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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

But first, Lenny Kravitz grew up surrounded by show business in New York and Los Angeles. His father was a TV producer and promoter. His mother was an actress. Kravitz found his unique voice in music. His first rock album, �Let Love Rule,� came out 20 years ago. At first, Americans didn't know how to categorize him. But since then, he has climbed rock and roll charts again and again.

Today, he's firmly established himself as one of the greatest rock musicians of our time.

(Soundbite of song, �Are You Gonna Go My Way?�)

SHAPIRO: Kravitz has won countless awards, including a record four Grammys in a row for best male rock vocal performance. And he's just released the 20th anniversary deluxe edition of �Let Love Rule.� He's on tour to celebrate. And he is here in the studio right now.

So, I'm sure you'd love to talk to him. First, let me stipulate: We know you're a huge fan. We know you've been listening to him for years. We don't need you to tell us. But if you have an actual question for Lenny Kravitz, the number here is 1-800-989-8255. Or email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Lenny Kravitz is performing tonight here in Washington, D.C., and he has joined us in Studio 3A. Thanks so for much for being here.

Mr. LENNY KRAVITZ (Musician): My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: When you were a kid New York in the late �60s and early �70s, you were surrounded by some of the greatest musicians of the day. Tell me about those days.

Mr. KRAVITZ: They were very colorful. There were always artists around. My mother was, at that time, doing off-Broadway with the Negro Ensemble Company. And my father was working at NBC, and he was producing radio shows and televisions shows and also promoting jazz on the side. And, you know, I'd be around these people like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan and Lionel Hampton and all these, you know, great folks, and writers, you know, Nikki Giovanni and, you know, Maya Angelou. And just - all these folks were around.

SHAPIRO: When people talk about your musical influences, the names Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan don't come up so much. People talk more about, like, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Well, you know, I make the music that I make, but I'm influenced by everything that I've enjoyed. So it may not show itself in the music, but they're an influence, you know, just by virtue of their amazing artistry, you know?

SHAPIRO: Did you - when you started making music, did you have the Lenny Kravitz sound from the beginning? Or did it take time to find�

Mr. KRAVITZ: No. It found me. I wasn't even really looking for it. At the time, I was Los Angeles, and I was playing for other people.

SHAPIRO: Backup, you mean.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Yeah. I'd play bass. I'd play drums. I'd play guitar, depending on what the band was. I was just trying to play. I'd be doing recording sessions with people that were trying to make records and get deals. And one day I just woke up and I was just tired of it because there was this sound that I was hearing, but these people weren't doing it. And I kind of just stopped and got quiet. And all of a sudden, this stuff was started coming out of me. I had no record deal. I wasn't looking for a record deal at the time. I was just living. And it just came. And it came in the form of �Let Love Rule.�

SHAPIRO: And at first, people weren't really sure what to make of it.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Well, when I started taking it around, people were, you know, I think they were not expecting music that had so much rock and roll in it. They were expecting hip-hop.

SHAPIRO: Was that because of racial pigeonholing?

Mr. KRAVITZ: Yeah, of course. I mean, you know, everybody likes to put things in a box. And in 1988, '89, when I was putting it together, if you were black, that's what you were supposed to be doing, you know? Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Is that part of the reason you spent a lot of your time in Paris? You relocated to Paris. There seems to be a long history of American artists who Americans try to pigeonhole, moving to Europe and finding that they're not pigeonholed easily when they go over there.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Well, the interesting thing was that a gentleman, Jeff Ayeroff, who signed me, who, you know, I still thank to this day for giving me a life, you know? He said I believe in your music and - but I don't know if it's going to sell. I can't tell you it's going to sell, but I can tell you that I believe in it.

And what they did was, when the record first came out and they saw this sort of American reaction that was going on, they sent me to Europe. So I got on a plane, went to London for the first time. Went to Germany, went to Hamburg, went to Paris, went to Holland, went to Amsterdam, and started in this area and just played - started playing festivals, small festivals, playing clubs. And that's where it really happened. I think they were still wondering why I wasn't doing hip-hop because I was asked that every day. But at the end of the day, they were open-minded to accept it. And yes, there is a great history of African-American artists going to Paris, and it sounds romantic, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KRAVITZ: I like that. I've always loved Paris. I fell in love with Paris before I even got there, because I've always been into architecture and I'm partial to Parisian architecture. So I actually lived over there, you know, half the year now.

SHAPIRO: The music that people were making in 1989 and 1990 was very electronic. It was very synthesized and heavy. And you went into a studio and played every instrument yourself. Did you make a conscious decision to break with the sound of the day or was it just the music�

Mr. KRAVITZ: No, no. It was a conscious. I wanted to play with all this equipment because it was fun. I used to go to - there was a shop in L.A., Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard, and I used to go in there and spend the day looking at all the new synthesizers and drum machines and all the stuff in it, you know. And I actually got some of it. Got to where I was staying, started playing with it. And it just, for some reason it didn't work with the music that I was trying to make. It just wasn't happening. It was too synthetic. And what I was looking for was something very organic.

I remember speaking to my engineer at the time and saying, I want to make my �Innervisions.� Stevie Wonder �Innervisions� with sort of the template, not musically necessarily, but the atmosphere, the organic quality of the recording, the sound of the room, the intimacy. And so that's what I wanted to make. So I sold all this stuff and then got a guitar, bass, drum set and organ and just started making it like that.

SHAPIRO: We're going to take a call. We're here in the studio with Lenny Kravitz. And we've got Marianne(ph) from Guilford, Connecticut on the line. Hi, Marianne.

MARIANNE (Caller): Hi, there. I just wanted to relate a story. Back in the late �80s I was working for Bill Graham in San Francisco. And I think, Lenny, you were coming through to the Fillmore. And Bill sent a memo to everybody in the office and said, if you're going to go see one show this year, come and see Lenny Kravitz. I think he's one of the most talented and most unrecognized musicians out there. And I promise, you'll thank me later for it. And it was an incredible show. And I saw more people in the office at that show than I had seen at any other show in the years that I worked there. And there were some really talented musicians that also came that night just because of what Bill had done and sent out this note to everybody.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Wow.

MARIANNE: And it was just a wonderful evening.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Thank you. Yeah, Bill Graham was really wonderful to me. I don't remember if we met in San Francisco. We met in New York. But he was always very supportive. And I remember he took me to my first Grateful Dead show in New York City. He called me one day and said, let's go see the Dead. And I'd never seen them. And, you know, to the Dead fans, you know how they are, very, very, very hardcore. And so I told some of my Deadhead friends that I'm going to see the Dead with Bill Graham. And that was like - I think that was like it. I couldn't go any further than that. That was the best thing that would have happened to my life. And we ended up on stage sitting with the band in this tent, hanging out, doing some things�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KRAVITZ: �while the show was going on. It was really fun, but yeah, I miss Bill. A great, great man. He's a legend.

SHAPIRO: Great story. Thanks for the call, Marianne. We've got Kevin(ph) from Roanoke, Michigan, on the line. Hi, Kevin.

KEVIN (Caller): Yes. There's no question you write some smoking hot music. Do you find your influence for these songs coming from particular places? Is it more like an evolution, you evolved into finding the songs coming from different places, or is there a formula that you follow?

Mr. KRAVITZ: No formula whatsoever. I just live my life and when I feel inspired, I write. For instance, I was just on the bus driving into D.C. from New York, on the tour bus, and I woke up with a melody in my head. I didn't put it there, you know? It just comes, and so I grab the tape recorder and - or the digital recorder, whatever you want to call it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KRAVITZ: And put the melody down. So it's like, that's how it works for me. I never sit down to write, like, okay, well, I haven't written a song in a week so I better sit down and write one. I can't operate that way.

SHAPIRO: So what will you do with that melody when you go back to it on the recorder?

SHAPIRO: Well, when I go to the Bahamas next month to start recording, I'll playback these hundred things that are on these recordings and see if anything sticks. But yeah, it just comes from life. Just life. And the character of the song, meaning if it's more rock or it's more funk or it's more whatever, just comes naturally by the attitude of the song, the character. It forms itself.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Kevin. We have an email here from Michael in Bessemer, Alabama, who writes, I used to live in New Orleans at the same time Lenny Kravitz lived there. I was wondering if Mr. Kravitz feels that New Orleans helped enhance his musical style and how he feels about post-Katrina New Orleans.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Definitely New Orleans. You know, you're dead if you're a musician and you can't feel that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KRAVITZ: I first went to New Orleans about 15 years ago to see Aretha Franklin at JazzFest, and I ended up staying. I was supposed to go for a weekend. I ended up staying and buying my first house that I ever bought, and ended up doing some recording there, which some of that is going to be on the next album. And it just naturally worked with me. And I think you'll hear a lot of New Orleans flavor in the next record. I even have Allen Toussaint playing piano on a track. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: We're talking with Lenny Kravitz in the studio. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Is part of that desire to put the sounds of New Orleans in the album related to Katrina?

Mr. KRAVITZ: Well, I was just going to say, I didn't hit the last part of the question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KRAVITZ: You know, I have a lot of friends that lived down there and, you know, a lot of musicians left, obviously. The town has been going through a lot. I think it's coming back. I think it's, you know, it's taking time. But I think it's going to come back. It has to come back. It's too real of a place. And I have only been back a few times since Katrina, because I've been traveling so much. But I'm getting ready to go down there next week�

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: New Orleans, take note.

Mr. KRAVITZ: �playing Voodoo Fest.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's go to another call. This is Lisa in St. Louis, Missouri. Hi, Lisa.

LISA (Caller): Hi.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Hello?

LISA: Hi. Hi, Lenny. How are you?

Mr. KRAVITZ: Fine, thanks.

LISA: Good. I saw the trailer for that movie "Precious," which the trailer was sad, I couldn't believe it. And I couldn't believe you were in it.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Yeah.

LISA: Yeah. And that's your first movie?

Mr. KRAVITZ: Well, second, but the first one was just - I did a little cameo of myself. But, yeah, it's my first acting role. And it was a great experience. And actually I'm going to be doing the lead in Lee Daniels' next film. So through doing that this has happened. So it's interesting to actually come back to acting because that's really where I started in New York as a child. And�

SHAPIRO: How did you come back to it?

Mr. KRAVITZ: Well, you know, Lee Daniels met me.

SHAPIRO: He's the director of "Precious."

Mr. KRAVITZ: Yes. He met - he met me in a restaurant. One day I was eating, and a mutual friend of ours, Julian Schnabel, the artist and director, brought him over to the table and said, Lee Daniels would like to meet you. And he said, I've been wanting to meet you because I think that you should be doing films. We started talking. I didn't have time to do a complete film at the time because I was on the road. So he offered me this role, Nurse John, in "Precious," which I only needed to be there for two days. And we just started working together and became friends and that's how it happened. It's all because of Lee Daniels.

SHAPIRO: We should say for listeners who aren't familiar, "Precious" is an upcoming film executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Yes.

SHAPIRO: There's a whole roster of big stars behind it.

Mr. KRAVITZ: There was a book called "Push" written by a writer called Sapphire, and this is the film adaptation.

SHAPIRO: Not a light-hearted film.

Mr. KRAVITZ: No, no. It's hardcore. It's real-life on the hard side, but very inspiring.

SHAPIRO: About a young woman struggling with illiteracy, family abuse�

Mr. KRAVITZ: Yes.

SHAPIRO: �pregnancy, the gamut.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Yeah. HIV, everything. Everything that you could have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Let's go to another caller. We have Todd from Detroit on the line. Hi, Todd.

TODD (Caller): Hi. Lenny, I just wanted to ask, having been to several of your shows, it just seems like you draw a really diverse audience as far as age, as far as race. And I just want to know, is that something that you aspire with your music? Or does it just seem to happen more organically because of who you are and what you sing about?

Mr. KRAVITZ: Yes. I think it just happens. I mean, when I'm making music, I'm not thinking about anybody but myself. I'm just thinking about expressing myself. And the fact that, you know, I just finished doing a three and a half-month tour of Europe and, you know, I look out in the audience and there's everybody from a seven-year-old to a 70-year-old woman. So�

TODD: Absolutely�

Mr. KRAVITZ: And all colors - and I think that's what it's all about. You know�

TODD: Well, let me just say, just keep doing what you've been doing. And I'm just - I'm shocked that "Let Love Rule" is 20 years old.

Mr. KRAVITZ: So am I.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TODD: But it's been great. It's been a great ride. And I just wanted to say thanks for your time.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Lenny Kravitz, one of your most successful songs early on from "Let Love Rule" is called "Mr. Cab Driver," about a taxi driver who won't stop for you because of the color of your skin.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: So 20 years later, Barack Obama is president of the United States. Do you think things have changed substantially?

Mr. KRAVITZ: A lot of - I mean obviously so much has changed. But then, also, when you go in - closer to the core, a lot of things haven't changed. It depends on the individual. It depends on what side you're on, you know? Are you on the new consciousness, you know? Or are you in the old? And there's a lot of both. You know, we still have a lot of work to do. But we just keep on pushing.

SHAPIRO: What's it like - the difference between those early tours where people were just becoming acquainted with you, and now 20 years later where you are, one of these - it's safe to say - icons of rock?

Mr. KRAVITZ: Hmm. What's it like?

SHAPIRO: The difference between back then, starting out, finding a voice and introducing�

Mr. KRAVITZ: You know, for me there's no difference. In my own head, I'm still the kid trying to get the record deal. It just doesn't come out of me. So I don't take for granted this position that I'm in. I'm so blessed to be able to do what I love and I'm just trying to get better. That's it. You know?

SHAPIRO: Lenny Kravitz is touring right now to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his debut album "Let Love Rule." His latest project is the "Let Love Rule: 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition" and it's in stores now.

Lenny Kravitz joined us in Studio 3A. Thank you so much for being here.

Mr. KRAVITZ: Thank you.

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