Interview: Cee Lo Green

Cee Lo interview published at exclaim.ca

By Anupa Mistry

For someone with such a massive voice, Cee Lo Green is unexpectedly soft-spoken. In Toronto to promote his newest solo record The Lady Killer, the rapper-singer-songwriter, one-half of Gnarls Barkley, put his “Fuck You” face and suited-up steez on hold for a day of press and padding around in Adidas shower sandals: refreshing for a reporter who came of age on his Goodie Mob raps. You’d think the success of Gnarls Barkley would’ve scratched his singing itch but Cee Lo’s been branching out ― contributing a song to the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack, covering Band of Horses ― and steadily clambering to the top. Despite what a Goodie Mob or Gnarls fan may think and for all his unexpectedness, Cee Lo maintains the tattoos, the suits, the bleak, the cheer, the raps, the big-voiced soul, even the eyeliner, are just different elements of his personality emerging with each new opportunity.
You were doing really well, critically and commercially, with Gnarls Barkley. Why break away from that to put out a solo record?
Because I could! That’s really the simple reason why: because I can. And I still have a lot of music left in me that has nothing to do with Gnarls Barkley. As I say: every day I write a book.

Keeping your career arc in mind ― rapper, singer, songwriter, producer ― what’s your end goal then?
A very, very good book. A novel! A bestseller!

So what makes The Lady Killer different from your other solo albums you put out post-Goodie Mob?
It’s just more solo stuff really. But I suppose this is a more clear, concise, consistent, conceptual, entire album. It’s a complete thought, because it’s written to be like a score. The album’s meant to be a motion picture, you know? I’ve never taken that approach to doing an album before.

Conceptually, there’s a dark side to your music. Where does that come from?
I think there’s pain in a lot of what I do. I don’t know why, I can’t separate the two: something has caused the pain or the pinch I was meant to feel, and I’m alive because of it. It’s like they say, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

Despite the title, the songs on The Lady Killer are a lot less ominous-sounding than Gnarls Barkley stuff or even Goodie Mob songs.
Well, The Lady Killer… even the title has an edge to it, but it’s elegant at the same time. Again, when I made this record, conceptually I felt like a playwright, like I was writing a narrative. I was directing; many directors create characters that they live vicariously through. So The Lady Killer does stem from a true sense of self, but it’s not an entire me, because I’m also Gnarls Barkley, I’m also Cee Lo Goodie of Goodie Mob, I’m quite a few things. So I don’t know, maybe I didn’t write the pain into it because for once in my life I didn’t really want this to be taken so literally and so personally. I just wanted to create a brand new shiny product for people to enjoy. But even though that was my intent, people still ask all the time “Okay, so who is the girl who broke your heart to make you write ‘Fuck You’?” Well… it’s not a true story, you know what I’m saying? It’s not the WHOLE truth.

“Fuck You” was insanely successful. It seems like people were really able to relate to it.
People believe in me, they trust me.

And there’s so much catharsis in being able to say “Fuck” as well. Did you write it with that concept in mind?
Exactly. That’s the ultimate effect it has on people. Because, you know, the subconscious can very easily separate from the storyline and begin to apply (the song) to your own experience. Even if it’s not exactly as the song is saying, you use it as an opportunity to say “fuck you” out loud. Whether it’s “fuck your boss” or… well, maybe you shouldn’t be saying that. It just takes you to a place where you can be vicarious.

I heard that you recorded over 70 songs for this project. Tell me about the songwriting process.
I was working on this album for about three years. It took me a while to get things going. I thought that I was kind of beginning to over-exhaust the idea. Every single situation I could think of, I tried to write a song about ― keeping with this “screenplay” idea, you know? Just like, how there’s two cameras, and “okay, now I need to get the aerial view, I need this, I need that.” I tried to “shoot” it from every angle, not even considering how much of it we would have to edit because I got so involved. But the good part about it is it gave me an opportunity to be prolific. I recorded more material for this album than I’ve ever done in my entire career. So we can make use of that through great B-sides, we may do a re-issue, a “Director’s Cut” of The Lady Killer with a few songs or a deluxe version of the album with a few extra songs. And there are always international versions of the album that differ from the one Stateside.

Considering how many songs you made, you must have fought for some to make the cut.
Yeah. Quite a bit. I won’t be specific, because in the end they’re all my records, but I did not want the storyline to get lost in translation. I was concerned about what I wanted to say because [certain songs] are part of the story. Everything doesn’t have to be a radio smash, that’s not what it’s about.

You’re lucky to be at that point and to be musically relevant after a really long career. Was there ever a point when you were unsure about your future in music?
Yeah. It was around 2003, 2004. I left Arista, my former record label, so I didn’t have a deal and I was going through a divorce. But this is when I found Gnarls Barkley ― we started Gnarls around this time ― and I produced “Dontcha” [by the Pussycat Dolls] at this time too. So, when “Dontcha” started to work for me I was like “Oh! okay!” Maybe I’d had my time, I’d just focus on writing and producing, because it doesn’t have to be about me. I’m not concerned about being famous.

But now you’ve got a much wider fan base than you started with. You’ve talked about not being the ideal, image-wise, pop star.
My perception of myself and people’s perception of me are two totally different things. I kind of know where I’m coming from and I’ve been fortunate to make it this far. And right here, where I stand, may be where I belong. If it were the case that I’d get “up there” then I would have to be immediate in making amends with it, you know what I’m saying? Because I’ve been faithful, up until this point and I’m like “Okay, this is where we’ll stop.”

Do you think it’s important to change people’s perceptions of who a pop star can be?
I do think so. And I believe even beyond my own control you and I, as such, need to redefine what’s do-able, what’s beautiful, what’s possible. Not that I can’t help it though, because we are a minority, us underdogs… I can let people know that I have a fighting chance.

So what are you working on next? There have been rumours of a Goodie Mob reunion…
We’re into it. We’re about a quarter of the way into it. The start has been good, but typically once you get going you don’t tend to use a lot of the things you started with, like the first records. It’s hottest once you get closer to that stick of dynamite…BOOM! [Laughs] So, we’re just getting started but I’m ready to give it my undivided attention and be all in. Let’s just say there’s a lot of love left for Goodie Mob and there’s a lot of life left in us, a lot of wisdom to share. I believe the brand is new and improved.

Do you ever worry that you’ve isolated your rap fans?
I mean, I already have. I’d rather them feel isolated than alienated ― if I have anything to do with how they feel or not. Then again, I don’t want either of those two. I’d rather them feel accommodated. I have plenty of people I want to please, I want everybody pleased.