Mark Seliger has shot over 100 magazine covers for the likes of “Rolling Stone”, “Vanity Fair” and “GQ”. The portfolio of the Texan photographer includes music legends from Keith Richards to Kurt Cobain. For The Red Bulletin Seliger shot Lenny Kravitz in his studio in New York.
Lenny Kravitz’s music has been pumped into shopping malls and played on MOR radio for two-and-a-half decades. While it’s been a financial boon for the long-time rocker, the forced and repeated listenings have had another, less pleasant impact. His music has been so omnipresent for so long that it almost devalues his success.
Even though some of Kravitz’s songs have become ubiquitous, he is still one of the great rock ’n’ roll artists of his era. Many of his biggest hits were released at a time when hip-hop was taking off and when people were lining up to sound the death knell of rock music, but Kravitz has defied the critics, releasing an album roughly every three years and selling in the region of 40 million records in the process.
Kravitz has staying power; he’s a larger-than-life iconic presence front of stage riffing on his Gibson Flying V guitar, and his look – first with those dreads, then that ’fro; those tats – has always been the epitome of rock ’n’ roll cool. The musical landscape has changed significantly since the release of his debut album, Let Love Rule, in 1989.
Yet his process has stayed much the same. He recorded Strut, his 10th full-length LP, in just two weeks, mostly by himself. “I tend to go away. I go to the Bahamas on a quiet island and make my music in the bushes,” he says sitting in a rooftop Village.
Sliding glass doors keep the stifling summer heat at bay, haze and condensation blocking a stunning view of the Hudson River. “I did fly down string players and there’s three background singers on the album, as well, and my horn players.
But otherwise it’s just me playing guitar, bass, drums and keyboard, plus my guitarist Craig Ross, who’s been with me for years.
For the most part, it’s just the two of us in the studio.” The Bahamas is where those catchy power chords from Fly Away came to Kravitz, driving his Jeep one day in the late 1990s. Many of his songs just come to him like that.
The classic Are You Gonna Go My Way was written by him and Ross “in five minutes”, while Again was a Kravitz-only quick composition, a song which led him to win the third of a record four consecutive Grammy awards for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance in 1999. (The other Grammies came in 1998, 1999 and 2000 for Fly Away, American Woman and Dig In, respectively.)
Kravitz got the title of his latest album from something his grandmother was fond of saying: “Strut your stuff, baby, you look great” was shortened to become Strut. Strutting is what Kravitz is doing a lot of during his photoshoot for The Red Bulletin.
After each round of shots, he steps out from in front of the lens – paying no attention to the stylist picking at his hair – to glance at the mobile monitor and debates the images with acclaimed photographer Mark Seliger.
But although it would be easy to dismiss Kravitz’s need to approve every photo as a narcissistic by-product of fame, looks do matter when you’re as big a name in rock as he is. Kravitz sounds like a true pro during his conversations with Seliger.
Words like “composition” and “contrast”, “movement” and “pop” pepper the dialogue. It’s not showy empty rhetoric. Kravitz really knows his stuff.
The two have been friends for years and have worked together on many photoshoots. They also collaborated on a 2001 photo book showing Kravitz on the road and with his family as well as in posed settings.More recently, another book has been the focus of Kravitz’s attention.
He has been working on Lenny Kravitz, a career-spanning coffee table book that showcases his work with some of the top names in fashion and art photography, plus an extra feature in which Kravitz is interviewed by Pharrell Williams.
Of a modern celebrity, the cultivation of an appropriate image is an ongoing battle, and one that Kravitz takes seriously. “I want to look decent in a photo, of course, but for me, when the composition – or as I like to call it, the architecture of the photograph – is right, that’s what gets me excited,” he says. “You can take 100 pictures of someone standing there and it’s just boring. I want to see movement. I want to see design.”
Kravitz’s renaissance man status has also seen him establish a successful acting career. Apart from playing himself in films like Zoolander, his recent credits include a role in the Oscar-winning movie Precious, a recurring role in the billion-dollar-earning Hunger Games series and The Butler, a movie which made Barack Obama “tear up”. That’s not a bad run of films.
In The Butler, Kravitz appeared alongside a long list of actors, including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr, Alan Rickman, Mariah Carey, John Cusack and Robin Williams. He admits that working with a large team on a movie set provides a refreshing break from the smaller scale approach he takes when recording an album in a studio.
“When I’m in the recording studio, it’s just me. It’s my thing, my music, my production, whatever I want to do is me, me, me, me, me,” says Kravitz. “That’s the way it is, but then to be able to get together with a group of different people and serve somebody else, serve a character, serve a director – I like that a lot. It just takes me away from myself.”
It’s clear that Kravitz has got a good idea about what works and doesn’t work from a visual perspective. In 2003 he established his interior design company, Kravitz Design Inc, which now includes Swarovski Crystal among its list of high-profile clients.
Basically, KLS will just distribute the music and then issue the royalties. Kravitz was never clueless to the details that comprised the currency around his art, but after 20 years with Virgin Records, his last album, 2011’s Black And White America, was released through Atlantic Records, and heightened his involvement with the nuts and bolts of selling music.
His frustration over the situation is still palatable three years later. “That was the biggest mistake of my musical life,” he says. “It was horrible. They just f––ked me. It was bad. They don’t have the money they used to have, everybody’s job is on the line. One day this person is running it; two weeks later it’s someone else, but they let me down.
They led me to believe things were a certain way and they weren’t.” That Kravitz was able to take control of his career is as much to do with those 40 million records sold than anything else. How different his life would have been without that breakthrough hit 23 years ago.
His career-defining song is It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over. It is also notable for revealing a very specific moment in Kravitz’s personal life. He wrote it as his marriage to Cosby Show star Lisa Bonet was falling apart. It’s a song he wrote about the reluctant eradication of young love, one that just happened to play out in the public eye. While the celebrity machine was nowhere near the feeding frenzy of today, the couple’s break-up was indeed played out in the tabloids.
When Kravitz sings “So many tears I’ve cried/So much pain inside,” it’s hard not to picture the young couple – Lenny with his shoulder-length dreads, Lisa in her flat-topped hat – sitting on a couch at 3am exhausted from their efforts to make their love work. “It was truly the most definitive song when dealing with my break-up at that time – yet it was up, it was hopeful,” he explains.
“It’s one of those songs that in your career, you get certain ones that are just like – ka-blam. That’s one of them… and I knew it when I wrote it.” It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over was a hit worldwide and still features highly on radio playlists today. It’s such a monumental track that many people assume it’s a cover from Smokey Robinson’s day.
“What that’s saying is that they thought it was a classic,” Kravitz says, delivering his biggest smile of the day, “it just happens to be my classic.” The Chamber, lead single from Strut, is another catchy combination of upbeat funk and bluesy rock ’n’ roll. There’s a little disco in there, complete with a Heart Of Glass reference.
But as an older man who’s been through the wringer a few times, Kravitz better balances the muses in his life with a quieter existence. While the lyrics of The Chamber feel specific to a particular love gone away, this time around, there is no pretty face to pin the problem on. However, even as he’s better prepared to keep his personal life out of the public sphere than during the days of young love with Bonet or a decade later when he was engaged to Victoria’s Secret model Adriana Lima, he still wakes up as Lenny Kravitz – inspiring lustful awe in millions of women.
“I’m always taken aback by that whole thing,” says Kravitz. “I don’t think about it at all. I’m just trying to get up and get going and deal with my life. I think about the thing – the art – not the effect of me being out in the public eye. We’re all freaks. Nobody is normal. Embrace who you are and live it.”
By that Kravitz is actually embracing his grandmother’s sentiment which inspired the title of his new record. Strut your stuff, baby.