IntroductionOver the past decade Lenny Kravitz has channeled a wide assortment of musical influences and proved himself an expert at capturing trends, whether a stripped-down sound or a glammed-up wardrobe, before most of his contemporaries. On his new album, he's once again a bellwether - this time, of pop's new mood: deep joy.
Lenny Kravitz's fifth album, the aptly titled 5, opens with a song called "Live" that contains this lyric: "I'm tired of all the negativity that's going round / We focus all our energy on things that bring us down / Let's put our voices all together and make a joyful sound."
The positivity expressed in those lines says a lot about where Kravitz is in his life right now: happy, focused, and clear - three things he was not feeling while making his previous album Circus a few years ago. The battle his mother, actress Roxie Roker, fought against cancer (she died December 2, 1995), and the pressures of the music Industry led Kravitz to write a dark, deeply religious record that didn't go over too well with the public. Kravitz, however, says he always makes the album that is in him at the time, and Circus was then. 5 is now. Though his music is still an amalgam of rock, blues, soul, and funk, this time around Kravitz sounds like he's let go of some of his sadness and is having fun again.
InterviewTRACEY PEPPER: What have you been doing since your last album came out in 1995?
LENNY KRAVITZ: Well, I toured for about a year, and then I took a year off, which I needed to do. My room had passed away during Circus. I'd been caring for her in between tours - I had her all set up at home, with the fight doctors and a live-in nurse. But when I had to go on the road, my family said, "It's better if you go because if you don't, your mom's going to feel even worse." You know how mothers are. They love you to the end, and she didn't want to hold me back from my livelihood. So I left for a month and called her every couple of days. I came home and she died twenty-four hours later.
TP: Right after you came home?
LK: She was waiting for me. I didn't know it was going to escalate that quickly. Five days later I'm on Jay Leno saying, "Here's my new single."
TP: Did it help having work to focus on?
LK: It was a distraction, but I was numb at that point. I was so busy that there wasn't much time to get deep into my feelings. So I kept working, and then I stopped. I needed to figure out what I wanted out of my life. Witnessing a death will do that to you. All of a sudden you're like, Man, I may not be here tomorrow. You're never promised your next breath. It really made me think about putting things in an order more conducive to happiness. I spent a lot of time with my family and my kid. And I got to a place where I felt like, Okay, this is a good starting point. Then I began to work on this record.
TP: What was your priority while making 5?
LK: Feeling good. The last record was a very tedious process. It was not fun.
TP: Were you just going through the motions?
LK: It wasn't so much that, but my life was so heavy at the time. I was completely disillusioned with the music business. After having such a huge hit with Are You Gonna Go My Way, it got to be a bit much. I started off by myself, just a guy making music. Next thing, I was a corporation with managers, lawyers, accountants, advisors, a record company, and promoters. On top of that, you've got your entourage and the people that help you make whatever happen around you. Everything's crazy and you're not paying attention to your inner feelings because you're so busy. I couldn't take it. At the same time, my mother was sick. The record came out of all that.
TP: Were you disappointed Circus didn't do better commercially?
LK: I made the record that my life had me make. Each one is like a diary.
TP: And the new album?
LK: It's the antithesis of what I was going through before. I've never felt better or more clear.
TP: Celebrities always say that in Interviews. It's almost obligatory.
LK: Well, for the last few years, it's been so chic for everybody to be miserable. Like if you're in with the cool crowd, you can't be happy.
TP: But people who are writing more positive songs are breaking through now. You were ahead of your time in that respect.
LK: When I did Let Love Rule  everyone said what a naive piece of shit I was. Journalists would ask, "Don't you feel funny singing about that?" and I was like, If I were sitting here singing about the devil and raping children, then it'd be okay? God forbid you sing about love. It's a lost concept.
TP: Which explains the popularity of Marilyn Manson.
LK: Exactly. [laughs] I also took a lot of shit for stripping the music down to a very raw state, then five years later all the bands are doing it. I was laughed at for the way I dressed. So I always seem to be in this place - I don't want to say ahead of my time because that sounds -
TP: . . . arrogant.
LK: Yeah, because it's not like I invented any of this. I write my music and I do what I do; those are my songs. I don't take anybody's songs. But I have influences like anybody else. Then you've got Oasis, who are not just influenced by the Beatles; they actually take stuff. Then they get praised for the same thing I got dumped on for.
TP: That's because you wear bell-bottoms.
LK: Probably! Anyway, being happy is the most important thing to me, because we weren't put here to be miserable. We were put here to do the best we can, and we should take our energy and improve our state of being. I think people have had enough negativity. The reason dance music is so popular is because people want to party. They want to celebrate. I'm tired of hearing guys sing about how shitty life is.
TP: But some of the most beautiful songs ever written express sadness and pain.
LK: Of course. But there should be a balance - a way out of it instead of just wallowing.
TP: Your new record is a lot less religiously fixated than the last one.
LK: Year, but God is always in my life, and that's the most important thing to me. The last record had a lot of songs that called out to God because I was in a desperate state. It came out very heavy.
TP: Do you think people resisted Circus because of Its religious overtones?
LK: Oh yeah. And after Are You Gonna Go My Way, there were such high expectations.
TP: People always want you to remake your last successful album.
LK: They do. It's like, If we could just get one more like that. No. I did that.
TP: There's something pathetic about trying to recreate past glory. Artists should move forward and challenge themselves.
LK: Exactly. So I felt no pressure. I'm sure the record company did, but I felt absolutely no pressure to beat the last one.
TP: Critics have called your music derivative. I do think some of the songs have a familiarity about them. How do you respond to that criticism?
LK: I write my own songs. I've never taken a bar of music from anybody or taken their words or melodies. But I do write in a classic sort of sense.
TP: Maybe that's what it is.
LK: And that's all it is. I mean, there are only so many notes. What makes something original is how you put it together. With the first album, people didn't really listen. They were like, He sounds like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix. And I thought, Listen to what I'm doing. I am influenced by that kind of music, but I'm mixing it with gospel and blues. I have a soul voice. I'm not a white singer. I've been compared to hundreds of artists, which just goes to show you that I'm not any one thing at all. Led Zeppelin, who are now considered innovators, were told that they were the most unoriginal thing in the world - that they couldn't write, that they ripped off the blues.
TP: Do you think part of that was because they're white? Often there's an underlying implication that white people can't play the blues or have no soul.
LK: The funniest review I ever saw about myself was in The Village Voice. The first sentence was: "If Lenny Kravitz were white, he'd be the savior of rock and roll."And I understood what he was saying: If I were white, it would be bigger. I'd get less criticism.
TP: I don't know. White people playing what is traditionally thought of as black music aren't always critically respected.
LK: They don't get me, though. My name's Lenny Kravitz. I'm half Jewish, I'm half black, I look in-between. I dress funny. I play all these different styles of music on one record. It's like, What is he doing? We don't understand where he comes from. The confusion makes people uncomfortable. They can't put their finger on me. But it doesn't matter. Nine out of ten groups that came out in '89 are gone. I'm still here.
TP: Let's go back to where you came from. You grew up in New York City and L.A. and went to school at Beverly Hills High. What was that like?
LK: I went to school enough to pass, but I knew what I wanted to do from the time I was five. I was really into music, and at a certain point I was going to class less and less. I'd just go to friends' houses and jam.
TP: How did you reconcile being both Jewish and black growing up?
LK: It was really cool because I'd go to church and temple. I'd have Easter, I'd have Passover, I'd have Christmas, I'd have Hanukkah.
TP: It didn't mess you up?
LK: Not at all.
TP: It would some people.
LK: I'm really lucky. The only thing that was weird was when people asked me if I'd been bar mitzvahed. I remember once I went to Hebrew school with a friend of mine. I was nine or ten and I had this big-ass Michael Jackson Afro. Anytime I went to temple, it was like, Okay, how am I going to get the yarmulke to stay on? I had to pin it. But anyway, I went to Hebrew school and all the kids stared at me because it was like, no black kid ever walked into Hebrew school.
TP: Were they mean to you?
LK: They weren't vicious. It was just like, Here's this kid with a big-ass puff on his head, with a yarmulke pinned to it, and he's brown. What's going on? So that was the end of my Hebrew school days.
TP: What about the other side of your family?
LK: I had my black relatives in Brooklyn. It was like I lived in between a Spike Lee movie and a Woody Allen movie, and it was awesome. I didn't understand prejudice at all.
TP: How is that possible?
LK: I was lucky. I know a lot of kids from mixed parents, and they're confused, especially if they're lighter than I am. They go hang out with the white kids at school, and the white kids say they're black. Then the black kids say they're white, and they're all fucked up.
TP: You've never had any experience like that?
LK: Not for a minute. I remember in first grade some kid saying, "Your dad's white!" which rang out as this major statement. But my more sat me down and said, "Look, I'm black. I'm West Indian and African-American. Your father's Jewish and he's white. I want you to be proud of both sides. You're just as much one as the other. But society says you're black." She taught me to be proud of what you are. Know that you are both. Embrace it.
TP: Did you understand what she was telling you at that age?
LK: I did. I mean, to the point that I could understand it. But these things stay in your subconscious.
TP: What about your daughter? Are you going to sit her down for the same chat?
LK: Oh yeah. We talk about things. She's nine. She's savvy. She knows what she is. Her more and I are both half-Jewish and half-black. I think that's another reason why Lilakoi - that's Lisa's name now - and I bonded so well. We had that connection. She grew up around all Jewish people, whereas I had a balance. I loved it. I loved my matzo brei and my chopped liver and my brisket and my potato latkes as much as I enjoyed my ribs and my grits and my fried chicken.
TP: Do you get to see much of your daughter?
LK: I see her in between tours and on vacations. I just had her with me in the Bahamas for two months. I put her in school down there while I was recording, and that was great.
TP: DO yOU have a good relationship with her mom?
LK: Yeah. It took a while. But ultimately, it's the best thing.
TP: Are you in a relationship now?
LK: Nah, I'm just chilling and open to whatever's happening. I'm having a good time. I'm gonna enjoy my success. I spent so much time not enjoying it, and that's a shame. We're so blessed and yet we spend so much time not enjoying our blessings. I have the opportunity to play music - which is what I've always wanted to do - and here I am doing it. God said, "Here. Have it. Enjoy it." I'm gonna be miserable?
-- Tracey Pepper for Deep joy