Lenny Kravitz

When Simplicity Rocks: Lenny Kravitz and “Fly Away”

Twenty-one years ago Lenny Kravitz released “Fly Away“, the fourth single from his fifth studio album, ‘5‘. If you’re not sure you know the song, you’ve likely heard it as the soundtrack for travel agencies, car companies and more, like this Nissan commercial from 2011.

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It’s got an infectious chorus hook that’s immediately likeable, singable and memorable.

And probably the most attractive aspect of the song is its unadventurous simplicity:

  1. A 4-chord progressionA  C  G  D — that stays constant from beginning to end.
  2. A practically static verse melody that sits in and around the note D without giving much else.
  3. A lyric that uses very simple imagery — the notion of flying — with no character development, no contrasting themes, and no storyline to speak of.

It may sound like I’m being dismissive, but I’m not. It’s a great song, reaching the top 10 in many countries, and worthy of the Grammy Kravitz received in 1999 (Best Male Rock Vocalist).

“Fly Away” is a great reminder that most of the time what the average audience wants is a song with a great feel and a simple message.

Often, songwriters look for something profound in the bid to create something unique. While there’s nothing wrong with that, remember that for most who listen to pop music, the immediacy of appeal is vital to liking a song. The more time your listeners are required to spend figuring a song out, the trickier it is to hook them.

Each element of “Fly Away”, while simple in design, has a reason that it works so well.

  1. Chord Progression. There is a kind of fragility to the beginning of the progression, moving from A to C (I – bIII), as those two chords don’t reside in the same key. The progression then features three chords that all have roots a 5th away from each other: C to G, G to D, and D to A. Root movement of a 5th makes progressions tonally very strong.
  2. Melody. Melodies that sit on one note while the chords change underneath act as what’s known as an inverted pedal point. We hear most of the verse melody sitting on the note D while the progression A-C-G-D give that one melody note the feeling of variety and animation. Inverted pedals in melodies grab attention right away.
  3. Lryics. The metaphor of flying is common in songwriting, and audiences love it. In “Fly Away,” you get the feeling of liberation that flying offers, and you get it immediately. There’s no backstory, no other competing lyrical concepts. It’s simple, direct, and uncluttered:

I wish that I could fly
Into the sky
So very high

Just like a dragonfly

I’d fly above the trees
Over the seas
In all degrees
To anywhere I please

Oh, I want to get away…

Your interests as a songwriter might lie in trying to present something deeper to your listeners, and as I say, there’s nothing wrong with that. When every song you write is simple, that presents other problems.

But if you’re looking to grab the interest of your audience, and to do that quickly as “Fly Away” does, it would be better to go to where the average listener is, at least for a song or two.

In practically every song that makes it big, and rises to being at or near the top of “best of” lists, you’ll find that all-important quality of simplicity being the common factor.

Remember that simplicity doesn’t mean dumbing down. It doesn’t mean writing garbage. It does mean providing a way for your listeners to make a quick emotional connection to you and your song.

In a sense, you could say that “Fly Away” creates its own perfect storm of simplicity that serves as the reason for its success.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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  1. Thanks. Was looking for an explanation for the harmony as I couldn’t find a key that had the I-bIII, and I think your post shows how it worked well.

  2. Hi, just found your website. Interesting post. Agree that simplicity is a great thing but it’s usually never simple – it’s about dressing complexity up to look simpler. The better the patterns you make the simpler it will feel, even if it’s not.

    I’m not sure why you excluded the B5 from the chord progression as it’s extremely important in the song in connecting the A and C and also in giving it motion. I think what’s important in that song when you have the A B5 C progression in both song sections is finding a way to get balance in the song when integrated with the melody. That’s very hard to do. It required the classic chord changes of the C to G to D to give it some stability. And also meant the melody had to be entirely in the service of the same goal. So really it’s one element of strong complexity that needed the simplicity to balance it out.

    • Hi Robert:

      I think you make a good point about the B5. Because it acts as a passing chord — getting sneaked in between the A and C — I think I just dismissed it more than I should have. Thanks for the good reminder of its importance.

      I still think, however, that this song dresses up simplicity to sound more complex, rather than the other way around. But it may be a matter of semantics; in the end, both approaches may yield a similar result. But for most songwriters, stripping ideas down to something basic as a starting point usually gives you something strong upon which you can build something more complex.

      Thanks for your very good thoughts on this, Robert.

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