Chicago Drive-In
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Q&A: CeeLo Green

| July 9, 2020 | 0 Comments

It’s not an idyllic color-blind utopia, by any means. But the modern music world has certainly become a comfortable place of artistic collaboration where just about anything goes — Ariana Grande could record a squawky duet with a great blue heron, theoretically, and a waiting audience would snap up every last 12” remix. And chances are, with just the right Swedish team of producers tinkering with its tones, it just might wind up sounding Top-40 awesome. This may not be a solution, but it’s a nice place to start in our new post-pandemic, post-Black Lives Matter era — if diverse singer-songwriters can comprehend each other, how long could it possibly take for the rest of us to follow suit?

None of this is lost on multiple Grammy-winner CeeLo Green, one of pop, soul and hip-hop’s most successful team players, who — since his mid-’90s work with Goodie Mob and OutKast — has gone on to croon with Santana (on 1999’s Supernatural); Top the worldwide charts with 2006’s smash-hit “Crazy” with Gnarls Barkley (his duo with producer Danger Mouse); Reanimate Carl Douglas’ 1974 classic “Kung Fu Fighting” for the first Kung Fu Panda film; Tour with Scarlet Fever, an all-girl backing band in 2010-’11, and perform a clean version of his vindictive solo hit “F*ck You!” — polished to a squeaky clean “Forget You!” — with Gwyneth Paltrow and The Muppets on the Grammy Awards in 2011. He even appeared alongside Madonna at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2012. Now, he’s pushing the envelope even further with his first solo outing in five years, CeeLo Green is…Thomas Callaway, an old-school, Nashville-cut R&B record co-written and produced by Black Keys anchor Dan Auerbach. “And to me, music right now really feels like it’s a Renaissance fair, and I’m all the more fortunate for it — I’m really glad it is that way,” agreed the personable 45-year-old, who also anchored his own TBS TV show, CeeLo Green’s The Good Life. The coronavirus lockdown, he added, was cramping that collaborative style, since he was right in the middle of tracking a third Gnarls Barkley effort when it hit. “And I cannot wait to get back to work,” he enthused. 

IE: How did you and Dan tap into that vintage soul vibe for this album?

CeeLo Green: Dan helped. And I helped myself. I think essentially the collaborative effort lends itself to the strength and the potency of the product. We both on individual terms see ourselves as historians in some regard. We seek the knowledge — and have a passion for — not only the discovery of archives and artifacts, but a self-discovery, as well, as we see our reflection in those worlds, and how those worlds can affect you on an emotional and aesthetic level. So it’s a passion play, and also a high level of appreciation. Because just to acknowledge that history is the cornerstone of creation. And ignorance is dismissive. And ignorance is dismissive because ignorance does not even fathom. Ignorance has not been exposed, so it really is ignorant of itself. So all we can do — as I say in the lyric of the song “Lead Me” — is lead by example, and hope that the quality of the material itself speaks loudly and is effective in an organic capacity. But also, we can only hope that quality has the same marketing and promotional budget as disposable art. 

IE: But curiosity is what it’s all about, right? Curiosity in seeking out classic or obscure recordings in the first place?

CLG: Absolutely. And you know what? Even empathy can be injected into an art form because I empathize and sympathize with all those who have not been exposed to that scene, or who can’t see that horizon. And not only what’s possible going forward, but what was deemed impossible just prior to this. So all of the many groups that have inspired me — whether they are alive and well or reincarnated inside of me in spirit — I have to make those ancestors proud. So that’s the theory under which I create music. 

IE: k.d. lang used to believe that she was channeling the spirit of Patsy Cline. Are you psychically in touch with a bygone artist or era?

CLG: I think there is some validity to that concept. I mean, I don’t know if it’s in my innate abilities, any kind of psychic power. But I can say that I’m transparent enough to be a medium — or a shaman — for other eras of art. So I do believe in that. 

IE: Have you gotten into any particular spirituality?

CLG: Well, I was talking to a friend of mine who recently did ayahuasca, and he just sounded so excited about the experience as he was reflecting on it, it really piqued my curiosity. The curiosity we were talking about. But I have yet to do it for myself. But I guess this is something I could do to further or formalize my own education by experience. So I think I would be interested in doing it at some point, too. The first references I saw of it were in Young Guns, where Lou Diamond Phillips is interested in the spirit world and interested in peyote. And the second time I saw it was with Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors. And with Jim Morrison always being a favorite of mine, I mean, hey — anything Jim would do I’d be interested in myself. I’d be out there with Jim — I’d trust going there with him. 

IE: Were there any rare records you discovered through Dan? An artist you had no clue about?

CLG: We would pass music around. But I have to say that there was a simple spark of inspiration, and that was Dan, basically, giving his word to me and reaching out to me, to get together and collaborate. His initial disclaimer was us getting together just to write some random song. He said that he really appreciated me as a songwriter, not just as a singer or a performing artist. So that’s initially what I was prompted by, and I thought that was very flattering, because I’m also a fan of his work, as well. And I knew of The Black Keys in the context of them working with Danger Mouse, but I didn’t realize that Dan had an untapped natural resource within him until I heard songs like “One Horse Town.” I was like, “Whoa! This is totally different!” And then I realized that he was actually producing this stuff, and it really sounded authentic, in a way that — if I know him correctly — I know him to be really pragmatic and meticulous about the process, and that means all the way down to the amps and the studio rooms he uses. And that really lends itself to…to his audacity, if you will. And for him to more or less inadvertently record a whole body of work on me? I thought that it was genius, in hindsight. Because I didn’t go into it with any preconceived notions or pretensions about it as a project. I went in very casually, and then I also sang and performed those songs as demos, very casually. So what you’re hearing on the album are the single times over that I sang them. I didn’t think I was making an album. I had just lived with these songs as references for the better part of about six months, so by the time I went down for the last week or so to visit him, he asked me to then go in and record them. And I was familiar with the frameworks, so then I could add just a little bit of scribble, a little bit of my signature to them. I didn’t have to work at it a lot — it was really straightforward. And that’s who I am, as a writer, as a collaborator, and just as a person. Because sometimes the persona of CeeLo Green can be a little — or a lot — over the top, with the delusions of grandeur. But that makes for good entertainment. But the true grit of it all is Thomas Callaway and my forward-thinking. 

IE: “Little Mama” is begging to be released as a single.

CLG: It’s funny. My fiancee? That’s her favorite song so far. And I like the current single, “People Watching.” It’s got a quaint, nostalgic, almost period-piece vibe about it. But also, it can be very modern in the way that we sit around and stare at our phones and people-watch that way now. No wonder the Apple logo is the bitten apple — it’s the forbidden fruit that we’ve all taken a bite of. 

IE: What do you believe is happening out there right now?

CLG: To be totally honest, I believe that the quarantine was the first preliminary period for us to realize how far we’ve strayed if we were to only acknowledge it in that way. Or for those who view it from that perspective. But I think it plays on the subconscious, and plays on the fact that society at large has an attention-deficit disorder, to the point where it’s hard to retain anything. People will forget about the opportunity that we’ve just had for a hard reset, a realignment, and now we’re in the streets, rioting, and looting with reckless abandon. And as for myself, at one time, I was a punk rocker, and I believed in anarchy. But I don’t now as an elder statesman. And I do believe in some order. But, there should be revelations at radio about these stereotypes and these images and the ideals and disinformation and the eroding of morality, as far as our music is concerned. That has become a great detriment. And I believe that’s done daily, with all this mismanagement of emotion. There’s something synthetic and not real about it all — it’s just product placement, just content. But even content is a disconnect from the emotional state of being. Sometimes it’s not even from a real artist. I mean, Bob Dylan wrote his own songs — we can’t say the same about many modern artists. And I’m not here to imply that I’m an authority. And neither will I be an instigator. But I am a man, I am an adult, and I am self-aware. And I’m just speaking from what has been my salvation and signified my own voice, and that’s the music; music whose power has not been manipulated for the so-called greater good. And you can’t rule out all of the music of the ‘60s when everybody was protesting, and everybody saw things the same way, whether it was the Vietnam war or whatever else you’ve got. There was some huge social event that engaged everyone on an artistic level, and you got all these incredible protest songs and that music still reflects those times. And any music that you can play that reflects reality is important, and anything else is just content and airspace, but that’s all that some people seem to care about. But that’s a glitch in the program, and we need to correct that. We need to police our own airwaves. But then it sounds ignorant to propose that you can control what people listen to, so in that regard, it’s become what it’s become because people just don’t care. And you want to give people their civil liberties, you want to allow them to take the blue pill or the red pill, and if ignorance is going to be your bliss? So be it. But it’s just unfortunate that more people seem to have taken the blue pill over the red because the red is a curse. Once you know, then you’re cursed to know. You will always know it; you will never forget. And sometimes it seems like that is much more of a cross to bear, you know?

IE: But shouldn’t the current decadent, tone-deaf, climate-change-denying administration be swept out of office first?

CLG: Yeah, man. And I acknowledge that (Trump) is the head of our union, nut I hate talking about things like that. Because of our personal lives, our persona, [our] opinions — it’s all extending from politics. And we have to realize now that we don’t have any personal opinions — we have political opinions. If you’re going to voice what you think, you’re going to oppose someone almost immediately. And I think it gives people the opportunity to live vicariously through these facades or these graven images of themselves. I’m sure you’ve noticed that — people looking at their phone after taking 12 or 13 selfies, and then they only post the best one, where they have just the right lighting and the perfect posturing. So that’s not really art imitating life — that’s art imitating an identity crisis. 

– Tom Lanham

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