As much as he enjoys being a road animal, Lenny Kravitz says he digs being sequestered in the studio even more.
“I get hooked on experimenting with different sounds and vibes-and the opportunity to unlock my subconscious and see what’s lurking below the surface,” Kravitz explains. “Sometimes, I don’t even know where I’m going to wind up once I start the process of making a new record.”
In fact, the Virgin Records artist admits that he had a completely different creative intention when he began work on “Lenny” — his first all-new studio album in nearly three years — which is due in stores Oct. 30. “Initially,” he says, “I envisioned making a psychedelic-funk album-real trippy with lots of unusual sounds.”
In the end, Kravitz says his muse led him down a more acoustic, straight-ahead rock path. The resulting recording is one of his strongest efforts to date, mostly due to the fact that the listener gets an unfettered view into Kravitz’s creative psyche. He offers a collection of concise, well-crafted songs that are driven by easily consumed melodies and hooks. As always, Kravitz convincingly strikes a brash rock-star pose. But new songs like the plaintive “Stillness of Heart” and the riotous, hand-clapping first single “Dig In” reveals that he has the soul of an unabashed popster.
“While I was writing the first bunch of songs in the Bahamas, I was a little unnerved by where they were taking me,” he admits. “From the start, they were so naked, so raw. That’s a vulnerable place for an artist to be.”
After a bit of soul searching, Kravitz decided to put his ego aside and let the spirit of the songs take over. That led to drafting spare, guitar/bass/drum arrangements for jams like “Yesterday Is Gone,” “If I Could Fall in Love,” and “A Million Miles Away” — all tunes that bear the unmistakable mark of Kravitz, whose work has always carried a swaggering, retro stamp. But they’re also songs that dare the listener to forego studio wizardry in favor of lean, gutsy material.
“As each song took solid shape, it felt so good, so natural,” says Kravitz. “Then I found myself wondering what my problem was in the beginning of the process.”
That rush of confidence allowed Kravitz to dive head-on into his favorite phase of creation: becoming a one-man band in the studio. As with all of his six previous albums (including the recent “Greatest Hits,” which Virgin says sold more than 8 million units globally), he performs nearly every instrument heard on Lenny. Unlike other recording projects where a lone artist takes on the task of playing every note, Kravitz has a knack for making records that sound like a live band in action. He attributes that to the fact that he formulates an imaginary series of musicians in his head, each with a distinctive personality and approach to performing.
“Sometimes, I’ll be a lean white dude from Philly,” he reflects wryly. “Other times I’ll be a fat brother from Detroit. It’s all about getting into the mind-set of where the song is going and who’s invited to help flesh it out.”
Once his imaginary band wraps an album, Kravitz then hands his songs to his road band, “and that’s when things get fun and interesting. My band can imitate about 85% of what I do. The rest is their own edge and interpretation. It’s cool to see how they react to the new songs and what they bring to the table once they start to vibe things out.”
In the case of “Lenny,” he sees that they’re enjoying the no-frills feel of the music. “We’re just ripping ’em out,” he says with a smile. “Some of these songs are on fire when we get to jammin’ on them.”
And as with every Kravitz project, touring is a key element of marketing. Nancy Berry, vice chairman of Virgin, notes, “He’s an unbelievable live performer, so we’re delighted that he’s so willing to spend up to two years on the road.”
Although the artist will spend the remainder of 2001 pursuing performance opportunities on such U.S. TV shows as “Saturday Night Live” and various programs and events throughout Europe, he’s not slated to begin his worldwide concert tour until April 2002. The trek will begin in Japan and then wind through Europe before a series of stateside shows in June.
Berry believes that Lenny will be in full multiformat gear by the time the tour begins, thanks in large part to the ground broken by “Again,” the popular new cut that appeared on Kravitz’s 2000 best-of collection — a set that included such rock airwave staples as “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” “Let Love Rule,” and “Fly Away,” among others.
“Lenny has had crossover success in the past,” Berry says, “but ‘Again’ established him as a full-fledged pop artist — as opposed to a rock artist who occasionally reaches the top-40.”
Retailers agree, citing that Kravitz fills a unique void in the pop landscape. “There aren’t a lot of African-American men making rock music, and the great thing is that he’s not a token,” says James Lonten, manager of a Borders Books & Music store in New York City. “Lenny Kravitz makes great rock records, period. The greatest hits package he put out last year proved it. The success of ‘Again’ felt like the beginning of a new phase-the pop phase. And that fills yet another void: An African-American man making pop music that doesn’t have an urban slant.”
For his part, Kravitz insists that he does not waste time thinking about such things. “There are so many other more important things in life to trip on. Whether or not I’m a black man making rock music is irrelevant to me. And going from rock to pop isn’t an issue, either. If it was, this album would be different. I just do what I do. If you’re into it, cool, I’m grateful.”
Right now, he says he’s more interested in ensuring that everything he does exudes “endless positive vibrations,” particularly in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — which he witnessed firsthand from a nearby Manhattan hotel window.
“I saw the first plane hit,” he recalls. “I stood there frozen. I couldn’t move. It was a terrifying, life-changing moment, needless to say. You could feel the world shift in an instant.”
Ultimately, the tragedy reaffirmed what he’s believed all along: “You have to think long and hard about what you send out into the universe,” he says. “You can be angry or sad in music, but you shouldn’t act from a point of irreversible hate or bitterness. There’s always light after darkness. If I was ever in danger of forgetting that — and I don’t think I ever was — I won’t now.”
As for getting back on the road, Kravitz says he’s actually looking forward to being among those who “travel around and show that you shouldn’t live in fear.” That includes jetting off to the Caribbean to shoot the video supporting “Dig In” with director Sam Bayer. Given the fact that Kravitz is already locked in to a variety of programs and events tied to both MTV and VH1 — most notably MTV’s hugely popular “Total Request Live” — the clip seems assured widespread airplay. In fact, he’s been slotted for “artist of the month” status on VH1 for November. Berry says, “Both MTV and VH1 have been longtime supporters of Lenny’s, which has been an integral part of his success.”
U.S. radio’s support of Kravitz continues to blossom. Since its shipment on Sept. 24, “Dig In” has enjoyed heavy rotation at rock radio, with top-40 programmers investigating and testing the track several weeks before Virgin’s solicitation for airplay. Not bad for a record that Kravitz admits he wasn’t completely sure was right.
“I’ve learned to let my instincts take me where my brain won’t,” he says. “They haven’t failed me yet.”