Mark Seliger has been chief photographer for Rolling Stone and Conde Naste. He’s co-directed music videos for the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Willie Nelson, and Elvis Costello, and frequently shoots covers for Vanity Fair, Italian Vogue, L’uomo Vogue and German Vogue.
Lenny Kravitz’s music has been pumped into the malls and public spaces of America 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 practically discounts his efforts. His songs have become easy listening—even though the creation of them was anything but easy.
There isn’t another black man in popular music who represents what he does—and it doesn’t matter that his father was white or that his mother was one of American television’s first leading black females. Kravitz is alone with his Gibson Flying V on that larger-than-life level. He wrote songs that sounded like a mix of Motown and David Bowie in a time when N.W.A started to explode into mainstream consciousness. Critics were quick to cry redundancy at a time when rock had turned grunge. And yet, Kravitz has always held firm to popular music’s rare feat: He writes, plays, produces and arranges almost everything.
Unlike so many single-named musical acts that reach the pop stratosphere, Kravitz truly is a band unto himself. There isn’t a gaggle of songwriters and studio musicians coming up with the undeniably earworm-y guitar riffs, basslines and hooks that have cemented the man’s catalog into popular culture. Those anthemic power chords from “Fly Away” came when Kravitz was driving his jeep in the Bahamas; that Guitar Hero classic “Are You Gonna Go My Way” was written by him and long-time writing partner Craig Ross “in five minutes”; the heart- breaking swirl of “Again” that dominated radio programming in the early aughts came from his pains.
Even when he chooses to let someone else play certain instruments on his records, he almost always writes the arrangements. His one-man methods have worked—to the tune of nearly 40 million records sold.
The music landscape has changed significantly since the release of Kravitz’s debut album, Let Love Rule, in 1989. Yet the process for this artist has stayed much the same. He recorded Strut, his 10th full-length, in just two weeks, and mostly on his own. It will be released on Sept. 23.
“I tend to go away. I go to the Bahamas on a quiet island and make my music in the bushes,” he says from a rooftop lounge in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Sliding glass doors keep the city’s 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 keyboards, plus my guitarist Craig Ross, who’s been with me for years. For the most part, it’s just three of us in the studio.”
Kravitz adapted the album’s title from a mantra his grandmother often repeated: “Strut your stuff, baby. You look great.”
Looks do matter—and at the photo shoot for The Red Bulletin, it’d be easy to dismiss Kravitz’s need to approve every photo as a narcissistic by-product of fame. After each round of furious flashes, 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 that displays the latest stills and debates them with acclaimed photographer Mark Seliger.
But words like “composition” and “contrast,” “movement” and “pop” develop the dialogue into a legitimate study of form. It’s not just showy empty rhetoric, either. Kravitz knows his stuff. The contract for his forthcoming photography book that turns the camera back on the paparazzi wasn’t just handed to him because he won the Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance four years in a row; it’s because the man knows how to frame an image.
And, to a modern celebrity, the cultivation of an appropriate image is an ongoing battle—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.”
His Renaissance man persona has in recent years also included roles in Oscar- nominated independent film—director Lee Daniels’ acclaimed Precious, the billion-dollar-earning Hunger Games series, and an appearance in 2013’s The Butler—which made President Barack Obama “tear up.” Not a bad five-year run. Films of such magnitude require a lot of people—The Butler alone features a cast of approximately 73,452 actors you recognize—and certainly more than just three guys next to a Caribbean beach.
“When I’m in the studio, it’s just me. It’s my thing—my music, my production, whatever I want to do, me, me, me, me, me,” Kravitz says. “That’s what it is, but then to be able to get together with a group of people and serve somebody else—serve a character, serve a director— I like that a lot. It just takes me away
It’s apparent that Kravitz has expanded his ideas on how a lucrative ship should sail based on his experience in design (his Kravitz Design firm creates interiors of buildings throughout the world) and film, but it’s his corresponding time in the music business that has outlined the path for the release of Strut.
The album will be his first produced outside of the major- record-label system; his own imprint— dubbed Roxie Records after his late mother, The Jeffersons star Roxie Roker— partnered with a company called Kobalt Label Services. KLS is not a traditional record label, but it seems like it has a business model of what record labels should have always been: It will distribute Kravitz’s music and cut checks, while he maintains rights and creative control.
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, on Atlantic Records—heightened his involvement with the nuts and bolts of selling music. His frustration over the situation is still palpable all these years later.
“The biggest mistake of my musical life,” he says. “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.”
Years later and lesson learned, it comes down to the fact that he’s Lenny fricking Kravitz. He writes his own music, he’s sold 40 million albums—and so financial options outside of the traditional machine certainly abound.
There are many parts of being Lenny fricking Kravitz that create mystique: He hangs out with Mick Jagger in his own Paris home; his interior designs include chic hotels; his discussions of photography and art are informed. But above all that, it’s 25 years of music that has impacted popular culture with its omnipresence—perhaps none more than “It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over.”
As universally acclaimed as the career-defining single from Mama Said is, “It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over” is also notable for how specific the track is to Kravitz’s 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, their breakup was indeed played out in the tabloids. So 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 3 a.m., exhausted from their efforts to make love work.
“It was truly the most definitive song when dealing with my breakup at that time—yet it was up, it was hopeful,” he says. “It’s one of those ones 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.”
The track reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and continues to get spins on FM radio today. It’s such a monumental track that many people assume it’s a cover from Smokey Robinson’s day, including a few articles online that didn’t splurge for a fact checker. “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,” the lead single from Strut, is another catchy intersection 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 awry, this time around there is no pretty face to pin the problem on. However, even as he’s more 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 that lustful awe of 85 percent of all women.
“I’m always taken aback by that whole thing. 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,” he says. He punctuates his grandmother’s sentiment, one so simple it feels genuine: “We’re all freaks. Nobody is normal. Embrace who you are and live it.”
Strut your stuff, baby. You look great, as do the photos. And even if they don’t, you still can play all those instruments.