How Mr Lenny Kravitz Keeps His Cool
After four decades in the spotlight, the singer-songwriter talks staying young, looking for The One and the secret behind his signature style
Mr Lenny Kravitz, 53 years old and somehow never a day over 30, looks up to two paragons of male agelessness, the idols of his future self. “One day, I was recording with Mick [Jagger] in my studio in Miami and we were in the kitchen on a ‘caviar break’ because, you know, Mick likes to have caviar and champagne for a break,” he laughs. “And Denzel [Washington] came over – he’s my big brother – and we realised that we were all born a decade apart. So there’s this little club that I have. It’s like, OK, I’ve just watched my boy Denzel go through this, 10 years ahead of me, and my other boy, Mick, is 20 years ahead of me.”
Next spring, Mr Kravitz will release his 11th studio album, followed directly by a 12th, which will keep him on tour until he is 58. But, as he points out, the lithe Sir Mick is still rocking at 74. “Mick can outperform a 20-year-old,” he says. “The Rolling Stones’ stages are huge. I’ve performed with them, and you don’t realise how much he is doing when you see him going back and forth and back and forth for two-and-a-half hours. So if you take care of yourself, [age] doesn’t matter. You can have two Porsches in the garage from 1964. One’s beaten up and one looks like it just came off the showroom floor.”
Indeed. Mr Kravitz is still in pristine condition. Apart from the length of his dreadlocks, he is almost physically unchanged from the 28-year-old clad in a feather boa and flares on the cover of his second album, 1991’s Mama Said: a mama’s boy with Bahamian and Jewish heritage and the falsetto of Mr Curtis Mayfield, dirty Mr Jimi Hendrix riffs and a folksy, late 1960s manifesto of peace, love and textural fabrics. When he released his first album, Let Love Rule, in the electronic dance music-dominated late 1980s, he was written off as retrograde by some music critics who were perhaps stung that such a solo talent – he plays all the instruments on his records – also represented the resurrection of rock and raunch godliness of the previous decade.
By 1992, he had married and split from The Cosby Show’s Ms Lisa Bonet, co-written and produced Madonna’s “Justify My Love” and helped transform his Parisian girlfriend Ms Vanessa Paradis from a Tweety ingenue into a tousled rock kitten with an eponymous album. But in 1993, he asked “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” and the world did just that. Vintage exploded, rock was rehabilitated and he won the Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance from 1999 to 2002.
Fifteen years on, his status has remained as unsullied as his physique. Rather than rest on past glories, he has released an album every three years – both 5 and Baptism document his devotion to Christianity – and diversified into acting in Mr Lee Daniel’s Oscar-nominated Precious (2009), The Butler (2014) and TV series Star (2016), as well as playing the stylist Cinna in the first two Hunger Games films. Meanwhile, as a confirmed aesthete, he has turned his sharp eye to photography and, on the advice of Mr Philippe Starck, set up his own interior design business for everything from doorknobs and wallpaper to condos and hotels. He’s even designed his own limited editions of the Leica camera and the Rolex Daytona.
Today, when I meet him at an elegantly wasted mansion outside Paris where the shoot takes place, he is in double denim and suede boots, all homey congeniality. As well as a being consummate professional, proud of his old-school Bahamian values of “follow through”, “discipline” and “respect”, Mr Kravitz is a gentle man – and a gentleman. When time is short, and I must keep the interview going on the way back to Paris via his afternoon appointments, he calls his driver and close friend Samyr to hire a van for us and pick up his Mercedes.
On the road, he raves about the château. “I could easily live in that place with a mattress and a candle and a boom box. Done,” he says, his voice as youthful and resonant as the vocals on Let Love Rule. “My life has always been high-low. I’m attracted to being in the hood or being in an opulent palace. The middle does nothing for me.” This is all part of Mr Kravitz’s seeming contradictions. He is still very much a romantic and “a hippie”, he says, albeit, at times, a champagne one. But in recent years, he has pared back his lifestyle, selling his New York penthouse, the waterfront home in Miami complete with Plexiglass bed (a 10-minute waterski from his Roxie Studios, named after his beloved late mother, the actress Ms Roxie Roker), and his farm in Brazil.
He now spends his time between Paris – in a stately mansion once built as the US embassy, bedecked in chandeliers and marble in a palette of white, black and gold – and an Airstream trailer on the tiny island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. It is here that he lives for months on end while recording at Gregory Town Sound, the glass-walled studio and analogue heaven he built. “I love [the Airstream],” he says. “It’s like a womb. You can’t have clutter in there, so you break it down – very few clothes, very few things – and you realise how little you need. My Paris home is my opulent fantasy. But I don’t have it for the sake of showing off. ‘Oh look at this.’ No, I have it because I design. So it’s really a workshop and showroom for me as well as home.”
Given Mr Kravitz’s strong nostalgist bent, many of his objets d’art have sentimental significance. He still keeps a 1967 Another Mother for Peace anti-war poster from his childhood bedroom wall. On the mantelpiece in his Paris bedroom sit his most prized possessions: Mr Bob Dylan’s harmonica, Mr Jimi Hendrix’s handwritten set list for Woodstock and, the most recent addition, a pair of his “dear friend Prince’s” heels. He also has the late musician’s personal tambourine.
Mr Kravitz was shocked at his sudden death from an opioid overdose in April 2016, given that Prince was so clean living he didn’t even allow alcohol into his home, Paisley Park. He shakes his head. “We definitely felt a sort of kinship, you know?” The death of Prince was not Mr Kravitz’s only tragedy in recent years. He has lost Mr Michael Jackson, whom he worked with just before he died, and Mr David Bowie, whom he supported on tour in the late 1980s. “Somehow Prince affected me most deeply,” he says. “It really rocked me. He passed and it’s horrible, but he really did his thing to the fullest. And I felt like if I had passed, my story is incomplete. I mean, music-wise, I’m not even close. It really made me refocus.”
Mr Kravitz retreated to his Airstream and completed two new albums – the second will be accompanied by a film that he will direct. He hints that his new work, still under wraps, will be a contemporary follow-up to 2011’s Black And White America, which was a “hopeful celebration” of a multi-racial US in the wake of Mr Barack Obama’s presidency. (In 2001, Mr Kravitz was mistakenly identified as a bank robber by Miami police and handcuffed on his way to the gym.) Right now, Mr Kravitz says, he is “very confused”. He wants to talk about his friend, the NFL footballer Mr Colin Kaepernick, kneeling during the national anthem in protest at the continuing racial inequality in the US. “I’m white and black, so I can talk about things from both sides,” he says. “The fact that you decide to take a knee doesn’t mean that you don’t love your country or are anti-American. It means you want there to be change. If there’s something wrong in a household, it doesn’t mean you don’t love your family. We should be able to talk about these things.”
Born in Manhattan in 1964, the son of Ms Roker and Mr Sy Kravitz, a news producer of Jewish-Ukrainian descent, the young Mr Kravitz grew up between his parents’ apartment in a Beaux Arts building on the Upper East Side and his maternal grandparents’ place in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, then nicknamed Little Harlem. He slipped seamlessly between the two worlds. “But I had two names,” he says. “In Manhattan, I was Lenny; in Brooklyn, I was called Eddie.” Ms Roker, a member of the Negro Ensemble Company, was deeply entrenched in the civil rights movement. “My mum was around all the great African-American people coming up,” says Mr Kravitz. “They were a crew. Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote To Be Young Gifted And Black, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan.” Mr Duke Ellington played to him on his fifth birthday during a gig at Manhattan’s Rainbow Room in 1969, and when Mr Kravitz saw the Jackson Five in concert in 1971, he resolved to be a musician.
Mr Kravitz’s father, an ex-sergeant in the Green Berets, was a strong disciplinarian. His only son was named after his younger brother Leonard, who died at 19 saving his platoon during the Korean War. (He was awarded the Medal of Honour in 2014, along with 23 other servicemen who were originally overlooked due to their ethnicity.) “My dad wanted to send me to military school at one point,” says Mr Kravitz. “That just wasn’t happening. My mum was all hippie peace and love, and that side was prevalent.” The Kravitzes moved to Baldwin Heights (dubbed “The Black Beverly Hills”) in Los Angeles in 1974 when Ms Roker, by now Tony nominated, was cast in CBS sitcom The Jeffersons as one half of the first interracial couple on US television. “It featured one of the first interracial kisses on prime-time TV,” he says. “The shit that my mother took for that, the hate mail.”
At 10, Mr Kravitz enrolled in the classical California Boys Choir. At the same time, he discovered The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and was accepted into the prestigious music programme at Beverly Hills High School, where he met a lifelong friend in Mr Saul Hudson, who would become better known as Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash. (Mr Kravitz toured with Guns N’ Roses for their comeback in 2016.) In 1985, he began recording his own album, which would evolve into his debut Let Love Rule, which he released four years later. It was then he developed his famous aesthetic with Oscar-nominated costumier and Madonna collaborator Ms Arianne Phillips, then an up-and-coming stylist whom he met at a party in 1987. “I was her first gig,” he says. “We created that look: my dad’s old suits and my mum’s feather boas. Arianne and I are responsible for bringing back flares, which we, well, I got murdered for. I never forget Madonna calling me [for a reference] and saying, ‘So what’s up with this girl?’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah. She’s the shit.’”
There have been consistencies in his style ever since: his twin nose rings, an ability to carry off an unbuttoned shirt against all laws of post-1970s male grooming, and a preference for going commando. Has he grown any fonder of an extra layer? “Do I have any underwear on now? No. Thus the problems that I incur.” In 2015, on stage in Stockholm in a mishap affectionately known as penisgate, his leather trousers tore. “I didn’t rip them,” he laughs. “They became ripped. It was fine. But it was a little cold in Sweden. I would’ve warmed it up a little, had I known.”
Speaking of ripped… We stop at Mr Kravitz’s gym in central Paris. When he returns to the car after his session, I ask him how he has stayed so uniformly taut. “I have done nothing to my body or my face,” he says. “I just wash it with water. I eat primarily raw, foods that are alive, vibrating, emit energy. I eat off the land in the Bahamas.” He has his own organic farm there. (Even during the highs of his youth, he stuck to natural produce. “Weed was my vice. A natural psychedelic here or there. I never got into heroin or coke or pills.”) But, he says, “Discipline is the overall thing. I work out with Dodd Romero in Miami [also trainer to Mr Denzel Washington] with pro athletes. I’ve never felt so vibrant as I do right now.”
As we head off again, I catch him checking out a pretty girl from the car window. Is he still single? After engagements to Brazilian model Ms Adriana Lima (between 2001 and 2003) and Ms Nicole Kidman (2003–2004), Mr Kravitz spoke of a new commitment to celibacy outside marriage in 2005. Has he been single all this time? “No, I’ve been with people you don’t know about,” he says. “I keep it on the down low. I’ve been like really, really single for the last few months. I’m keeping it that way. They were the people for that time. Great love, great growth. But I’m waiting to meet that person. I’m waiting for the soul partner, the wife.”
Perhaps it has been difficult to reclaim the heights of his epic first love with Ms Bonet, also half Jewish, half African-American. The pair met in 1985, married in Las Vegas in 1987 and had their daughter, Ms Zoë Kravitz, in 1988 (she’s now an actress in Mad Max: Fury Road, the X-Men and Divergent series, as well as in HBO’s Big Little Lies). “We were mirror images of each other, male and female,” he says. “It was quite extraordinary.” Has he ever found that kind of love again? “Not that. It will never be that. I was 21. She was 21. It’s that time when you are discovering yourself, your art. It’s a very romantic time in general.” But he adds, “I hope to have a great love again. I plan on it.” They have remained “best friends”, he says.
Ms Zoë Kravitz, who moved from LA to Miami to live with her father aged 11, vets his potential girlfriends. “She’s definitely hard on people,” he says. “If someone’s around who is not in her eyes correct, she’ll let it be known.” To that person? “To everybody. What’s wonderful about Zoë is that she’s very honest. She’s not fake at all.” What does she think he needs? “An equal. Whatever that means. Creativity is normally part of it.” Meanwhile, his daughter has dated Mr Michael Fassbender and Mr Chris Pine and is now with Nocturnal Animals actor Mr Karl Glusman. “I’m not a jealous dad,” says Mr Kravitz. “There really hasn’t been anybody that I didn’t approve of. Maybe I’ve thought ‘meh’. But I don’t voice that. Obviously, if somebody was not a good person, I would jump in.”
Like his daughter, Mr Kravitz says, he has “stayed friends with my exes, in most cases”. This includes Ms Kidman, who produced and co-starred with Ms Kravitz in the Emmy Award-winning Big Little Lies. “Nicole is amazing,” says Mr Kravitz. “Zoe and she hadn’t spent time together since she was younger, since Nicole and I were together, so that was great.” While he waits for his next big love, Mr Kravitz is content to hang out with his Parisian friends, who include Samyr, “a hairdresser, a baker… Last night, I had dinner with the most beautiful 91-year-old woman.”
By now we’re outside the Saint Laurent boutique in the 2nd Arrondissement for a fitting. Tomorrow Mr Kravitz will attend the brand’s SS18 show at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, his only appearance of the season. “I’m over the whole fashion thing,” he says. Right now he’s just into “denim, denim, denim”. His wardrobe has adapted to planting trees in Eleuthera and his future hobbies, ceramics, woodwork, painting and surfing. “On the island, I wash my clothes with a hose,” he says. “I have a bottle of Dr Bronner’s soap, almond. I wash my body with it, I wash my clothes with it. And then I put them on a rock to dry.” Now that is real rock ’n’ roll.