Kemistry Lessons

Detroit singer Kem found himself on the streets -- then he found salvation in music.

Kem gives it up to God, because 50 Cent probably - wouldn't want to.
Kem gives it up to God, because 50 Cent probably wouldn't want to.
Nearly everything about Motown crooner Kem is smooth, from his airy soul balladry to his glistening dome. Articulate, thoughtful, and not given to street slang, he clearly is a guy who comes from the right side of the tracks.

So how did he wind up sleeping on the streets of his native Detroit, homeless and a million miles away from his musical dreams?

It's a question Kem answers guardedly and with few details. Though his rags-to-relative-riches story is a great one, it isn't an angle that Motown's pushing hard, in a bid to get its new star noticed. Involving estrangement from his middle-class family -- with whom he's since reconciled -- it seems to hold some lingering pain for the singer. In fact, you're more likely to get an understanding of it through his song "Matter of Fact," which talks about a musician who'd "take us downtown to the mission/Over on Mack and Third/To hear some of the strangest sounds we'd ever heard" and reminds skeptics that "people go from bad to good in just the blink of an eye.

"It was a period of my life where I made some decisions that weren't necessarily in my best interest," Kem says by phone from Detroit, referring to what happened after he left his parents' home at age 19. "I'm a recovering alcohol and drug addict. It was a time in my life where I wasn't participating in my life fully, and I was out on the streets for a while. But I don't regret it, because I learned some skills that help me today."

Part of the learning process, he acknowledges, was a rediscovery of his Christian faith, which plays a major role in his work today. Though he won't say exactly how he pulled himself out of addiction, Kem says there was a strong religious component to his recovery.

"I think it was something that helped me come out of that period, and it has increased," he says of his faith. "It increases daily."

Also on the rise is attention to Kem's Motown debut, Kemistry, a collection of songs whose live instrumentation and classic R&B feel have, understandably, gotten him herded into the burgeoning neosoul camp. Although he claims not to mind the comparison and acknowledges sharing many of the same vintage influences -- Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, et al. -- Kem doesn't believe the tag is entirely accurate.

"I would say [that Kemistry] is maybe a little more mature than neosoul," he offers. "It doesn't have as much edge, for one thing, and there's more a smooth-jazz feel" -- perhaps one reason that Al Jarreau, a singer always perched on the periphery between R&B and jazz, is a name many critics have reached for in describing Kem's sound.

It has its deepest roots, surprisingly enough, in Chicago's old AM staple "Colour My World." That's the tune a baby-sitter taught Kem to play after he first explored the piano at his grandparents' house at age four. "I played that song for about three years straight," he remembers with a laugh. "But what that did was it gave me an idea of what chords were all about."

Born in Nashville, Kim Owens moved north to Michigan with his family when he was a child and found the usual outlets for his love of music as he grew older: the high school choir and "a couple of neighborhood basement bands." He began writing songs with classmate Brian O'Neal, a fellow pianist and current bandmate, and after graduation, he seemed ready to give the music biz a try .

Then came Kem's lost period. But what wasn't lost during his time on the streets was his desire to make music. And when he'd cleaned himself up, gotten back into the workforce (as a waiter at a local hotel), and become a father, he decided it was time to dust off his dreams.

Things didn't go quite as he planned. For starters, he got his stage name accidentally, after a misunderstanding over his given name of Kim; realizing the marketing potential of "Kem," he decided to keep it. More problematic was that the first release of Kemistry, recorded live in a Detroit coffeehouse in 1999, didn't have the vibe its creator was seeking. "I just didn't like it," he says simply, "and I decided not to release it."

That could easily have been the end of Kem's feel-good biography. Yet despite his reservations, the disc circulated through the local underground, building up a buzz for the shaven-headed singer with the four-octave range. "After a couple of years, I finally decided to get back in and package it up right," says Kem. "And by the time the next one was done, people were waiting for it." The second version of Kemistry, released independently, sold 10,000 copies in five months and got the attention of the giant in Kem's backyard. Motown signed him to a five-year deal, validating the gamble he took by financing the album's recording with a credit card.

"It was either 'This is gonna work' or 'I'm not gonna do this,'" Kem says. "Fortunately, divinely, everything worked out."

There are divine implications to many of the songs on Kemistry, which got its third release early in 2003 on Motown. And Kem admits that, as many an R&B crooner has done before him, he's wrestled with balancing the spiritual and the secular sides of his art.

"There was a time when that was a major, major issue for me. Since then, I've come to realize that my music is pure," he says. "I'm not cussin' anybody, I'm not doggin' anybody. I'm talkin' about love, and I'm talkin' about redemption. I represent God in my show and in my songs. But most Christians have secular jobs. Everybody ain't workin' in the church," he says, laughing. "To be able to use your faith in a secular market and reach people -- what greater witness is that for God?

"Y'know, if 50 Cent got in front of a coliseum full of 50,000 people and started witnessing for the Lord," says Kem, "that would be a very powerful, powerful thing.

"It's probably unlikely that that will happen," he adds with a chuckle. "So you got me instead."