Growing up in New York City in the 1960s, musician Lenny Kravitz didn't spend much time thinking about being biracial. The only son of an interracial couple, he says, "I knew that my mother's skin tone was what it was and I knew that my father's skin tone was what it was. ... I thought nothing of it."
But things changed when he reached first grade: "My parents were the only ones that didn't match," he says. "And this kid jumped out and pointed his finger and said, 'Your father's white and your mother's Black!' "
Kravitz says that moment opened up a conversation with his mother about race and perception: "[My mother] wanted me to understand there were two sides to me, and she didn't want me to feel like I had to pick one or one was better than the other."
"She said, 'Your father is a Russian Jew. This is his background. And I want you to be proud of that. And ... we are of African descent by way of the Bahamas. And that is your culture and that is beautiful as well. And I want you to accept that, but society is only going to see you as Black. They're not going to see the other side,' " he says.
As a young musician in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Kravitz began performing under the stage name Romeo Blue — while wearing painful blue contact lenses. He experimented with different musical styles, but he credits his relationship with actor Lisa Bonet with helping him find his musical voice. Kravitz released his debut album, Let Love Rule, in 1989, under his given name.
"I made that record without a record label," Kravitz says. "That was just done on my own and I didn't know what I was going to do with it, but I knew that I had to complete that task. And I did. And we went from there."
Kravitz would go on to win four Grammy Awards and to sell more than 40 million records. His new memoir, Let Love Rule, follows his childhood and early career up to the release of his breakout album.
On the discrimination his parents faced as an interracial couple in the 1960s
I heard stories about people spitting at them in the street, them not being able to go to certain places. My father once took my mother somewhere and they had to get a hotel and the person at the desk said, "No prostitutes allowed." Even her parents were fine with it after a conversation with my father. His parents, unfortunately, at the time that they got together, couldn't really accept that. First of all, she wasn't Jewish. And on top of it, she was Black, and that was an issue for them. They hadn't gotten to that place yet. ... After my mother had me, I think they showed up the next day. They were very curious. They knew that their son had had a son and they wanted to meet this grandchild. And they came to the hospital and they met my mother and very quickly they bonded, his parents saw the character of my mother and fell in love with her, and that was it.
On how his mother would get him to open up and talk as a little kid
She made up this character called Ruff Ruff, which was this magical dog. ... I'd say "abracadabra" and then she'd say, "Ruff Ruff," and then instantly she was Ruff Ruff. She had a different voice, different body language and for a 4 year old, I bought it and we would speak and she'd asked me how I felt and she would dig and I was comfortable telling Ruff Ruff what I was feeling and after that, she'd say, "OK, I'm going to bring mommy back now. I won't tell her what we spoke about." And I'd have to say "abracadabra" again, and then she became my mother again. I really believed that I was talking to somebody else. But it was beautiful that she found this way for me to be comfortable expressing myself.
On his childhood obsession with the Jackson 5
I used to write in my notebook "Lenny Jackson." I had this fantasy that I was the long lost brother and they were going to find me and then I was going to join the group. ... I identified with them — the music, the appearance, the whole expression. Then my father — this is one of the most beautiful experiences with him as a child — surprised me one day, picked me up from school. He was standing at the door of the class and I didn't understand why he was there. He didn't normally pick me up. I don't think he ever did, really. And we got in a cab and we went to Madison Square Garden and that was the first concert that I'd ever seen and it blew my head off, changed my life. I knew that I wanted to be involved in music. I didn't know how or what — I didn't think about that — but I knew that that affected me and that music was important to me.
On what he learned from signing in the California Boys Choir
I had discipline in my life, but this now was musical discipline and they pushed us. This was serious. The California Boys Choir, we had to learn to sing in 15 different languages. We didn't learn the languages, obviously, but we learned how to pronounce everything perfectly with proper accents, from Latin to German. I mean, everything. And we learned how to sight read and vocal training and how to support the voice and staging and stage presentation, because we were also doing operas. It was a very solid foundation and an experience that gave me this education that I based everything that I do on.
On his early stage persona
I wasn't comfortable with my name, with "Lenny Kravitz." I thought it was anything but rock 'n' roll. This is the days of Madonna and Prince and all these folks and ... I thought, "I've got to change my name," and some friends of mine gave me the nickname "Romeo" and then I put the "Blue" on it and became "Romeo Blue" and changed my appearance and came up with the fashion that went with it, got these blue contact lenses at the time. This is before they had those soft [lenses] ... these were hard little bottle caps. They were horrible, but I used to put them in and my eyes would be tearing and they'd be red and it would just kill me to wear these things. But I was completely committed to this character.
On how his relationship with Lisa Bonet changed him as a songwriter
The [songs] I was writing before were labored. I was trying to come up with something, I was trying to find this style, which is fine, that's part of the exercise, but all of a sudden ... it was beyond my thought process. It was just being presented like, "Here you go. Here it is. This is it. You don't have to think about it. You don't have to look for it. Here it is." And it may not have been exactly what I thought I was going to be doing, but I was hearing it. I was feeling it. The portal was open and I accepted it. And that was the beginning of Let Love Rule.
On being a touring musician in his 50s
It is a very hard life, it's a wonderful life, it's a blessed life, but it's a job, man. Once you're on that road ... and traveling the world and everything is about those two and a half hours on stage or however long it might be, you're dedicated and it takes a lot out of you. And no, I'm not 20 anymore, but I think my energy is even better now than it was then. I look at people like Mick Jagger, who's in his mid-70s and can still work a stadium like no other, he still has that energy and that strength. He and I have known each other for some years now, and we spent time together, I can tell you that he's made that decision to be able to continue doing that, there's discipline involved, what he will and will not put in his body, how he exercises, how he rests, etc. And so I've decided that I'm going to continue doing this as long as I can.
Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. Our guest today is Lenny Kravitz. He's written a new memoir about his early life and coming of age musically with the release of his first album, "Let Love Rule," in 1989. It launched his career and made him a rock 'n' roll star. Since then, he sold over 40 million albums and won four Grammys in a row for best male rock vocal performance. He spoke last week with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: In his memoir, Lenny Kravitz talks about growing up in New York as the child of an interracial couple and his loving relationship with his mom, actress Roxie Roker, who's best known for playing Helen Willis on "The Jeffersons." But his relationship with his dad, Sy Kravitz, a TV news producer, was much more difficult. The memoir is also about living in LA as a teen and struggling to find his musical voice while getting kicked out of his home by his dad and having to sleep in a car.
When Kravitz met actress Lisa Bonet, he said he found his musical voice and wrote the songs that would make up the album "Let Love Rule." They married and had a child, actress Zoe Kravitz. "Let Love Rule" is also the name of his memoir.
I spoke with Lenny Kravitz from his home in the Bahamas. Let's start with the title track from the album "Let Love Rule."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET LOVE RULE")
LENNY KRAVITZ: (Singing) Love is gentle as a rose. And love can conquer any war. It's time to take a stand. Brothers and sisters, join hands. We got to let love rule. Let love rule. We got to let love rule. Let love rule. Love...
BRIGER: That's "Let Love Rule" by Lenny Kravitz. "Let Love Rule" is also the name of his new memoir.
Lenny Kravitz, welcome to FRESH AIR.
KRAVITZ: Thank you.
BRIGER: Well, your book starts off with your parents, so let's talk about them a little bit. Your mom, Roxie Roker, was a Black woman with Bahamian heritage on her dad's side, and she was an actress. She was the first person in her family to go to college. She went to Howard. And at the time she met your dad, she was working as an actress, but she also had a day job at NBC as an executive secretary. And that's where she met your dad 'cause he was a news producer for NBC. His name is Sy Kravitz, and he was a white Jewish man. And this was in the mid-'60s when they became a couple. Did they face a lot of prejudice as an interracial couple?
KRAVITZ: They did. You know, I heard stories about people spitting at them in the street, you know, them not being able to go to certain places. My father once took my mother somewhere, and they had to get a hotel. And the person at the desk said, you know, no prostitutes allowed. And, you know, even her parents were fine with it after a conversation with my father. His parents, unfortunately, at the time that they got together, couldn't really accept that, first of all, she wasn't Jewish and, on top of it, she was Black. And, you know, that was an issue for them. They hadn't gotten to that place yet.
BRIGER: And it took you - right? - like, 'cause they didn't go to the wedding. They - but you sort of brought peace back to the relationship, right?
KRAVITZ: Yes. After my mother had me, I think they showed up the next day. They were very curious. They knew that their son had had a son, and they wanted to meet this grandchild. And they came to the hospital, and they met my mother. And very quickly, they bonded. His parents saw the character of my mother and fell in love with her. And that was it.
BRIGER: So, you know, your parents were young, and they were working a lot. And for child care, you'd spend weekdays at your maternal grandparents' in Brooklyn. So you grew up shuttling between your parents, who had a small apartment on the Upper East Side, and then the home of your maternal grandparents, who lived in Brooklyn in Bedford-Stuyvesant - these two very different neighborhoods. And you say that you see yourself as having these very different sides to yourself. In the book you write, I'm deeply two-sided - Black and white, Jewish and Christian, Manhattanite and Brooklynite. My young life was all about opposites and extremes. As a kid, you take everything in stride, so I accepted my Gemini soul. I owned it. In fact, I adored it.
Can you talk a little bit more about that? Like, it also seems like that - at times that it was confusing. Like, when you went PS 6, your first day, you were walking in with your parents. And a kid pops up and yells, your mother's Black, and your daddy's white. And this sounds like this was upsetting and maybe also the first time you were confronted with these ideas of race. Is that true?
KRAVITZ: Yeah because I never thought about it. I knew that my mother's skin tone was what it was, and I knew that my father's skin tone was what it was and both sides of the family. And on top of that, my parents, being artists in New York City, you know, they had friends from, you know, virtually every background and religion. I thought nothing of it. People look different, people are different, people have different customs and traditions, and that's life.
And so then I go to school - you know, the first grade, so I'm 6 now - and my parents walk me to school. And I suppose my parents were the only ones that didn't match. And this kid jumped out and pointed his finger and said that - you know, your father's white, and your mother's Black. And - it was more shocking because he jumped out and pointed his finger...
BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah, (unintelligible)...
KRAVITZ: And he was kind of loud, you know, so it was like, what is this statement and this action?
BRIGER: Yeah, it sounds jarring.
KRAVITZ: Yeah. And that's when the conversations really began with my mother about race and, you know, perception of things.
BRIGER: That night, I think - or later that day, your mom could see that you were upset, and she talked to you about, like, you know, a way to think about your identity. And I think she explained it very - really well. What did she say to you?
KRAVITZ: For that time, it was a really good explanation. And at my age, you know, she wanted me to understand that there were two sides to me. And she didn't want me to feel like I had to pick one or one was better than the other. She said your father, you know, is a Russian Jew. This is his background, and I want you to be proud of that. And I want you to know about it and understand it. You know, we are of African descent, you know, by way of the Bahamas. And that is your culture, and that is beautiful as well. And I want you to accept that.
She said, but society is only going to see you as Black. They're not going to see the other side.
BRIGER: Yeah. You know, your mom sounds like she was really great at being a mom. She, like, would handle situations like that and explain things really well. And she had this thing that she did where if you said abracadabra, she'd become a dog named Ruff-Ruff (ph), who you could tell all your problems to. And it - that was such a great idea because she's both your mom at that point, but also not your mom. And you can feel - like, maybe there's some things you might feel uncomfortable telling your mom about. But then you felt really safe talking to her about the things that were bothering you.
KRAVITZ: Well, yeah. She was also my analyst. And...
KRAVITZ: ...At a very young age. And it was very smart of her to come up with this character. I'm sure that she tried to speak to me. And, perhaps, I wasn't receptive. Or, you know, there were things that I didn't want to tell her. So she made up this character called Ruff-Ruff, which was this magical dog. And she told me that if I said abracadabra, you know - well, I'd say abracadabra. And then she'd say, ruff, ruff, you know?
KRAVITZ: And then, instantly, she was Ruff-Ruff. She had a different voice, different body language. And, you know, for a 4-year-old, I bought it. And we would speak. And she'd asked me how I felt. And she would, you know, dig. And, you know, I was comfortable telling Ruff-Ruff what I was feeling. And after that, she'd say, OK, you know? I'm going to bring mommy back now. And, you know, I won't tell her what we spoke about. And I'd have to say abracadabra again. And then she became my mother again. And I really believed that I was talking to somebody else. But it was beautiful that she found this way for me to be comfortable expressing myself.
BRIGER: Yeah. I think it probably didn't hurt that she was a well-trained actress. So she could probably, like, embody that character well. But it was also - it's just a really smart idea. At the same time, it sounds like your dad was not super prepared to be a parent at that point. He was - he seemed angry and frustrated and would often take out those feelings on you.
And, you know, like you would hurt yourself in the park and be crying. And he'd say, if you don't stop crying, I'll give you something to cry about. But you also say that it's clear that he loved you. And you have a lot of similarities. And I'm wondering that as you've gotten older and as you've parented your own daughter, were you able to come to an understanding about your dad's behavior that wasn't available to you when you were younger?
KRAVITZ: Absolutely. You know, and I say this now because I've come to understand him. You know, he was working with what he had. And as a kid, you're not - (laughter) you have no clue of that concept. You know, you want the love. You want the attention. You want the closeness, the tenderness. And that wasn't what he had. He had other things. But he wasn't hands-on in that way. He wasn't going to, you know, hold you and, you know, you sit and cuddle with your dad and watch TV or do - you know, or, you know, be warm in that way.
But, you know, it was an interesting childhood. I spent most of my childhood being afraid of him, really, because the way he expressed himself was a bit hardcore, you know? The way he was raising me, it was more like he was a sergeant and I was a private. And that makes sense because, you know, he went to the military at 17. And, you know, he became, you know, quite a badass. He became a Green Beret. And, you know, those are the hardcore of the hardcore. And I think that way was most comfortable for him.
BRIGER: Well, let's take a quick break here. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Lenny Kravitz. He's got a new memoir about his early years called "Let Love Rule." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LENNY KRAVITZ SONG, "FLY AWAY")
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with Lenny Kravitz, who has a new memoir called "Let Love Rule." It's about his years up until the release of his first album, which is also called "Let Love Rule."
Well, let's talk about how music influenced you as a young kid. You know, it sounds like you had this innate ability to remember tunes. And melodies would stick in your head. And music was always around you. But when you heard The Jackson 5, that changed you. You thought of yourself as the sixth Jackson brother, right? Like...
KRAVITZ: Oh, yeah. I used to write in my notebook Lenny Jackson. You know, I had this fantasy that I was the long lost brother...
KRAVITZ: ...And they were going to find me. And then I was going to join the group.
BRIGER: Would you be lead singer or - (laughter) what would you role be?
KRAVITZ: Oh, no. I'd have been - no. Nobody could outdo Michael...
BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah.
KRAVITZ: ...Not possible. That's one in a universe. I mean, his genius was incredible. And so I identified with them - the music, the appearance, the whole expression. And then my father - this is, you know, one of the most beautiful experiences with him as a child - surprised me one day, picked me up from school. He was standing at the door of the class. And I didn't understand why he was there. He didn't normally pick me up. I don't think he ever did, really.
And we got in the cab. And we went to Madison Square Garden. And that was the first concert that I'd ever seen. And it blew my head off, changed my life. I knew that I wanted to be involved in music. I didn't know how or what. I didn't think about that, but I knew that that affected me and that music was important to me.
BRIGER: You know, early on, it sounds like you were intrigued by the combination of, like, the music and the visual style of your early idols. Like, you were both studious of how rock stars made their music but also how they created their look. Is that right?
KRAVITZ: Well, yeah, they were like superheroes. They didn't look like people on the street.
BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah, that's right.
KRAVITZ: You know, they wore clothes that you didn't see folks wearing. I mean, I did see a bit of that around my mother and her friends because they had a really great sense of fashion. And, you know, this is the late '60s in New York City. So they're wearing really, you know, cool clothing. But, yeah, I was aware of that, you know, that there was a sound and there was a visual presentation and that they went together. They amplified each other.
BRIGER: You wrote your first song around that time called "I Love You, Baby" (ph). Do you remember enough of it to sing or give us some of the lyrics?
KRAVITZ: Other lyrics? That was it, man (laughter).
BRIGER: Oh, that was it (laughter).
KRAVITZ: I love you, baby, over and over and over and over again. That was the only - it was - there was one line and somehow I guess I knew you had to have I love you and you had to have baby, for sure. Oh, actually, no. There was another line. It was, I love you, baby. I love you, baby. I love you more and more each day. That was it. So that was the extent of my first song at, like, you know, 6 or 7 years old.
BRIGER: So, Lenny, a big turning point in your life was when your mom got the part of Helen Willis on a new TV show called "The Jeffersons," and she was going to play half of the first interracial couple on prime-time TV. So that was a big deal. It also meant having to move across the country to LA. And so I'm just wondering, did she have any reservations about, like, leaving her New York theater scene or even working on a sitcom at that point?
KRAVITZ: I don't think so. She was on Broadway at the time in a play called "The River Niger," put on by the Negro Ensemble Company. And Norman Lear came to that play, saw her, met her, thought that she'd be perfect for the role of Helen Willis on his new sitcom, "The Jeffersons," which was a spinoff from "All In The Family." And, you know, he had a come out to LA. I think she was quite happy to do so. And then she got the part and I was told that we would have to go to Los Angeles. She had friends who said, you know, don't go to LA and sell out, you know, TV. You know, you're a theater actress. But, you know, my mother was a grown woman, you know, and had worked hard, and this was an opportunity to break into television, to make more money to support the family, I mean, along with my father who was working. And she went for it, and Los Angeles became my next education and my next location where I learned things that I never would have learned in New York City.
BRIGER: Yeah. Well, one of the things is that your mom convinced you to join the California Boys Choir, which is a pretty rigorous choir. And you would, you know, have concerts in large halls and Hollywood Bowl and appear in operas. And it sounds like you really enjoyed it. Yeah. You liked the music. You met some good friends, and you say you learned a lot about vocal techniques that have served you well in your career. Can you talk about what you learned then that you still use now? Because you're doing different kind of singing for sure.
KRAVITZ: Of course. Not only that, I mean, first of all, the discipline. Now, of course, I had discipline in my life, but this now was musical discipline. And, you know, they pushed us. This was serious. The California Boys Choir, you know, we had to learn to sing in, you know, 15 different languages. You know, we didn't learn the languages, obviously, but we learned how to pronounce everything perfectly with proper accents, you know, from Latin to German. I mean, everything. And, you know, we learned how to sight read and, you know, vocal training and how to support the voice and staging and stage presentation, you know, because we were also doing operas. It was a very solid foundation and an experience that gave me this education that I base everything that I do on.
(SOUNDBITE OF LENNY KRAVITZ SONG, "WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND")
BRIGER: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lenny Kravitz. His memoir, "Let Love Rule," has just come out. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND")
KRAVITZ: (Singing) My pockets were full and now my money's gone. My friends come around and now they're gone. Things come when they come and then they go. And where they go nobody knows. It's going to come around. What goes around comes around. It's going to come around. What goes around comes around. My cup over runneth with fullness and grace, yet people push [expletive] in my face. The future can't hold what your money can't buy. My brother keeps striving your child relies. It's going to come around. What goes around comes around. It's going to come around. What goes around comes around.
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our guest, Lenny Kravitz, has a new memoir about his life up to the release of his first album, "Let Love Rule," which came out in 1989. The memoir is also called "Let Love Rule."
You became a teenager, and you went to high school at Beverly Hills High, probably the most famous high school in the country. And this is the '80s. You're really into the '80s new wave scene. You're inspired by Prince and David Bowie. And you kind of do that new romantic look that was popular at the time. Like, you're wearing ruffled shirts, and there's some androgyny to your clothing. And you're smoking pot, like, all the time. You're sneaking out at night. You're creeping into your parents' bedroom, stealing your mother's cars, rolling (laughter) your car down the hill until you can start it. And then...
KRAVITZ: I'd have to steal the car keys, which was the...
BRIGER: Which was in their room, right?
KRAVITZ: That was about a 30-minute operation, you must understand...
KRAVITZ: ...Because, you know, I had to open the door to their bedroom and not have them hear the click. I then had to get on my hands and knees and crawl to this closet that was very close to my parents' bed. I'm talking about - like, it was probably, you know, three feet from their bed. And I had to, you know, reach my hand in there in the pitch black - and there was all kinds of things on these shelves - and find the keys, get the keys in my hand, you know, get back on my hands and knees, close the door, crawl back out of the room. I mean, that was a 30-minute thing. I dreaded that.
BRIGER: And you never woke them up?
KRAVITZ: Not once.
KRAVITZ: They never had an idea that I was stealing their car. I had no license. You know...
BRIGER: Yeah, you were 14 - right? - weren't you?
KRAVITZ: Yeah, 14 and 15. And I'm driving this car...
BRIGER: Yeah. And then you go dancing all night, right?
KRAVITZ: ...At night in LA, you know, in the middle of the night, going to clubs, going to the Odyssey, you know? And then I would have to get the - you know, 5:00 in the morning, I'd make sure I was back. And we lived on a hill up in Baldwin Hills. So I had to go very fast with the car, turn it off as we were approaching our driveway, coast into the driveway, make a turn into the carport while the car was off. And, you know, the power steering would shut off. I mean, it was a whole thing.
But I was dedicated because that's where I was having my adventures at night - going out and hanging out in these clubs and hanging out with all of these, you know, people of the night, you know?
BRIGER: Did you ever tell your parents you did that?
KRAVITZ: Later as an adult, yes.
KRAVITZ: I was like, come on, you didn't know? Come on, I was stealing your car every night. What's wrong with you? My mother - God bless her - I mean, she - you know, she was very pure. And, I mean, she didn't - you know, she didn't know I was smoking weed until I was, you know, making my second album. So I hid all that stuff really well.
BRIGER: You know, when you're a teenager at Beverly Hills High, you're making a lot of music. You describe it as a kind of mix between, like, that new wave and, like, soul. Can you - what did it sound like? Can you compare it to anyone or give us a sense of what it was?
KRAVITZ: It was a mix of things. It was like if you took The Jacksons at that time, like the '80s Jacksons, like from the "Triumph" album, and you took a little bit of Rick James and The Gap Band and, you know, '80s funk. And then you took some Bowie and some Hendrix and some Zeppelin and kind of just smashed it all together - it was funky, but it was electric. It had some loud guitars, but it had, you know, pumping bass. It was everything I loved about music.
BRIGER: So around this time, your dad's left working in the news, and he's been trying all these business schemes without a lot of success. It sounds like he was frustrated that your mom was the breadwinner in the family. And your relationship with him gets pretty bad. Eventually, he kicks you out of the house. Like, you were going to go see one of your idols one day, Buddy Rich, play the drums. And he said, if you leave now, you can't come back. And you said, OK.
At this time, you're also hustling as a musician. Like, you're sleeping in your car or friends' families take you in. But you're getting gigs. Like, there's actually a YouTube video of you playing the keytar with Herb Alpert on "Soul Train." And you're full '80s at that point. You've got the big shoulder pads in your jacket. You got a skinny tie. And, actually, it's cool - Don Cornelius asks everyone your name, and you say Romeo Blue, which was what you were calling yourself at that point. Talk about taking on a persona and how that idea came to you.
KRAVITZ: I wasn't comfortable with my name, with Lenny Kravitz. I thought it was anything but rock 'n' roll. And, you know, this is the days of Madonna and Prince and all these folks and - with these names. And, you know, I'm into David Bowie. And I thought, I've got to change my name, you know? And some friends of mine gave me the nickname Romeo, and then I put the Blue on it and became Romeo Blue and, you know, changed my appearance and, you know, came up with the fashion that went with it, got these blue contact lenses at the time. This is before they had those soft, you know...
BRIGER: Yeah, that was a commitment at the time.
KRAVITZ: ...Fashionable contact lenses.
BRIGER: Yeah, those are hard lenses.
KRAVITZ: These were bottle caps, man.
BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah.
KRAVITZ: These things were - they were horrible. But I used to put them in. And, you know, my eyes would be tearing, and they'd be red. And it was - you know, it'd just kill me to wear these things. But I was completely committed to this character.
BRIGER: One of the really interesting things about this part of the book is that, you know, you're offered quite a lot of deals from record companies and people want you to sing songs that go on to become famous, and you turn them all down because, well, you don't feel like they're you. And that's interesting, first of all, because at this point, you're living in a car. Like, you don't have a lot of money. You don't have a lot of options. But also because at this point, you haven't really found out what your sound is.
So even though you didn't know what your sound was, you were still turning down these other things. Like, at that point, you were still searching for your musical identity, right?
KRAVITZ: Yeah. And to this day, I can't explain to you how I had that power to turn those things down. But here's the thing - they were giving me these offers, but each time, they always said, you know, you can't do what you're doing. You have to do this, you know, because this is what works. And this is what sells. And this is what a Black artist does to get on the radio, et cetera.
And every time it got to the point where the contract was presented, I couldn't do it. There was a feeling that was just off. I felt physically ill. And as you said, I hadn't found my sound yet. So I'm turning it down not because I know what I should be doing, you know? I'm turning it down for something that I haven't even found yet. And that's a good point. I never thought of it like that because I hadn't. But I knew that this was not what I wanted to do. Now, how did I have the confidence to have faith in that is beyond me for somebody at that age in the situation that I was in.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT AIN'T OVER 'TIL IT'S OVER")
KRAVITZ: (Singing) Here we are still together, we are - so much time wasted playing games with love. So many tears I've cried, so much pain inside - but, baby, it ain't over 'til it's over. So many years we've tried to keep our love alive - but, baby, it ain't over 'til it's over. How many times did we give up? But we always worked things out. And all my doubts and fears kept me wondering, yeah, if I'd always, always be in love. So many tears I've cried, so much pain inside...
BRIGER: We're speaking with Lenny Kravitz, who has a new memoir called "Let Love Rule." More with him after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LENNY KRAVITZ SONG, "I BELONG TO YOU")
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm speaking with Lenny Kravitz. He has a memoir that comes out this week called "Let Love Rule."
So Lenny, you met Lisa Bonet, who was starring in "The Cosby Show" at that time, someone you've had a childhood crush on. And also, you (laughter) said to one of your friends one time I'm going to marry that girl one day. And at first, you know, you were just very good friends. But it was a very intense relationship where you would talk all night. And you'd read poetry together and watch movies. And as you say, like, the relationship became romantic. You got married. You had your daughter, Zoe.
And through this time, it sounds like you guys were living in this really wonderful, nurturing bubble together. And you say that, like, the songwriting really changed at that point. And I just want to read what you say here. You say, (reading) at long last, I'd start to hear songs rooted in spirit, songs that were taking form just as our daughter was taking form, a double blessing. The songs were different from anything I'd written before simply because the life we were living and the love we were creating had made me feel different. This was what I'd been waiting for. The wait was finally over. The channel was open. It all made sense.
So can you talk about how those new songs felt different to you than the ones you were writing before?
KRAVITZ: Well, the ones I was writing before were labored, you know? I was trying to come up with something. I was trying to find this style, which is fine. That's part of the exercise. But all of a sudden, they were being downloaded. It was beyond my thought process. It was just being presented like, here you go. Here it is. This is it. You don't have to think about it. You don't have to look for it. Here it is.
And it may not have been exactly what I thought I was going to be doing. But I was hearing it. I was feeling it. The portal was open. And I accepted it. And that was the beginning of "Let Love Rule." You know, I made that record without a record label. I mean, that was just done on my own. And I didn't know what I was going to do with it. But I knew that I had to complete that task. And I did. And then we went from there.
BRIGER: Well, you start recording these songs with your friend, who was the engineer for them, Henry Hirsch. And you both decide that you should really try to play most of the instruments yourself and do most of the vocals. And that's something you've sort of done throughout your years as a recording artist. Because, like, if you look at the credits for your albums, like, you play a lot of stuff on them. Can you talk about the difference between doing that and collaborating with other musicians on a recording? Like, what do you see as the trade-offs or the benefits of each?
KRAVITZ: Well, I've never made an album yet with a band. And, you know, I never planned on doing that. But I couldn't afford to hire musicians when I was making the album, you know? I had enough to pay for the studio. That was hard enough. So Henry had heard me play different instruments before this experience when I was with another band, which is how I met Henry and found out about that studio.
And he said, look; why don't you do it yourself? You know, you don't have the money to pay people. Just do it. I've heard you play. I've heard you play bass. I've heard you play keyboards. I've heard you play drums. I've heard you play guitar. Just do it. And I thought that was the most boring idea because I didn't want to be in the studio by myself, you know, with an engineer. Like, how boring. I wanted it to be like, you know, the documentaries that I've seen, you know, with bands, you know, in the studio and, you know, the fun and the party and the whole thing and the energy and - but, you know, I was also heavily influenced by people like Stevie Wonder and Prince and Paul McCartney who made records on their own. And I did it and that became the sound of the band.
BRIGER: Well - so you recorded these. You do most of the instruments yourself and you started shopping around the music to record companies. And it sounds like a lot of people didn't know what to make of it. Like, some executives would say, your music wasn't Black enough or it wasn't white enough. This was, like, in the mid to late '80s. Do you think people expected you to be a hip-hop artist because you were Black?
KRAVITZ: Yeah, hip-hop or R&B. They just - you know, you'd put the music on and then they'd look at you like, nah, this isn't going to work. Like, what are you doing, you know? And it's funny, even after I released the record, when I would do interviews, people would say, you know, why aren't you doing hip-hop? Like, why are you doing this? You know, they had this thing stuck in their head that, you know, why aren't you angry? Why aren't you doing this? I mean, I - the questions that I would hear were incredible. They just had a hard time accepting the fact that I was playing, by the way, Black music, rock 'n' roll.
BRIGER: You're in your mid-50s now, seems like you're healthy. You look great. But I imagine that the life of a touring rock star is hard. And looking at what's happened to some rock stars and some of your idols as they've gotten into middle age, it doesn't seem very easy on the body. Like, take for example, Prince. You know, it seems like he had a lot of pain from all those years of incredible performance, got into an unhealthy relationship with painkillers, died from an accidental overdose. I mean, it's tragic thinking about what happened to him. And - but I'm just wondering, like, where you are in your life, have you had to reassess the extent to which you're willing to live part of your life on the road?
KRAVITZ: You know, it is a very hard life. It's a wonderful life. It's a blessed life. But it's a job, man. Once you're on that road, you know, you're out there touring for two years, 2 1/2 years and traveling the world. And, you know, everything is about those, you know, 2 1/2 hours on stage or however long it might be. You're dedicated and it takes a lot out of you. And no, I'm not, you know, 20 anymore, but I still - I think my energy is even better now than it was then. And so, you know, I look at people like, you know, Mick Jagger who's, you know, in his mid-70s and can still work a stadium like no other. He still has that energy and that strength. And, you know, he and I have known each other for some years now, and we've spent time together. And, you know, I can tell you that he's made that decision to be able to continue doing that. There's discipline involved, what he will and will not put in his body, how he exercises, how he rests, et cetera. And so I've decided that I'm going to continue doing this as long as I can.
BRIGER: So we might see some mid-70s tours.
KRAVITZ: Oh, that's young. Mid-70s, that's easy.
BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah.
KRAVITZ: That's a given.
BRIGER: OK (laughter).
KRAVITZ: We'll talk after that, like, you know, when I hit 80 or something and then we'll see what we're doing.
BRIGER: (Laughter) Then you'll think about it. OK. Well, Lenny Kravitz, thanks so much for coming on FRESH AIR today.
KRAVITZ: It's been a pleasure.
DAVIES: Lenny Kravitz speaking with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Kravitz's new memoir is called "Let Love Rule." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel from Tana French, who created the "Dublin Murder Squad" crime series. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF 5HAUS' "SHAPESHIFTING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.