Lenny Kravitz is celebrating the next 25 years of a Grammy-filled career with the release of his tenth studio album, Strut (Roxie Records) and a new hardcover book, Lenny Kravitz (Rizzoli). The book is an elegantly curated collection of photographs taken of Kravitz throughout his career by the top names in fashion and art photography, including Steven Meisel, Mark Seliger, Patrick Demarchelier, Ellen von Unwerth as well as many others, listed at the end of this article. The book includes a foreword by Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis, a conversation between Lenny Kravitz and recording artist and producer Pharrell Williams and an afterword by the art dealer and advisor Marla Hamburg Kennedy.
At a recent discussion at the 92nd Street Y, DeCurtis spoke with Kravitz about the genesis of his new album, touching upon some of the biographical elements of Kravitz’s life and his diverse talents. As an interview subject, Kravitz proved to be engaging, self-effacingly humorous and down-to-earth.
Kravitz explained the idea for the new album came to him while he was working on a grueling film schedule for the Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire. At the end of the day, he started to hear music inside his head, something he hadn’t heard for some time. He knew he had a choice of either staying up to address the music or getting adequate sleep for his 5 AM wake-up call. He opted to go with the music, sleeping one hour nightly for the next two weeks in order to capture the melodies, rhythms and chord changes he was hearing and record them onto his iPhone. This music became the inspiration for his album, Strut.
“I want to hear music that comes to me organically,” he said. “I suppose I could sit down and write music within an hour if it was demanded of me but the quality wouldn’t compare. Music that comes to me is, by far, superior.”
With the new album release, he said he felt like he was in high school again—happy. The album consists of him singing and playing the guitar, bass and drums, “keeping it basic and not overproduced.”
A native New Yorker, Kravitz grew up splitting time between his parents’ Manhattan apartment and visiting his maternal grandmother on the weekends in the Bedford Stuyvesant part of Brooklyn. His dad was Sy Kravitz, an NBC television producer of Russian-Jewish descent and his mother was the actress Roxie Roker, known for playing the character Helen Willis on The Jeffersons. His dad was also a jazz promoter so their houseguests when Lenny was little included such artists as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan, though he had no idea at the time who any of them were. Kravitz recalled that his mom used to make him dress up in an itchy wool suit to accompany her to the Café Carlyle to hear her friend, the cabaret singer, Bobby Short, perform. She also made the point of bringing him backstage with her at the theatre and impressing his young mind with the diversity of the city’s cultural offerings, from ballets to operas and art museums.
“To be able to see and do all of these things and be around these people–it fed me and gave me a vocabulary,” Kravitz said.
Kravitz’s first memory of music was of a toy he had that played a piece by Tchaikovsky. Inspired, he sang that tune to his grandmother when she was ill.
“Then I became mesmerized by the Jackson 5, because they looked like me.”
One night, his father took him to Madison Square Garden for a concert without telling him who they were going to see perform. The Commodores opened. And then the Jackson 5 came onstage.
“That was it,” Kravitz said. “I came home, slipped on my rubber boots that came up to about here,” he said, pointing to just below his knees, “and I danced around the house for hours singing into a felt tip pen.”
He also pointed out that, growing up in the 70s was a time that radio drove culture rather than being driven by it. It was a time you could enjoy hearing an entire gamut of music, “of all colors all on one radio station.” For a young Lenny, it was Musicradio WABC.
DeCurtis read aloud from a letter written by a friend who lost someone to cancer. In their last moments, this ailing person, who had been an avowed Kravitz fan, insisted on listening to their favorite song, Fields Of Joy for comfort. Visibly moved, Kravitz composed himself to say, “Words cannot describe what that means. If that was the only person who ever heard that song and that was their reaction, then there is no greater reward, accolade or amount of money, fame—that’s it. If you can offer a person that, what a blessing to life.’
He confessed that from an early age, he saw the link between how a sound can go with a look to convey an image, starting with many of his 70s heroes like Sly Stone. Kravitz also mentioned how his innate curiosity has led him to learn as much as he could about lighting and photography from his photographer friends as they took portraits of him. As a result, he has grown from an artistic subject to a participant in the artistic process.
Because he has a such a distinct vision musically as well, Kravitz plays all his music and recording by playing all of the instruments in the studio himself and then teaches his touring band the language of how to perform his music, no differently from how a classical music conductor leads an orchestra. Once learned, the musicians incorporate their own textures to the music. The Strut tour, which has been rehearsing in Paris, will open in Moscow, where he has performed before. Cindy Blackman, Carlos Santana’s wife, will be backing on percussion. The video shoot for the album’s song The Chamber was already filmed in Paris.
“At one time, I admit I was micromanaging every aspect of my tours in the name of perfection,” Kravitz said, “Not perfection for the sake of being perfect but perfection for the sake of wanting things to be the way I wanted them. In the ‘90s, I learned Robert Plant was going to be opening for me. Robert Plant! Ridiculous! He was making me raise my game!
“As usual, I was having some attitude backstage and Robert Plant got sick of my shit, cursed me out in proper English and told me I was missing the point.” Why? Plant railed on him that it was a privilege to play in front of these people. It was a joy. And he ought to feel grateful to have the opportunity.
“It was the best thing ever for me to get cursed out by my own idol,” Kravitz said. “I appreciate that he had the heart to do that.
“When you’re in you’re in your 20s, you don’t think about what life will be like in your 30s, 40s or 50s. You’re just there where you are at the moment. You think you’re going to be young forever,” Kravitz said, adding, “And I am.”
Recently, he caught up with septuagenarian Mick Jagger, who shared with him what a great gig the Stones played recently in Barcelona.
“Mick wasn’t talking about a concert from the ‘60s or ‘70s but now. He is still inspired,” Kravitz said. “I don’t want to rest on what it is I have done, either. I’m just getting into what I am doing and I have a lot of growing yet to do.”
Kravitz was named for his uncle, Leonard Kravitz, who lost his life in the Korean War. This year, after a review of past practices of failing to recognize Jewish American soldiers during WWII and Korea, PFC Kravitz was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The 20-year-old Kravitz manned a machine gun and refused to withdraw before enemy onslaught, sacrificing his own life so that his entire unit could escape to safety. Lenny and his family received the medal in his honor from President Obama in a ceremony held at the White House earlier this year.
Kravitz fondly recalled his maternal grandmother as a very spiritual lady who taught him to recognize the blessings and gifts in his life, “which is a whole other matter apart from having discipline and drive.” He also attributes his creative font of youth to being the eternal music fan. “You should hear Steven Tyler turn into a 12-year-old when he talks about music. I can listen to a Miles Davis album 5 million times and always hear something new. My heroes, who seem so much larger than life, inspire me. I never expect to hear the same words of adoration and respect directed toward me. It’s flattering when it does happen but not expected.”
When asked what his favorite music album was of all time, Lenny Kravitz responded it had to be Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, because he used to listen to it with his mother and it was the first album where he could hear all the layers of music and instrumentation.
“’Jesus Children of America,’ that song is so funky,” Kravitz said. “Stevie was in the palm of God when he made that album.”
He and Stevie have, of course, met and are good friends. “I was backstage at an music show, wearing a costume that looked like I had a dead bird over my back,” Kravitz said. “One of Stevie’s assistants saw me and started laughing. He said, ‘Stevie! You’ve got to come here and SEE this!’ Stevie came out and started patting me up and down.
“My goals these days,” Kravitz mused, “are to simply enjoy every moment in my life. That’s not a crazy thing to say because there was a time when life was so crazy that I wasn’t in the moment. I remember being in Paris at 3 AM, driving around in a limo, and receiving a call that I won the Grammy and just saying, ‘Oh.’ I never got the joy. I am hard on myself. We were all hard on ourselves—stacking ourselves against our heroes in order to be in a place of greatness. Now I enjoy every moment and say, ‘Thank you God.’ Just waking up even—God gave you another day of life.”
When asked what Kravitz felt was his greatest accomplishment was in his life, he answered: “My daughter Zoë. She arrived when I had my first record, my first tour, my marriage, all when I was 23 years old. Zoë keeps me grounded.” Kravitz revealed that he wrote the song Fly Away while driving Zoë to school in Nassau, Bahamas.
“The weird thing about time passing is…that you get older,’ Kravitz laughed. “My mom and dad, aunts and uncles—the people who raised me—are gone and now I find the younger kids in my family looking toward me to be their role model and I’m like, no! That’s not my gig. That was Uncle Willie’s gig. But the wonderful thing is, all these people who are gone are now inside me.
“My mother’s dream was always to move to Paris and have a library for herself where she could read and learn French. I’m doing it for her. I have an apartment in Paris and I have amassed a library of books, which I hope to find the time to read! I am doing these things for the family.”
Kravitz’s greatest source of inspiration?
“Life is my greatest source of inspiration. We’re always taking it in. Your spirit is a grab bag. I trick or treat!”
The complete list of photographers whose work is featured in Lenny Kravitz (Rizzoli) include:
Matthieu Bitton, Per Gustafson, Terry Richardson, David Hindley , Melanie Nissen , Cliff Watts , Stephen Smith, Herman Leonard , Matthew Rolston, Ruven Afanador, Anton Corbijn, Patrick Demarchelier, Ricky Powell , Mark Seliger, Dove Shore, Roxanne Lowit, Ellen Von Unwerth, Fritz Kok, Jim Marshall, Philip Andelman, Butch Belair, Sheila Rock, Steven Pan, Jesse Frohman, Bettina Rheims and Jean Baptiste Mondino.
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