When CeeLo Green takes the stage at Iron City on Monday, March 7, it will have been almost exactly 10 years since the release of “Crazy.” That song — released by Gnarls Barkley, a duo comprised of Green and producer Danger Mouse — would rightfully be considered the high water mark of anyone’s career. It was so ubiquitous that the duo decided to pull it from music shops in the U.K. so that audiences would, “remember the song fondly and not get sick of it.” Rolling Stone would go on to name it the best song of the decade and, later, #100 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list.
It would have been a career-defining moment for Green had his career been one that was easily defined. When he started making music in 1991, it was as part of the “Dirty South” rap group Goodie Mob — who, along with frequent collaborators OutKast, are generally credited with establishing Atlanta as a dominant hip-hop hot spot. Green left that group in 1999 to pursue a solo career, releasing two singularly strange albums that straddled the line between angular hip-hop and radio-friendly soul. His two records with Gnarls Barkley — 2006’s St. Elsewhere and 2008’s The Odd Couple — pushed his pop sensibilities to the forefront but counterbalanced them with darkly humorous lyrics about mental illness, suicide and murder.
Gnarls Barkley went on hiatus following The Odd Couple, and Green’s career — barring a reunion album with Goodie Mob in 2013 — continued its trajectory toward commercial accessibility. He became a judge on the NBC singing contest series The Voice; released “F*** You,” a joyously profane, nearly inescapable single from his 2010 album The Lady Killer; and put out a Christmas album, CeeLo Green’s Magic Moment. His latest effort, last year’s Heart Blanche, is a continuation of that pop momentum, a collection of 15 jukebox-ready, retro-soul tunes that trade the underlying darkness of Green’s Gnarls Barkley material for something approaching optimistic sentimentality.
“Original to a Fault”
“I think it’s just the duality of my Zodiac,” Green says. He’s speaking on the phone just days before the March 1 kickoff of his Love Train Tour, which will see him perform in 11 cities across the Southeast. He attributes the variation of mood and tone between his albums to the fact that, “I just happen to be a Gemini, so I’m both sides of the brain, like, all of the time.”
“I used to try to have a balance with that over the course of an album,” he says. “But let’s face it, the brain of the average consumer does not deviate that often within the course of an album.” He describes his earlier solo works, which presented a kaleidoscopic array of tones and genres over the space of 70-odd minutes, as “original to a fault, to some degree, because it was becoming uncategorize-able. People didn’t know what to consider it or where to put it in the rest of the store. So I’ve tried to make amends with that to the best of my ability.
“I was given these separate opportunities, these separate entities where I could make a little separation of church and state and do something specifically, significantly for Gnarls and feel good about it as CeeLo Green because I had already accomplished it elsewhere.”
That leaves “space for some sunshine” as far as his solo material is concerned, he says.
For now, though, he has no interest in revisiting the “wild exhibitionism” of those earlier, stranger albums. “You burst out of the scene and into the stratosphere with a sense of urgency, you know? It’s imperative to be impactful and make that first impression,” he says. “When I did ‘Closet Freak’ [his first solo single] in 2001, they believed me. I’ve got to say, it was effective enough to where I did not have to repeat myself in that way. I could just revel in that liberty, and that liberty became this luxurious space to be in.”
Green sees his latest album, Heart Blanche, as an opportunity to once again assert his “style,” which he describes as “[bringing] some color into an otherwise pretty sterile, status-quo kind of environment.”
“The accomplishment of this album is to be an individual and to be original and be honest and sometimes audacious,” he says. “If you can be brave enough to be yourself, I think there’s something to say about that. There’s a great accomplishment in that. Sometimes, us as artists and as professionals, having so many opinions and cooks in the kitchen, music gets mulled over until it pales in comparison to its original state of self and sentiment. Sometimes you just produce for the sake of mass consumption, you know? Of course, we all want to be viable in that way, but it’s quite a task to keep the integrity intact. I think I’ve been able to accomplish that in my own right, being in the game for the past 20 years or so. It’s important to have that balance.”
“I Was a Fan First; I’ll Be a Fan Last”
Green’s musical output has always seen him proudly wearing his influences on his sleeve — The Lady Killer stands firmly in the shadow of Motown — but that’s perhaps never been more blatant than on Heart Blanche. After a brief intro, the album launches into “Est. 1980s,” a song that sees Green paying dues to the musicians that defined his childhood. Culture Club, Billy Idol and Madonna all get shout-outs, along with several other ‘80s pop stars.
“I take great pride in being reflective and introspective and being a fan,” Green says. “I was a fan first; I’ll be a fan last. I can live vicariously through all the people who inspired me to be myself, who gave me the license to do it.”
Green certainly sounds like a fan. His voice reaches giddy levels of excitement as he describes getting to interact with many of the artists mentioned in “Est. 1980s.” “When I mention Duran Duran, you’ve got to know that, over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to not only meet Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor — I can call Simon Le Bon,” Green says. “His number’s on my phone! It’s awesome. We all love ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ and ‘Rio’ and ‘The Reflex.’ All those records, we love that. It’s incomparable. I’ve gotten the opportunity to speak and laugh and embrace and be embraced by Boy George. And Billy Idol sang ‘Crazy’ once before, when that record was out. All of my idols have had an opportunity to acknowledge me in my lifetime as well. It’s wonderful. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Green sees various aspects of his career — his music, his stint as a judge on The Voice, “even this interview” — as “a chance to educate people, introduce people … to all of the greats, the ones who did it best. I get, via the songs that I’m singing in homage to them, to introduce people to those eras of music. And hey, if you find anything cool about CeeLo Green, this is where I got it from.”
Heart Blanche even features a collaboration with one of Green’s musical idols, although you can’t hear it. The album’s artwork, which features a small child looking inquisitively at a man hidden inside an abstract, floral costume, was created by famed post-punk musician Nick Cave. Green, who had previously sampled Cave’s song “Red Right Hand” for his mixtape Stray Bullets, describes Cave as “my godfather in many kinds of ways,” citing his “eccentric fashion” of artistic expression.
“Typically, people [who make eccentric art] are going to be disturbed in one way or another, disgruntled, disconnected,” Green says. “He wasn’t like that at all. He knows me for who I am and for what I’ve done. Him being an artist of integrity himself, he does see the like-mindedness and commitment to craft in me, and therefore he honors me with his presence.”
It’s actually Cave, not Green, in the floral suit on the album cover, “acting out one of his characters on my behalf,” Green says. When he begins to describe the nature of what that character represents, Green gets philosophical.
“That’s really a representation of the Living Art,” he says. “The child is more a representation of me in terms of the impressionability, the innocence, the lack of intimidation on the Living Art. [It’s] art that speaks to you, where you can question it. Only when you question it does it speak to you. It matters. It’s moss at the bottom of a pond. It just grows over time.”
“Do We Realize That There’s a Void?”
But if Green is fascinated with exploring his concept of the Living Art, he finds himself at a loss when faced with the intersection between art and death. “Robin Williams,” the lead single from Heart Blanche, is an emotional expression of bereavement at the titular actor’s passing, which Green then transforms into a broader call for empathy and humor.
“It’s just a song about sad clowns,” Green says. “I’m one of them, from time to time. You just think about someone like Robin Williams, so intimately endowed with talent and energy and inner vision. With his loss, you have to ask yourself, ‘Okay, who’s going to save my soul now?’ Who can replace the incomparable, the irreplaceable?”
Green’s quoting himself; he wrote the Gnarls Barkley song “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” after James Brown’s death in 2006. That song was a raw expression of grief that ended with a sense of resignation (“I’m tired enough to lay my own soul down,” he sighs as the track ends). Now, at least, Green seems to feel like the question has an answer — just one that will take a while to reveal itself.
“Somebody’s going to have to go through life, they’re going to have to experience their own pains and hardships and find the silver lining, find meaning in those things, and get to a point where they can reiterate their pain for the sake of our entertainment,” he says. “So what do we do until then? We kind of just go without.”
But acknowledgement of the loss, he argues, is just as important as finding someone new to fill the gap. “Do we realize there’s a void, or are we so preoccupied with nothing that we forget how important people are?” Green asks. “I think that’s just the saddening part about it all. There’s just so much distraction, so much content, so much information to be preoccupied with. It has no value, no substance, no significance, besides the fact that it’s effective enough to distract you momentarily — or, for some people, permanently. It’s just a lesson for the human psyche and the human condition for us to be a bit more mindful of ourselves and a bit more mindful of each other, because we’re all just passing through.”
“An Opinion Can Be Blown Away with the Wind; Truth Is Tangible”
For Green, one of those potentially harmful distractions is social media. His Twitter presence has proven to be a lightning rod for controversy. In 2011, he drew ire for a tweet calling a critic “gay” after a negative review. He later qualified that he was “not harboring any sort of negative feeling toward the gay community.” In 2014, a series of tweets regarding a then-ongoing sexual battery case was taken by many to imply a belief that it isn’t rape if a victim is unconscious. The subsequent backlash led to Green’s temporary deletion of his entire Twitter account, as well as to the cancellation of his short-lived TBS comedy series CeeLo Green’s The Good Life. “I sincerely apologize for my comments being taken so far out of context,” he subsequently tweeted. “I only intended on a healthy exchange to help heal those who love me from the pain I had already caused from this… I’d never condone the harm of any women.”
Now, Green, who still maintains his account, says he’s skeptical of the power social media holds over society. “As long as people repeat rumors, we will be doomed to repeat history,” he says. “If we’re not believing in our own truth, if we’re only living vicariously… There’s just a gauge that is broken or needs to re-calibrated to some degree. I understand the power and significance of social media, the technological advance and commonality of civilization that social media is, but I do believe that it can be manipulated.
“But also, if you can’t say something as an artist that’s provocative or interesting or dangerous, [then social media is pointless],” he says. “I think that there’s validity in all expression, but there’s such an all-access [aspect] that there’s no separation of church and state. Who are the real creatives, and who are the consumers who are not meant to be vocal about their opinion?”
“I’m just like, ‘How do we continue to innovate but be anchored down with honesty, with integrity?’” he adds. “And with real ability, not just opinion. A lot of people seem to think that their opinion is the art form. But truth is tangible. An opinion can be blown away with the wind, or it can be overruled by a popular opinion. And who doesn’t want to be in that large number of people proclaiming that same opinion? Nobody wants to be alone.”
Green points to the controversy that followed his performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine” in Times Square on New Year’s Eve 2013. He changed a line in the song — “and no religion, too” — to “and all religion’s true,” which many saw as directly conflicting with Lennon’s original intention.
“I remember that was like my first big [controversy],” he says. “And it was like, ‘What’s the misunderstanding? Because obviously it’s a misunderstanding.’ I understood shortly thereafter that there are purists, in terms of Beatles fans and John Lennon fans, and I understand and respect and acknowledge that wholeheartedly. I’m one of those people. And I felt like if John Lennon was alive, I think he possibly would have understood my point of reference for my variation. First of all, it truly is your imagination when you imagine a world with no religion, because there already is religion. So the point I was making is that what ends up being more feasible and more practical, possibly, [is] what if we just embraced each other’s different beliefs? It seems like that would be the most logical, realistic progression we could make… and then we would get a step closer to the perfect world that we’re imagining.”
“In growth, there are growing pains,” he adds. “There’s irony in there, but that’s the way it is. For a short moment, that [controversy] was real for people… I wasn’t trying to be controversial in any kind of way. I was trying to be humane. [But] the question then was, ‘Who do you think you are?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, you know, I’m the guy with the microphone in my hand who they asked to sing it.’”
“It Gets Dark Every Day”
Despite these pitfalls, Green remains as optimistic as the upbeat Heart Blanche might imply. “I’m having a very fulfilling life and career,” he says. “I’m in a good place. I’m not going to stay back.” Green has publicly expressed interest in returning to a judgeship on The Voice, from which he stepped down in order to focus on Heart Blanche — but music remains a priority as well.
“There’s still so much more that I could do,” he says. “There’s still much more that I’m capable of doing and I aspire to do. Heart Blanche is really just a moment in time. I’m not trapped off. It’s not my retirement album, if you will.”
What’s next might be a return to the darker-edged Gnarls Barkley project, which has been on hiatus since 2008. Green has been hinting at a reunion with Danger Mouse for years, but now he says it’s closer than ever.
“This is actually the 10th anniversary of St. Elsewhere, Gnarls Barkley’s first album, and we’ve been talking a lot lately about possibly getting together at some point in time soon,” he says. “I’m hoping that’s sooner rather than later. We both are preoccupied and have prior obligations. He’s working on a Red Hot Chili Peppers album. I tried to catch him between that and what he was working on before, the U2 album, but then I wasn’t available. We’ve got to be in the same wheelhouse. We’ve got to talk. We’ve got to share. We’ve got to sit down and live together for a little while again.”
Once that happens, though, Green says he won’t have any trouble going back into the grimmer head space that characterized songs like “Crazy.” “Definitely, you have to be able to harness and focus on something practical,” he says. “But it gets dark every day at around six or seven [o’clock]. You can count on it to get dark. That’s how I look at it. It’s no more unnatural than the balance of night and day. One of these dark nights, we’re going to find that space again. I wouldn’t let anyone count us out.”
CeeLo Green performs at Iron City on Monday, March 7. Escort will open. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.