Life's Common Things At Heart Of K'Jon's R&B Music

Ahead of Tell Me More's Tuesday broadcast from Detroit, the program highlights one of the city's very own — singer and songwriter K'Jon. His 2009 song, 'On the Ocean,' set the record for the longest run on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. He speaks with host Michel Martin about his hometown, career and upcoming album.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I'll share some of my thoughts in my weekly Can I Just Tell You commentary.

But first, as we prepare to head to Detroit for tomorrow's program, we are gearing up by bringing you distinct voices and stories from the Motor City and so now we want to highlight one of those voices, Detroit's very own K'Jon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE OCEAN")

K'JON: (Singing) Sometimes, it feels like everything is passing me by. Every now and then, it feels like my ship has gone and sailed away.

MARTIN: That was "On the Ocean" from his 2009 album "I Get Around." The song set a record for longest run on Billboard's hot R&B and hip-hop song chart and you can see why in these difficult times. It expresses the longing for better times, both of one man and his city.

Now, K'Jon is preparing to release a new album. It's due out later this year, titled "Moving On," and here to give us an exclusive preview is the man himself, K'Jon.

Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

K'JON: Hello, Michel. How you doing? Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I'm great. Well, I definitely want to talk about the new stuff, but we just have to talk about "On the Ocean" for a minute. The story is that you had been trying to break through in the music industry for a while. You know, you'd had some success, like you'd been an opener for some, you know, top acts like Ludacris and so forth, but you felt you just weren't hitting it the way you wanted to hit it.

And then, you know, pick up the story from there. So you were in a hotel room. Pick up the story from there. Tell us how this song came to you.

K'JON: Yeah. Well, actually, I was around some very influential movers and shakers at the time, like Ludacris and his camp, and I was just so disappointed because, you know, holding down a nine to five, I'm used to having my own money and getting a check and all of that, so you know, I was kind of paying my dues. And I thought I was, but it wasn't just paying off.

So, as I sat in the hotel room, my instruction was to write a hit for somebody else. So that really was like the last straw for me. I was very disappointed. I was down on myself and that's when I started to write the words to "Ocean" and, you know, I can see it happening for me. Like that ship out there, I need to get on that ship, like on a stranded island, but I had to somehow signal to that ship or do something to get on that boat.

And so I kind of figured that I would have to leave that situation and do things for myself to make this career change a success.

MARTIN: What was your nine to five, if you don't mind my asking, before you got into music full time?

K'JON: I was in administration and management. I got laid off of that job, so I went to the music full time.

MARTIN: So you know what you're talking about when you write about these things. You know what that feels like.

K'JON: Exactly.

MARTIN: As that's one of the scenes in the video - is where the man gets a pink slip. You know, he walks out of work feeling good about himself. Next thing you know, there's a pink slip in his hand and he's got to figure out what to do.

K'JON: Exactly.

MARTIN: The story also is that you were supposed to be writing for somebody else, but a friend told you, if you give this song away, you'll never forgive yourself.

K'JON: Right. He was a wise man because I was trying to sell everything. You know, I wanted to be in the industry as an artist, as a writer, as a producer, so it really didn't matter to me at the time. I just wanted to be relevant and wanted to get something started.

I mean, I guess it was a great decision to keep the song for myself because I still get the credit as having written a song, performing a song and producing a song, so I guess it was great at the end of the day.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the new album, "Moving On." And I was listening to this album and I'm thinking, this is kind of like your blog.

K'JON: Wow, OK.

MARTIN: You know, you're putting it all out there. You know, you're not...

K'JON: Why not? Why not?

MARTIN: You're not holding anything back.

K'JON: I think people respect me for that, you know, and it's so funny that one of the businessmen I used to do business with in the record industry said people respect you more if they believe what you're going through. If you write about what you're going through, they will respect you and they will - well, you will win them over.

So I think people really respect what I sing and write about and I'm not putting the dirty laundry out there, so to speak, you know, the juicy reality gossip. I'm just talking about what's real on a day-to-day - you know, the common things that people go through. That's what makes, I guess, my music attractive to people.

MARTIN: Well, I want to ask you, though, about one of those songs that talks about things that people go through. It's called "Will You Be There?" It's a beautiful song, but it's about a tough subject. It's about people going through some serious - well, the video shows people going through some serious financial changes, which is something that obviously a lot of people are experiencing right now. Let me just play a short clip of it and then we'll talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL YOU BE THERE?")

K'JON: (Singing)Will you be there? Sometimes I can't stop from thinking. Used to think that drinking was the answer to me sinking in my sorrows, and if there's a tomorrow, will I'll be around or be consumed and swallowed. Maybe I go back to the bottle. Maybe I just spend my life in bottle, don't care about tomorrow. Maybe I'm just talking delirious. But, girl what if I'm serious? I've been going through some things, some things...

MARTIN: You know, like, obviously like most works of art it's, you bring to it whatever you bring to it. But the video for this song shows a family having financial struggles. And in it the father is contemplating suicide because he feels he's let his family down. And I just have to ask, is this based on someone you know?

K'JON: I would have to say some of it is off of reality of people that I know. Recently, there's been a few people in my life, their kids have actually felt like they wanted to take their lives. So as a writer, I kind of write about what goes on around me. And then there's too, there's people that are close to me who heard this song that actually like told me that this is my life story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL YOU BE THERE")

K'JON: (Singing) I used to think, you're my necessity. You're my necessity. I said I used to think I just don't know what to think. Will you be in there for me? I've been going through some things. Going through some things. Been dealing with some changes.

Again, I was just trying to get on the common ground with, you know, people struggling with the bills and with life in general. I think it needs to be addressed, because it is a problem with the, you know, suicide attempts, as well as teen suicide is up in the United States.

MARTIN: We're heading to Detroit tomorrow. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm joined by one of Detroit's own, singer-songwriter K'Jon. We're talking about his recent success, and we're getting a preview of his new album, "Moving On," his up-and-coming album.

How important is Detroit as a source of inspiration for your work?

K'JON: It has been very important. There's a pressure to succeed because, of course, you have Motown and all the great entertainers that have come out the city. We still carry the torch. I mean, we have some of the biggest names in Detroit, like Eminem and Kid Rock and Aretha Franklin. You know, and on the R&B side you have Kemistry, and then you have someone like myself, who's trying to become a mainstay in the R&B world - entertainment world. So, but Detroit has been very inspirational to what I write about and what I sing about, and how I've developed into a man and as a businessman, so it's very important to me.

MARTIN: Let's hear another track from the album, the upcoming album, "Moving On." It's called "The Reason."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE REASON")

K'JON: (Singing) Once the others rule on what you should not do. What you should not do. Well, you should never ever tell a grown man what he should not do. Should not do. 'Cause he may just do what you told him not to do and he just may succeed at everything he wanted to be. Every time you say I can't, I act like I don't understand. It just does something to my blood. You're the reason why I work harder, every time you say I can't...

MARTIN: See I had trouble reading this one. Was this like the big middle finger to somebody who's been telling you know? I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...what's up with that?

K'JON: I mean it could be.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

K'JON: You know, it could be. I mean...

MARTIN: To all those people who told you no

K'JON: It could be. It could be. You know, if you think about it on the nine-to-five - your nine-to-five job, anyone that you know - is a thorn in their side. Just like my last album there was "Fly Away." When you encounter negativity and saying you can't do it, put on your super cape, because all you have to do is put on your super cape and fly away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE REASON")

K'JON: (Singing) Sometimes I feel like giving up because it's just too much. But it's something you said to me that gave me energy...

In the song I referred to their lips as being like Chinese arithmetic or that I really can't understand what they're saying. So even though they're telling you, you can't do it, I'm like, I just can't, I refuse to understand what you're saying. So the worst thing I think you can do if you really want someone to fail just don't say nothing at all, because if you tell someone who's very talented or who has a capability to succeed, if you tell them you can't do it, it's going to come back to hunt you because that man is going to succeed.

"The Reason" has a lot of things and hopefully one day someone would say, you know, that was pretty clever and inspiring at the same time.

MARTIN: Now hopefully one day you'll tell us who you're really talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

K'JON: No I didn't - that particular one wasn't a particular person. No.

MARTIN: Wasn't a particular person. Yeah, OK.

K'JON: I'll be honest with you, no.

MARTIN: Yeah, OK. We'll go with that story for now. So I mean...

K'JON: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...who do you - when you're writing do you have someone in mind that you're talking to?

K'JON: It depends, because I'm just a writer, you know, I'm doing commercials for, you know, a water company, a mineral water company right now. I'm a writer so, you know, you can give me a little bit to play off of and I will come up with something catchy. So, some things are very personal. There's a song on the album that's very personal. I, you know, I just don't want to get into it, but I still want the album to be predominantly positive - although, you know, I'm creative enough to put a message in there directed at someone.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go - and I do want to hear one more cut from the album - you've got a movie that you're working on titled "Dancing Shoes"

K'JON: Yeah. I am.

MARTIN: You want to tell us about it?

K'JON: Sure. Why not? "Dancing Shoes" is based off of 1930s setting in the Detroit and Chicago areas. You know, Detroit is known for their ballrooming style of dancing, and Chicago is known for their stepping, and so there's a friendly competition. So I said what if we turn this into the 30s have them just fight over a dancing style and territory like the clubs? And so that's what we did. We're still filming. I took a little break and we're going to get back into it. And along with that, we're doing big band music so there will be a big band soundtrack to go along with the movie.

MARTIN: It sounds like a lot of fun.

K'JON: Yeah it is.

MARTIN: And, you know, you mentioned you trying to keep it positive. As we mentioned, we are heading to Detroit and, you know, obviously the city has had its ups and downs and the people who live there having their ups and downs. And it seems like, you know, there's always another headline about unemployment and, you know, real estate going flat and so forth and so forth like that. And I just wanted to ask, you know, what's your - you still work there. Your offices are still in Detroit...

K'JON: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and, you know, tell me about that decision. Any...

K'JON: Well, my family's here, you know, uncles, aunties and cousins and my mother, my father, you know, my siblings - so I won't be going anywhere. You know, it's definitely difficult to make money here at this time, especially for some reason, on the entertainment level, but I'm sure on, you know, other areas as well for other people, you know? The factory had its hit and there's just a high unemployment rate, you know, right now. So, you know, I just travel a little bit more to this make opportunities. And then you got the good old' Internet, you know, to do business.

MARTIN: Well, what song would you like us to go out on?

K'JON: You know what, let's dedicate it to Detroit. I like "Superman" because "Superman" is again, "Superman" is, you know, suiting up and letting nothing stop you and if you got a united front behind you, there's nothing anyone can do to stop what you're doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERMAN")

MARTIN: K'Jon is based in Detroit. He's a singer and songwriter. His latest album is called "Moving On." It will be released this spring. And K'Jon was kind enough to join us from member station WDET in Detroit.

K'Jon, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on all your success to this point and more to come.

K'JON: And thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERMAN")

K'JON: (Singing) Can't nobody do what I can. Do what I Can. Guess I'm just a Superman. Superman. Nothing can stop me. Baby when you got me, feel like I can touch the sky. Touch the sky. I'm flying. I'm flying. I'm flying. So let's fly. Let's fly. Let's fly.

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