There’s always something there to be found, but I needed that mental space to find it. The whole thing was a lesson in learning to be patient. For me, the writing and the creative aspect of what I do are such a joy and such an important part of my life that it’s kind of hard to reconcile that when you’re doing well in your career, it might keep you from doing the things you love. It’s kind of hard to juggle sometimes.”
Little points to “Blue Magic,” the new album’s second track and a laid-back, bouncing funk/soul tune with a warm, burbling rhythm track and chunky guitar fills, as the moment when he began to shape his next step.
“I think it was kind of like the first one where I found the space where things weren’t so busy,” he says. “‘Blue Magic’ is the point where I realized that that anxiety or pressure that might be pushing you to rush things, eventually you get what you need by relaxing and sitting back. As hard as you might work to get where you’re going, it seems effortless when you finally get what you need.”
Little, who will play Wednesday at the Radio Room in Greenville, says that stripping things down on “New Magic” had another advantage: The album sounds a lot more like his live show than the debut ever could.
“The live show was always a loose funk thing with some rock edges on it,” he says. “So now that we’re playing those songs live, it’s enhanced the show that much more.”
Son Little w/ Howard
WHEN Wednesday, April 18, 9 p.m.
WHERE Radio Room, 110 Poinsett Highway
INFO 864-609-4441, http://www.radioroomgreenville.com/