It’s not surprising that a man whose music is as nakedly romantic as Kem’s would be engaged in a life-long love affair that has survived drug addiction and alcoholism, the indignities of being a wedding singer, and the shock of sudden success.
Just check out some of his song titles: "I Can’t Stop Loving You," "You’re On My Mind," and, of course, "I’m In Love." With an upscale R&B sound that is equal parts Marvin Gaye and Al Jarreau over elegant, tasteful arrangements that cry out for candles and a little private time with your baby, Kem clearly knows romance.
The 41-year-old who grew up in Detroit has been in love for a long, long time.
With the piano.
"It’s been a strange love affair with that instrument," he said in a phone interview describing how he started playing when he was 5 and never stopped.
"That’s just a place where I could just be — one of the few places where I could just sit and engage in this activity and lose track of time and not be concerned about where I needed to be. I was completely comfortable and that was my passion."
Kem took a circuitous route to a late-blooming music career that brings him to the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle Friday at 8 p.m. for a concert that also will feature smooth jazz/R&B keyboard player Alex Bugnon.
Born in Nashville, Kem remembers being captivated by the music of his grandfather’s church on his return visits.
"The first things I was trying to play were gospel tunes and the [piano] is something that captivated me at a young age. I could sit at the piano for hours. I think it was my refuge."
IF YOU GO
Tickets for Friday’s 8 p.m. concert at the TMA Peristyle, 2445 Monroe St., are on sale through Ticketmaster outlets, by phone at 800-745-3000, at www.ticketmaster.com, or through the Stranahan Theater box office by calling 419-381-8851. They are $50, $60, and $70.
He plunked away on it, imitating what he heard and as he grew up he would always find an excuse to play — even breaking into his school after hours to sit down at its piano — but once it came time for formal lessons, he was uninterested.
"When you add structure to it and now you have to do it, it loses all its appeal," he said laughing.
Blessed with a distinctive, sweet voice and a keen sense of the musical possibilities inherent in stripped-down soul sounds, the young man spiraled out of control by his early adult years, struggling with homelessness, drug addiction, and alcoholism until he bottomed out.
"After I got, as they say in recovery circles, ‘Sick of being sick and tired,’ I opened myself up for help and allowed these people to come in and help me change my life," Kem said.
He began doing the grunt work required of most musicians, taking gigs wherever he could get them in the Detroit area and self-financing his first release, 2003’s "Kemistry." He was signed to the vaunted Motown label and suddenly years of dues paying had paid off, which Kem admitted had its own challenges.
"To have your dream fulfilled, ‘Bam! Now what are you going to do?’ is both the greatest time and most depressing time of your life because ... you have a whole different thing to navigate," he said.
Critics love the spare arrangements he’s featured on "Kemistry," "Album II" (2005), and "Intimacy" (2010). There’s room to breathe in the music, with a less-is-more approach that separates him from the compressed, over-produced sounds that dominate pop and R&B music.
"When my song comes on the radio it doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio, which actually is kind of nerve-wracking sometimes," he said.
Kem writes all his own music, which makes it easier for him and his eight-person band to interpret the songs and deliver them with sincerity. Plus, writing your own stuff pays a lot better.
"When you listen to a Kem record that music is me. All of me goes into writing a song. I’m representing me and my ideas," he said. "The other side of that coin is that you get paid for writing the song. If you can write songs then that’s what you should do and I have a vested interest in them."
The unmarried father of two daughters, a 16-year-old and an 11-month-old, Kem said the theme of his music is consistent and ties into his personal experiences.
"Love is the theme, relationships are the theme. There’s a thread of spirituality that flows through the record — all of the things that help a human being become the best version of himself, and his relationship with God, and with everybody else that is in his experience. My hope is that the music inspires, that it encourages, that it moves people deeper to get out of bad situations."
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