American Songwriter May/June Cover Story: Lenny Kravitz Returns to His Origins on ‘Blue Electric Light’ —“It’s a Celebration, It’s Sensual and Spiritual”

It takes a lot to be yourself. Paradoxically, it’s not something that comes easily to many. You have to find yourself first. We grow up beholden to a life of outside expectations. Inescapable diversions. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, as they say. But there always remains a chance for self-realization. A crack in the mirror through which we can see our true selves on the other side—as we’re meant to be, as we want to be, deep down. 

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Rock and roll artist Lenny Kravitz began to peer through that proverbial sliver in a real way when he wrote—or, as he puts it, transcribed—his debut 1989 solo album, Let Love Rule. Now, some 35 years later, Kravitz has returned to his origin story—to the sounds of it, anyway—for his latest LP, Blue Electric Light, out May 24.

“I like that it feels good,” Kravitz tells American Songwriter. “It’s a celebration, it’s sensual and spiritual. It hearkens back to the music I was making in high school. Because I didn’t put anything out until Let Love Rule, the things I was doing before were not heard. This record is the closest representation to what I was doing before.”

For multiple Grammy Award-winner Kravitz, music and art found him early on. As he says, “Music first entered my world before I even understood what the world was.” He grew up in New York City, a cultural and creative melting pot. His father, Sy Kravitz, was a newsman for NBC; his mother, Roxie Roker, was a famous actress known for her work on stage in African American experimental theater and on the famed sitcom The Jeffersons. Their friends were artists, musicians, and writers.

“Music was always around as long as I can remember,” Kravitz says. “Records in the house, the radio always on in the car. My dad had this little VW Bug and we used to listen to this station WABC that actually was very cool because it crossed genres—it was everybody being played.”

His parents took him to concerts where he got to see jazz legends like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Lionel Hampton from the time he was five years old. He saw James Brown at the Apollo and The Jackson 5 at Madison Square Garden. He went to the opera and the ballet. 

“This was all in my environment,” he says. “I’m so glad that it was. That’s how it started. And I was taken. I was taken by it.” But just because someone has the spirit of an artist within doesn’t mean they always know how to wield it. But even back then as a young person, Kravitz says he was looking for something.

“Up until the time just prior to making Let Love Rule, which I made without a record deal—I made it on my own—I was searching.” He says there were moments as a musician when things made sense. But they were, at times, few and far between. “During that search, there were definitely things that were worthy,” he says. “But I didn’t feel that was it, you know what I mean?” 

And then the songs and structure for his debut LP materialized. “When I got the ‘download’ for Let Love Rule, which was just given to me, that was the first time I did not attempt to do something. It was there and it was for me to transcribe, or translate.”

Kravitz says he discovered the music for his debut album “from the atmosphere,” and then, like a sonic conduit, he put it to tape. That’s when he began to gain real confidence. This wasn’t a magician performing a trick; it was genuine artistry—he’d been given access to a type of truth. “It was the beginning of my sound,” the rocker says. “It had found me. Or, I guess, we’d found each other. The journey goes both directions. Did I feel good enough? I don’t know what I felt. But I felt that I had to go represent this music.”

Kravitz wrote all the songs, produced, and played nearly every instrument on Let Love Rule. (His then-wife, actress Lisa Bonet, contributed the lyrics to the track “Fear.”) He subsequently got a record deal and went out on the road to support the record, which reached No. 61 on the Billboard 200. The music video for the title track led to an MTV Video Music Award nomination for Best New Artist, as well. 

Two years later, Kravitz released his follow-up album, Mama Said. It featured the hit song “It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over,” a final love letter to Bonet—herself a veteran of the groundbreaking sitcom The Cosby Show—before the dissolution of their marriage.

Lenny Kravitz (Photo by Mark Seliger)

Considering Kravitz’s penchant for both pop music and the philosophical, the question arises: what makes good art? The answer, as with most artists, is in how one connects with themselves. For this particular rock star, that means acknowledging his sense of love and romance, his soul, his power. Composing those early albums meant connecting to “a great love and romance I was having at that time,” as well as “a great awakening within myself, seeing myself clearer.” On his latest album, Kravitz’s song “Human” features the chorus, I’m going to live my truth in this life / I am not going to live a lie/ ‘Cause I came here to be alive / I am here to be human.

He could have written that refrain at nearly any point in his artistic journey. He’s walked and talked that ethos for as long as he can remember. Truth is not something that comes and goes. It’s always there, albeit not always seen or understood. The best of us have access to it and take advantage of its presence. Receiving, as Kravitz calls it, “the download” for Let Love Rule, he says, “I trusted it. It felt good. It felt like what I imagined myself to feel and sound like.” Prior, he would dabble in different music styles, attempting to sound like his many influences. But in those late-’80s studio sessions, he found himself for the first time.

“I was attempting to see what the formula might be,” he says. “And then the formula just appeared. I didn’t have to think about where I was going. In the middle of it, you’re not fully aware of everything that’s going on, you’re just doing it. It felt good while I was doing it, but then when it was done, I recognized it and it made complete sense to me.”

Then, of course, stardom hit. Covers of magazines. Videos on MTV around the clock. He was a wanted man. When the world knows your name, it can be scary. Kravitz dubs that time “surreal,” saying it was “definitely strange.” But he was also equipped for it. 

“Growing up with my mother—she was very famous by virtue of being on a television show for 11 years on primetime TV, she was a household figure and name—and watching her maneuver through that…” Kravitz pauses. “And then being married to a woman who was doing that as well on primetime… I was next to people who were dealing with that situation. That helped prepare me.”

Today, he expresses gratitude to the two women for their guidance and example. But more than anything or anyone, Kravitz looked inward for his blueprint. “I wanted to be me, and regardless of what stardom brought,” he says, “I didn’t want it to affect me in a way that would change me, you know?” So he continued to strive toward living by the values he was brought up with in order to not let celebrity “trip me out.” Over the years, from youth through adulthood, Kravitz says he saw a lot of people “get tripped out by fame.” Luckily, fame was never his end goal. It was just a byproduct.

He says he appreciates his fans for making his career the success it has become. But fan adulation doesn’t make him who he is at his core. “My mother was so humble and her feet were firmly planted on the ground,” he says. “She wasn’t consumed by Hollywood, and she just kept it real. So I got to see that.” 

As a teenager, Kravitz’s mother was on the No. 1 TV show in America. And yet Saturday mornings were for “scrubbing toilets, and vacuuming, and doing the laundry, and ironing, and mowing the lawn, and taking out the garbage, and mopping floors, and cleaning the windows.” 

Roxie Roker came from a West Indian family that had very little. Her father came from the Bahamas and, Kravitz says, “was the head of the family at nine years old because his father had died.” Pondering his lineage, Kravitz remains awestruck by his grandfather’s vision. He grew up without electricity—“He never saw a light bulb or ice until he was 12,” Kravitz says—and his mother was bedridden. He had four siblings and “busted his ass” to create “a situation for his family.” 

Lenny Kravitz (Photo by Mark Seliger)

Before his 10th birthday, Kravitz’s grandfather was planning a future where his heirs wouldn’t want. These sturdy roots are what made his success possible. They ensured no glitzy gust of wind would topple him. But that’s not to say certain challenges and disappointments don’t set him back from time to time.

Even well into the 21st century, Kravitz remains one of the few Black solo rockers to have topped the Billboard charts. Bands like Fishbone and Living Colour continue to draw crowds, while newer artists like Brittany Howard, Gary Clark Jr., Arlo Parks, Ayron Jones, and WILLOW incorporate rock heavily into their eclectic indie-leaning sounds. 

Rock (like most forms of popular music) was created by Black people. But the sales, streams, and recognition seem to funnel toward artists from other backgrounds. “It blows my mind, because I don’t understand it,” Kravitz says. “For some reason, there’s a lot of people, both Black and white or otherwise, that don’t understand that rock and roll is Black music.”

He’s had to field strange questions about his chosen genre. “I grew up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn,” he recalls. “And I’d made a couple of albums. But I still used to get on the subway and go see my grandmother and go hang out with my friends. So, these kids recognized me getting off the subway and one day this young kid, maybe eight or nine years old, asked me why I play white music. Because for him, growing up, the way he grew up, it was hip-hop. He didn’t have the situation where he grew up around anything else. So, to him, at that point, rock and roll was white guys yelling into microphones with loud, distorted guitars.”

Thankfully, Kravitz says he sees the trend changing and the genre diversifying. And at this point, he’s been around long enough to see plenty more trends come and go. Just two days after his new album drops, he’ll turn 60. But age, as one might guess from looking at the perennially young and fit star, is not something that worries Lenny Kravitz. 

“Age and I are a funny thing,” he laughs. “I don’t relate. I don’t understand time. Time is a very interesting and mysterious thing.” To wit, Kravitz says he’s never felt better mentally, spiritually, and physically. “I look the same,” he says. “So, it’s just weird. It’s very weird. I don’t mean that in an ego way, but I don’t know, I seem to be getting younger. But I’m older. But I’m younger.” He says he feels right where he’s supposed to be.

Part of that perfect placement also means parenthood. Just as he was influenced by adept, talented women in his youth, today he is influencing another. His 35-year-old daughter, Zoë Kravitz, is a powerful performer in her own right. She’s starred in popular television programs and films such as X-Men: First Class, Mad Max: Fury Road, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Batman, and High Fidelity. She’s also hosted Saturday Night Live

“Isn’t it a trip?” the proud father muses. “It’s a trip. It just keeps going down the line with the women. It’s quite beautiful, actually. I’m so proud of Zoë. I always think of my mother just looking down at her. The fact that somehow God chose all of this for me—it’s wonderful.”

And the blessings keep coming. To date, he’s won four Grammy Awards, and he just received the Recording Academy’s Global Impact Award during Grammy week last February. Kravitz is also in the class of nominees this year for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He’s walking through a garden of good fortune, and says he’s finally able to stop and appreciate the accolades. Lately he’s learned to “take time and smell the roses, which I didn’t do when I was coming up because I was just—I had blinders on and I was moving forward.”

Looking ahead now, Kravitz says he’s looking forward to getting back on the road to celebrate the release of Blue Electric Light. Prior to 2020, he’d been on tour for two years and was gearing up for a third. Instead, the pandemic led to writing and recording a lot of new songs in the Bahamas, with his latest LP the inspired result. In a way, it’s the start of a new era in his career. But he’s still the same singular artist, living on a continuum of constant work, grateful for whatever divine download the Universe sends his way next. 

“[Music] is as vital as oxygen,” Kravitz says. “It gives me purpose, it gives me joy. It’s given me a reason to live.”

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