‘Rustin’ Song “Road To Freedom”; New Album “Surprises” – Deadline

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Lenny Kravitz usually waits for music to come to him, like the way he wrote his iconic 1991 song, “It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over”.

“[I was] in the hotel room after my breakup with Zoe’s mom, which was extremely emotional and painful, and I was just staying at this hotel in LA with the curtains drawn, very sad, depressed,” he says. “All I had was a Fender Rhodes, which is an electric piano. And just sat down one day and just started playing these chords.”

Kravitz’s creativity functions “like an antenna” he explains. He had a similar process writing “Let Love Rule”: “I’d written [the words] ‘let love rule’ on the wall outside of my apartment, next to the elevator. And I kept passing this thing for months, in and out of the apartment, in the elevator, in New York. And then, one day, I walked in the apartment after looking at it on the wall for the 500th time, and picked up a guitar, and just wrote the song. I never intended on writing a song, I just liked the phrase.”

But when producer Bruce Cohen called Kravitz, he needed a song right now for the George C. Wolfe-directed Rustin—the story of Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo), whose work with Martin Luther King Jr. was vital in organizing the 1963 March on Washington.  

Kravitz felt the voice of his mother urging him to accept, so he worked with the tight turnaround. The resulting song, “Road to Freedom” got a Golden Globe nomination and is Oscar shortlisted. Here, Kravitz describes that songwriting process and what we can expect from his upcoming album Blue Electric Light, set for release in March.

DEADLINE: You’ve known George C. Wolfe since you were a teenager. Tell me about that connection?

LENNY KRAVITZ: Well, I met him when I was 17. Interesting story, because I was driving a friend to an audition for a play called The Me Nobody Knows. It was a play that was done in New York. They were trying to do a production of it in LA, so they were auditioning kids to be in this thing they call a backers audition, where you do scenes from the play in front of a small audience of people that have money that they want to invest to make the production a reality.

So I’m driving this friend to this audition, and I’m waiting out front, and this lady comes out and says, “When is your audition?” Because I was waiting outside. I said, “I’m not auditioning. I drove somebody here. I’m waiting for them.” And she said, “Why don’t you go upstairs and audition? Do you sing? Do you act?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” She said, “Go upstairs and audition.” And I did. And I got the part, which was horrible that I drove my friend there to get this job, and I ended up going upstairs and getting the part. Anyway…

DEADLINE: I hope the friend forgave you.

KRAVITZ: Yes. So, we ended up doing this production of this thing. I guess they never got the money they needed to make the production, but we did these performances. And it was George Wolfe, in the very beginning of his career. And then I didn’t see him for many, many, many, many years. And then we met again when he was working with Denzel, doing theater and so forth. We’re talking a lot of years. Denzel is my big brother.

Then I get this phone call, not from George, but from Bruce Cohen, who’s one of the producers, an Oscar-winning producer. He said, “We’re doing this film called Rustin about the life of Bayard Rustin, and we’re really interested in you to write the song for the film, the original song for the film. It’s being directed by…” It was directed by George Wolfe. And I was like, “Oh, wow. That’s interesting.”

So I was in Paris at the time, this past summer. I was finishing my album, which needed to be turned in. I was extremely busy. I technically didn’t really have time, but I heard my mother’s voice in my head. It said, “You’ve got to do this.” Because this is the kind of thing that I should be doing. This is the kind of thing she’d want me to be doing. And it’s part of our history and something that’s so important, a story that needs to be told.

So they sent me the link for the film. I was moved by the film. I didn’t realize Colman Domingo was the star of the film. We did The Butler together with Lee Daniels. And so I said, “OK, I want to do this. I got to make this happen. When do you need it? And they said, “We need it yesterday.” “Of course you do.” So I spoke to George. I wanted to know what he was feeling, what kind of tones he was hearing, if he had any ideas about anything.

DEADLINE: What kind of notes did he give you?

KRAVITZ: He said, “I know that I want the sound of trombones, of the trombone choirs.” He’d been listening to the trombone choirs from the Carolinas. These are groups of trombones, one horn. They play gospel, they play hymns, and it’s really beautiful and strong. And he’s like, “I just hear that.” So that started me. I knew that I had to have these trombones.

Then I called Colman because I wanted to know if he had anything that he could share with me being that he just embodied this person, this character. And he said one simple thing. He said, “It’s about the work.” Which you see is such a powerful part of his character. At the end of the film, when they’re invited to the White House and they’re about to have this moment of glory, the President wants to see them and speak with them, that would’ve been a moment you would think that he would want to go to, and he would react and be like, “Yes.” And he said, “No, I’m fine. You guys go.” And he grabbed a bag and a trash pick, and he went to collect trash and help the people clean up, which was the job that needed to be done at that moment. It shows you so much about his character and about his ego.

DEADLINE: What was your writing process?

KRAVITZ: I had trombones, and I had the work, and I just walked around my house and meditated on this, watched the film a couple of times, and I was waiting for the inspiration. Because I’m not a writer that likes to sit down and work because I have a deadline, or it’s Tuesday and it’s noon, and I work from noon to five, and I sit and I write. Some people do that. Some people are very good at that. For me, I’m an antenna. I want to pick something up. I want to be given something that is for me.

And so, I’m just thinking, “They need this yesterday. I don’t have this luxury of just sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike.” But I did. I just waited. I waited. I waited. I kept walking by my piano. “No, I don’t feel anything yet. OK.” And then about two days later, I felt something. And I didn’t know what. I sat at the piano. I put my hands down and hit a chord, and that chord resonated with me, and that was the beginning. It came from there. I wrote it. I then cut the track at my house, where I have a studio, played the drums, and the bass, and the Hammond B3 organ, and the percussion. And then I wrote the lyric. I sat in the song. Craig Ross, my partner, engineered it and played the guitar.

I knew I needed these trombones, so I called the best trombonist on the planet that I know, called Trombone Shorty, who is from New Orleans. He also played in my band for a couple of years. He did a world tour with me when he was 17. I had to get a note from his mother to go on tour because he was an underage genius. And he’s gone on to have this incredible solo career and is an icon. I mean, he is the Louis Armstrong of New Orleans in this generation. He represents that city, and that culture, and the music. He had 48 hours off between a couple of shows. Got on a plane, flew from the States, came to Paris, knocked it out, went back. I found a gospel choir in Paris. I had no idea there was one. I thought I was going to have to get on a plane and go to New York City.

DEADLINE: Wait, where did you find them in Paris?

KRAVITZ: Somebody said, “There’s a gospel choir that sings traditional African-American Gospel.” And I thought, “I don’t know.” I listened to some things they’ve done. I was like, “Oh, wow. They’re really good.” I had them come by the house. Didn’t know them, never worked with them. About 12 or 16 [of them]. I taught them the parts. The only thing we had to work on was pronunciation, because they sounded a little French and we had to get rid of that. We recorded them. The song is done. Turn it in. George says, “I love it, but let’s talk about these words and these things. And is there another way to say this? Is there another way to say that?”

DEADLINE: He’s got to have a lot of specific opinions on the song because he wrote and directed musicals…

KRAVITZ: And he’s directed this film. And the song is either going to enhance everything that’s gone on or not. And he had ideas. And so I’m thinking, “Oh my god. OK.”

DEADLINE: That’s not your normal experience, right?

KRAVITZ: No, no, no. And that’s fine. But I’ve already done the vocal, and I was feeling the vocal, and I was like, “I don’t want to sing it again.” So I did. And then I turned it in. And then there’s more notes and more notes. And, “This word doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t like this word. How can we make this say this, but another way. What could you do?” So this went on for about three weeks. Mind you, they needed it yesterday.

DEADLINE: Your lyrics were evocative of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech. Was that always there, from the beginning?

KRAVITZ: Yes. The initial first line of the song was, I said, “We are here to make dreams come true.” And George was like, “We just talked about a dream, not dreams.” So it was even little things like that. So I changed it from, “We are here to make dreams come true,” to, “We are here to make the dream true.”

DEADLINE: And it matters to George. He really wants it to be specific.

KRAVITZ: So that’s a small change, but a big change to George. Because I was talking about the dream that Martin Luther King was talking about, but also we are here to make dreams come true. The dream continues today, to the issues of today. But he wanted it to be singular, not plural. We got to the place where George was happy and I was happy, and that was it. Turned it in, they dropped it in the film, and here we are today, where I’m talking to you.

DEADLINE: When you were marinating or just letting it be, seeing what appears, did you listen to anything or watch anything? Do you sit in silence? What helps you?

KRAVITZ: The only thing I watched for those days was the movie. And no, I didn’t listen to anything. But I knew that I wanted it to be gospel, R&B, soul. And so, I knew the genre that I wanted. It had to be of that time, but also be timeless. So I knew where I wanted to go, but I didn’t know what it was going to be… I mean, these things just come out of just inspiration, out of nothing, out of quietness, out of not trying, which for me, is the best—not trying at all. Allowing your life, and your experiences, and your feelings, and your pain, or your happiness to birth this expression. That’s the way I like to work. So just live, collect all of these feelings and experiences, and let them do the work.

DEADLINE: You performed your song “Calling All Angels” at the Oscars last year for the In Memoriam. What would it mean for you to perform “The Road to Freedom” up there this year?

KRAVITZ: I mean, if that happens, god willing, I mean, it will be a monumental moment for me because it’s about Bayard Rustin. Because it’s amplifying this story, this experience that we all should have already known. We know about the March on Washington, we know about Martin Luther King, we know about, “I have a dream”. But we don’t know about the backbone behind it, or part of the backbone. So I’m honored to be in that position and to have written something that is a modern-day gospel number, a hymn, a call to action. We’re on the road to freedom. The road to freedom is something that’s continuous. We are on it now. Generation after generation after generation continue to walk on this road and continue to push boundaries so that we can get closer to being better human beings.

DEADLINE: Your new album Blue Electric Light is coming out in March. How are you feeling about it?

KRAVITZ: So good. I’m so happy with this album. It’s something that feels really fresh for me, another new beginning. You’re going to hear things on there that will surprise you, some different sounds and production value. And it’s a celebration. It’s really up. It’s fun. It’s celebratory. It’s sexy. It’s got a little bit of everything. It’s spiritual. I’m very excited about Blue Electric Light.

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