Son Little’s new album, aloha, is a case of making chicken salad out of…well, you know what.
The Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist lost a cache of songs he’d been working on in a hard drive crash — “Just a simple case of negligence,” he tells Billboard now. That meant he had to create another batch of material — including the appropriately defiant “Neve Give Up,” whose animated video is premiering exclusively below — to take into sessions with Renaud Letang in Paris, the first time Little (real name Aaron Livingston) has ever worked with an outside producer.
“I just felt like, ‘OK, I’m being tested here,'” recalls Little (nee Aaron Livingston). “I’m thinking, ‘Am I gonna keep throwing money at this (computer) problem or are there better things at the end of the tunnel if I just trust my ability to create?’ So I just wiped the slate clean, and luckily I wasn’t that attached to the stuff I (lost).
“It was a lesson for me that what I do is about my voice, meaning what I have to say but also my actual voice. It’s about what I’m trying to say and the song and how they’re arranged, so I just tried to double back and focus on that, and aloha was the result of that.”
Working with a producer, and in a different studio, for his third studio album was perhaps even more dramatic of a sea change for Little — as well as giving up control he previously exercised over album art and other matters. “I’m just trying to change something every time,” he explains. “I was kind of getting to a point where I felt really comfortable with what I was doing and thought it was time for some discomfort.” Letang was suggested by an executive at Little’s French label who had been encouraging him to come and do some work in France, and Little was impressed by the work he’d done with Feist and Manu Chao, among others.
“Serendipitously Renaud was on his way to L.A. to work on a project, so we met up and talked and he listened to a bunch of my stuff and I just felt like he seemed to understand what I was trying to do,” Little says. “He seemed like an ideal ally.” Recording at Studio Ferber in Paris was equally inspiring. “It’s really a legendary place,” he says. “Walking through the door is like walking through a portal into 1974 Paris; It just smells like old cigarettes and coffee. It’s pretty amazing. I don’t know in what universe I would shy away from that kind of opportunity. We just got into it.”
“Neve Give Up,” however, was one of the few songs on aloha that Little didn’t write in Paris. It had been around for about a year before, started during a jam while he was working on a commercial. “It’s very tedious stuff, very frustrating, but sometimes that’s when something magical can happen,” he recalls. “It was just me and an engineer and I’d finished everything I was doing and had all this extra time and said, ‘Let’s do something completely different and just make something up,’ and I started tinkering around with a little progression and we built it up and before I knew it we had built this whole song around it.” The song’s sentiment, meanwhile, came from Little’s 95-year-old grandfather, who had moved the family from Louisiana to Los Angeles, with stops in between, “and had kind of built himself up from nothing.” He includes a snippet of his grandfather’s voice at the start of the song.
For the song’s video, Little tapped Piotr Kabat for an animated clip of a man walking through a desert before arriving at a gilded metropolis destination — symbolizing his grandfather’s story. “I guess metaphorically speaking it made sense to me, in addition to my journey to get where I’m at today,” Little explains. “You kind of see (the figure) disappear into the nightlife there, which spoke to me. I just thought about me and (him), separated by a couple of generations but just soldiering through regardless of what life is throwing at you.”
Little previewed several tracks from aloha — due out Jan. 31 — during his fall tour and plans to add even more when he tours both solo and with a band throughout the year. He’s also looking ahead, with plans for collaborating with others next. “I kind of told myself the past two years I was really going to focus on myself, both as a person and musically as well,” Little says. “Now I guess I’m getting a little bored with myself. I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I want to do for myself next time I release something, but I also really crave collaboration, so when I get the time I’ll go back to focusing on that for a period, and that always lends itself to me coming back and focusing on my own stuff. The two things really feed each other.”