Lenny Kravitz has to be the coolest rock star on the planet. Not only is he a multi-Grammy-winning, multi-platinum selling artist, he’s also a multi-instrumentalist, whose musical talents extend off the stage and into the studio, where he not only engineers and produces his own records, but finds time to put pen to paper and finger to fader for the likes of Madonna, John Legend, and, posthumously, Michael Jackson. And if that’s not enough to whet the appetite, there’s his movie career: two sterling performances as Cinna in the excellent Hunger Games movies, and two supporting roles in Lee Daniels’ highly acclaimed 2009 and 2011 films, Precious, and The Butler, have proven he’s no slouch on the big screen.
I first saw Lenny perform at The Bercy in Paris in 2011, and he was electric: the ultimate showman, with an obvious love for his music, and more importantly, his fans; and now, nearly four years on, I’ve just absorbed his tenth studio album, Strut, for the second time in as many hours, and I have to say, I’m equally impressed. It’s fresh, it’s edgy, it’s bluesy, it’s riffy... It’s Lenny. Excellent. Now I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be to find out more about the man behind the music (and the sunglasses)...
Right off the bat, I decide to ask Lenny a series of questions about his 1991 release, Mama Said. Why? It was the first Kravitz record I ever heard, and it’s my favourite to date. We talk a little about the John Lennon-esque slap-back delays that he used so effectively on the album, especially on the brilliantly raw All I Ever Wanted, which, funnily enough, features John’s youngest son, Sean, on the piano.
“I love that track,” Lenny reflects, softly. “We didn’t necessarily have the intention of getting that sound, but it just kind of happened. Sean and I wrote it together, actually, and it was all very quick; the lead vocal was done in just one take.”
It’s a great vocal performance, too, though for me, Lenny’s voice, much like Paul Weller’s, has got even better with age. I put that to him, slightly nervously.
“I believe it has, yes. Some peoples’ voices change tone over time, but I have really tried to take care of my voice; I’ve worked on it, and by growing, you know, it’s gotten better,” he concurs. “Musically, I have never followed the trends, so I am very grateful to still be here, especially because I have stayed true to what was inside of me at the time I have made each record. I am not good at faking my creativity; if I am not feeling it, it’s not organic to me, so if it’s not authentic, I can’t really do it. I am very much a creature of the moment.”
LIFT ME OUT OF MY HEAD
And creative he is, particularly in the studio. Since he started, he’s had a passion for performance, and to this day, Lenny still plays most of the parts on all of his records.
“I made my first album without a record deal, so I couldn’t afford not to play everything myself,” he smiles, as we liken the situation to Bruce Springsteen’s struggle to keep his E Street Band afloat during the early part of his career. “But I’ve gone on doing that with all my records. On many of the tracks, I’m playing everything, and if I’m not, then Craig Ross is playing [guitar] with me. Sometimes I want to be playing the drums with the guitarist, so I can set the groove properly, and Craig is the best guitar player in the world for me to work with when I want to do stuff like that; he is a big part of me making my records, and provides an extra dynamic.”
Lenny hints that it can be a lonely place, working without any collaboration, which is one of the reasons he enjoys working on film sets. He won’t make his next movie until the end of the year, as touring comes first, but it is another means of expression, and one he clearly treasures, though he didn’t necessarily see it coming.
“When I started working on The Hunger Games, I didn’t expect it to be all that, you know? And then it turned into this monster! [laughs] But I have been so very fortunate to have made four really great movies in a row, and they’ve all done really well; it’s another medium that I am using to express myself, and I really do enjoy it because it enables me to collaborate in a way that I don’t with my music,” he explains. “Music-wise, I work a lot by myself, or with a very small group of people, and it’s about me and my expression, what I want to do, and how I feel, but when I am making a film, I am serving a director’s vision, and I am serving a character... And it’s refreshing! I really do enjoy the collaboration, and the amount of people that I am collaborating with... It takes me away from myself.”
FIELDS OF JOY
And talent clearly runs in the Kravitz family. Lenny’s daughter, Zoe, made her movie debut in 2007 in No Reservations, and starred in six episodes of the hit TV show Californication before landing the mega-role of Angel Salvadore in the X Men: First Class movie in 2011. When she’s not on a movie set, she’s touring the world with her band. Sound familiar? Proud dad springs to mind.
“Oh absolutely. I mean, I’m just proud that she’s a beautiful person, that she follows her path, and that she’s being creative at all times; it’s wonderful,” says dad, enthusiastically. “She is on a movie set right now, in fact, and in between making films, she’s on the road. She’s got off tour now, but she was playing in Australia, Europe, across the States... It really is wonderful to see.”
When Lenny takes to the stage, he is dynamite, and the ultimate showman, but none of this would be possible, he says, without a super-strong working relationship with his touring team.
“I work closely with the front-of-house engineer (Laurie Quigley) to get the character of the music where I’d like it to be. Balance is very important; you change the balance, you change the character,” he insists. “That’s the main part, and then there is the technical part and the equipment, which is equally important. I tend to experiment with different things in rehearsals with Laurie, and get it the way I want to hear it.”
I linger a little on the technology, after recalling a discussion I had with Laurie Quigley at FOH position at the Kravitz show I attended in Paris a few years back, where he said, “Lenny can never have enough speakers out front”. I ask Lenny to divulge.
“Yeah, that’s kinda true, and I do know my multicores, too,” he says, with a chuckle. I ask if he’s ever tempted to get his hands on Quigley’s DiGiCo console at FOH, considering how adept he is in the studio environment. “I could do that, but I choose to respect Laurie and his job as engineer, so I’ll just say what it is that I am looking for, and let him work it out. It actually took me a while to get used to digital consoles, as I always preferred analogue desks, but where they are now, they are sounding so much better than they were when they first came out.”
Lenny’s new album, Strut, is the tenth of his career, and the first to come out on his own label, Roxie Records, which he named after his mother. I’m curious as to why he’s chosen to go independent after all these years working with majors, and wonder what it says about the state of the industry?
“I’ve always had the idea to do it, but this is the time; I was free from a record label, and I decided to do it on my own, and to work with a distribution company that would assist me,” Lenny explains. “I have more responsibilities, but I’m enjoying it, and it’s working well. I mean, how many majors are really doing it, you know? There are only a couple of labels left, because the way it is today, artists have so much more direct contact and can reach their audience directly, so in the years to come, you will see most people doing it this way.
“A real concern I have is to make sure that artists are paid fairly. Music is something that should be paid for when an artist puts their time, creativity, blood, sweat, tears, and money into it; and of course, people are getting paid in different ways today. It’s more a collective thing; once everyone’s streaming, they pay a fee, and each month or whatever, they can listen to this amount of music. It doesn’t seem to add up to me properly, but this is the world we’re living in now, and it’s gone on for so long. The music industry didn’t fight this in the beginning, which is why we are now in this position.”
Lenny’s purist mindset extends to the recording studio, and the equipment he uses. To him, it’s all about the old school:
“I have a great collection of analogue gear in my studio; it’s pretty much a vintage museum! I have an incredible Helius console, wonderful compressors, three Fairchilds, a bunch of LA2As, UA compressors, different mic pres, different EQs from different boards. It’s an eclectic mix of vintage gear that gives me all the different colours that I need to play with.”
LET LOVE RULE
Conversation turns to guitars, and Lenny is particularly modest about his own musical ability, particularly with axe in hand, which I find astounding, yet humbling at the same time. Then he lands this bombshell:
“You know that famous Beatles performance on the roof? The legendary one?” I remain silent, picturing the fab four’s final public performance, blasting out Don’t Let Me Down on top of Abbey Road Studios in January 1969 (yes, I Googled the date). “Well I actually had John Lennon’s stripped down Epiphone guitar for many months. Yoko and Sean lent it to me, and they kind of forgot I had it, so I called them and had to say, ‘hey, come pick this thing up’.”
Gobsmacked, being a lifelong Lennon fan, I find myself asking myself two questions: ‘what was it like to play?’ and, ‘why the bloody hell did you tell them you still had it?!’ I only ask one out loud...
“I had it for a looooong time. I’m not sure I wrote anything on it, but I used to sit down with that thing and just feel it. I mean, it was just... [pauses] well, pretty incredible.”
After I close my mouth (with my hand), I decide to leave Lenny with a bit of a curveball: if he was starting out today, how would he go about it? He pauses for thought, and knocks it out the park with this soulful gem:
“It’s interesting... I watch my daughter, who’s doing this with no assistance from me or anybody other than her core group. These kids are just pumping music out, and being really authentic to themselves - and they know how to use social media - so I am actually really inspired by watching them. I remember last Christmas, she and her band were recording in the kitchen of her shack that she lived in – and I mean a shack, this was no house! Anyway, they worked on this music, and at the end of the holiday, we all got back, and the music was out! There was a video done, and people already knew the songs. It was amazing to me that they were doing this from their bedrooms, putting it out to the world. So I say, just be yourself, and follow your heart... Things will happen.”