By David Rolland
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Life is good when an artist experiences a few career highlights during a slow period. Such is the life of Detroit-based Motown recording artist KEM, who brings his brand of well-received, intimate soul to Miami this weekend.
His sophomore album, Album II, enjoyed great success, nearly going platinum in a time when soul singers were faced with declining sales and internet downloading. He spent most of 2006 touring and promoting the project. Last year, he went home to begin working on his upcoming release, Intimacy. But he did venture out, and that's when the highlights started happening.
"Regardless of what you think about President George Bush, there's no way I wasn't going to the White House," KEM says of the chance he got to perform for an audience of 200 that included the president last June. The event was to commemorate Black Music Month. The show was cool, he says, but it wasn't the best part. He and Miss USA Rachel Walters paid a visit to soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "It was incredibly moving seeing those young soldiers who risked their lives — 19-, 20-, 25-year-olds whose lives have been permanently altered. There are very few words for it. No matter what you feel about the politics, the people are real."
His second highlight came during a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa. "It was another trip where I went in thinking about the gig," he says. "But South Africa has some of the most genuinely beautiful people I've ever met. I didn't expect the turnout." He says he did the safari thing, but again, it was the personal interaction that he had with locals that made the biggest impact. So much so, that he's looking into financially supporting an orphanage there.
It's not that KEM is a political or social activist, but he is that rare artist who takes more joy from what fame enables him to do for people rather than to get from them.
While speaking from his hometown, I mention that, in the six interviews we've conducted, he's never mentioned concern for record sales or monetary figures. He admits to feeling fortunate, though he allows that he does think about it. He then recalls an interesting story. A friend wanted a copy of Album II, and he didn't have any at home. So he went to Best Buy to pick one up.
"That's another story," he says, noticing the irony of shopping for his own product. While there, however, he noticed the number of projects by other good singers, artists who he knows are not selling. It made him realize his own fortune.
"I don't talk about [album sales]," he says, "because there are people who love what you do. Our music is not disposable. Our fans are not disposable. This is gonna be around for a minute."
He's right. The typical KEM fan is a throwback. He's not buying his music because it's popular or catchy. KEM fans react to "Love Calls" the way soul-music fans reacted to "Love & Happiness" when Al Green sang it back in the day. They feel his music. It's the reason his first album, Kemistry, went gold with hardly any promotion. A version of the album that was released independently before he signed with Motown sold 14,000 copies in at least five major markets. It set the tone for Album II, which continued the trend on the strength of the single "I Can't Stop Loving You."
During a visit to his former church home last fall, Renaissance Unity in Detroit, where he delivered guest testimony in place of the sermon, KEM's own spiritual leader introduced him by suggesting that going to a KEM concert is like going to church. He tells his own story of homelessness and addiction. He counts his sober days in front of every audience. It may be routine for him, but it helps establish a genuine connection with his fans. It means something more than the one-night stand that some of the singers stranded on the Best Buy racks croak about.
He plans to continue this ethos on Intimacy. "Birthing" a new album, he says, is tedious. It's a tune-at-a-time process, and KEM is a taskmaster. He'll spend weeks recording a single verse. His patience in the studio is insane.
"The song dictates what we do," he says. He is doing some new things on this album. He has recorded one song that features the strings of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Another tune, "A Mother's Love," is inspired by the passing of Stevie Wonder's mother and of his own grandmother. Wonder is a friend who played harmonica on "You Might Win" and has mentored the artist at times. The song is all piano, and jazz legend Bob James has expressed strong interest in playing on it.
Another song, "Share My Life," has gotten some test runs on stage. It's a ballad that flows like Christopher Cross' 1980s hit "Sailing." The song has played live to rave reviews, a promising indication of how the album will be received.
"The biggest thing is, I wanted to record my acoustic piano," KEM says. "The studio's piano doesn't sound as good as mine." To accomplish this, he did more recording at home. "Being able to write at home allows me to get lost in what I'm doing without worrying about studio time or wearing out the engineer." The acoustic piano doesn't really change the sound, but it allows the album to have its own personality.
He's got a few slots saved on the project for special guests. He avoids jinxing them by referring to them as confirmed or listing their names, but the short list includes Marsha Ambrosius of Floetry. She performed on the "Love Calls" remix.
He's also showing some consideration to the media. A promotional photo shoot he's planning has a "day in the life" theme. He says the result will be his ability to service most media outlets with unique shots of him.
"I'm excited about it. I'm trying to get my superhero on," he says, laughing.
But first, he returns to South Florida for this weekend's concert. Of Miami, he says: "I love it. I get to wear white and not look like an idiot. And we get to see the fans again and test-drive new music."