‘Cool’ is one of those funny concepts that should be subjective but often isn’t. When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re cool, you’re cool – and there can be no arguing the fact. Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction? Cool. David Bowie from Space Oddity onward? Cool. Lenny Kravitz; Lenny Fucking Kravitz to name the man in full? Inarguably, objectively, cool.
No photograph exists in which he doesn’t look the physical embodiment of a Rock Star; even aged 54, Kravitz packs one hell of a visual punch. The sunglasses, the charisma that burns off the page; if he didn’t exist then some music executive would have attempted to create him in a laboratory.
But of course there is more to Kravitz than image; an extravagantly gifted musician, he played “everything except the horns and the orchestra” on his new album Raise Vibrations. He dreamt the whole album on an island in the Bahamas, waking up in the middle of the night to find another tune lodged in his consciousness.
This intimate, expansive interview covers much ground. Kravitz discusses the perception of himself as a sex symbol; recalls roller-skate sessions with his elderly grandfather; and, in an extraordinary anecdote, describes being comforted by Johnny Cash and June Carter moments after learning of his mother’s death. (Outside Rick Rubin’s house, naturally.)
He’s performed with musical deities such as Prince, Bowie, Jackson; dated a hefty percentage of the world’s most desirable women; shifted albums in the tens of millions; and yet his journey might only be at its halfway point. “I feel like I’m just getting going,” he says of his three decades at the top. Perhaps he is; he’s Lenny Fucking Kravitz after all.
The new record is great…
Thank you, man. I love it. It felt really good, it’s authentic to who I am at this moment and it was so much fun to make. I played everything, except the horns and the orchestra. I had started playing trumpet but I’m not good enough. Craig Ross my lead guitarist engineered the record and I produced as normal. It was so much fun, it was just so inspiring. Because I dreamt the album. The whole album was a dream.
Every night songs would come to you?
Not every night – but often. You dream a song, you start to work on it, you work on it for some days, for a week, two weeks, whatever it is, and then comes another one, and then another. Just over time.
So you remember your dreams?
Well, I wake up because in my dream I’m hearing the song, and then I’m in this weird place between sleep and being awake. But, you know, you’re tired, you’re comfortable, you’re warm, you’re in the bed: sometimes you have to make yourself get up. You’re hearing this thing and you’re liking it, you like what you’re hearing. But sometimes it’s hard to get up, and if you don’t get up and record it, it’s gone. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh if it’s really good I’ll remember it tomorrow.’ Well, it goes.
So anyway, I was waking up at four or five in the morning, and I would have a tape player by the bed and record it, or go to the studio. And yeah, it was really great. I dream songs all the time but I can’t say that I’ve dreamt the whole album [before], and I dreamt the whole thing.
I’ve lost so many people in my life, in my family. My mother, my father, my grandparents – everybody is gone
That’s quite a gift…
It is a gift, it really is, and I like the fact that I get out of my way. It’s not about my ego or my thought, it’s what I’m hearing, and then my job is to represent what I’m hearing in my dream.
This was on your island in the Bahamas?
Is the breeze on the last track real?
No, it’s actually not real. That’s actually a Moog synthesiser. It sounds just like the ocean though right? It makes that white noise but it sounds so real. But the ocean, actually, you can walk to the water from the studio, like a few steps.
Can you hear the ocean at night?
Not in the studio because it’s very protected and sound-proofed but from my house yeah, I live right on the water. It’s a beautiful place to create.
Are you quite reclusive there?
No, I mean I hang out a lot by myself but I also go into the village and I hang with the locals, because I’m a local. They don’t give a shit about Lenny Kravitz stuff, I’m just a local and I’m Bohemian so I live like a local. And it’s beautiful. I love my people there and it’s great. But I do spend a lot of time alone as well and I’m in the studio a lot. But I always go into the village and hang out.
It’s great you can switch the rock star persona on and off…
Absolutely. People expect maybe that I’m going to act a certain way, and then I can be very quiet and live extremely simply. I love it. That, for me, is everything.
You’ve said it took a while to get into the groove for this record?
Yeah because I really wanted something special, and I wanted to be really authentic to who I am right now. And because I could make songs all the time, I can do any style, whatever I want to do. So you have so many options but I didn’t want to labour over it. I wanted it to be something like what happened. Just a download. I wanted to take myself out of the equation – and I did.
Who are you right now? Did you change over recording the album?
Well, that’s a good question. I’m always changing but I’m a person who is very, very concerned for the planet. Very, very concerned with human relations. Very, very concerned with peace and unity. Very concerned with all the destruction that has been going on. Things are crazy, you know?
Learning should never end. You should be learning up until your last breath
Does knowing life is short provide extra motivation?
Yeah it’s short, and I’ve lost so many people in my life, in my family. My mother, my father, my grandparents – everybody is gone. A lot of young people that died. In the last couple of years a lot of my friends and musicians have died and it really woke me up – especially when Prince died. I mean when Michael did too. But when Prince died it was monumental to me and it caused me to wake up and work harder and reach further.
You were close to Prince?
We were close, yes. And his presence was definitely present on this album. It’s not as clear as it seems with me saying it but his presence was there. So yeah, life is short for all of us.
You live quite a healthy life though?
I do my best. You have to take care of your body. That’s something that a lot of people don’t think about but I think the whole thing goes together. Mind, body, spirit.
Do you still feel like a young person?
Absolutely. It’s very interesting. Yeah. Number, age, doesn’t mean anything. It just depends on who you are. I can show you a 20-year-old who is old and tired and not motivated – and then I can show you an 80-year-old who is vibrant, young, healthy, motivated, you know? So it really just depends on who you are, the spirit.
Are you a better person now?
I hope so. I can’t say better. I’m a human being, I’m trying very hard to be a better person, I’m trying to be the best person that I can be. I still have a lot to learn, I still have a lot to grow, it’s a continual process. I used to talk to my grandfather when he was in his 90s and he would say, ‘I’m still learning, I have so far to go’. And he was a very smart man, a very wise man. But I think that’s why he knew that. It should never end. You should be learning up until your last breath.
Kravitz is very much a child of the world. His father, Sy Kravitz, was descended from Ukrainian Jews; his mother, Roxie Roker, a Bahamian American actress who starred in pioneering sitcom The Jeffersons. (Lenny is named for his uncle, Leonard M. Kravitz, a private killed in the Korean War and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour in 2014.)
Due to his parents’ busy work schedules, young Lenny would often stay with his maternal grandparents’ in Brooklyn. Kravitz endured a difficult relationship with his father – Sy and Roxie divorced in 1985 due to the former’s infidelities – but he was devoted to his grandfather, Albert Roker, and much of his life philosophy is inherited from the energetic old man who never lost his zest for existence.
Do you imagine what you’ll be like at your grandfather’s age?
I have a good idea. My grandfather at 90 was riding bicycles like miles a day. He was running, he was swimming, he was roller skating, he was hanging out with young people, he was dancing. So this is how he was at 90 – I’ve got 40 years.
He learnt to rollerskate when he was 80. At the age of nine he had to be the man of the family because his father died and he was the eldest of the children. So he didn’t really have a childhood because he had to be a man at nine and go work, get jobs and find money. So I think when he was 80, roller skating was something he’d always wished he’d done.
I had some skates, and he took them because we wore the same shoe, and he learned to skate. And then he would go to like a roller rink and he would skate for hours. He and I are very similar. We were the same size, the same shoe, the same clothes.
Well, he didn’t have dreads. But like when I had my hair short. He had like that. So I think I will be very much like him. He hung around a lot of young people because he wanted new ideas, he wanted to hear how young people thought, he wanted to hear their point of view. A lot of old people feel like they know what’s right and that they’re so smart because they’ve been here longer. He always wanted to hear the mind of younger people; he would sit and they would talk about things, philosophy and life. He was a very cool guy.
It’s cool you’ve grown your dreads again…
Yeah I let it go. I cut it years ago, and then I started doing movies and I kept it shorter, you know, more options for movies. But right now, for me, my vibe, my vibration, I needed to grow the hair and just be free.
I remember how it felt when Johnny Cash and June held me. It was a very pure and beautiful feeling
‘Johnny Cash’ is a beautiful song – how did that come about?
Well another dream but it took me a while to understand what it was about. In the dream all I kept hearing was Johnny Cash, and I heard the music and chords but I didn’t have the words yet, I just kept hearing Johnny Cash. And so as it turns, it was something very personal that happened between me and Johnny Cash but I didn’t understand that when I was writing it.
So basically, when my mother died 22 years ago, I was living at the house of Rick Rubin. I came back from touring in Japan and I went straight to the hospital from the airplane, spent the day with my mother, she was bad with cancer. I took a break, went back to the house to shower, eat, and then I was going to go back to the hospital.
When I got to the house, somebody gave me the telephone and told me, ‘your mom died.’ She died in the time that I drove to the house. So I’m standing there. I knew she was going to die, but I didn’t know that day. And coming down the stairs is Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter – they were at Rick’s house making the album that ended up being his last album, I think. The record where he sings the song ‘Hurt’ – beautiful right?
So he said, ‘Hey, how are you?’ I said, ‘My mom just died.’ And he and his wife, they just walked up to me and they grabbed me and they started to hold me; they were just being beautiful people and telling me beautiful things. Consoling me. And we weren’t close like that. I knew them because we were living in the same house but we didn’t know each other very well. But it was such a beautiful moment.
So then I realised in writing this song – I was writing this song to somebody that I know and somebody that I was with. And I was saying, ‘Just hold me like Johnny Cash when I lost my mother’. And I realised that obviously what I was writing about was this feeling that I remember from how it felt when Johnny and June held me. It was a very pure and beautiful feeling. And that is what the song is about. But it’s quite interesting because when people first hear it they’re like, ‘Hold me like Johnny Cash – what does that mean?’ But it’s very personal to me.
Does the woman you wrote the song for know it’s about her?
It’s about her because I’m singing to this woman in the song and I’m saying, ‘I need your love in every way, I need your strength..’ blah bah blah, and I say, ‘Just hold me like Johnny Cash.’ So it was a very interesting way that this song went back to something that I didn’t even think about since then, but obviously left a great impression on my heart.
Is ‘Low’ also a plea for love?
Well I’m singing to somebody, it’s not anybody in particular, but it’s about somebody that I would be trying to get to know. And basically it’s saying, ‘Forget all the preconceptions, what you might think of me, through my image and through what people think I am.’ It’s just saying, ‘I’m right here, I’m an open book, I’m here for you to explore, take away all the preconceived ideas.’ Drop all your other ideas and just look at me, don’t look at all the stuff around me.
Does your image sometimes cause misconceptions?
Of course. People think they know who you are, they think that you are this way but actually you’re not that way, you’re another way. They get confused. They’re like, ‘Oh I thought you were like this’ because of the image and how people perceive things. But actually, when I get to know people they are like, ‘You are so different from what I thought.’
Wouldn’t it be disgusting if I looked in the mirror every day and I was like, ‘Ooh yeah I’m so cool and sexy
Which is a compliment?
It’s not like they think I’m bad or anything but they don’t quite know maybe how down-to-earth I am. You would think they would understand from the music that I write, it’s very down-to-earth what I’m always singing about. But I think the whole rock star thing, sometimes it confuses them.
You sing, ‘is my sexuality creating such a tragedy’ – what do you mean by that?
Meaning this image they think is the sex symbol thing, but I couldn’t be farther from that in my head. I don’t see myself in that way.
Quite a few people would disagree?
But that’s them looking at me. I look at me in a very different way, I don’t see all that stuff. And wouldn’t it be disgusting if I did: if I looked in the mirror every day and I was like, ‘Ooh yeah I’m so cool and sexy.’ That would be horrible. I don’t see it.
There must be rock stars who do that?
Yes, and there are regular people that can be that way if they are narcissistic. I don’t have that side.
Looking for love
It’s hard to find a beautiful woman who hasn’t been linked with Lenny Kravitz. Kylie Minogue, Vanessa Paradis, Adriana Lima, Nicole Kidman: the man has done OK for himself down the years. (Although we don’t doubt the ladies felt the same.) However, his attitude toward relationships has been more complicated than you might expect.
A devout Christian, Kravitz famously claimed to be celibate for several years in the 2000s, although later said his words “got blown way out of proportion.” Nonetheless, despite his image as a sex symbol, it is emotional connection – “the majesty of love” – that remains his ultimate ideal.
Of course Kravitz has already embarked on one great romance with former wife Lisa Bonet. The pair eloped to Las Vegas in 1987, and Bonet gave birth to their daughter, Zoë Kravitz, a year later. Their eventual separation was amicable, and Kraviz remains on good terms with both Bonet and her husband, Aquaman star Jason Momoa.
You sing, ‘I’m searching for the majesty of love’ – what is that?
Just meaning the deepest love, and this doesn’t mean romantic, it just means the deepest love, meaning, ‘how far are you willing to go?’ In any situation, you give your love, you give your heart, you give your time – how far are you willing to go? And that’s what I’m talking about, you know, I’m searching for the majesty of love, the most beautiful thing in love, you know?
Do you think you’ll ever find that?
I think it’s something, and we constantly have to push and go further.
Are you still looking for a soul partner?
I would love that and I hope that I’ll be ready for it when I find it. It’s not easy for me sometimes. It’s not easy. Especially when you live your life, you know, I live for my art and I’m constantly making art, music, photography, designing – whatever it might be. Acting, whatever. I put so much of my time into that. And then I have my life but when I decide to put out an album and go on tour, I book all these dates and I’m busy for two years and it’s booked. So I can’t just say, ‘Oh I met somebody so I’m going to go home now or I’m going to go do this to be with them.’ I have a schedule and it can be very difficult.
Life is great, life is wonderful but of course I do long for that [romantic] connection
So you’re still single but it’ll be hard for somebody to change that?
Well I’m not saying it’s going to be hard. I think when it’s right it’s going to happen, it’s going to work. Anyway, it’s something that I’m looking forward to.
Would you then stop with your creative passions?
No, I wouldn’t stop. Then I think it’s about compromise but I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing, no. Nor should the other person stop what they are doing. But I’m sure you have to figure things out and work together.
So you need a soul mate you can create with?
That would be great. We’ll see what happens.
Who is ‘Ride’ about? ‘I have loved you since the dawn…’
Somebody I know inspired it but it’s not somebody that I’m with. I think it’s more about the situation of feeling that. Yeah. The way I want to feel.
You seem quite fulfilled but is there still a certain longing in your heart?
I mean life is great, life is wonderful but of course I do long for that connection. Yeah.
‘I’ll always be inside your soul’ – who is that about?
It’s another person that inspired that. There’re several people that inspire different things. That’s somebody that I met, and I only met once. And they inspired that song. They were going travelling, they were going around the world, do all kinds of things in different places. And I was like, ‘Well, I can’t go with you but I’ll be here.’
I feel like I’m just getting going [with my career]. I’m doing the second half now
Your daughter is doing great?
Will you join her in Big Little Lies?
They asked me to be on it, I didn’t do it. But then, coincidentally, my daughter got it, I didn’t even know she was being asked. So I was more happy that she got it. It’s wonderful for her and now she’s working with Meryl Streep, it’s incredible.
And Nicole Kidman, too...
Yeah, yeah. It’s all beautiful. It’s all full circle.
You’ve being doing this for 30 years and you’re still going strong…
I’m blessed and I’m conscious about it. I feel like I’m just getting going. I’m doing the second half now.