Far Out Meets: CeeLo Green, offering up lessons from the past for the kids of the future
Thomas DeCarlo Callaway, popularly known as CeeLo Green, has been a staple of pop culture since the early 1990s. First hitting the U.S Southern music scene with The Goodie Mob, a part of the Dungeon Family, his distinctive soulful rap vocals set him up as a performer in several genres: R&B, soul, funk, gospel and of course hip-hop.
It’s not just on wax that CeeLo feels more than comfortable, however. He has co-written and produced hits for artists such as The Pussycat Dolls and Kelis, and performed live with dozens of esteemed musical colleagues including Nipsey Hussle, Mac Miller, Dionne Warwick and Santana. He was even a judge on the American series The Voice and featured on The Masked Singer.
We caught up with the man who is perhaps most commonly known as one half of Gnarls Barkley, CeeLo Green to talk about what’s next.
CeeLo was modestly dressed in a khaki hoodie and dark blue tracksuit bottoms, a little removed from the perpetual glitz of pop stardom. “I collect jogging suits,” he laughs, “I always loved tracksuits and big gold ropes. I’m a minimalist at heart.” He was also wearing his ever-present signature sunglasses and an exuberant, welcoming smile. Eager to talk about the latest offering from the flamboyant performer it’s clear that being in lockdown has allowed the artist to reconnect with music and his work ethic.
“It would seem that way, I have definitely tried to be productive, man. You have to,” replies CeeLo. Like many musicians, the enforced confinement with his instruments is too tempting to turn down. “I think this is the greatest opportunity that I’ve gotten to work for the sake of immortalising myself in song. As someone who travels extensively, I took it as an opportunity to unplug and reset.”
It’s not something that can be afforded to lots of people across the globe and it’s a fact that isn’t lost on CeeLo. In turn, he’s made a conscious effort “to be mindful and compassionate about those people who are suffering, whether that be because of a physical ailment or loss of life, or even just the sheer panic and paranoia of everything that has happened.”
More time working means that a new album was always on the cards and the record, CeeLo Green is Thomas Callaway is a welcome revisit to the classic soulful sounds of the ’60s and ’70s crooners. Recorded in Nashville at Dan Auerbach’s (Black Keys, The Arcs) Easy Eye Studios, CeeLo’s sixth solo album is steeped in mellow nostalgia. It’s a sonic area Green has visited many times throughout his career.
“I look at that era as a wealth of knowledge and wisdom,” reflects Green. “I look at it as inheritance like it is ours to share, to discover and rediscover. It’s so vast and plentiful. It’s a treasure, you know.” While arguing with Green’s assertion of the era’s music being like a “fantasy island. It never gets old,” he also sees “it as a reminder of how far we have fallen. I don’t believe that music has gotten better, if anything it has regressed.”
For CeeLo, music has lost its appeal, “We don’t tend to call music of modern times ‘music,’ we call it ‘content’ now. There’s a disconnect.” It’s not just how music is delivered either, it comes down to sounds too, “It almost sounds unnatural: it sounds digitised and robotic.” In comparison to the studio tones of the ’60s and ’70s, he may have a point.
“Soul music from that decade is immortal because it is the eternal flame,” says CeeLo. “It was recorded and played live; it persists with being alive. When you hear it, you can feel the life, the passion, the drive, the heartbeat. You can see the colours, you know what I’m saying. It’s just inspiring, who doesn’t want that?”
The new album title is directly referencing Green’s birth name and there’s a tenderness to the music that suggested it was his way of stripping back the layers of pop success, “‘It’s a very peaceful album, it’s a lush body of work,” reflects the singer. The album allows CeeLo to offer a different version of himself on record, one that many of his fans haven’t seen before. “Typically, it would be that Thomas is an introvert who writes the songs, while CeeLo is the polar opposite who sings. He is over the top, outrageous and extroverted.” However, on this record, there’s clearly a dose more Callaway, as the LP works as “a reintroduction,” to the singer. “It’s a different body of work in sound and style, so it is very refreshing to hear.”
As well as worldwide recognition as a solo artist, Green is also part of southern rap group The Goodie Mob and the unmistakable voice behind the sensational Gnarls Barkley. ‘Crazy’, the band’s debut and most successful single, which amongst its other accolades, topped the UK charts for nine weeks before being knocked off by Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’. The song was also the best-selling single of 2006 in the UK and one of the most downloaded of that era.
It’s clear that working collaboratively has been a key part of CeeLo’s success, and it appears there may still be some more material from both of his former factions to come. ”The Goodie Mob are doing a 25th-anniversary album as we speak. I have been in the studio with them. We are sorting that out.” The singer also hastily confirms that Gnarls Barkley are still trying to piece together their next release, he confirms the group are “working on new material; we have been for the last few years”.
It would seem that as ever, much of the project’s problems arise away from the music that he and his partner Danger Mouse made together. “We are trying to come to terms with scheduling and all the political, circumstantial things that have to align themselves, so we can focus solely on the music,” confirms CeeLo. “It’s kinda been distracting, either Danger Mouse or I have been doing something and we haven’t been able to commit ourselves for an extended period. I’ve got my fingers crossed. We will hopefully get something done this year. I want to do it.”
It’s clear that CeeLo values music above all else. Whether it’s him making it or the spiritual properties it holds for him. Speaking about the music of the day, CeeLo shared: “I can identify with the angst of the youth. I was one of those Goth kids, you know, going through those dark periods of your childhood, finding solace in symbolism. I liked Black Sabbath and Judas Priest.”
“The angst is what the youth is expressing,” suggest the singer. “Sometimes music can be such a cathartic and healing property.” CeeLo does, however, wish the mechanics of music could be used to bridge generational and political gaps, “I just wish that it could be more of a means to heal and to build as opposed to a means to vent and spew.”
For the singer, there is a lack of authenticity to the enhanced aggression and mindless escapism. “I also don’t believe a lot of it,” he exclusively told Far Out. “I think that a lot of artists are a lot more intelligent than they would like to come across. I think essentially and ultimately, they feel as if they are giving the audience what they want. Somebody’s buying it, right?’”
Record sales aside, CeeLo isn’t convinced that the wider state of music, so driven to shock and awe its way to the top of the charts, is morally upstanding, “A lot of music today is very unfortunate and disappointing on a personal and moral level. There was once a time when we were savvy enough to code certain things. We could express to those it was meant for with the style of language we used. But now music is shameless, it is sheer savagery.”
With such a deep influence emanating from his love of the golden era of pop music, it’s understandable that the new crop of pop stars may feel far removed from those traditional nostalgic moments in time. For Green, he believes those moments of “savagery” should be chosen wisely. “We are adults. There should be a time and a place for adult content,” confides the singer.
He believes musicians should be calling each other out and not pushing each other on, “As adults and artists, we should at least attempt to be each other’s accountability partners in some regard,” he says. “The stereotypes that are celebrated and perpetuated, ultimately make the perception a reality. It is disenfranchising and it has caused a great deal of problems.”
Green feels as though too often a musician or artist can speak not only for a whole genre but a whole business sector. “It’s problematic, we suffer from it because there are those that have nothing to do with it, but it is assumed of everyone. One artist’s account does not necessarily speak for everyone. But there is a statement artistically, that one individual could make for all of us and it would speak volumes.”
The singer details his points further, examining Nicki Minaj’s platform as a role model, “You have the ‘Heads of State,’ like Nicki Minaj or someone who is up there in accolade: success, visibility, a platform to influence. Nicki could be effective in so many other constructive ways, but it feels desperate.
“Attention is also a drug and competition is around,” suggests the singer. “Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, they are all more or less doing similar salacious gesturing to kinda get into position. I get it, the independent woman and being in control, the divine femininity and sexual expression. I get it all,” for Green, he can’t help but ask, “it comes at what cost?”
Seemingly out of step with the very pinnacle of the pop charts, CeeLo manages to stay fresh by being utterly timeless. For CeeLo Green, it’s something that comes naturally, “My perspective is to just be obedient to your intuitiveness and your instinct and your own individual account, duty and responsibility.”
The idea of duty is one Green takes very seriously. “I always wondered why certain music spoke to me so profoundly,” he says. “I felt like I had to create it. I assumed the position of Ambassadorship: My music is believable, it’s real, it’s authentic, it’s convincing, it’s genuine, it’s integrable, it’s commendable. It’s not an emulation, it’s an embodiment. It’s me.”
The singer continued to reflect on a startling career, “I feel like my career is a shrine and my body is a temple, a sacrifice and a time capsule. I take these things with me. I hold them near and dear and as far into the future as I will go, I want to make sure that this is present.”
It’s a present that Green through his music and his position in the limelight will ultimately do his best to change, but his biggest weapon will be the lessons from the past, “I’m looking at my counterparts and I’m looking at the state of the union and I’m thinking if this is our present, then what is our future gonna be like? I have young grandkids; I’m wondering what examples they will have if we totally forget about our history.”