Hard to believe, but 22 years have passed since Lenny Kravitz launched his recording career with his smash-hit album debut, Let Love Rule. Since then, the veteran rocker has held true to his signature mix of ’70s-style rock, classic-sounding R&B, ’60s psychedelia and other stylistic flourishes that, in total, comprise his unique sound.
Kravitz’s latest album, Black and White America, finds him bringing all his influences to bear on some of the best songs he’s written in years. Highlights include the Kool & the Gang-like title track, the hook-laden “Rock Star City Life” and an anthemic pop-rocker titled “Stand” that showcases Kravitz’s gifts as a master riff-rocker. During a recent visit to New York, the 46-year-old musician spoke with Gibson.com about his new studio in the Bahamas, his biggest influences and why he likes being a “one-man-band.”
Did one song point the way for the new album?
There were a couple of them. One was “Push,” and the other was the title track. Actually there was another one as well, a song called “Superlove.” But I wasn’t looking for a particular style of music. I had just built my new studio at home in the Bahamas, and I was getting comfortable in it. The combination of being in the Bahamas and having a new studio – with a new sound and all my gear in place – created a flow. It put me in a really creative mood.
You say in the press notes that you dreamed a lot of the songs. What’s that like?
It feels almost euphoric. The songs come fully formed. I actually hear a record playing, and I’m digging it. Then I wake up and realize, “Wait, that’s not a record. That’s a song. It’s something new.” Then it becomes a matter of quickly finding a tape recorder.
Who influenced you as record makers?
Quincy Jones’ productions were huge for me. His work with The Brothers Johnson, and George Benson, are good examples – that whole late ’70s era. And of course Jimmy Page, who’s a great producer. There’s also Maurice White and Charles Stepney, who did such great work on Earth, Wind & Fire’s albums, during that same era. As far as ways to put albums together goes, it’s Todd Rundgren, Prince and Stevie Wonder. I identify strongly with them as multi-instrumentalists. That first McCartney solo album was a huge influence as well.
What’s the attraction to being a one-man-band?
That didn’t start out on purpose. I did that originally because I had no money to pay studio musicians, when I was making Let Love Rule. Also, when my engineer and I auditioned musicians, and he kept saying, “The character isn’t there. When you’re doing it yourself, there’s more character.” I wanted a band, but it just didn’t happen.
What are your go-to guitars, for recording?
I own a huge number of guitars, but in the studio it always comes down to three or four. There’s my late ’50s Gibson Les Paul Standard. It’s an amazing guitar, with beautiful-sounding PAF’s. It never leaves the studio. It’s on every album. I’ve also got a 3-pickup Les Paul from that same era. For acoustic work, I usually play my Gibson Everly Brothers.
Who are your main guitar influences?
It’s a mix of Jimi Hendrix, the Motown studio players and James Brown’s guitarists. And for rhythm, it’s Al McKay, who played with Earth, Wind & Fire. Those are my favorites.
What’s your songwriting process like?
It begins with hearing a song in my head. When that happens, I either grab a guitar or sit at the piano, and work out the chord structure. Then, as soon as possible, I get into the studio, and begin cutting the tracks, before the song is finished. I know the chord progression, and by then I either have the melody, or a partial melody. I put the drums down first. If it’s a song where I’m playing all the instruments, I’ll have [musical partner] Craig Ross learn the song, and strum it on acoustic guitar, even if there’s no acoustic guitar intended for the song. That gives me something to comp to, while I’m playing the drums. After that I put the bass down, while I’m listening to the drum take, and after that, the guitar tracks. At around that point I usually get the hook, and sing the song. I might also hear a synthesizer part in my head, or some bongos, as I’m going along. I just keep going until it’s done.
There’s a psychedelic component to a lot of your songs. Where does that come from?
I was a major hippie. I lived that as a child with my parents in New York City, and then I re-lived it as a young adult. Psychedelia touches a part of me that stems from childhood. You can actually hear a Partridge Family influence in a song like “Stand,” from the new album. People laugh at that stuff, but it was good music, with great melodies and great arrangements. Obviously, I mix it with funk, and other styles, but those things from childhood definitely have stayed with me. Psychedelia eventually morphed into glam – in the form of artists like KISS, and Bowie and T.Rex. I listened to all that music, as a kid. It all comes together in the form of quirky songs like “Stand” or “Rock Star City Life.”
Radio valued melody and songcraft during the ’70s in ways it hasn’t since then. Do you ever wish you had come of age in that decade?
What can I do? I used to think that, back when I put Let Love Rule out. I thought, “I was born in the wrong time.” A lot of the songs I wrote back then would have big hits in the ’70s. Radio did change, but so be it. I’m here, and I am what I am. On the new album, you hear influences that range from the ’60s to the present. It’s a collage.
You were fortunate to see some of the world’s greatest performers as you were growing up. Is there anyone who stood above the rest?
Duke Ellington made a huge impression. I used to sit on his lap as he played piano. Can you imagine that? Miles Davis, The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Gladys Knight and the Pips … that was my foundation. I didn’t even get into rock music until I moved to L.A., when I was 11. That’s when I got introduced to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, and Cream and The Who. That music, mixed with the funk and R&B and soul and gospel and jazz I had grown up with, comes out in what I do. It made me who I am.