The pop culture-loving music fan who steeped his Las Vegas residencies in classics from Culture Club and INXS.
But for his fifth non-holiday studio album, “CeeLo Green Is Thomas Callaway,” the Atlanta native isn’t only spotlighting his birth name, but revealing the authentic R&B musician behind what sometimes comes across as a caricature.
Recorded last fall in Nashville, the album, available June 26, benefits from the tutelage of Dan Auerbach, guitarist and singer for The Black Keys.
Their knowledge of each other stretches back years, first through Green’s Gnarls Barkley partner Danger Mouse (aka Athens’ Brian Burton), who produced several of The Black Keys’ albums, and more recently when both Green and The Black Keys performed on the British music-variety show, “Later…with Jools Holland.”
“I was hanging out with him backstage, and he was like, ‘When are you going to produce my record?’” Auerbach said with a laugh from his Nashville studio. “So, I guess as soon as I was ready, I reached out to him.”
Indeed, as Green tells the story of how “… Thomas Callaway” manifested, there was both an immediate comfort level with Auerbach and a tremendous amount of trust.
Dan Auerbach (left), CeeLo Green and chief engineer Allen Parker at Easy Eye Sound in Nashville. Photo: ALYSSE GAFKJEN
Green, 45, had frequently traveled to Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio to write with the musician — they wrote the dozen songs on the album together — but Green was surprised on one visit that he assumed would be another writing session. Instead, a room full of veteran studio musicians, many from Alabama’s famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio as well as Memphis, greeted him, along with Auerbach and his lead engineer, fellow Atlantan Allen Parker.
It was time to record. And for Green, it was his first time ever recording with a full band.
“Nashville is infamous for its pollen season, and I had gotten knocked down for a couple of days because I get allergies pretty bad. It was pretty untimely, but (Dan) thought I’d sound amazing,” Green said in April from his Peachtree City-area home. “It was kind of like an out-of-body experience, singing these songs for the first time, reading lyrics off the sheet music.”
And of the musicians on the album, “Their history is written into the DNA of this project. It’s rhythm, and rhythm is a nuance encoded in something. They’re just amazing.”
The group recorded for two days — six songs on each — and many of the finished versions, including the first soaring single, “Lead Me,” was the first and only take.
"That's the thing about it – it's not perfect. Now I can sing ("Lead Me") a hundred times better because I'm aware of it, but it's not supposed to be perfect. It's supposed to be real. That's when life is imitating art," Green said.
Auerbach, whose respect for Green is palpable, credits not only his creamy voice, but his instincts.
“CeeLo is so incredibly daring with his words and his range is out of control,” Auerbach said. “We never once talked about, ‘are we going to write a hit?’ We ended up writing songs about family and loved ones and kids. It’s the CeeLo that I’ve always known. He’s very eccentric, very funny. But he’s also very humble and very sweet.”
What Auerbach extracted from Green are songs that glisten with authenticity, not artifice. While the singer’s soulful range is evident on past hits such as “Forget You,” “Crazy” and “Bright Lights Bigger City,” his natural affinity for gospel (his parents were ministers) blares through “I Wonder How Love Feels,” and a sweet R&B lilt straight out of The Stylistics’ playbook colors “Thinking Out Loud.”
Green’s boom of a voice has been unearthed in a different way than fans of Goodie Mob are used to hearing. (Green, by the way, says a new project with the Atlanta hip-hop crew is in the works.) And, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the latest single, “People Watching,” with its breezy finger-popping bounce, turns into a ubiquitous earworm this summer.
"CeeLo Green is Thomas Callaway" is the Atlanta singer's sixth studio record (not counting his 2012 Christmas release).
Green admits that releasing a new album in the midst of a pandemic is odd, but because of his built-in distinctiveness, he isn’t worried that the music won’t find the right audience.
“It’s not this cookie-cutter kind of approach. I’m not that kind of artist. Even before this project took shape, Dan knew I could do it, and I love that,” Green said. “I’m a daredevil. Do you want to see me play it safe, or do you want to see me survive another stunt?”
That kind of risk-taking, along with his idiosyncrasies, routinely endear Green to his fans, Auerbach among them.
“He’s one of the greatest singers alive,” said Auerbach. “It’s so hard to be unique, but that ends up being the thing that makes people special, that they have their own sound. But to be singular and unique to yourself — that’s a special thing.”
Melissa Ruggieri has covered music and entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2010 and created the Atlanta Music Scene blog. She's kept vampire hours for more than two decades and remembers when MTV was awesome.