CeeLo Green Talks New Album, “Crazy,” and Influences From the Ancestors Lookin’ Through Stacks | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020  

CeeLo Green Talks New Album, “Crazy,” and Influences From the Ancestors

Lookin’ Through Stacks

Aug 07, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Singer extraordinaire CeeLo Green released his latest album, CeeLo Green is Thomas Callaway, on June 26. The record, produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, is the first release in the past five years for the spirited, soulful vocalist. Green, who has worked extensively in his career with Outkast, The Dungeon Family, and Danger Mouse (in the world-famous duo, Gnarls Barkley), is a flexible, malleable performer. He also boasts a sponge-like mind that began absorbing the histories and idiosyncrasies of music from an early age. In this conversation, Green talks openly and honestly about myriad topics, from studying music in Atlanta to what made the ubiquitous Gnarls Barkley 2006 song “Crazy” such a hit. Green also talked about staying true to himself despite difficulties in his life and how the song, “The Way,” from his new LP, signifies that effort. 

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): How did you first discover music as a young person? 

CeeLo Green: My mother had a friendship with an Atlanta disc jockey by the name of Alley Pat. If you were to Google check that name, you’d see what his history was here in the city. I’m not sure how that relationship came about, but most certainly I can recall him gifting me a box of 45s. I got formally introduced to music through him and then I also had an uncle who was a DJ and had a vast album collection in the family home. Because we all lived together when I was younger—aunts, uncles, cousins, you name it. We had one big family house with my grandmother and great-grandmother, rest both of their souls. I would go and spend, you know, countless hours. Just going through and perusing through album covers, finding the artwork interesting, the names of players and things of that nature. 

So, even before I even heard some of the music, I was really compelled by the visual arts and the hobby of just going through album covers. But then I started to discover music just by hearing it. I think most children have that rearing and upbringing where, on Saturday morning, at least in the south, on Saturdays it would be a cleanup day. You’d wake up early so you could catch the cartoons, eat breakfast. I remember watching Fat Albert, Shazam! I remember Shazam! had a band. There used to be segments interjected periodically throughout the show where they would perform these songs. Almost like Josie and the Pussycats or Archie. So, even though it was animated, there was music and that was a trend then, too. The Beatles had a cartoon, The Jackson 5. So, I was introduced to music in multiple ways.

How did you start to sing and realize you had so much skill and soul and malleability to your voice?

Well, the first, I guess, incremental stage of development immediately is fanship. It’s what resonates to you, speaks to you, whether it be consciously or speaks directly to your spirit or your soul. And then with that, in turn, it becomes a mirror image. You become to identity with what soul is. Because when you’re young, soul is such a mature context, you know what I’m saying? You don’t really know what to consider it as. It’s no different than an infant bouncing along to something where they just can’t—it’s just excitability, you know? It’s rhythm, beats per minute. It’s all neurological. And, of course, the dance is a physical act. So, the energy transmits and there’s a direct correlation between the two things. But before you know it, it’s an involuntary action and then you begin to refine and kind of trim the fat. Then you begin to appropriate the manner and movement to the mood of each song. So, therefore, your diversity or your variety will stem from that.  

So, you know, my particular capacity was almost like a dial of radio stations. It’s like I could go from one song to another. I remember John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane.” What kind of song is that? It’s a hybrid. Because there was something about it that was really—the story was really down home but the big handclap [Sings]—that part. The handclap is always symbolic of everybody’s in it together, do you know what I mean? A snare drum is singular. But the handclap has an all inclusive unison kind of quality to it. It represents people in agreement. The handclap is synonymous with hip-hop and things of that nature. 

I’m referencing “Jack & Diane” so you can get more of an insight into me and the things that make me tick and the way that I was able to realize things. But, you know, in retrospect I can reference Mellencamp but it’s also about music education. Therefore, this song is like a hybrid theory. It’s, like, country but then it’s got like a hip-hop beat to it. To the point that when we were young it was really unbiased, and music was just a love letter to whom it may concern. If you like it or if it was just a hit, you just understood. The politics of radio at that time was, if something was a hit, you knew it. It was undeniable. At that time it was all you heard! 

The landscape was a lot clearer. It’s not that it was barren. But things were more signature unto themselves. Like Hall & Oates. We loved “Maneater” and “Private Eyes.” You think about “Private Eyes” with that hand clap again [Sings]. That was like hip-hop. There was something so authoritative and striking about that sound. That’s what drove me or alerted my attention to that song. I didn’t really know what it meant, you know, but it was cool. Or you could say a song like Devo’s “Whip It.” [Sings] When it’s a hit, you know, you just feel it. So, basically, I’ve just run the gamut in about three minutes of three totally different songs that are completely notable and historic, undeniable, iconic records. But they’re not the same.

They all hit the core.

Yeah! So, basically, it could have been something as simple as the hand clap that was the common thread that connected those songs for me. Then it became a, you know, interwoven, like a tapestry. Then it all meant the same thing. So, my desire to make music of a certain magnitude stems from that era. Because that’s when I was at my most impressionable and so, therefore, I thought, “If I were formally to set out to do music, I would love to do the music that makes the whole world sing.” The way we all sang “Karma Chameleon.” 

Well, you’ve done that! 

Yeah, well, I mean, now I’m basically trying to explain to you why and how. So, it was deliberate, but this is the message. This is my intent behind the action. And, you know, your intent is never the same as the outcome. Like, if you intend good and the outcome is great, then the outcome, you know, supersedes what you even intended to do and, therefore, you end up having the humility you need to stay grounded to continue the work, you know what I’m saying? That’s how I did it.

What was it like for you to have created something that maybe also caused you to need humility but, nevertheless, hit so massively worldwide? What is that like because, obviously, not everybody has done that?  

It’s true. Well, and then when I talk about myself, I am not as poetic because I wasn’t so in control, you know? All I can say about myself is that I am very fortunate that I have done some diligence—in one capacity or another—to deserve something so grand as far as a motion, a vibration, a synergy to pass through me, you know what I mean? The song, “Crazy,” it does truly equate to a life’s work because everything that I am is invested in that song, you know? Especially the backstory behind it and how, you know, there’s always—there was a time in the industry where the individual adult was celebrated. You had, like, Elton John, whomever. Elton John, Alice Cooper. You had these people who you could celebrate being idiosyncratic, caricature. It could all be embellished. 

But there’s also an underbelly that is in opposition against the individual. So, I’m saying that to say this: the song, “Crazy,” is more or less about the idea, “Am I just spinning my wheels trying to be an individual?” Like, “Why don’t I just sit in? I could just do something simple. I could just get so-and-so, the writer of the time or whatever, to write me a song and if it’s a hit, it’s a hit. Why do we insist? Why do we persist at the pace of a win, lose or draw?” Because it’s either one of those three. So, “Crazy” is about that. To say, “My heroes had the heart to live the lives I wanna live.” Or when I say, “When I lost my mind,” that’s almost like when I stopped caring about what people think, you know what I’m saying? And that was early. “I remember when I lost mind. There was something so pleasant about that place, even your emotions have an echo in so much space.” 

That was a great line. But I didn’t realize it was great, you know? But it just gave me chills to say it. Now I can repeat it, you know, and it gets echoed by millions. It’s not just a singular notion anymore. It’s not even mine. It’s ours, you know what I mean? So, it’s like, wow! I can’t believe I was that, you know, that honest. But I didn’t even think twice—that’s how honest it was. And I only sung it once. What people hear—and I’m not trying to say that as if this is something amazing—I mean, all of the music of the ’50s and ’60s, they had to nail that stuff. That’s why the music is much better. They had to nail it, you know what I mean? It’s dope. You’re in there with Phil Spector or somebody and you better nail it! You don’t have four or five takes to do it. So, it’s basically like that. That’s where songs like “Crazy” come from, man. It’s just me saying, “You know what, dude?” And I’m talking to Danger Mouse. I’m like, “Hey, let’s just go for it, man! What do we got to lose? Besides our minds!” [Laughs]. 

The writing on the two Gnarls Barkley records is so good. I’ve always loved how you wrote so many lyrical contradictions, like, “I got some bad news this morning, which in turn made my day.” 

The bad news is about James Brown dying that Christmas morning. “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul.” And I hate to give it away because I like to let people interpret it in their own way but, for me, it was literally written about James Brown. It just signified the Christmas morning—and I’ll tell you a backstory behind it, because just months prior, we were in London together, we were performing as Gnarls Barkley. And “Super Dave,” who was James Brown’s tour manager at the time, he called us at James’ request, wanting us to come to his show. But logistically we weren’t going to be able to make it because, you know, we got the call and we were going to be going on at the same time they would be going on. And, you know, we still wanted to make it. We really had people trying to do a logistical gauge on if we could get there. I wanted to just break the rules, it wouldn’t have mattered. I just wanted to answer his call. And then later, you know, in the months to come, he would pass. And I actually thought that me, I thought it had more to do with me than anything, basically, you know what I mean?

That’s heavy.

If anybody, James is calling, he’s calling for me. I’m his “son,” he’s calling to talk to me and love on me. So, I felt upset because I let, you know, I let myself be influenced otherwise. Because I don’t think it was so important to anyone else. I’m just being real here. 

No, totally.

He meant everything to me. James Brown, man. C’mon, man. That’s God! You go when God calls. 

Did you get a chance to speak with him before he passed?

No, I didn’t. I didn’t have—there was—but we were able to correlate and pass on messages. But I don’t even know why we never reached out and spoke directly, but Super Dave was always in contact with us. That’s what “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul Now” is about.

I could talk with you for hours about each of those Gnarls Barkley songs. But let’s look at your new album now. There’s a theme of togetherness on the album, it seems. Why was that important for you to sing about?

In some regard, I consider the records that I’ve done, you know, even Bright Light Bigger City, it kind of reminds you of, you know, the ’80s. And I like the ’80s, so I don’t mind. Nobody else is doing it, why shouldn’t I? So, I feel like I’m always doing period pieces in some regard. But making them modern. Because I feel like I am a shaman for the spirit, you know what I mean? Of old and antique. I believe that I’m supposed to be a host for those spirits. So, therefore, CeeLo Green just kind of disappears. So, this is why I’m able to become transparent in doing projects like this one, CeeLo Green is Thomas Callaway. You know, CeeLo Green is…it’s the extroverted side of someone who’s otherwise very introverted and who considers himself to be a servant, if you will. As Thomas Callaway, I’m just a completely humble dude. I’m not concerned with the lights and stuff like that, the way that people tend to be. So, when I say CeeLo Green disappears, it’s just about the music. I want the music to represent an ideal, an internal dialogue, an instinct, an intuitiveness and an ingenuity. I think that it’s wonderful! And even more so than the music itself, I think the gesture is wonderful. It’s what I mean to accomplish, not knowing if I will exactly. Because it’s going to take more than one project here or there to remind and help raise the appreciation that up-ends people. I feel like it’s necessary because as far as modern music is concerned, there’s really not much to celebrate. Not in my personal opinion. I don’t even know—I don’t know the value of anything anymore.

That’s an interesting point! 

Yeah, it’s just, like, all disposable, you know? It saddens me in a personal way. I’m like, “Damn, man, why doesn’t anyone care anymore? What happened to us? How did we digress so far? How did we fall so far?” Why is everyone seemingly afraid to fall on their faces? To try something new? To say, “Yeah, I used to love this. I’m going to try this.” Why are we afraid to take chances? You can take chances! Life is equated with one other thing and that’s chance. You can be safe, you don’t even have to move, for an entire lifetime and death will meet you at your doorstep. But if you’re going to be alive, you’re going to have to take a chance. You’re going to take a chance going into the world without a fucking mask on. You’re going to take a chance getting on the expressway. Getting on an elevator. Being in a restaurant or in a church not knowing if somebody is going to shoot it up. Anything. You are a ball of uncertainty. So, you may as well attempt to carve something tangible out for yourself. 

That leads to my last question: the last song on your new record, “The Way,” is about finding your own path. I really like the song and I was wondering why you wanted to sing about finding your way and why you wanted to end the album on that note?

See, I knew that I liked you because that’s my favorite song! I said to myself, “His energy has got me going and I want to say some things that he can really repurpose and utilize and hopefully these ideas intercede into someone.” That somebody will be, you know, blessed and benefiting from our exchange and documentation, you know what I’m saying?

That’s the idea! Yes, indeed. 

But, yeah, “The Way?” Dude. That song. I mean, because life is—you know, there’s one image that comes to mind. When they say, “Manifest destiny,” I think of the scene in the X-Men where Magneto was walking but there was no path underneath him, but then all of the metal started to form underneath his feet. Do you remember that?

Oh yeah!

Okay. So that is the faith that I go out into the world on. Do you know what I’m saying? I’m not even always certain. And I don’t want to be. I want to do something daring. I want to do something dangerous, you know what I’m saying? I don’t want to make safe music. I want to take chances. I want to take risks. Because I do believe that the universe’s promise of, like, peace and prosperity is just on the other side of that decision. You’ve got to show faith to show character, you know what I mean? A character of strength and confidence and commitment. Those are the qualities that a true tribesman, missionary and soldier—they’re made of that. You need an opportunity to really make that known and make it seen. 

So, I like to try stuff. And, fortunately for me, I have the formal education to fall back on and I know it’s good because I’m only following what was great in the first place. This era of music I’m embodying at the moment—you can’t really deny it, can you? [Laughs] It’s, like, of course it’s going to be great! Can you appreciate it in today’s times? I don’t know. That’s what I don’t know. That’s what we have to work on. We have to have a conversation. But I have to try. I have to take the first step. Because it is I who wants to invest into you. And have you either re-introduced or introduced for the first time to all of the great music that’s come before us. I believe that these things should run concurrent with anything that’s supposed to be “new and improved.” Nobody’s kicking any ass to me on the landscape. 

But, anyway, “The Way” is just that plight of life, man. A lot of people prefer to go around in circles. That’s why they call them “rumor mills.” People like to talk in circular, live in circular. And never really move. But I like to go in straight lines because I don’t feel God in that other way, you feel me? I feel signified as I feel called and compelled closer. I’m being pushed and supported and reinforced by the ancestors, the spirits of the music that strengthens me, that gives me sight, that gives me stability. So, I’m straight up, you know? I’m ready to walk into the light of my destiny. And I don’t mean that just on a musical level. I just mean that period. I said this on Gnarls Barkley. Life is a one-way street, ain’t it? And if you could paint it, I’d draw myself going in the right direction. Because you illustrate your life, you animate your life. Like Grace Jones once famously said, “Life is not about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” That’s how I feel about it, man. 

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