The iconic soulster speaks about his latest album, Lay It Down, signing autographs at Wal-Mart and how to deal with all the women.
GIANT: You’re working with some great producers—Amir “?uestlove” Thompson and James Poyser—on this record. How did that collaboration come about?
Al Green: We talked about it on the phone. Yep. My name is Forrest Gump…
GIANT: Your name is Forrest Gump?
AG: Yeah, and everybody calls me Forrest Gump [laughs].
GIANT: OK…In your mind, what’s the difference between the Al Green we know and love from your standards and classics and the Al Green we can hear on this album?
AG: [Long pause] You can’t divide up Al Green and chop him into ten pieces and say, “Which piece do you want?” It’s all Al because making music, yeah, he’s just one person. I can’t be somebody today and somebody else tomorrow. I’m still Al “Tired of Being Alone,” “Back Up Train” Al. I’m the same person. I can’t be 22. I’m not Cinderella at the ball.
GIANT: ?uestlove said recently that he was nervous going into the studio with you. Did you know you were such an intimidating person?
AG: Not really. I sat down with them. Everybody had a cookie off the tray, coffee out of the pot. I poured my coffee just like they poured theirs. Really, I never did think of it like the big “I” and little “you” thing.
GIANT: How did they get the best performance out of you? How did they make you feel comfortable in the studio?
AG: Everybody just said, “You sing you. Sing Al. Don’t worry about what we’re playing. When we put it all together, it should fit perfectly. Just sing Al.” I never did try to sing anybody else because I don’t really know how to do that. Once I got an “I’m Still In Love With You” song, along with “Let’s Stay Together” and all that stuff, I kinda found out where Al was, and I really don’t try to sound or sing like anybody but that person that sings [sings], “Spending my day.”
GIANT: Do you have a favorite song on the album?
AG: Yeah. “All I Need” is the bomb. Oh, ho, ho, ho! We spend so much time apart, me and the lady. I don’t know what Lay It Down is supposed to mean. I need to love you. I want to love you. That’s not a secret. Our relationship is not some flare thing that popped up over night. This has been going on awhile. So three kids later…
GIANT: Cribbing a question from the movie Almost Famous, do you need to be in love to write a love song?
GIANT: Why not?
AG: No, because you don’t have to be in love to write something on paper.
GIANT: How would you understand it then?
AG: Love is a universal language. It could be understood by people that can’t even speak English, yet they can still sing “Tired of Being Alone” or “Let’s Stay Together.” I went to Japan, and they could sing all the words, and they then started speaking in Japanese after they get done. I don’t know how they learned it if they don’t know English. I said, “OK. Houston, we have a problem [laughs].” They did the same thing in Madrid this past year. They know all the dang songs. That’s why it sold out. But when you get done, they’re speaking in Spanish.
GIANT: You’re paired with several contemporary artists on this record, including Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae and John Legend. How do you discover new music?
AG: [Distracted] When you’re counting money, man, you can’t let nothing disturb you. I’m sorry, how do I discover what?
GIANT: How do you discover new music, new artists? Is that something you look for?
AG: I really don’t know how to discover it. Look, I’m the little kid from Grand Rapids, Michigan. I’m the little guy that sung “Back Up Train,” “Tired of Being Alone,” “I Can’t Get Next to You.” All these songs. I don’t know how to do these great things like some of these other artists that paparazzi run after and take their picture. People be running over their toes. I don’t live in LA. I don’t know how to drive—this woman, Ms. Spears, I don’t know how to drive her car [laughs]. I live in Memphis. The other day I went to Wal-Mart, this is in my hometown of Millington [Tennessee]. They had a write up about it in the paper. “Al was at Wal-Mart.” Two, three hundred people here to sign autographs for. I went in there to get some bananas and some grapes, and boy when I came out of there… Well, you see, what started it was the employees started with their little camera phones. After all them got done, then the bakery folks came over and the meat folks. And after we got all them done, then here come all the customers. They say, “He handled it like a pro,” on the front of the paper. “He hugged everybody. He kissed all the girls. Made ’em happy. That’s exactly who we thought Al was.” I thought that was a nice write-up, although it did take about an hour to get it all done.
GIANT: Where does this album fit into your larger body of work?
AG: If you have ever had any Al Green album, this one is a collector’s edition. Definitely a designer’s original, one of a kind. This is the Rolls Royce of Al Green. You’re not gonna find it on every corner and everybody got one just like it, same color, make and year. No. This is a one-of-a-kind one. And what I’m likin’ about it is it’s between you and your lady. It ain’t got nothing to do with no one else. I don’t ever play it until my lady’s in the car because I know we can relate….She be smiling and turning red and carrying on. I’m going like, “What the hell you smiling for?” And we’re both kind of laughing because we know what it means. Lay It Down means I’m a simple man, you know? It would be a shame if I didn’t love you. I want to love you, so there it is.
GIANT: What do you know now that you wish you’d known earlier in your career?
AG: How to stay away from so many women. There you go.
GIANT: How do you stay away from so many women?
AG: [Laughs] When we play a concert now, there’ll be women in the hall, women in the lobby, in the hotel. It’s just one of those things where you can’t get upset about it. Once you see one of ’em, they tell you it’s for the good times. “You said, ‘How can you mend a broken heart?’” I’m going, “Your heart ain’t broken. You’re up here climbing up the window up the back stairs [laughs].” They laugh and go on. It’s I’m still in love with you; ain’t nobody else.
GIANT: How difficult is it to say no to so many women?
AG: Uhhh, turn around and look at your old lady’s face when she’s saying, “I just wish you would.” Look at little Al. Then you look at Trevor. Then you look at KayKay and you just say, “Well, I think I better stick with the wife and kids.”
GIANT: I believe you had a birthday recently. Am I correct?
AG: Sunday was my birthday.
GIANT: Well, happy birthday. How did you celebrate?
AG: We had a banquet, a fashion show, birthday cake and a toast with champagne.
GIANT: So birthdays are big celebrations for you?
AG: We had a great time. I thought it was good. You know how church folks is—you just have a little shot of champagne. Church folks, they don’t know. It’s not like they’ve been used to drinking champagne in the first place. Don’t leave the bottle here. I’ll be completely stoned when I get through. You just gotta give ’em a little and take the bottle with you.