Lenny Kravitz

Posted: November 1st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Feature story | No Comments »

The Second Coming

Background note: You can’t judge a man by one conversation, but Lenny was fairly sour the day I interviewed him for a “Guitar One” feature back in 2004. Fortunately he warmed up a little once I proffered my theory about 2004 being an especially strong year for Geminis, with Prince, Outkast’s Andre 3000, Morrissey and Lenny in some sort of creative ascension or revival. Hey, sometimes you gotta get the story by any means necessary, even if it means dipping into astrology.

Lenny Kravitz sounds exhausted and not a little exasperated. For the better part of a day, if not week, he’s been fielding questions about the demise of his relationship with Brazilian model Adriana Lima; his fling with actor Nicole Kidman; his vacations with Mick Jagger; his herb-smoking sessions with rock royalty; and last, if not least, his pierced dangle. Journalists, it seems, have forgotten something.

“Nobody talks about the music anymore,” says Kravitz, his voice modulating out of its low, mellow register. “I never get the opportunity to talk about music. It’s always about the celebrity bullshit, which has nothing to do with what I do.”

Well, almost nothing. Kravitz literally attacks the subject on his latest album Baptism, while expressing a longing for the simple life and training a microscope on the rarefied world in which it is indeed possible to meet, and then squire, someone like Nicole Kidman. On the piano-pounding Stevie Wonder-esque ballad, “I Don’t Want To Be Star,” he strips his needs down to the essentials: “Just want my Chevy and an old guitar.” But don’t get him wrong. Songs speak an idealized truth. Kravitz isn’t quite ready to liquidate his assets and hit the road Jack Kerouac-style.

“That song is tongue-in-cheek,” he says. “People are like, ‘What do you mean you don’t want to be a star?’ But I love my life. It’s just that there are moments in a day or a week or a year where I don’t want to be a star; I just want to be myself–be a person, be anonymous and walk down the street, go to a cafe and watch people, go to a museum. And there’s also something beautiful about the energy surrounding you when you’re trying to make it and you believe in yourself when no one else does.”

Of course, the cultural climate has dramatically shifted since Kravitz was coming up in the ‘80s bearing a rock antidote to the era’s largely synthetic pop. Today, the star-making and -breaking assembly line is moving faster than ever, racheting up the desperation factor of would-be celebrities. The resulting game of public strip poker being played out among today’s female performers may be feeding the nation’s unquenchable id, but it’s not doing much for, you know, music.

On Baptism’s “Flash,” a glittering riff-rocker that tweaks the same pleasure centers as a vintage Kiss anthem, Kravitz skewers the famous-for-being-famous with withering lines such as “I’ve got to be outrageous for my fans. I’m not gonna waste this moment, because these moments don’t last. So tonight I will shake it and show my ass.” Did he have anyone particular in mind when he wrote the song?

“That was written about people who crave the limelight and just want to be a celebrity,” he says. “But they really don’t do anything; they really don’t have any talent. I mean, look at the people we celebrate–a lot of people who really don’t do anything. They just walk the red carpets and go to all the parties, and they’re hooked up with the right people, so they’re celebrities. But for what? For me when I was growing up, I always said I wanted to be a musician. And if I become a star, then that’s what I become because people turn you into that. I’m no different now. I’m the same musician I’ve always been.”

Yes and no. The cover of Baptism pictures Kravitz floating in a pool of blood, emerging before us as if from the womb. His eyes are shut. His arms outstretched. And he’s naked, free of material trappings, save for the oriental dragon tattoo that snakes across his pectoral and a silver medallion that dangles from his neck. Readers of Guitar One, however, will happily note that Kravitz’s white Gibson Flying V has also made it through the rebirthing process, bobbing there above his strategically submerged lower body.

We’ve seen Kravitz in many guises throughout his now seven-album career, perhaps most enduringly as the feather-boa-sporting psychedelic dandy pictured on Mama Said. But this latest clothing-optional image and the music it represents is somewhat different. Baptism introduces us to a new Lenny Kravitz, one that’s returned to his original source of inspiration, which includes, not insignificantly, the albums from his childhood.

“It’s been like a musical and a spiritual rebirth, just by going through life and learning things, and getting through things and coming out the other end of things,” he says obliquely. Yet it’s easy to fill in the blanks. In recent interviews he’s discussed wrestling with the black dog of depression following his break up with Lima. And here, discussing “I Don’t Want To Be A Star,” he issues the old complaints about fame, pointing to Woody Allen’s Celebrity as a reference for how the game is really played.

“You have everything at your disposal, but no time to enjoy it and no time to make a decision. You’re constantly in a state of movement or you’re hunted or whatever. This record really deals with my inner struggles–learning to love and accept myself more. I feel like I’m making my first record again, which is a great feeling. I mean, each record is a new chapter, but it seems like the last record [2001’s Lenny] ended like a book. This is the beginning of a new one. It’s refreshing.”

Some things, of course, never change. Once again, Kravitz wrote, produced, arranged and performed the album himself, with some assistance from his long-time guitarist Craig Ross and cameos by saxophonist David Sanborn and rapper Jay-Z. The self-contained approach means there’s less interference between you–the listener–and the pure Kravitz experience.

“I love playing different instruments,” he says. “The sound of my records–the band that’s on my records–is basically me. That’s part of my deal. To me it’s all the same: writing, producing, playing drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, arranging… whatever. To me it’s all just making the music happen.”

Reflecting his search for mental, emotional and spiritual clarity, Kravitz kept the album’s tracking process simple as well. “This new record was great ‘cause I had, like, two guitars and two amps in the studio. I’ve got gear coming out my ass, and if I wanted to go in there and lay out 150 guitars and 60 different amps, I could have. But sometimes you just gotta say, ‘Here’s an amp. Here’s a guitar. Let’s go.’ Otherwise you can sit and A/B things for weeks.”

All told, his main set up included a Gibson Custom Shop ‘58 Les Paul flame-top, a Gibson Custom Shop ‘57 Les Paul Custom, a ‘65 Fender Stratocaster, a Gibson Dove acoustic, a Martin D-28 12-string acoustic, a Vox AC-30 and a 50-watt Marshall Plexi. Guitars were strung with either D’Addario Electric XL140s or Acoustic EXP160s, and plucked with Fender and Dunlop light, medium and heavy picks.

Kravitz tracked much of the album at Edison Studios in Manhattan, where Duke Ellington frequently recorded his big band. The one-time analog purist now captures his sounds on a state-of-the-art Pro-Tools rig, but he still favors old-school effects such as plate reverb and tape echo and flanging. Ask Kravitz about specific recording techniques and his inner studio geek quickly rises to the surface.

“We do it all the real way,” he enthuses, sounding like there’s no activity more joyous than fiddling with capstans and rollers. “We spent all afternoon hooking up three tape machines for flange and echo. And on this record when I wanted more fuzz, I tended to overload the mic pre-amp on the board–just like the Beatles used to do.”

The Fab Four are never far from mind when discussing Kravitz’s music. Throughout his career, cynics have labeled the man a throwback, one slavishly devoted to recreating rock’s golden era as defined by the Beatles. It’s the criticism that nettles him most, especially when, as he puts it, “years later, all these groups that are retro get praised for what I got put down for.” Significantly, his devotion to capturing natural sounds in the studio and using old-school recording techniques to do so–an aesthetic that’s now en vogue once again–has saved his catalog from sounding dated.

“I’m very aware of people’s recordings,” he says. “I’m a recording freak. There are records that you put on by certain artists and it’s like, ‘Oh god, listen to those ‘80s sounds: listen to those gated drums… listen to the Yamaha DX7 keyboard… listen to that bad effect….’ I never wanted to go through that. After my career was done, I wanted to be able to put my records on and not be able to tell when they were recorded. Whether you like the music or not, I know they’re timeless.”

Does he review his catalog to see where he’s been before moving forward with a new album? “I do that every three years or so. I don’t do it often, because it’s kind of exhausting for me. It really takes me back. When I put on an old record of mine, I can smell where I lived. It reminds me of who I was with, what lover I had, what problems I had; it really takes me there. That’s how into the work I am. When I’m making a record, I’m in it, every sound. I can remember the studio, the smell of the carpet… everything.”

Since Baptism feels like a new beginning for Kravitz, I ask him to recall his impressions of his first six albums. I suggest that his debut, 1989’s Let Love Rule, represents a naive optimism that’s challenged on subsequent discs by the end of his marriage to actress Lisa Bonet and the loss of his mother, Roxie Roker, best known as the actress who played Helen Willis on The Jeffersons.

“‘Naive’ is the word people use, but on the first album, I was open to love… to life… excited… fresh,” he says. “It seems that, even though ‘naive’ isn’t a negative word, people use it in a negative way: ‘Oh, you were just naive.’ But it was just… open. And the second one [1991’s Mama Said] was just the whole thing I went through. I was in a numbing state of pain when I made that record. And then the third one [1993’s Are You Gonna Go My Way] was sort of getting back to it.”

Of course, Mama Said is also distinguished by Kravitz’s high-sparking collaboration with Slash. The Guns N’ Roses guitarist, with whom Kravitz attended Beverly Hills High, contributed the seemingly lost-classic riff on “Always On The Run” and fired up the screaming solo on “Fields Of Joy.” The album has all the spiraling energy and sense of discovery of a basement jam session.

“He’d just come off tour,” recalls Kravitz. “And he came to my loft at 7 in the morning, and we got to the studio about 8, which is not an hour for Slash. He had to have the vodka so he could unwind, and I was banging on people’s doors in the building at 8 a.m. trying to find a bottle of vodka. We had a great time.”

Five marks Kravitz’s biggest musical departure, with the analog purist not only embracing Pro-Tools for the first time, but also experimenting with synthesizers and an icy detachment on songs such as “Black Velveteen.” “It was different,” he says. “It was left turn, which is cool. I just wanted to do all the things I said I would never do.”

And on 2001’s Lenny, Kravitz starts to address the spiritual crisis that in turn led him to the epiphany behind Baptism. On “Stillness Of Heart” he intones a musical prayer, requesting a moment of lucidity so he can “find my way out of the dark and into your heart.” It’s interesting to note that the songs’ arrangements are also less cluttered than on previous albums, suggesting someone trying to streamline all of his processes. Lenny is simultaneously Kravitz’s darkest and most hopeful album.

Baptism was definitely the outcome of Lenny,” he says. “Lenny was the beginning where I was talking about ‘stillness of heart’ and wanting to find peace. I was talking about a ‘battlefield of love,’ where love for me was just this whole jacked-up emotion. A love between two people was just too much of a battle. The Lenny record is me saying what I want and Baptism is it coming to fruition.”

As the interview winds down, I ask Kravitz if he–a perennial messenger of positivity–still has hope that peace, love and understanding will overcome the current turmoil in the world. “It’s funny, when I first came out, people were like, ‘What is this? You’re singing about love? What’s wrong with you? That’s ‘60s. You’re retro. You’re playing rock music and singing about love?’ It’s like, since when was love a fashion? When was love not happening?

“So, yeah, all this turmoil is going on around us, but we gotta keep on keepin’ on while we’re here. We can have love and good times within our own circles. So, yeah, the world’s crazy, but I’m gonna stay optimistic and I’m gonna enjoy my life as best I can.”

The Minister Of Rock ‘N’ Roll

Per Lenny Kravitz’s pronouncements on Baptism, he doesn’t want to be a star, but he does want to be your minister of rock ‘n’ roll. Seven albums into his career, he’s still got what it takes to fill that role. As a guitarist, his indebtedness to Sly Stone, George Harrison and Jimi Hendrix has been well-documented (he even owns the latter’s purple bellbottoms). On Baptism, however, he tips his hat to some less apparent inspirations. On the insanely infectious “California,” Kravitz tells the story of his childhood move to the Sunshine State, where he was befriended by a surfer girl who “played me records I had never heard… while we played guitars in air.” Those records? The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Kiss. Surprisingly, it’s the latter’s influence that’s most apparent when Kravitz fires up his Les Paul on the album’s straight-up rock numbers. 
Songs such as “Where Are We Runnin’?” and “Flash” pay tribute to Paul Stanley’s glitter-dusted rock riffs and Space Ace Frehley’s high-sparking solos.

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