Black & White America: Exclusive Lenny Kravitz Interview
Lenny Kravitz‘s much-anticipated album Black & White America descends on the world next week (pre-order here–and listen to music here, here, here and here). We are still absorbing it ourselves but in spite of a few back-handed reviews it is clear already that not only is it LK’s strongest material in quite some time, it might even be a Major Work for our times, a weird companion piece to Watch The Throne as a document of the very weird place that black and white America has arrived at in 2011. In the spirit of that place, Lenny graciously took a break from his time-and-a-half rockstar life to chop it up with Okayplayer about the themes of the album including Obama, post-racism, his parents and another particular moment that happened in the 1970s–that made him who is today. (ALSO: check a little more in sight on another time and place that made LK who he is–The Bahamas–over at our Caribbean channel partner LargeUp.)
OKP: So you must be pretty hectic doing press for this new album?
LK: Yes I have been–and I’ve been rehearsing for tour and filming Hunger Games [the film based on the novel by Suzanne Collins] all at the same time, so…
OKP: Tell me a little about Hunger Games.
LK: It’s going to be an amazing film, I mean after reading the book, and now seeing it come to life, it’s pretty fantastic. Amazing cast of actors, the director is amazing…and easygoing and extremely talented. I’m very happy to be part of it.
OKP: I know it wasn’t that long ago you were still recording and tweaking stuff for the album, did you find that one world kinds bleeds over into the other when you’re doing two different creative things like that?
LK: When I’m creating, its all the same thing. I’ll spend my day going from recording to shooting pictures to a design meeting–cause I’m doing a tower in Miami right now, called Paramount Bay, and I’m doing all the interior, I’m working on a hotel project in Miami… And then to shoot the film, go to rehearsal…I mean it sounds crazy and it kinda is, but I feel like its all one thing. It’s just being creative and it’s making something out of nothing, so to me it’s the same process. Its not like I have to psyche myself to go from one thing to the next–if that was what you were asking?
OKP: No, I was just wondering if ideas tend to jump from one to the other like…does working on a film inform the music?
LK: Yes, that happens all the time…cause I’ll use a musical reference for a piece of furniture, or I’ll look at a picture of the interior, and hear sound when I look at it, those kind of things definitely influence each other.
OKP: So, chronologically speaking were you into Hunger Games enough that there were ideas from that coming to the recording?
LK: No, I just started Hunger Games a couple of weeks ago, the album was already done.
OKP: I wonder because it seems like an especially personal album–not to say that the other music you make isn’t personal, but…
LK: Yeah, to me they are all very personal. Its funny how people will interpret it, and how it touches them, they will think its more personal. I mean they are all completely personal. But there is something very special about this record and I think that it is different kind of personal experience. Where I was in the making of this record was a very peaceful open state and I think that its hitting a place in my personal being that’s more open for people to feel maybe it more than some of the others. If that makes any sense at all…
OKP: It does! Would you say it’s that point you’ve arrived at personally or that the rest of the world arrived at?
LK: Well I secluded myself for nearly two years on and off in the Bahamas, living in my trailer and staying away from a lot of people. Really just living in the village with the locals, there’s only about 400 people there, staying on my property recording, just being alone you know. Eating out of the garden, living a very calm life, brought me to a place where I needed to be after being in the middle of…chaos, basically, the last few years. A lot of work, a lot of touring, a lot of family up and downs and so forth. I needed to slow down and I think. By doing that, the music took a turn for the better.
OKP: That’s interesting because–not just the title but the whole mood of the album–seems so connected to America and this particular moment; people’s conflicted feelings about Obama—did you have to get away from it in order to write about it?
LK: Yeah, when I’m in the studio, I have no idea what I’m going to write but, whatever’s going on, it always works its way into the music. Because I’m there to see what comes out. I’m not telling myself what to do, or trying to write about X, Y and Z. It just comes out organically like that, so it happens to be one of those albums that’s just really of the time, which is a great place to be. But, yeah. We are in a very interesting place in the world and in America its really intense. I’m watching all this stuff in Somalia right now and its blowing my mind…
OKP: At the same time it seems like, it does feel like an overarching statement, even though the songs were recorded without too much pre-meditiation.
LK: Yeah, yeah, that shit happens! You play the album back when you’re done and you’re like how did that happen? It almost seems sometimes like you had this steam or roadmap blocked out. But I didn’t.
OKP: By the time you got to that looking-back point, did you feel like “I’m going to put this album out as something I want to say with it?” Or was it just “I’m gonna put this out as a document of the journey?”
LK: Exactly, it’s a documentation of the time.
OKP: Partly I ask because when I say it sounds personal, the things you are talking about on the title track in particular, it seems very connected to your own family history. And combined with the 70s sound of it, it feels very much like you’re getting back to your primal scene almost, like the moment that made you who you are…?
LK: Exactly! And its just interesting that…well, first of all when Obama became president, just having this president represent the country that knows exactly what I feel like? When he gave that speech on race, I mean I was standing up clapping at the television. Somebody finally could break it down on both sides and be talking about both sides from a personal point of view. Of knowing (both sides of “black and white America”) firsthand, not just “I figured,” you know…
When I talk to a lot of Europeans and people in other places in the world they have this sort of fantasy like, OK, Obama is in office, so its post-racism now right? Like Obama is post-race. And I’m like, Are you out of your mind? It sounds good, people wanted him to be that quote-unquote savior you know, but that’s not it. The more we move forward, you almost have more people wanting to pull back the other way.
It’s a tug of war going on and that song was inspired by a documentary that I saw–the song was a rebuttal to the documentary–where you have this group of racist Americans saying that it was disgusting that this had transpired and that they wanted America to go back to the way it was 100 years ago. Down to the point that there were even going to make sure the president was killed, and they had plans for the next few months. I was watching this thing, and I couldn’t believe. We all know racism exists, but to see such hatred and ignorance expressed that way, I was like…really? To this level?
And so that’s where the song came from. I wrote the chorus first, which is to basically say : I don’t know how you think it is, but this is where we are. And then in the second verse it’s all of a sudden about my parents. I was thinking about what I went through and it’s real interesting…that song is me, that song is truly me. I grew up in that world and that is why I am who I am and that’s why my music is what it is.
OKP: I really feel that. It struck me when you were talking about racism just now that maybe some of the racism we felt up to now was in a way trying to avoid that conversation. We’ve been ducking each other in a way, and it’s only now that all this baggage can really come out. You feel like that at all?
LK: Exactly. Now we’re all in the room. Now the conversation starts.