CeeLo Green is…a musical chameleon. CeeLo has reinvented himself more times than the average pop star, peeling back the many lives that make up his multidimensional artistry. From introducing personas like The Soul Machine and The Lady Killer, or turning necks on red carpets with his peculiarly campy costumes, CeeLo has always had a way of rejiggering himself to become his own new creation.
For over 25 years, his creative expression has been a magnet attracting fans along the way. And it all started as a member of hip hop soul group Goodie Mob, who were among the force of rappers who helped put Atlanta on the map in the mid to late ‘90s. The group’s success would soon be a launching pad for CeeLo’s solo career, which officially kicked off in 2002.
CeeLo has seen plenty of magic moments in his career. In 2010, he released his third studio album The Lady Killer, which became his magnum opus. The pop-soul project gained the Atlanta native five Grammy nominations for his multiplatinum single “Fuck You,” which peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“The Lady Killer era was extravagant,” CeeLo recalls to Rated R&B. “I recorded it while living in Los Angeles and in London. It was an extravagant time in my professional life. The budget was no object. That’s when I truly had the cart and horse. I went to the Bahamas. I recorded all over the world trying to find that record and that inspiration.”
CeeLo’s 2015 album Heart Blanche was a bittersweet moment for the groovester. It was his final album to satisfy his deal with Atlantic Records. Consequently, Heart Blanche didn’t get a proper marketing push, which could explain why it failed to impact the Billboard 200 chart. CeeLo acknowledges the pitfall with the album release and understands why it wasn’t a high priority for the label he was leaving.
“It wasn’t promoted to the best ability simply because there was a dilemma on where, it’s like, “Hey, why funnel money into a project where this artist doesn’t necessarily want to be here any longer?” he admits.
Despite the album’s underwhelming performance, he believes there are some solid songs on Heart Blanche that fans would have enjoyed. He lists “Robin Williams,” “Smells Like Fire,” “Purple Hearts” and “CeeLo Green Sings the Blues” as examples of the album’s strongest tracks.
Like a mutual breakup, CeeLo took advantage of his free-agent status once he was no longer tied to a label contract. He lent his bellow vocals on songs for hip-hop artists, such as the late Mac Miller (“Way”), Raekwon (“Marvin”), PRhyme (“Gotta Love It”), Offset (“North Star”) and Tyler, The Creator (“Gone, Gone / Thank You”).
Nearly a year ago, CeeLo traveled to Nashville to work with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys for what he thought would be just a few writing sessions. After recording the music, with assistance from a live band and a few other writers, CeeLo and Dan realized they had unintentionally crafted a full-length album; thus CeeLo Green is…Thomas Callaway was born.
The creative process was seamless. Everyone walked in with an open mind ready to make music and everything else organically fell in place. “I went down there and they surprised me in a studio full of musicians ready to play,” CeeLo recalls. “Basically, the 12 songs we wrote over a month. I recorded them all in two days. I sang six songs back-to-back one day and six another day. The album was done. By the time I heard it, it was mixed, mastered and ready to go. I was like wow. It’s the easiest, most painless album I have ever done.”
One thing to admire about CeeLo’s discography is each project sounds different from the last. For his sixth studio album, he takes a more personal approach, as it’s his first time introducing the man behind all the flashy outfits and the occasional funky wigs. At its core, CeeLo Green is…Thomas Callaway is unrefined R&B with hints of gospel music, all of which are a reflection of his upbringing in the south.
In Rated R&B’s candid interview with CeeLo Green, he opens up about his new album. He talks about his inspiration, as well as what he hopes listeners take away from the project. For his Gnarls Barkley fans, he provides an update on the duo’s highly anticipated new music.
You launched your new era with “Lead Me” as the primary single. What’s the story behind creating that record and what made you decide to introduce that record first?
The album was recorded a little less than a year ago. We recorded it in Nashville, so it kind of lends itself to that southern sensibility and the simplicity of a classic love song. That was the main motivation for just a simple, yet effective album that lends itself to a period in time where that was all that was required. A good vibration, a genuine voice and a sincere song. Love just happens to be the motivating factor for so many songs and when managed, it’s always effective and it always works. Love always works. Love conquers all.
Nashville is known as the Country Music Capital of the World. Did that location influence your album in any way?
Yeah. The entire recording process — and what could be considered a living condition for the duration of the time I was there — was quite interesting for me. I tend to live and work counterclockwise. I may not record until later in the day and stay up through the night, which is my magic hour as opposed to theirs. They were up early, in the studio, clocked in and ready to go. It was really different. To be honest, it was a bit of a nuisance at the beginning but I was trying to be a professional since this was their time. I was invited down to be a writer initially so I just thought we were just writing songs anyway.
It’s still a positive thing because I learned that I grew from it. We became accountability partners in that way where I began to take pride in getting up and being just as functional as everyone else had already seemed to be. I said, “This must be the Nashville way, who am I to argue with that?” That was cool. Then the people of Nashville were very loving towards me. Now, I’m a familiar face just about anywhere I am but Nashville they just loved on me for that week or so I was there and I found myself being excited to go back. I even thought about getting a house or something there. I said, “This is a great town and it’s a music town. It’s right where I belong.” If not Atlanta, where I’m from obviously, Nashville is just a hop skip and a jump to get and I said “I could live here” and be surrounded by music all day. That will be heaven for me. It was just the way I feel about Vegas on the West Coast. With all of the flare and fabulosity and light and excitement, I like that part of the industry as well.
How long were you in Nashville?
I went to Nashville four times over a matter of six months. I would stay a week at a time, so I guess I spent a month altogether.
In a past interview, you described your Heart Blanche album as “a prequel to the rest of the music I want to release in the very near future…The start of a new beginning.” How would you compare the content on Heart Blanche to CeeLo Green is…Thomas Callaway?
Heart Blanche…There was a part of me that wanted to insist upon something. I think it was a dignified way to kind of say to the label, “We’re not always on the same accord as far as artistic direction is concerned but you can trust me. I am at my best where I can be as liberal and abide by internal dialogue, my instincts tell me.” I have recorded a lot of music since then. CeeLo Green is…Thomas Callaway is totally different. This is an entirely different move in space and atmosphere.
Although Heart Blanche and CeeLo Green is…Thomas Callaway are completely different, would you say there are some parallels between the two?
Absolutely. I’m a hopeless romantic and optimist. If I’m going to open up my mouth, I’m going to commit to craft and throw myself into it. I’m just one of those win, lose or draw kind of guys. If I love something, I love it. You’ll always get that positivity from me…That good vibration and energy because at the end of the day, I’m just a highly appreciative person and I could’ve done far less with a lifetime. I’ve been able to succeed. That’s what this album is all about. It’s a continuum but at this point in my life, of course, five years later, I’ve gotten a little older, a little wiser and more settled into myself. The energy on this project wasn’t as phonetic. We got a good vibe and a great body of work after putting our hands together. It’s down-home. It’s not CeeLo Green with the fancy-schmancy shiny suits and my whole arsenal of tricks and gags and stuff like that. Even though I love that stuff, and I will probably get the opportunity to come back to it God-willing, this is me doing music unplugged a little bit. It’s a mature album of easy-listening.
This is your first time introducing Thomas Callaway. As an artist, do you feel more vulnerable shining the light on yourself rather than a persona?
Not at all. Some people use celebrity as a scapegoat or facade but I’m not running away from the reality of the past, present or future. If anything, I would love for people to know all about me. I don’t necessarily feel like I need to have any secrets or be clouded in mystic. At one point in my career, I thought that was more of a commodity because that’s the way the game was played at that time. Whether it was Prince, Michael Jackson or Kiss, these guys were idols because you felt like they were untouchable. In many ways, they were and their talent was just enormous. I learned from that era and I was most inspired from that era. I think we all go through that phase of wanting to hide in plain sight with whatever mask you’re wearing.
CeeLo Green was just the extroverted and working component of my character. Thomas Callaway always writes those songs but CeeLo Green performs them. Thomas Callaway is who I am now, speaking to you, sitting out on a ranch out somewhere in Georgia in a wooded area and hanging out with my family. I don’t completely appreciate the assumption of celebrities having no normalcy. I’ve had my share of mystique because my career has been so much of an anomaly. People don’t know how I effectively go from Goodie Mob to Gnarls Barkley to The Voice to whatever. People are like, “Are you a robot?” I have been able to embody those moments of time to grow and just be combustible.
Your musical return comes right in the middle of a pandemic. What do you hope people take away from listening to your album?
I hope they take away even more hope, some peace, some love, some understanding, some inspiration and some introspection into themselves. I hope people use it as a catalyst for a conduit to be reconnected to a natural resource — just be reminded that life is not so complicated. It doesn’t have to be. Of course, it’s a system and it’s sophisticated but once understanding is in place, complication ceases and it becomes simpler to function and facilitate.
I want peace and simplicity for people and not be forced. I want people to become better, improved, more involved and enlightened by these current events and use their mortality as motivation. Celebrity is not exempt from that inevitability. How can you make your mark? How can you be a blessing to somebody? How can you leave a legacy? What’s important to you? What can you live without? What can’t you live without? What is night? What is living? Question all of those things and be still and quiet enough to find those answers.
A few years ago, you mentioned that there was a Gnarls Barkley album in the works. What’s the status of that project now?
I just talked about Danger Mouse yesterday, so we are on board and on schedule. There was never a formal date, it was just kind of taking these moments to get together. We just got ideas and we are now about to embark upon a formal arrangement of getting back in the studio. We just have to get in and focus. It’s always been scheduling conflicts but it’s also been us just waiting for the right time. We are finally getting to a point where we can make it happen for real.
How are you able to balance being a solo act, as well as a member of two groups, and remain creatively fresh?
I think that more people could succeed in that way if they tried. But nobody is willing to take the risk. Playing it safe may very well be the equivalent of standing still. I believe on the contrary the truest reward is in the risk that you take. You have to first be bold enough to defy opinion. You can’t let opinion ostracize you or curve your enthusiasm. And I notice most people aren’t afraid of jail, death or nothing but what they are terrified by is other people’s opinions. If you can, you may very well be somebody. I had to take that attitude to get the job done.
CeeLo Green’s new album CeeLo Green is…Thomas Callaway arrives on June 26.