Originally published in AU Magazine, November 2010
IT’S NOT every day that you get to hurl the phrase ‘fuck you’ with gusto down a phone line to a celebrity. It’s even less likely that the object of your outburst will respond with friendly enthusiasm. Then again, it’s not every day that you get to talk to the man behind one of the hottest singles of 2010 – thankfully, of the same expletive-focused title.
Cee Lo Green is currently holed up in a swish Parisian hotel suite, apologising for his groggy voice and general jetlagged demeanour.
“I’m just off a plane from Atlanta, and I’m working already,” he groans good-humouredly. “Nah, it’s cool, though. I’m used to it.”
After 18 years in the music industry, he should be – but it’s hard to figure out what the man born Thomas DeCarlo Callaway’s role in the business actually is. Thus far, he’s proved something of a chameleon. Genius? His track record would certainly insinuate such; he’s broken numerous sales records as one half of Gnarls Barkley, has gained huge levels of respect for his solo outings, and has collaborated with some of the biggest players in the r ‘n’ b and hip-hop game. Modern philosopher? His rambling, tangential replies to some of the questions posed to him by AU – many, we suspect, deliberate attempts at sidestepping – would suggest so. Entrepreneur? Well, the rapid success of aforementioned single ‘Fuck You!’ (a basic, place-holding video of the song went viral on YouTube, gaining 2 million hits in the space of a week) wasn’t strictly down to him alone – but he’s certainly aware of how the machinations of the music biz work.
“Was I expecting it? Ummm, no. Hell, no,” he cackles. “I don’t really have any expectations, but I’m very optimistic, know what I’m sayin’?”
You must have known that you had a catchy, hummable little ditty on your hands, though, I prod. ‘Fuck You!’ is the kind of song you only need to hear once or twice before it sets up camp between your ears for a month.
Well, the only thing is that I expect ‘real’ to resonate. When something is real, when something is genuine, when something is quality… I assume that ‘real’ resonates at all times. But y’know, people aren’t necessarily entertained by reality all the time. People like science fiction, they like comedy… it just depends on what you’re in the mood for.”
As well as a list of collaborators longer than Stretch Armstrong’s limbs under his belt, Green’s work as a producer and writer (amongst his co-writing credits are the Pussycat Dolls hit ‘Don’t Cha’, as well as hits for Brandy, Solange, Amerie and Jennifer Hudson) means that his ear for a catchy melody serves him well when it comes to penning his own material. He may be a self-described ‘Soul Machine’, as his second solo album declared, but he’s also something of a hit machine, to boot.
“Well, there’s no formula to what I do, but the common thread that weaves [all of my songs] together is obviously me,” he says. “They’re all an extension of a true self, my own personal good taste and preference in music. I’m very certain about myself, the things that move me and the things that compel me to write; that make me move, make me wanna dance, make me wanna get involved. But as far as peoples’ receptions right then and there? Well, something can be mismanaged and mis-marketed, you know? It’s not necessarily anyone in particular’s fault if a song doesn’t work in a particular commercial way. So you do have to have a plan of attack and a demographic, so to speak. But that’s someone else’s executive decision.”
The music industry, he agrees, has certainly changed since his first forays into a recording studio with Atlantan hip-hop troupe Goodie Mob back in 1995. The traditional methods of marketing music have been replaced by sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, but they’ve “definitely worked out in his favour” – especially when it comes to ‘Fuck You!‘, a top 10 hit everywhere from Australia to the Netherlands.
It’s not the only thing that’s changed, though; Cee Lo’s own style has strayed from the rap angle employed with Goodie Mob, and even parts of his first two solo albums ‘… and his Perfect Imperfections’ and ‘… is the Soul Machine’. These days, he seems to be more of a soul-dominated man, occasionally dabbling in hip-hop.
“Well, I guess I was a singer always and a rapper by profession, in the beginning – but I think that some people are pre-occupied with how they can stay the same, as opposed to, y’know, allowing an evolution to move you. I’m just an advocate of that – of becoming transparent, if you will, and allowing music to just push through me, to use me as a medium, as a vehicle, to the point that the music I make becomes a narrative of some sort. I really separate myself from it [the music-making process], I think that it’s something that’s beyond me, and I’m very flattered that it ‘picked’ me,” he says mystically.
“When I was a kid and a teenager, I remember punk-rock being more natural to me. That’s the soul of someone else, just stylised in a different way. To me, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden is a soul singer. Steve Perry from Journey, or Steven Tyler from Aerosmith – to me, they got soul. Soul’s commonly associated with black music, but I think it’s all soul music, because we’re all singing from experience, and that’s what causes it to be relatable. Soul is the experience, it’s the centre of someone. People are very rarely bold enough to bare that naked part of themselves. But to me, it’s something that’s involuntary and voluntary at the same time. I don’t want to know what I’m doing completely; I like it when it just happens to me, when it’s just compelling. So it’s hard for me to take any credit, in that way. I’m present, but it’s truly an out-of-body experience, in a way.”
His hazy assertions sound vaguely religious – does he believe that his gift has been bestowed upon him by God, in that case?
“I’m more spiritually-based, as opposed to being religious,” he says. “Yeah, I definitely think that this has a lot to do with the spirit. What do you think, do I sound spiritual? Has anything about any of my music ever struck you as spiritual?”
Sure, I say. Anyone with a voice as powerful as yours can’t help but move people in some way. But for all your talk of being the ‘Chosen One’ of-sorts, where does that leave the new generation of innovative artists – particularly those from his native southern states, like Janelle Monáe and Lil Wayne? Does the mighty Cee Lo find it hard to identify with any of them?
“I do believe that there’s validity in all expression, so therefore, I’m always pleased to see someone being open and expressive in art form, being progressive and pushing it forward – not going around in circles, so to speak,” he replies diplomatically. “But I know that there’s a balance between art and industry, too – so I know that certain images and ideals are perpetuated over and over again, from an executive point of view, and that’s not always the fault of the artist. So those who are able to be definitive enough to be seen in the midst of so much yakkery, I believe that it’s meant to be, it’s very fateful for a few of these individuals to exist. That being said, I’m inspired by all art. I’m an art enthusiast.”
At the ripe old age of 35, (“Everyone thinks I’m older!,” he half-heartedly grumbles), Green’s seen and experienced enough to be held as something of a veteran. Yet there’s no doubting that without Gnarls Barkley, the group he formed with Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton in 2003, and their smash hit ‘Crazy‘, the name ‘Cee Lo’ may have been a lot less-known than it is today. Perhaps being known as ‘the guy from Gnarls Barkley’ has been a contributing factor to ‘Fuck You!’ snowballing success, and what makes his forthcoming third solo album poised for prominence. It’s called ‘The Ladykiller’, and really – for a man who once sang “I wanna be inside you, literally / Girl, I wanna use you habitually” (from ‘Spend the Night in Your Mind’, a cut from 2002’s ‘… and his Perfect Imperfections’), would you expect anything less?
“I’m still the Soul Machine, of course,” he wheezes. “No, I think I can describe the other albums as random gunfire: y’know, open fire on a crowded room, with no particular mark or target. With ‘The Ladykiller’, this album is a matter of marksmanship. It’s a righteous killlll, if you willlll,” he adds with a gleeful purr.
Over seventy tracks were recorded for the album, which eventually had to be cut down to just fourteen.
“That’s the hardest part, the hardest part,” he despairs. “You’re kind of emotionally attached to them all, in one way or another. And then with an album like this, where so many people are counting on it – like, my label really wants me to be a success, they really want the best of me. So we’ve been going through quite a bit of politics – but politics, I’m not partial to. But I do understand that they’re a necessary evil and you have to make amends with that aspect of signing a record deal. It’s a hard process, but it’s for the best.
“But all of the music is good, so y’know, lucky me for that. We’re coming up with creative ways to make use of the music that we recorded for this album [that won’t make the final cut]. I’m sure after this album is released, I’ll be gone into some other space. I’ll be ready to do another Goodie Mob album, then another Gnarls album. The things that I’ve recorded in relation to this concept of ‘Ladykiller‘, the label have been very supportive in being creative and finding different ways to release the music, whether it be bundle packages, or 7-inches, or on soundtracks. People are gonna hear the greater part of that music because y’know, it’s relative to right now. I have to do it now. Now, I say!”
He won’t be drawn on whether any of his collaborators down through the years have returned the favour on this album, although he does confirm the rumour that Sade was asked to provide vocals on one track – and promptly ignored his request.
“She didn’t respond,” he says with a sigh. “I think if I could have gotten Sade, that would have been all I ever needed. She’s never done a song with anyone, so I really didn’t have any unrealistic expectations of her doing it because of that reason – but I thought that I’d give it a shot. And that tingly feeling of wondering whether she would say yes or not – that was enough! The want, the desire, the anticipation; that was a great feeling. But don’t worry. You’ll have your hands full with me.”
Despite his audible bleariness, it sounds like Cee Lo Green is enjoying life, and the prospect of yet another hit record – this time by his own hand alone – right now.
“I do believe that nothing guarantees a result better than repetition, so I do believe that I deserve some good things to happen,” he agrees. “I’ve been pretty diligent about my career, and devoted to it, so I wouldn’t expect anything less. But I’m also very humble and very grateful. And I’m having fun, too. Oh yeah, I’m having fun. Having a song called ‘Fuck You!’ that the world is just loving right now? That’s a lot of fun. The song has such a youthful playfulness in it… and you know, at my age, and with my experience and the amount of time I’ve spent in the industry, to have yet another record that has worked so well is awesome.”
That’s all well and good, I say, but what about the prospect of ‘Fuck You!’ becoming another ‘Crazy‘ – a song that you must have performed hundreds of times by now? Aren’t you worried that the enjoyment will be overtaken by a sheer obligatory drudgery at every gig you do from now until the end of your career?
“I think I’ll get tired of singing ‘Fuck You!’ before I get tired of singing ‘Crazy’,” he insists. “‘Fuck You!’ is a sweet nothing, so to speak – but ‘Crazy’ is the gift that keeps on giving. It’s one of those kind of songs that you can seek shelter in. The door’s always open, it’ll always be there to embrace you. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to say. If you separate yourself from the storyline of ‘Fuck You!’, welll… at some point in your life some people are gonna be a nuisance to you and you’re gonna wanna be able scream out ‘fuck you!’. So that could possibly last forever, too!,” he concludes with a husky chuckle. “Who knows? As long as people wanna hear both of ’em, I don’t think I mind singing ’em.”
WASH YOUR MOUTH OUT! 5 SONGS WITH ‘FUCK’ IN THE TITLE:
Eamon – ‘Fuck It (Don’t Want You Back)’
First the bloke was condemned to being a rapper called Eamon (ever heard of a stage name, buddy?), and then his girl broke his heart. ‘Fuck you, you ho, I don’t want you back’, he crooned. It’s OK, fella, we know you’re really dying inside. Let it all out.
The Magnetic Fields – ‘How Fucking Romantic’
Stephin Merritt, you are nothing short of a bona fide lyrical genius, especially when you write lines as caustically droll as “How fucking romantic, must we really waltz? / Drag another cliché howling from the vaults”.
Fight Like Apes – ‘Ice Cream Apple Fuck’
We’re not exactly sure what an ice cream apple fuck is, or even if it’s legal in Ireland. But we sure do like MayKay’s melodic yowling on this track from the new Apes album. Kudos for wedging the word ‘boke’ in there, too.
David Kitt – ‘Don’t Fuck With Me’
Ahhh, sure you’re just a big teddy bear, Kittser. Your stern warning doesn’t scare us. What’s that you say on your lovely, gentle, beat-driven tune? “Don’t fuck with me, don’t break me down?”. Umm, if you say so. Come here till we tickle you under the chin, first, though.
Glasvegas – ‘Fuck You, It’s Over’
If ever there was a Dear John letter in song-form that left the recipient in no doubt where they stood, it’s this anguished cut from the Scots rockers’ Christmas album. “I’ve been lost since I woke up / Broken since we broke up“, bawls James Allan. Ahhh. Someone give that guy a hug.