Photos: Udo Spreitzenbarth
For nearly 20 years, Kem has been making aunties everywhere swoon. Born in Nashville and raised just outside of Detroit, the neo-soul/R&B singer (born Kim Owens) has carefully paved his musical path, cultivating the art and image of a world-wise gentleman. But make no mistake, the 51-year-old singer has been through the fire, with scars to show and lessons learned in abundance.
As a young adult, Kem battled drug addiction and alcoholism, was homeless for a stretch of time, and served stints in jail. After getting sober three decades ago, he turned his life around, becoming a waiter and wedding singer. His self-released 2002 debut, Kemistry, features the mellow classic “Love Calls,” which still gets burn during chill-out hours at cookouts and family reunions. He’s since signed to Motown, dropped five albums (including his rereleased debut), and scored a handful of Grammy nominations.
All of that internal wrestling we do as men — we have holes inside. And when you make that grown-man move and make her your wife, I’m telling you, it settles in and gives you room to do so much more.
With his latest effort, Love Always Wins, Kem leans into his secret sauce: passionate lyricism and vocals over instrumentation by top-notch musicians (see: jazz musician Brian Culbertson on piano). And yes, this album was born amid a global pandemic, which means he was living the same WFH life as many of us: juggling his music-making livelihood with managing a household of seven, including his wife and their five children.
Kem shares some of the grown-man gems that have helped him stay out of his own way as he rose to king of AC. Which, of course, stands for adult contemporary — or, better yet, auntie-certified. — As told to Aliya S. King
Talking to yourself is healthy. Remember: All your experiences make up who you are right now, for better or for worse. So check in with yourself. Have a conversation. If I look back 10 or 20 years, I think, Would I be proud of the moves I’m making today? And then, of course, I look forward. What am I doing in the moment to make my 10-years-from-now self proud?
When I first got started in this industry, I didn’t know what it meant to be an artist. I wrote songs that resonated with me and hoped people liked them. That was it. [Laughs] Twenty years later, that’s still my center. I understand much more about artistry and the business. But ultimately, I make music that resonates with me — and I hope people feel it.
No matter what you’re working on — an album, a baby, a new relationship — don’t forget that life is still happening. I know some musicians who just get up and write songs all day long, never leaving the studio. I don’t operate that way. Sometimes I’m laser-focused. But I also have to live. I have to love my wife and nurture our relationship and raise the kids that grow up so fast. All of life becomes part of your artistry.
Everything is different now, from racial injustice to the global pandemic. Everything we do and everything we are will be different on the other side of this. From how you deal with your kids to how much toilet paper you buy at the store, it’s all changing. We should come out of this different.
You have to be able to switch it up. No matter how old you are, you have to be prepared to switch up your life, particularly professionally. I’m not afraid of change. So when the pandemic hit and I had to do everything so much differently than I’m used to, I was prepared.
We’ve never lived this way before. I’m an entertainer, performing live constantly for years. But I can’t tell you the last time I performed live. I don’t remember my last gig. And I probably won’t be on the road before the new year. And that’s fine. We will all be okay. I’m writing. I’m recording. I’m releasing new music. Performing is important. But for right now, we’re all doing what we can. It’s heartbreaking, of course. But this is where we are.
Look for the benefits. Yes, even in a pandemic, there can be benefits. I’ve had to collaborate very differently. Since we couldn’t get into the studio after it closed, we were sending files back and forth with the musicians and making it work from Delaware, Philly, Detroit, and everywhere else. Then, get this: We finally get back into the studio and it doesn’t sound the same. That might change. But it turned out that I needed the music to come together exactly the way it did. Things are created the way they are supposed to be created. Including yourself.
I live in the center of God’s will. That’s exactly how I felt the morning after I married my wife. All of that internal wrestling we do as men — we have holes inside. And when you make that grown-man move and make her your wife, I’m telling you, it settles in and gives you room to do so much more.
I wouldn’t be the husband I am if I had not failed in the past. Don’t let the right one get away. Stop wrestling with it.
Can you sum up your life in one word? I can. My word at this moment is “grateful.” If I could, I’d tell my year 2000 self that the best is coming. But knowing me, I wouldn’t have believed it.
The past informs — but you don’t want to change it. My steps have always been ordered. I wouldn’t be here without year 2000 Kem. I needed him.
Don’t spend too much time on how you got here. That keeps you living in fear. Pay attention to the past just enough to get the lesson. But don’t live there.