Proud to be from the old school
SINGER-songwriter Kem has found success by being a bit of a throwback, a modern R&B; crooner who doesn’t contemporize his sound with hip-hop touches.
Instead he creates what he calls “grown-folks’ music” -- a glossy blend of jazz-pop, smooth soul and gentle funk recalling such predecessors as Al Jarreau and Stevie Wonder. The Detroit resident’s songs don’t celebrate the pursuit of booty in crass words, but they do celebrate life and romance in more complex, adult terms.
“I’m making music for a lot of people who grew up with the same stuff I did,” says Kem, whose last name is Owens. “They’ve never gone anywhere. I think this is the time for it to come back in the forefront.”
The Motown Records artist is well-equipped to put over this mature style on his current collection, 2005’s “Kem Album II,” as well as his gold-certified 2003 debut, “Kemistry.” He has a silky baritone that can be sexy in a classic come-hither style on a number like the bouncy infatuation romp “Into You,” but also resonates with a sincerity that telegraphs he’s not afraid of commitment on the torchy “Heaven.” He is pop-savvy enough to entertain a guest harmonica turn by label mate Stevie Wonder on “You Might Win,” but he’s also unabashedly spiritual, weaving his religion into his music without apology. He’s loved to sing since he was a kid, but his life has taken some sobering turns that lend authenticity to the emotional struggles his music portrays.
That music is as wide-ranging as you’d expect from an artist who had no formal training but grew up listening to the radio in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when pop wasn’t broken down into quite so many genres.
“When I was growing up, you’d hear everybody on the same station,” Kem recalls. “I just liked good songs, whether it was by the O’Jays or Elton John or Stevie Nicks or whoever.”
This early exposure had an effect on his songwriting, as did his later introduction to the jazz-oriented works of Jarreau and Michael Franks. “Those cats were making songs, top to bottom, in a variety of different ways,” he says. “The melody was always important. I take a lot from that.”
Although he grew up middle class, Kem struggled with early sexual abuse and a dysfunctional home life. He became addicted to drugs and alcohol as a teen and ended up living on the streets. While going in and out of rehab, before finally getting clean, music proved a salvation to him. But Kem believes what ultimately saved him was God.
“All of my success and every good thing that happens in my life is due to God’s grace,” he says simply. “My faith is the foundation -- it’s the most important thing.”
Yet if ever there were a case of the Lord helping those who help themselves, this is it. After resolving to give up his self-destructive ways, Kem waited tables and sang pop songs at weddings to make ends meet while writing his own tunes. He produced and released his debut album himself, which got Motown’s attention and led to a 2002 record deal. His first single, “Love Calls,” was a hit on urban adult contemporary and smooth jazz radio. For “Album II,” Kem scored a No. 1 urban adult contemporary hit with the poignant “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which won a Billboard Music Award for top adult R&B; single of the year.
With his easy tendency toward testifying, Kem seems a natural to make a gospel album, and he confirms he’s thought about it. “But I’m not necessarily trying to preach to the choir. I’m trying to reach people who may not listen to gospel music,” he says, laughing. “To get the message to people who may not go to church.”
THIS week, Kem will bring his messages of honest romance and open spirituality to the local stage, performing with a six-piece band on Friday at the Grove of Anaheim and Saturday at the Kodak Theatre. Like seemingly everything else, it’s not something he takes lightly.
“We spend quite a bit of time on putting together the live performance,” he says, adding that he’s enjoying touring more this time around, despite the occasional nervous moment. The set includes an encore of George Benson’s version of “On Broadway,” significant to Kem because it was the first song he ever performed, for an audience of his middle-school peers.
It’s a long way from the classroom to the concert hall, but Kem feels he can go even further. After all, he’s a man whose ambitions have driven him as much as his beliefs have guided him. Next up, he says, he’d like to try some acting lessons. He doesn’t have any film deals lined up but would like to get into the movies, preferably drama.
“If there’s something there for me, I want to be as prepared as I can,” he says. “If I ever had an opportunity to do it, now would probably be the time.”
Natalie Nichols may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where: The Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim
When: 8:30 and 10:45 p.m. Friday
Price: $45 and $55
Info: (714) 712-2700
Where: Kodak Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Price: $25.50 to $60.50
Info: (323) 308-6300