The singer insists that such a forceful curse word was the only way to convey the emotion he felt while writing “Little Lion Man,” and actually helps make the song feel more vulnerable -- and in turn, more relatable.
“There was definitely something about being emotionally vulnerable that was culturally acceptable at that time, and it has been since,” the singer says. “There was the songwriting factory side of things in the ‘80s and ‘90s where you could kind of tell with artists that their songs were being written in back rooms by people that knew better. There’s been a resurgence in the past decade of a generation that are emotionally quite aware, allowing emotional vulnerability from their stars is something that’s more culturally acceptable, and even attractive.”
What was perhaps most groundbreaking about “Little Lion Man,” though, was the boot-stomping, shout-along folk sound that the song introduced to the mainstream amid electronic-driven pop hits like Kesha’s “TiK ToK” and Katy Perry’s “California Gurls.” Moreover, Mumford asserts that songs with four-part male harmonies were just as unusual for the time. “We weren’t f--king with acoustic guitar sound modes or putting things through lots of different software -- it was fairly straightforward, recording a band in a room,” Mumford says. “There was an authenticity to the instruments we were playing and what translated on records.”
That’s part of what made Nick Petropoulos, head of promotion for Mumford & Sons’ U.S. label, Glassnote, and his team believe “Little Lion Man” was, in fact, a radio hit. “If you look at it on paper, this kind of music had no place being at alternative radio or anywhere at that moment,” Petropoulos says. “But it was dripping with passion, and it was still a powerful rock song, even though it didn’t have those traditional rock instruments. It was so different, and it really stood out.”
Petropoulos recalls some programmers dishing “a lot of hate” for the banjo, but he also saw early indicators of stateside success thanks to tastemaker stations in Boston and Minneapolis. With streaming platforms still in the early stages, terrestrial radio helped the song soar, and in October 2010, “Little Lion Man” reached No. 1 on the Alternative Songs chart. Though that was the song’s biggest chart achievement, it also reached No. 2 on Adult Alternative Songs, No. 3 on both Hot Rock Songs and Rock Airplay, and cracked the top 20 on Adult Pop Songs. But as the song continued to make an impact, so did Sigh No More’s fervent follow-up “The Cave,” as well as the album itself: By October 2011, Mumford & Sons had the No. 1 rock album in the country.
Within two years of “Little Lion Man” becoming a hit, several groups followed suit, and suddenly harmonic, hollering folk was the next big thing. In 2012, The Lumineers and Of Monsters & Men released their debut singles,“Ho Hey” and “Little Talks,” respectively, the former hitting No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the latter reaching No. 20. The folky sound creeped into top 40 radio, too, with pop hits like Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” One Direction’s “Story of My Life” and Pitbull’s Kesha collaboration “Timber” incorporating stomp-along vibes with acoustic guitars and harmonicas.