“This record brought me back to a place of what I love so much about music,” Lenny Kravitz says, “back to the feelings I had when I was in high school. It’s a real rock & roll record – it’s raw, it’s got soul and it came together really quickly.”
Kravitz is describing his tenth studio album, aptly titled Strut, and his summary squarely hits the mark: it’s raw, it’s got soul and it’s a real rock & roll record. The album’s twelve tracks – including such titles as “New York City,” “I Never Want to Let You Down” and “She’s a Beast” – hit hard rhythmically and explore desire in all its forms, from the most physical to the most idealized. These songs wear their heart on their sleeve, and that’s the way Kravitz intended it. He’s had massive hits over the years and sold tens nearly forty million albums. Now is a perfect time to get to the heart of the matter.
Kravitz began to conceive Strut while he was filming his role in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Rather than exhaust him, the long days of filming made the musician in him yearn for an outlet. “I heard all this music swimming around in my head,’” he recalls, though he had no intention of making an album. “That was the last thing on my mind,” he says. “All of this music started bursting out of me.” In a couple of weeks he had the bones of the songs that would become Strut. “I had no time to think about what kind of record I was making or anything like that,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing!” He was working entirely on instinct and inspiration.
When filming was done, he went home to the Bahamas to record. Kravitz was determined not to lose that feeling of making music purely for its own sake, without any strict intention in mind. He named each of the songs before he wrote any lyrics, purely on the impressions he got when he recorded the basic tracks. Many songwriters do that as a kind of studio shorthand, but then change the titles when they write the final lyrics. To retain the spirit of his first thought, best thought concepts, Kravitz refused to do that. He wrote lyrics to correspond to the original, instinctive titles, which proved quite a trick in the case of “Frankenstein” (“he was a loving character, but he was also a monster – it’s a great metaphor for misunderstood love”) and “Happy Birthday,” which started out as an exuberant kiss-off (rejected lyric: “Happy birthday – fuck you!”), but, characteristically turned into a celebration. “I didn’t want to be negative,” he explains. “So I decided to just write a new birthday song. I mean, Stevie Wonder had his and the Beatles had theirs. Here’s mine.”
The title track, meanwhile, is an irresistible staccato groove that honors the individuality in everyone; it’s an invitation to express yourself in whatever way you see fit. “It’s about people being who they are,” Kravitz explains. “We’re all freaks, we’re all unique, and the world is our stage.”
As always, Kravitz plays guitar, bass, keyboards and drums and percussion on the album, and produced and arranged it as well, although, once again, in the interests of not smoothing out the album’s edges, “my approach to the production was not to produce it. The whole point was not to rethink or overthink it.” Craig Ross, who has played with Kravitz for more than two decades, added guitars, and Tom “Bone” Edmonds, who first worked with Kravitz as his front-of-house sound man, served as engineer. Trumpeter Ludovic Louis and Kravitz’s longtime saxophonist Harold Todd provide Strut’s gut-busting horn parts. Cindy Mizelle, Tawatha Agee and James “D Train” Williams deliver soulful background vocals.
To provide the final defining touch on Strut, however, Kravitz called on the legendary Bob Clearmountain to mix the album. Among his many impeccable credits, Clearmountain mixed David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. – three classics that helped shape Kravitz’s musical tastes and that epitomized the bold, spacious, cinematic but still rough-edged sound that he wanted for Strut. “I’ve been waiting for you to call,” Clearmountain cheerfully responded once Kravitz decided to ring him up. Needless to say, he delivered everything Kravitz was hoping for and more. “I never really heard what this record could be until he mixed it,” Kravitz says. “He brought the album to life.”
Strut opens with the ferocious onslaught of “Sex,” a song about the “everyday animal feelings that we all have,” and closes with a muscular cover of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ classic “Ooo Baby Baby,” one of the most romantic songs in all of popular music. Kravitz heard the song on the radio and was reminded of its endless beauty and allure. “On our last night in the studio at five in the morning,” he recalls, “I thought it would be really cool to end the album with a classic cover. I wanted it to feel like the club was being swept up and the lights were being turned on, but we’re going to play one last classic for you. So we listened to it a couple of times, learned the chords and cut it in one solid take. I look forward to playing it for Smokey.”
And for us. Kravitz will be hitting the road for an extensive world tour, performing songs from Strut as well as from a distinguished career that has made him one of the most distinctive and successful recording artists of the past quarter century. “I feel like I’m just beginning, like I’m just hitting my stride,” he says, and in its high energy, optimism and sheer love of music making, Strut sounds that way too.