My “hilarious” Lenny Kravitz icebreaker only manages to raise a small smile: “I loved you in The Hunger Games and then I found out you were a musician too – well done you!” Perhaps he realises that for those half his age today, that really is the order in which his various talents are discovered. His last big hit single was Fly Away, in 1999, whereas until very recently he was doing the Hollywood blockbuster thing as Jennifer Lawrence’s charming costume designer, Cinna, in the first two films of the dystopian teen franchise.
Now, however, he’s back in the role he was born to play: tattooed rock god, two nose piercings, pecs out on the cover of his imminent 10th album, sounding as funky and sexy as ever. No beating around the bush, the opening song is called, simply, Sex. “Gonna get it on in your dirty white boots,” he sings later on. Steady on, Lenny!
“This feels fresh and up, and powerful but light,” he tells me of this month’s new album, proudly titled Strut. “It was really smooth to make. I was just trying to stay out of the way and not complicate things.”
It’s no wonder he’s full of youthful vigour. He’s the youngest 50-year-old I’ve ever met, afro in full pomp, all in black, with two more shirt buttons open than would be acceptable for anyone in any other profession. “It’s good genes, it’s natural, I don’t know,” he ponders when I ask what his secret is. “I haven’t pickled myself with drugs like some people have.”
He’s taken over a plush room in one of Paris’s poshest hotels for the day, as befitting a man with four US platinum albums and eight Grammys to his name. It’s a nice life. He chose the hotel because it’s a short walk from his (palatial) pad in the 16th arrondissement. Otherwise he’s at his residence on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera, where he recorded the new songs, or “staying with friends” across the world, by which I assume he doesn’t mean sofas and floor mats.
In New York you’ll find him in the downtown Manhattan offices of Kravitz Design, coming up with luxurious modern interiors for hotels and penthouses. “We’ve got a couple of houses we’re doing in Beverly Hills right now, a nightclub here in Paris. I love doing it. It gives me different outlets to be creative.”
On the acting side, he’s been a surprisingly reluctant film star, especially given that he’s the son of actress Roxie Roker and TV producer Sy Kravitz, as well as having his only child, 25-year-old actress Zoë Kravitz, with Cosby Show star Lisa Bonet. “I just never thought about doing it. I was living the music life,” he says.
He and Zoë (the foremost woman in this single man’s life these days) both have fans among the fantasy geeks now, as she’s in another teen sci-fi series, Divergent.
One issue previously was the type of role he was being offered (“People want to make films with me as something close to the image they think I really am but I’m not interested in doing that”). Then director Lee Daniels proposed that he play the opposite of a rock star, a gentle nurse, in the harrowing 2009 drama Precious, and that was far more appealing. Kravitz went on to appear as a White House servant in Daniels’s The Butler. As far as the craft goes, he doesn’t seem to take it too seriously — “You just have to do your best not to act. That’s the whole thing.”
It was while he was making the second Hunger Games film, Catching Fire (“Sitting in trailers, waiting and waiting”), that the songs on Strut began to pour out of him. “All this stuff was just keeping me up at night,” he says. “It just came. All of a sudden you start hearing music. It really needed to come out at that moment. If I hadn’t caught it we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
Strut is a very different beast from its 2011 predecessor, Black and White America. That one dealt with race issues in his homeland and explored his life as a mixed-race child of the Sixties. “It was very introspective, and it was all over the place, like a lot of my records are, but it was a heavier tone. This one is light, as in not burdened.” There’s a propulsive, bass-led anthem called The Chamber, as well as a low-slung funk monster, Frankenstein, and a powerful ode to the city where he was born and raised, simply titled New York City.
He’s written about the place before, but “not like that”, he says. “She’s lived and died so many times,” he sings in the chorus, referencing the 9/11 attacks, which he saw from the West Village with his own eyes. “I was right there. I watched the buildings fall from my balcony. It was crazy,” he tells me.
In the city as a child, his well-connected parents surrounded him with their talented friends. It was inevitable that he would end up doing something creative. “There was such a vibrancy at that time growing up, with the art and the music. I was around so many artists, such as Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, from so many different worlds — theatre, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, pop, classical, Broadway, soul, gospel and blues. Everything. So New York City fed me.”
As well as New York and Paris, he still has a place in his heart for London. Like so many other musicians, he based himself here at the start of his career to set about building his buzz. “London was the first place in Europe I went to. It was 1989. I would hang out in the little record office down Portobello Road. That’s when Soul II Soul was happening. We were on the same record label, so they had Jazzy B pick me up and he took me all around. He took me to Islington, where he was hanging. Neneh Cherry used to have me come over and she’d make home-cooked meals for me.”
As he recalls it, back then he moved quickly from playing the tiny Borderline in Charing Cross Road to Wembley Arena. He’ll return to the latter at the end of this year but first appears at the Roundhouse this month as part of the iTunes Festival.
Always an incendiary live performer, he says he’s ready to give his life over to touring once again. “There’s no sitting at home waiting for the royalty cheques to come in. Those days are over. I’m looking forward to taking out this new music.”
Of the new songs on Strut, the title track is the most fun and sounds like another hit to me, with its rough-edged guitar and thuggish shouted chorus. His biggest hits — It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over, Are You Gonna Go My Way, American Woman, Fly Away — have come at different stages in his career. In truth, Kravitz always seems like someone with another blockbuster in him — even now, 25 years after his debut album.
He insists he has no intention of coasting on past glories. “That doesn’t satisfy the artistic need. I don’t let those things get me fat. The songs that were huge hits for me, I couldn’t have told you when I was cutting them that they were going to be a hit song. No idea. The best is yet to come.”
So two major landmarks in 2014 — his 10th album and 50th birthday — are apparently no reason to pause for breath and take stock of a glittering career. Lenny Kravitz is strutting onwards towards a beautiful future.
Lenny Kravitz plays in the iTunes Festival at the Roundhouse, NW1 (itunesfestival.com) on Sept 26 and the SSE Arena, Wembley (0844 815 0815, ssearena.co.uk) on Dec 6. His new album, Strut, is released on Sept 22 on Roxie Records.