Kem's 'Kemistry' is silky smooth

Distinctive singer is coming to the Rams Head

Music: in concert, CDs

October 30, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

You probably thought it was a new Al Jarreau cut when you first heard it. A Quiet Storm gem, soothing and groove-luscious, "Love Calls" by newcomer Kem has been all over urban radio, especially along the East Coast, for months. The artist's elastic vocals and slightly nasal scat bring to mind the distinctive style of the pop-jazz star.

"I've allowed more of him to slip into me," Kem says, calling from his cell phone inside a Detroit cafe. "Al Jarreau is definitely an influence."

But ultimately Kem, who plays Rams Head Tavern next Thursday, has his own style: a mature fusion of gospel, smooth jazz and late-'70s, early-'80s R&B. Kemistry, his debut on Motown, eschews the synthetic, heavily programmed beats and bass lines you typically hear in today's urban and pop markets. Kem's music is the kind of stuff you put on after midnight as incense sweetens the air, jazzy soul reminiscent of Leon Ware, Jean Carne and Michael Henderson. The record -- romantic, deliciously organic -- conjures the intimate feel of a live club show with real musicians playing real instruments. And riding over the sensuous, inspired grooves are Kem's thoughtfully executed vocals.

"I want to create the type of music I'm creating," he says. "I've learned some things about the recording process. And I just want to make good music. It touches me when I'm able to touch people through the music. That matters the most."

Kem (last name: Owens) may croon silky jazz-kissed ballads, but his journey has been anything but smooth. The man was born in Nashville, but he and his three younger sisters grew up in the Motor City. Home was solidly middle-class: Dad was an engineer; mom worked in sales. In junior high school, Kem discovered his musical talents, swinging George Benson's version of "On Broadway" in a talent show. His classmates dug it, which sparked the young man's interest in performance. In high school, Kem met and befriended Brian O'Neal, a member of the school's band who basically taught the singer to play piano. (Today, O'Neal tours with Kem and plays in his band.)

But after graduation, Kem, who doesn't divulge his age, went nowhere. At 19, the singer-songwriter left his parents' house and partied with friends. The man was "lost, insecure, full of fear," he says. Kem won't give up any details about this point in his life. But here are the facts: He was homeless and strung out on drugs for a while, sleeping on the ground near the Detroit River. How long was he like this? Kem's tone changes, becomes a little terse.

Sounding as if he has rehearsed the response to questions about this dark time in his life, Kem says flatly, "My music supported me in that period. It has always been a constant. It was very instrumental in bringing me out of that period. I don't regret any of that. I'm not ashamed of it. All of that made me who I am today with God's help."

He also sought help through the Detroit Rescue Mission and found a place to stay. He worked a few jobs, including a stint as a waiter at the Ritz-Carlton, to pay the bills. Music and the birth of his daughter Troi, now an 8-year-old, eased the recovery process and opened the man.

Two years ago, Kem secured financial backing to record Kemistry independently. He played gigs in and around Detroit to support the record, which moved 10,000 units in five months -- impressive numbers for an independent CD. After flying to New York and performing in a showcase for Motown Records last year, Kem scored a five-album deal with the legendary label, whose birthplace is, of course, Detroit.

"Isn't it strange the way that worked out?" Kem asks.

In between forkfuls of his omelet, the artist gets analytical about his success so far and the business of making music. "I've kind of returned to the roots of recording by having real players in the studio and by having something to say in the lyrics," he says. "I think it's quality music. I hope that the way I did it will inspire others to get into the business. I mean, it's really more about business, anyway. A very small part is talent, unfortunately."

But there's no denying Kem's gift.

For CD reviews, band profiles and concert listings, go to www.SunSpot.net / music

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