Singer-songwriter Kem

Singer-songwriter reflects on his 20 years of sobriety, explains why he considers himself a songwriter first and describes how the acoustic piano impacted his new CD.

Singer-songwriter-producer Kem is a self-taught musician with a reputation as one of the more reflective soul stylists in R&B. The Detroit-based artist was inspired by musicians like Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan and Grover Washington, Jr. and wrote, produced and financed his successful debut album, "Kemistry," by waiting tables and singing Top 40 covers in a wedding band. He later signed with Motown, which re-released the album. A two-time nominee at this year's Grammys, Kem will soon begin touring in support of his latest CD, "Intimacy."



Tavis: Pleased to have Kem back on this program. The talented singer and songwriter has just kicked off a U.S. tour in support of his Grammy-nominated CD, “Intimacy.” The project was recently nominated for two Grammy Awards. Here now some of the video for “Why Would You Stay.”
Tavis: You make it hard on a brother [laugh].
Kem: I make it hard on me [laugh].
Tavis: Why do you do this to us?
Kem: I don’t know.
Tavis: Why do you do this to us [laugh]?
Kem: I don’t know, man. I just feel that I’m just being me, man. I’m just doing what I believe I was sent here to do.
Tavis: I used to tease Babyface about this back in the day. I said, “Face, come on, man. I’m gonna cook you dinner, I’m gonna do this. I mean, come on, you make it so hard on the man.” You’re just declaring you ain’t never gonna hurt her again.
Kem: You know what I’m saying? But there are also some things on the new album that’ll help you all out, all right?
Tavis: Point me to those.
Kem: “Human Touch.”
Tavis: Thank you. I appreciate that [laugh]. We’re gonna put number five and just put it on repeat [laugh]. We’re not gonna play that one. It’s a beautiful song, though.
Kem: Thank you.
Tavis: Where do you get this stuff, man? The lyrics to your stuff really are very powerful and the melody is just a gift, huh?
Kem: Yeah, it is. I saw Neo on the show talking about melody. Melody is everything. You know, the melody is everything. It’s very important. And lyrically, I’m a songwriter first. You know, when I first started out, I didn’t really even want to sing. You know, I was writing songs for, you know, my peers. I was that guy. So I feel very fortunate to be able to communicate personally, you know, the things that I write.
Tavis: I’m always fascinated by artists who – and there are many in this town and, for that matter, around the world – who start out first and foremost as writers and then, somewhere along the way, become vocalists.
I mean, great artists like George Benson started out that way. George started out writing and playing and one day he started singing. So where did that transformation come? How did it come for you, from writer to performer?
Kem: I think because I started getting positive feedback from it, you know. And trying to translate those ideas to other people is like, you know what? I may as well just sing this. You know, who better to communicate it if you have the facility. Who better to communicate what you write?
Tavis: The sound on this project, this third one, is a bit different than the first two and, to that, you attribute that to what?
Kem: The acoustic piano played a large role in the sound of this record. I bought a piano and it changed everything [laugh].
Tavis: Wait, you been writing songs all this time without a piano?
Kem: Well, you know, you can use the piano – you know, the Yamaha Motif. You can use that sound. I mean, I’ve used that on the records for “Say” and for other songs. But the acoustic piano is whole other thing. The texture of it, sitting down to write songs on that is a whole other approach.
And usually I would use – you know, I have the rolled sound and my vocal would sit a certain way with the rolls and it would be warm and, you know, that Neo soul type of vibe. Using an acoustic piano is like it lays everything bare. It’s intimate, you know. There’s no place to hide. Lyrically or vocally, there’s no place to hide.
Tavis: I’m laughing trying to follow you in this conversation because I didn’t think your music could be more intimate. You tell me you think it is now because of the instrumentation?
Kem: Oh, yeah, definitely, definitely. Interestingly enough, “Why Would You Stay” is so different to where when I first did “Why Would You Stay,” it was just gonna be acoustic. I was thinking, John Legend, “Ordinary People,” that vibe. I was gonna do the piano and have acoustic strings. You know, we’ve got symphony players. I recorded it that way and I didn’t like it and I put it on the shelf and I wasn’t gonna use it.
I have a co-producer on this record, Rex Rideout. He was in Detroit. He heard the song and said, “Dude, let me take it back to L.A., you know, sit with it for a minute and let’s see if there’s another approach.” He’s single-handedly responsible for “Why Would You Stay” even being on the record.
Tavis: And it gets on and it’s a huge hit [laugh].
Kem: Right.
Tavis: It’s a huge hit. I find myself laughing all the time – and you’ll familiarize with this, of course – with the journey that songs take. When I say journey, I mean, from being written or half written or thrown in the trash and pulled back out of the trash, recorded, put on the shelf, taken off the shelf, never released, comes out 30 years later and it’s like bam. You went through all that to get out one track that everybody loves, and you were just wrestling with it.
Kem: It’s all about the song. You know, at the end of the day, it’s all about the song. So I try to serve the song and make sure that the listener is satisfied. You know, we had Wynton on here talking about the quality of music. So, yeah, a lot goes into it. You know, each record so far has evolved. I’m not afraid to go to those places as long as it’s the truth of where I am.
It’s cool, because when I first started out, we were trying to emulate, you know, Tony! Toni! TonĂ©! and Prince. We were trying to emulate what was happening and that never worked for me. My friends were asking me, “Dog, why are you writing these love songs? What are you doing, man? We’re trying to get a record deal?” Now all of them are in my band [laugh]. So it’s like there’s something to be said about staying true to what it is that you do.
Tavis: But in that regard, though, you do acknowledge now that your fans are very clear on what a Kem signature sound is and you’re okay with the fact that we know that and we ain’t gonna let you run from that?
Kem: Yeah, absolutely. I’m cool with it, I’m cool with it.
Tavis: Every time I talk to you, it is impossible for me to begin and end the conversation with you without talking about your sobriety because there’s so many people watching all the time who are struggling with this. I don’t want to color the question too much, but how long has it been now?
Kem: 20 years.
Tavis: 20 years.
Kem: Yeah. We’ve all celebrated 20 years.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Kem: Well, for me it’s 20 years of sobriety. Your 20 years is something else. Let’s be clear [laugh]. Tavis is smoking? I didn’t know Tavis was smoking [laugh].
Tavis: Please clear that up. I’ve been a crack head for 20 years on TV every night [laugh]. No, you’re celebrating 20 years of sobriety; I’m celebrating 20 years in the broadcast business. And most of that would appear to the viewer that I wasn’t sober on many of these conversations, but I have been. Seriously, though, 20 years. How do you stay sober? How do you engage in sobriety for 20 years?
Kem: I’m surrounded by a lot of good people who have gone before me, who understand how to do that and who I can lean on. You know, I’m very grateful that I’ve had success, you know, at this stage in my life as opposed to in the early years when I was using. You know, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. You know, it’s been a trip, it’s been a trip.
Tavis: But you’re in a business and now that you are so successful in this business, you ain’t got to tell me. You get to be Kem, you can get anything you want, anywhere you want it, and there are always folk offering it to you for free. You ain’t got to pay for it no more.
Kem: Well, it starts out being for free [laugh]. That’s how it starts.
Tavis: Yeah, they’re offering you stuff for free now because they just want to be in your presence. How do you navigate that terrain?
Kem: You know, I was just having a conversation about this with someone else. When you are living a certain way, there are certain things that don’t even come into your circle. You know what I mean? I mean, everybody in my organization is aware, you know, of how I live my life. I’ve never been at a party where there have been drugs there, to my knowledge. You know what I mean?
It’s not like – you know, we’re not even rolling like that. People who know that you don’t live that way don’t even bring it into your periphery. So it’s cool. You know, I’ve lived that part of my life already. I’ve done that. You know, I’ve been to jail; I’ve been hospitalized and lived on the streets. I’ve had nothing; I’ve been there. So I’ve had that experience, so that’s cool. So let’s move on to the next thing.
Tavis: I would imagine having hit records is a whole lot better.
Kem: Yeah, just a little bit [laugh].
Tavis: Speaking of hit records, tell me about this tour, man.
Kem: Yeah, going out on the road with Ledisi and Musiq Soulchild.
Tavis: Whoa, that’s a nice lineup.
Kem: That’s a nice – Ledisi.
Tavis: I bumped into her in the airport the other day.
Kem: Ledisi is incredible. You know, she’s incredible, and Musiq is incredible also. You know, 27 or 28 cities, doing the “Intimacy” album. I got background singers now. You know, you’ve been to the show. You’ve never seen me with background singers.
Tavis: You got background singers now. Got dancers too?
Kem: Not yet [laugh].
Tavis: Got to sell a few more records [laugh].
Kem: Not yet.
Tavis: Oh, that’s funny. You don’t do bad by yourself. You got your own little groove, yeah.
Kem: But it’s about the integrity of the music. This CD was so background laden and a lot of the songs that I wanted to perform, you know, I needed to have that. It was either do that or use, you know, pro tools to emulate that. So I wanted to try to just honor the integrity of the music.
Tavis: That’s a beautiful thing because, thanks to you, a few more people are eating now [laugh]. Background singers always love to work.
Kem: Yeah, they’re excited.
Tavis: Yeah, I’m sure they are, I’m sure they are. I love this guy. His name is Kem, K-E-M. Of course, you know that by now. This is project number three. It’s called “Intimacy” and he’s about to start a tour with Ledisi and Musiq Soulchild to get you all to appreciate this even more, although this thing’s been selling so swiftly that everybody knows about it now. So you got my tickets?
Kem: I have your tickets.
Tavis: Okay, I’ll see you on the road. Good to see you, man.
Kem: Good to be seen.
Tavis: Negro’s getting a hookup on TV [laugh].
Kem: Get you on the spot [laugh]. If you want this to air –
Tavis: – I’m out here, man! You promised me these tickets, man! It’s Tavis! Tavis! Anyway, that’s our show for tonight.
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Last modified: August 22, 2014 at 11:38 pm