Lenny Kravitz Rock of Ages - By Allison Kugel
Lenny Kravitz on race, God and spreading love through music…
Twenty-nine years after releasing his debut album, Lenny Kravitz is still letting love rule, but with an eye towards societal strife that continues to go unchecked. The multi-Grammy award-winning musician brings forth a conscious body of work with Raise Vibration (BMG Rights Management UK Ltd), his eleventh studio album. The first single from the Raise Vibration album, ‘It’s Enough’, is a battle cry against corporate greed, political corruption and racism. Kravitz switches gears with his follow-up single, ‘Low’, exploring the perils of his near-mythical sensuality with intonations alluding to his past intimate relationships. For Lenny Kravitz, the art of the story is paramount, while pop music trends are immaterial. He tells stories through his writing, vocals and the multitude of instruments he has mastered over the years.
Musically, Raise Vibration is an eclectic blend of the kind of stylistic rock ’n’ roll-funk sound that Kravitz is known for, with subtle nods to vintage R&B and choruses that sway towards pop appeal. His music puts you in a trance-like groove and defies all genre.
Lenny Kravitz, the man, is a veritable roadmap of his past experiences. From making his way in an industry that doesn’t always value individuality, to making his way in a world that begged to define and categorise him by race and ethnicity in his formative years, he wears his memories on his sleeve and they inform much of his artistic expression. Our conversation surprised me as it took a more intimate turn. He and I delved into matters of spirituality, racial identity, family and the rituals that aid him in creating his eclectic sound. We were very much on the same page as he shared his feelings about everything from racism and societal injustice to his personal spiritual journey, his family and his music.
You’ve said you were born to make music. Can you share your earliest memory where you became aware that music was going to be your life?
For me the pivotal moment was going to see The Jackson 5, live at Madison Square Garden, when I was six years old. I was in the first grade. I had already been intently listening to their record. But I went to the show, and the next morning that was it! I was completely sold. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
What was it about The Jackson 5 that resonated with you?
Number one was the music. The music was incredible. The music that was made by these kids was not elementary, it wasn’t bubblegum as they used to say back then about young artists. This was very sophisticated, high-level music with the best musicians, the best producers, and [Michael] was one of the best singers who ever lived and who ever will live. The level of interpretation and feeling and vocal range… it was a perfect storm for me, the way everything came together. On top of the music, the presentation and the showmanship were top level and soulful, and these were people that I could identify with. They looked like me. I had the same hair… there were so many things that came together in my mind.
When and where do you feel most creative and musical?
It could be anywhere, but it’s in the studio, so wherever that may be. My studio is in the Bahamas. It’s my favourite place to work; it’s my workshop. When I’m in the studio and I’ve got all my equipment and all my instruments, and everything is set up, that’s the magical place for me. It’s where I’m comfortable and where I can flow. When I’m inspired and in that flow, I can move. I jump around from instrument to instrument, and it’s wonderful.
You are such a true musician in every sense of the word. Are you recording all of the instrumentals in addition to doing your vocals and producing?
Yes, I start on drums normally and then I go to a guitar, a bass, another guitar, keyboard, percussion… I keep layering as though I was painting, until my picture is complete.
Raise Vibration’s first single, ‘It’s Enough’, is a call to action anthem about political corruption and social and racial injustice. Was writing ‘It’s Enough’ a form of therapy for you, and a way of turning hopelessness into empowerment?
I react to the world. Just as you say you did, I have a reaction. I actually recorded the song twice. I was trying to find the direction for the record. The way the song started, the first version of ‘It’s Enough’ was a full-on guitar, bass, drum, punk rock song. It had an angry tone to it, because that felt like the proper reaction. And then I thought about it and ended up changing it and finding this groove, which is the polar opposite of what it started out as. I found that by being calm and by being centred and by being quiet, it was more effective. It brought out a whole new feeling in the song, and I think it enables the listener to hear the lyrics even better.
And you feel it brings more of a positive energy, as opposed to the original version, which would have brought forth anger.
Absolutely. I’m all about positive energy. I’m stating the facts, but in the end, I always take an optimistic and positive tone that “People, we can do this!”. We can do it. It’s just a matter of waking up.
What does the title of your album, Raise Vibration, mean to you? And how do you raise your vibration? Do you meditate? Do you pray?
It means exactly that; waking up. I meditate, I pray, I try to be still, I try to be quiet… and listen. It means having the desire to learn, to improve, and to face my faults and learn from them. I’m always looking to go higher. And taking as much ego out of myself as possible.
How do you define God?
I believe that God is my creator, our creator. Whether we realise it or not, I believe we are all created by the same God. I believe we are all one creation, we are all connected, and I believe that God is the ultimate source of love and all we are looking for.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
That’s a difficult one. I use my music to express myself, and if it inspires others then that’s a beautiful thing. I don’t know that I’m initially doing it for any other reason than to express myself. But I do see myself going more in that direction where you could call it that.
I ask because when I listened to ‘It’s Enough’ I could tell you’re at a point in your life and in your career where you have no problem stating your opinions on societal issues.
Right, but for instance, from my first album, Let Love Rule, up until now, I haven’t had that problem. It’s always been within me to express myself truthfully.
Your music really transcends any one genre. It’s a blend of rock, punk, blues, soul, pop. You can’t categorise your music. It seems to be that people want to put you in a box and label you, and you railing against that.
People love a box [laughs]! And they want to put you right in it, so they can easily define, for their own comfort, what you are. I’ve been fighting against that from day one in my life, and in my musical life. Like with radio stations, this one only plays this, and that one only plays that. This fits here, and that fits there, and you don’t fit here. It’s like, ‘… That’s not what art is about!’ But, unfortunately, that’s not what the business is, which is very frustrating. [Growing up] I knew I was black, but I knew that wasn’t all I was. I knew I was also Russian Jewish and I knew that my great-grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee Indian. My mother always taught me, “Yes, you’re black, but you’re just as much this and you’re just as much that, and you don’t discount that.” If you’re mixed, like me and like your son, you don’t discount one of your parents. You’re just as much one as the other. But what my mother did say to me when I was a child that I think was very smart, and I didn’t realise it until I got older, was: “Even though you’re mixed, society only wants to see you as black.” I didn’t understand that at age seven.
Did you feel diminished by it, at that time, at age seven?
I remember her saying it, but I don’t remember exactly how I felt when she said it. From what I recall, I remember thinking, “What does that mean?” Of course, as I grew and went through life, I understood what that meant. People aren’t going to see all the complexities and the differences. People are going to see what they see, and that is the colour of your skin. Not all people, but a lot of people. That was a very good lesson once it kicked in. I was like, “OK, people don’t see everything for what it is.” People see what they want to see. They judge it how they want to judge it, based upon their preconceived ideas of what that is.
It’s a tough conversation to have with a child.
But kids now from what I see are not tripping on the race thing like generations before, are they?
There is a difference from generations ago.
You have to explain to kids people’s [messed]-up attitudes about race. That’s really what you’re doing. You have to break down the judgement and short-sightedness, and people’s hang-ups, and the history of people screwing over other people because they were different.
Speaking of kids, how would your daughter, Zoë, describe you, both as a man and as an artist?
Oh wow! We’re very, very close. I think she would say that I have respect and integrity, and love in my heart. I think as a musician, she respects what I do. She’s grown up around it. She grew up seeing it her whole life. This is hard because If I say, “She thinks I’m amazing,” then it sounds like I’m complimenting myself. She respects the craft, what it takes and what I put into it, which is everything.
What are those days like for you, when a new album is released?
When I’m finished with an album, I’m at that place where I let go and I’m excited that I’m finished. It’s always exciting getting a new project out. I hope the people who enjoy my music will get something beautiful from it and will relate to it. As far as the rest, in terms of how well it does, sales and all of that, that’s all great, but the main thing for me is that I expressed myself authentically to who I am, who I was at that moment in time, and that it represents me well. That to me is everything. That’s a success.