On Black and White America, singer/multiinstrumentalist/producer/arranger Lenny Kravitz draws recording inspiration from classic techniques, a blend of vintage and modern gear, and laid-back Caribbean living
BY BLAIR JACKSON
About a year and a half ago—in early 2010—there was considerable chatter in the ether about Lenny Kravitz’s beautiful new recording studio in the Bahamas and the progress being made toward completing his eagerly-awaited ninth album, which at that point was to be titled either Funk or Negrophilia. The studio, Gregory Town Sound, on the remote but beautiful island of Eleuthera (50 miles east of the Bahamas’ capital city, Nassau) did get up and running, but the album never materialized. Instead, in August, Atlantic/Roadrunner Records released a completely different album—a wonderfully eclectic 16-song disc called Black and White America. What happened?
“I just went in a different direction,” the ever-genial Kravitz says casually. “I began writing all these songs that had nothing to do with what was going to be on that record. When the creative spirit kicks in and I start really getting into it, I have to look at that and say, ‘Okay, why is this coming out of me right now?’ There were a few songs that kind of popped up that way—‘Black and White America,’ ‘Push,’ ‘Super Love,’ and one other. And I had to think about it for a minute, and then I decided to go in this other direction. And I’m glad I did because I’m extremely happy with the album that I made. That other album is going to come out at some point. It’s a really interesting record. But it just wasn’t what I was supposed to do at that moment.
“I had just finished hooking up my new studio,” he continues, “and that definitely affected it, too. When I started putting the gear in the place, it sounded so amazing, it inspired what was coming out.”
Kravitz in GTS’ control room, which features a restored Helios console and a REDD 37 desk from Abbey Road Studios.
Kravitz is no stranger to personal recording spaces—as he puts it, “I’ve been through this many times before,” in several different locales, from Miami to New York. But without question Gregory Town Sound is his coolest and most tricked-out studio yet. The 1,800-square-foot space actually started out as a garage adjoining a house he planned to build on his waterfront property: “I built the garage first to have a place to store things, and also to see how the builder did before I built the house, but then I decided to turn it into a studio. I laid it out and you never know exactly how it’s going to come out. The math may say it’s going to sound great, but until you put a drum kit in there and start playing, you don’t know for sure.”
Kravitz hired Miami studio designer and acoustician Ross Alexander (who had also worked on Kravitz’s earlier Roxie Studios in Miami) to work out the sonics for the studio—a 600-square-foot live room and a 400-square-foot control room, plus iso booths (and machine room, bathroom, and lobby). “I was going for a sort of ’70s California studio,” Kravitz says, “wood and cork and stone; that real clean sound. It ended up working amazingly well. It felt really comfortable immediately, and of course it’s filled with equipment that I’ve gotten through the years and that I’m already comfortable with.”
Since he first burst onto the scene in the late ’80s, Kravitz has been frequently dubbed a “retro” rocker, both because he wears so many of his musical influences on his sleeve—Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, et al.)— and because from the outset he embraced analog technology and classic recording techniques. His former engineer, Henry Hirsch, encouraged Kravitz’s own inclinations in that direction and helped him acquire numerous choice pieces of vintage gear, to the point where Mix magazine dubbed Gregory Town Sound “Analog Heaven.” (Hirsch now runs Waterfront Studios in Upstate New York and did not work on Black and White America.)
The heart of the GTS control room is a restored British-made Helios console once owned by Leon Russell. The room also contains the EMI-designed REDD 37 desk that once resided in Abbey Road Studio 1, as well as a 4-track recorder from that studio; one of several analog Studer and 3M tape machines Kravitz owns. As one might expect, GTS’ outboard collection includes vintage favorites such as API, dbx, Teletronix, EMI, Urei, and Fairchild compressors and/or limiters; racked API and Helios mic pre’s; API, EMI, Pultec, and RCA Mastering EQs; EMT reverb plates, and much more. The mic closet is stacked with a slew of Neumann, AKG, Electro-Voice, Sennheiser, Shure, Schoeps, RCA, Telefunken, and Sony models.
But the studio also has plenty of more modern pieces, too: Pro Tools HD3 (of course), Antelope Trinity Word Clock, Apogee AD16X and DA16X converters, ATC 25 and 200 monitors (among others), Amels Audio custom mic pre’s, Millennia and GML EQs, Focusrite and Waves limiters, Eventide Ultra Harmonizer, the Lexicon 960 Digital Effects System, and several more recent mics (or new versions of classics) by the likes of Coles, AEA, Audix, and others. The studio was also among the first to use Endless Analog’s CLASP (Closed Loop Analog Signal Processor) system as an interface between analog tape recorders and Pro Tools—its growing number of adherents believe that CLASP allows some of the warmth and depth of analog tape to transfer into the digital realm. So, it’s a blend of old and new, but certainly in the service of the more traditional recording aesthetic that Kravitz favors.
Though Kravitz is justifiably famous for playing most of the instruments on his albums, laying down the lead and background vocals, producing, and at times engineering, he has also historically been eager to share the credit with those who help him in the studio. For Black and White America, his “fantastic team” included GTS studio manager and tech Alex Alvarez, his longtime guitarist and occasional songwriting partner Craig Ross—“he’s also a total Pro Tools wiz,” Kravitz says—and, stepping into the engineer’s slot with this album, Tom “Bone” Edmonds.
Bone is hardly a newcomer in Kravitz’s world. After getting his start in the early ’70s assisting for Todd Rundgren, then engineering for acts like Rick Derringer, Meat Loaf, Patti Smith, the Isley Brothers, and others, he signed on to be Kravitz’s front-ofhouse engineer beginning in 1989, following the release of Kravitz’s stunning debut album, Let Love Rule. He held that post through 2005, and also mixed Kravitz’s TV appearances, various live tracks that have been released, and also the 1994 video Alive from Planet Earth.
Also in ’94, Bone and Kravitz hopped on motorcycles and headed down to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Bone recalls, “We were down there for a couple of days and Lenny said, ‘Get me a Fender Rhodes in the room [at the Maison Dupuy Hotel in the French Quarter] and a bass rig. So I got that gear together. The next day he said, ‘Find me a studio.’ So I found Sea Saint, [legendary New Orleans producer] Allen Toussaint’s place. It was awesome—dark and really funky, very ’70s—all the walls were carpeted with red shag carpet! So that’s where I recorded what’s become known as the Funk record.
Engineer Tom “Bone” Edmonds
“It was me, Craig [Ross], and Lenny and we did it straight to tape,” he continues. “It was really loose and raw, but it’s got such a thick vibe, man. It’s like free-funk. It’s Lenny being comfortable, Lenny having fun. The music was just flowing; popping out of him. Lenny’s horn players came in and played on a few tracks, and Allen Toussaint played piano on a tune. It was really inspired. We did some more work on it toward the end of finishing Black and White America, so I’m pretty sure one day everybody will hear it.”
Bone had been semi-retired and out of Kravitz’s orbit for some time when he got a call in late 2009 asking if he’d like to come down and see Gregory Town Sound. “A week later I was on a plane and we actually cut two tracks right away—‘Black and White America’ and ‘Push.’ We cut those two on the Trident Series 80 he had in there originally, which is now going to be in his home studio in Paris; a greatsounding console. We did that directly to tape on the 3M [recorder with 16-track heads], then striping from the tape into Pro Tools [for editing].”
One of four songs co-credited to Kravitz and Ross, “Black and White America” has a ’70s soul vibe to it, with some obvious nods to The Temptations (in the backup vocals and the subtle string arrangement reminiscent of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”), and a passionate lead vocal that recalls Stevie Wonder in spots. Three horn players, including N’awlins’ own Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, pepper parts of the tune with spirited blasts, and Ross contributes electric guitar, but as usual, Kravitz is really “the band,” playing drums, bass, Fender Rhodes, Minimoog, Moog Modular, microkorg, Arp 2600, wind chimes, and congas. Most of the songs on the album are like that, though Kravitz also plays guitar on some, B-3, piano, and Mellotron others, and a bunch more synths, including Prophet 5, Prophet VS, Synton, Oberheim OBXA, and Yamaha CS-80.
“This has more synths than any record I’ve done,” Kravitz says. “I’ve gotten into collecting them and I was just in the mood. The great thing about a synth, whether it’s from the ’60s or ’70s or ’80s, is you can make them sound as futuristic and new as you want, but at the same time they still sound so organic. What I’m looking for in a synth is character.”
Asked to describe his layering process recording a song like “Black and White America,” Kravitz elaborates: “That would have started with Craig playing the main riff—those single notes— and the chords on the chorus, and me playing drums along with it. That’s usually what we do. I’ve already explained the arrangement to him, and I’m usually moving pretty fast because I’m in the moment, so I’m just saying, ‘Okay, intro, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus,’ and we’ll be recording from the start. I’m pretty adamant about getting the first take, because I like it when it’s: ‘We know what we’re doing, but not really,’” he chuckles. “I like that edge. Where you know just enough to get through it, but you also get some really nice and interesting mistakes sometimes!”
Are you thinking down the line about the layers it’s going to have? “No. I’m just thinking about getting the structure of the song in place,” he says. “It’s pretty empty to play to—there’s no bass, there’s no second guitar, there’s no keyboard. But that’s the way Craig and I have been doing it for years. I may not hear the string arrangement yet, but I’m definitely hearing the song in my head, for the most part. On that song, Craig was playing electric so he was sitting out in the main room looking at me in my booth, and his amp was in another booth.”
“With Lenny, it’s all about getting the right drum sound at the start,” Bone says. “Then he’s able to move forward with getting the song done.” Bone will use different drum-miking schemes depending on the style of the song: “In Lenny’s studio, I can get a plethora of drums sounds with different microphones, different mic placement, and different mic pre’s. The same room—ten different drum mic sounds. You can hear it on the record.”
Kravitz: “I’m playing the drums; we get the drums take. Then I pick up the bass—I have three or four that I use—in the control room, and we’ll record that through an Acoustic 360 amp head that I love. [The full bass chain, Bone says, is a Sennheiser 421 on the 360, into Helios mic pre, and LA3A and Focusrite compressors.] After the bass, I’ll do a scratch vocal and then I’ll start to orchestrate: string parts, which I might put down with a sample or a Mellotron, percussion parts, keyboards, synthesizers. With the synths, I’ll have a sound in my head I’m looking for and I’ll try different things.”
Bone says that Kravitz has a real knack for describing the sounds, and notes that though synths are generally cut direct, he’ll have them go through an API mic pre, an outboard EQ (such as a Pultec EQP-1A) and an LA-3A, to give the sounds additional color.
Vocals are obviously a key component to Kravitz’s sound, and there the chain is a Neumann U47 mic with a 15dB pad, a Helios mic pre, a Sphere graphic EQ, and two limiters—Fairchild 660 and an LA2A. “He’ll have the [vocal] hook for the song and boom—he goes in and bangs it out and all the hook backgrounds; harmonies, doubles. Bone says. “He’s extremely fast. He hears what he hears and he wants to get it down on tape.”
Kravitz continues, “At the end of the day I’ll go to my trailer and I’ve got nice speakers out there, and I just keep listening and listening and listening. And then I hear another part. I come back the next day and work on that. So a lot of it is just hearing things in my head, putting it down, listening, hearing more things, putting them down, listening. . . . ‘Now I need some congas here.’ ‘This is a good place for Fender Rhodes.’”
Wait a second. Did he say “trailer’? Yes, he did. The whole time Gregory Town Sound was being built and then work began on the new album, Kravitz was living in an Airstream trailer just steps away from the studio, and he ended up liking the lifestyle so much he decided not build the house he had planned. “What was coming out of me was so satisfying,” he says, “I realized that if I built the house, as wonderful as that would be, it would change the dynamic. There was something about this trailer on the beach, no people, the studio in the back, and me going into this little capsule every night that I decorated and made the way I wanted. It’s really cozy. There’s something to that low-profi le living that I don’t want to change it. At least not now.” Kravitz estimates he’s been in the Airstream eight months out of the last two years.
The album was mixed in three stages. It began on the Helios desk at GTS, then shifted to the new studio in Kravitz’s Paris home, at that time equipped with “a little baby Toft desk I used as a jukebox, and a lot of my outboard gear—like my Fairchilds and my Helios and API mic pre’s,” Bone says. “We were basically doing level changes, some panning changes, and some vocals.” They also recorded a new song from scratch, “Liquid Jesus.”
“We definitely improved the record in Paris, but we vastly improved it when we came back [to the Bahamas] and really dug into it,” he adds. “For one thing, we really found the bottom in that studio in a way we hadn’t before. Then the last couple of weeks we went through every song with a fine-tooth comb. We did teeny little things with panning, a little bit of EQ here, a little haze of something here and there, and it was amazing how it blossomed.”
In the end, the triumvirate nailed down 16 extremely diverse songs that range from the Zepish riff -rock of “Come On Get It,” to the vaguely Bowie-esque/glam musings of “Rock Star City Life,” the catchy, ’80s-inspired “Stand,” the sexy, oldschool funk tune “Super Love,” the power ballad “I Can’t Be Without You,” and the groovin’ island/hiphop number “Boongie Drop,” featuring guest rapper Jay-Z and Bahamian MC DJ Military. And that just scratches the surface. With an international tour in the offing—Kravitz has sold more than 35 million records worldwide and may be even more popular outside the U.S.—and all sorts of radio-friendly tunes of the album, he could be mining hits from Black and White America for quite some time.
“It’s been a great couple of years,” Kravitz concludes, “building studios, recording, traveling, touring, back in the studio, Paris, Bahamas. It’s been a really creative time period for me—and I got a lot of really great synthesizers in the process,” he laughs.