Photos by Greg Kadel
People throw the term “Rock star” around pretty lightly these days, but back when Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix were doing their thing—long before today’s teenagers were even born—the term really meant something. Those same teenagers probably know Lenny Kravitz for his acting work in The Hunger Games flicks rather than his music, but trust and believe— the man is the last of the living rock stars. Epic guitar solos? Check. Leather pants? Check. Drop-dead gorgeous girlfriends? Check. Pierced genitalia? Pause.
Let’s get back to the music: Essential jams like “Fly Away” and “American Woman” earned Lenny the Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance four years in a row (1999 – 2002). Even after trimming his trademark dreadlocks, Mr. Kravitz still kicks ass. Currently touring the U.S. in support of his tenth studio album, Strut—which finds him holding down guitar, bass, and drum duties, and shredding them all as per usual—Lenny will rock Webster Hall in New York City tonight. Mass Appeal caught up with him to discuss music, females, and the whole rock star thing.
Strut is your first album on your own label, Roxie Records. What do you love about being the label boss?
Well, because I’m independent I own my own masters. You know, all decisions of this record I was involved in. I decide how I would like to make the record and how it’s promoted. It’s just a better situation than with the record labels I was involved with in the past.
You told Billboard that “the last label situation couldn’t have been more wrong.”
When did you realize it was not working?
It didn’t work from the moment the record came out. They didn’t do what they said they were going to do. There was no teamwork. Lyor Cohen was at Atlantic, and I actually thought he had my back on the project after chasing me down for a couple years to get me on the label. He just didn’t understand me, didn’t understand how working a Lenny Kravitz record really works, or how it had worked in the past. It’s always a lot of hard work because I don’t fit into a box. Black and White America was a great record and it didn’t get what it deserved. In America, people didn’t really know it was out.
Reading the press materials for Strut, it seemed as if you weren’t even planning to make this record.
Did you decide to just focus on acting completely?
Yes, I was making movies that year. But it wasn’t like I was giving up music. The acting was happening and the music came out of the blue. I didn’t expect it to happen, but it did. And I just happened to get inspired at the time. I knew I was going to go back and make a record at some point. I just didn’t expect it to come when it did.
And it was literally two weeks in the making?
Two weeks of writing and getting the basic tracks together. Then I had to overdub and finish the records.
Your recording process is very interesting because you play so many instruments. What usually comes first when you’re making a song?
The song is written first. Whether it’s written in my head or on a guitar or on the piano, that doesn’t matter. Then, once I’ve got the song, then I put the drum tracks down. Usually drums, guitar, then bass—to get that initial first take.
Strut is very much a rock and roll record. I understand you were naming the songs just off the groove before you even wrote the lyrics.
What was the first song that came to you?
Uh, it was “The Chamber.” That was the first thing that came to mind.
I have to say I’m very partial to “The Pleasure and The Pain.”
Aw, thank you. That’s one of my favorite songs too.
Can you talk a little bit about that record?
I just love the way it came out. It’s obviously about people and relationships and taking in all the dynamics of a person, and appreciating even the things that might rub you for whatever reason. A lot of times in love you have to deal with somebody’s challenges. We’re all complex people, and in love you can’t get too comfortable. But it’s about embracing all the sides of a person, and I just love the way it came out. To me that chorus is very uplifting.
Your life has been lived in public, and obviously you’ve had some amazing women in your life. Was there a particular relationship that inspired that song?
Would you be able to elaborate on that?
Will the person who you wrote it for know it’s for her?
Umm…I’m not sure, actually. She might. She might.
Who could be mad to have a great song written about them?
I wanted to talk about your island life because I feel like people forget that side of you. Obviously, you came out with the dreadlocks, but your music was very rock and roll. How much time did you spend in the Bahamas growing up and how did that shape your music?
Um, I mean I spent Christmases, summers in the Bahamas since I was probably like five years old. And I don’t know how it shaped my music directly other than I grew up listening to calypso music and straight reggae and other stuff from the Bahamas. So I have that vocabulary. I have that groove in me. It’s there, you know. I mean I have to have a couple of reggae tunes. And my right hand rhythm in my guitar is also calypso.
Really? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that observation made about your music.
No. It’s not obvious at all.
Who’s your favorite reggae artist?
Oh, Bob Marley.
Is that a dumb question?
Of course. Nobody did it like that.
Do you have a favorite Bob tune?
Umm—they’re all good. That’s the problem. I can’t say I have a favorite one. That guy, everything that he did felt good. Great feeling and melody and subjects.
Do you prefer the love songs or the rebel songs?
Both, both. But the rebel songs are really strong. Those songs mean a lot to me, but the love songs are beautiful too. He was hardcore with his love.
He had to write some sweet songs for certain situations.
Your daughter is involved in music. Do you follow the music of Bob’s kids?
Of course. I know Ziggy really well. We were on the same label—we were on Virgin. So, when I lived in Miami, I used to go over to his grandmother’s house.
Oh, Cedella Booker?
Oh yeah, I used to go over there and eat and talk, smoke, chill, listen to music. She was really sweet to me. So, I actually got to know her better than any of the kids. I spent more one on one time with her.
It was just like being with my grandmother: the love and the nurturing that she gave. I felt very much at home with her.
Was it a big deal for you to decide to cut your locks?
Yes, it was. It was. It wasn’t something that I really wanted to do. But I was with Zoe’s mom, when the 5 album came out. And she said you should cut your locks.
Oh, it was Lisa’s idea?
Yeah, and I’d had them I guess 10 years at that time. And, you know, they were down to my ass. I don’t know—it felt like the right moment. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t. A lot of cases I’m glad I did. But it was very interesting to do.
Well your new look is cool, but there’s also a spiritual side to it.
Oh yeah, absolutely. It was an energy shift. But like I said, it happened. There’s no going back.
Did you cut them right there on the spot?
Yeah, she grabbed a razor blade and she did it.
You are one of the last of the true rock stars. When you think of a rock star, who do you think of?
I think of a lot of people. People that I know and respect like Mick Jagger, like Robert Plant. Those two off the bat. Just the way Mick’s done it and how he’s lasted and how he’s still doing it. It’s amazing.
Hip hop is so powerful today, but you find with the biggest rappers that at some point people start calling them “rock stars.”
I mean, look—you can call them rap stars. Hip hop stars. Whatever. But the word “Rock star” has become the thing people use for everybody. You could be a lawyer and they say “he’s a rock star.” He’s so fucking great. They use that for anything now—not just for music. It doesn’t mean what it was.
Is there a hip hop artist who truly approaches rock star status for you?
Um, I think you’d have to give it to Jay, wouldn’t you?
What would be the argument that you’d make for Hov?
His stature in the field. His longevity. His lifestyle.
Have you had a chance to play your version of “Ooh Baby Baby” for Smokey Robinson yet?
I have not, and I really want to. I don’t know him very well, but I know him and I wasn’t in L.A. at the time. I hope he’s heard it and I hope he likes it.
I would be shocked if he didn’t love it.
Thank you man.
Perhaps even more impressive is that you’ve actually created a dope “Happy Birthday” song.
Aw, thank you man. I’d be happy if people use it.
But I understand it didn’t start out as such a happy song, is that correct?
No. Well, it was always called “Happy Birthday.” But it was a breakup song, about breaking up with someone on your birthday. It was kind of humorous.
So what was the original lyric just for the record?
It was “Happy Birthday Fuck You.”
Was that drawn from life?
No, it was more about a specific story. Somebody was in a really bad relationship and then on their birthday they decided they’d had enough.
You have been with many of the most beautiful women in the world. What advice would you give guys about how to approach women?
I don’t have any advice on that. [Laughs] Everybody gotta do what they feel. I’m no authority on that. I know how to deal with my life, or I try to, and I know nothing else. Other than it’s all about respect and love.
What do you think makes a beautiful woman?
Stength and intensity.