Grammy-winning vocalist CeeLo Green is familiar with glad-handing backstage promises that artists make to each other on tour.
But he was unprepared for the dogged persistence of Black Keys anchor Dan Auerbach, who parlayed an initial single-track collaboration into “CeeLo Green is…Thomas Callaway,” his new R&B solo album and first effort in five years.
As a producer and composer, Auerbach turned out to be that rarest of showbiz animals.
“He said that he really appreciated me as a songwriter, not just as a singer or a performer. And he was a man of his word,” says Green.
The album, with Green’s birth name in the title, was conceived a year ago, orchestrated by Auerbach to include top Nashville session players and other top-notch co-writers such as Bobby Wood, David Ferguson and Roger Cook.
Eerily, however, songs like the Motown-classy “Slow Down”; a Muscle-Shoals-swampy “Thinking Out Loud”; and the Stevie-Wonder-reminiscent current single “People Watching” tap into a dark, solitary vibe that encapsulates pandemic angst rippling through society on a global lockdown.
“’People Watching’ has got a quaint, nostalgic, almost period-piece vibe about it,” says Green, who has pressed pause on the upcoming third Gnarls Barkley disc he’s been recording with band partner Danger Mouse. “But also, it could be very modern, lyrically, in the way that we just sit around and stare at our phones all day and people-watch that way. No wonder the Apple logo is the bitten apple. It’s the forbidden fruit, and we’ve all tasted it.”
The strangest twist on the “Callaway” album is that Green was unaware he was making it at the time.
“There was a simple spark of inspiration, and that was Dan basically giving his word, then reaching out to me, to get together and collaborate, with the disclaimer that it would just be some random song,” he says. “And that was flattering, because I’d always been a fan of his work in The Black Keys, as well. But I didn’t really realize that he had this untapped natural resource in him. His production sounded really authentic, very pragmatic and meticulous.”
Green thought he was simply crooning several demos. But Auerbach heard something else: a project coming together that echoed their mutual love of classic 1960s soul and blues. Not imagining the songs would ever be released, Green was able to sing in a freer style. “I didn’t have to work at it, and I could add a little bit of scribble, a little bit of my signature to them,” he says.
Long before he started rapping in Goodie Mob back in 1995, or hit it big with the Gnarls Barkley smash hit “Crazy” in 2006, Green, 45, was a huge fan of classic R&B, as was Auerbach. The archivists enjoyed emailing each other obscure recordings they’d unearthed, and that mutual respect for musical history infused their studio time.
“So all of those many groups that have inspired me — whether they are alive and well or gone but reincarnated inside of me in spirit — I have to make those ancestors proud,” Green says. “That the theory under which I create music.”
Green, who appeared on his own unscripted TBS TV series “CeeLo Green’s The Good Life” in 2014, has a measured response when asked about 2020’s cultural upheavals and the impact of coronavirus and Black Lives Matters.
He used to be a punk rocker, he says, seeking chaos around every corner, but now he sees himself as an elder statesman.
“I do believe in some law and some order,” he says. “But I think that the quarantine was the first preliminary period for us to realize how far we’ve strayed, if we were only to acknowledge it in that way. And society at large has an attention deficit disorder, to where it’s hard for it to retain anything. So I only hope that people don’t forget the opportunity that we just had for a hard reset, a real realignment.”
King goes ‘In Isolation’
Life during coronavirus is like the existential film fable “Groundhog Day,” bluesy rocker Elle King has come to believe as she shelters in place in Los Angeles. It can be viewed how Bill Murray sees it at the beginning, with fear and cynicism. Or each lockdown day might be seen another chance for people to better themselves, become more humane, and possibly acquire a new skill. King, who dramatically restrained herself on the hushed new acoustic EP “In Isolation” (especially on its simply-strummed single “The Let Go”) has changed her tune. She says, “I was just repeating bad behaviors and wasn’t learning my lesson. But when you start trying something new and embracing change, a beautiful world unfolds for you, just like in that movie.” Meanwhile, her songs “Baby Outlaw” and “My Neck, My Back” are gaining notoriety on soundtracks of Charlize Theron’s “The Old Guard” and Netflix’s “The Wrong Missy,” respectively.
Where are you in lockdown?
I am sheltering in place with my sister and her three children, and I live at the bottom of the Hollywood hills. So I am truly a Hollywood hillbilly. I have an inflatable hot tub, I have an above-ground pool, so we’re just motoring through. And in a weird way, I’ve been counting my blessings this whole time. I don’t think I’ve ever spent this much consecutive time in my home, so the amount of down time that I’ve been able to have in this consistent manner has been truly incredible, and I really feel like I’ve grown a lot. My birthday is a week from today (she just turned 31) and as crazy as this is — and with everything going on in the world — — I just have to maintain the beauty that can come from this and push away the fear of change, and just embrace it and buckle up for the ride.
”Let Go” is a pretty blunt breakup song. I’m sure the COVID-19 crisis is shattering quite a few relationships, as well as solidifying others.
Yeah, definitely. Whatever relationship I’ve ever been in — whether it was my marriage, my engagement, or just having boyfriends — because of my job, I’m always constantly in a long-distance relationship. So it was always a true test. But I am still in a relationship now, and I’m still happy, and we’ve done a lot of work on ourselves. He’s on the other side of the country, and that distance has definitely made the heart grow fonder, so separation itself can be a beautiful demonstration of love, if you will. And of course, I wish I could go on tour. But I think we’ve all been given a test, and I tell the kids, “This is the summer where we push ourselves and we come out of everything that’s happening right now as the best versions of ourselves that we can be.”
I’m sure — like many of us — you were a bit scared and confused as this pandemic ramped up.
100%. I’ve found, through the different trials in my life, that every experience is truly a message for growth. So this has been an opportunity for me to really dig deep within. I’ve gotten so accustomed to my schedules on tour that that cycle and pattern had become my comfort zone. So now I’m like, “Hey, what do I do?” So I’ve been writing a ton of music, I’ve been painting, and I’ve been writing poetry. It really opened up my creativity.
What else about your daily routine changed?
I meditate. I do yoga. And I box. Boxing is genuinely the most amazing thing, because it’s such an incredible release of energy, of emotions, frustration, and anger. It can really help you. This is an introspective time, a time of solitude and isolation, and everyone has a different opportunity to push themselves, you know?
Have you got your own speed bag at home?
I do! And I get very, very loud. My neighbors live very close to me, so they can all definitely hear me boxing!