'Tell Me More' Revisits 'Intimacy' With Crooner Kem

In this encore broadcast of a performance chat with R&B artist Kem Owens (known to fans simply as Kem), host Michel Martin discusses the artist's music and life experiences.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

And we have one more special Columbus Day treat for you, a special re-broadcast of a recent music chat when we moved next door from our usual home studio into NPR's performance space. We went over there to accommodate an audience and the man they came to see, R&B recording artist Kem.

(Soundbite of audience cheering)

MARTIN: He was raised and still and lives in Detroit. He's known some down times, including drug rehab and shelters. Fortunately one of them had a piano. He sang, he did weddings, waited tables and eventually cut his first CD in 2002, "Kemistry." Album two was titled, well, "Album 2" and featured this single.

(Soundbite from "Album 2" by Kem Owens)

KEM (Singer): (singing) I cant stop loving you, girl.

MARTIN: That was "I Can't Stop Loving You" from "Album 2". That was five years ago but now there's album three. It's just out and titled, "Intimacy". Kem, welcome to the intimate confines of TELL ME MORE. Thank you for joining us.

KEM: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of audience cheering)

MARTIN: Well we've missed you.

KEM: I've missed you, too.

MARTIN: Where have you been?

KEM: I've been working. I've been getting yall's record done, you understand? Our last release, as you mentioned, was in 2005 and you know we took a break. You know between the first album and the second album I had songs already cultivated for my second record. And then there was the whirlwind of being on tour and performing through the second album cycle.

You know we took a break and worked hard but yall record is finally done.

MARTIN: Well we're thankful. We're thankful. What's your process? Do you need quiet? Do you need a place to think your thoughts that's just you? Do you work with other people? How do you do that?

KEM: Oh, well the songwriting process is very intimate for me. I usually pen everything because I've learned that publishing is the gift that keeps on giving. But this album I shared. I shared some with Jill Scott who makes a cameo appearance on the record and I share production with a producer out of Los Angeles, Rex Rideout.

The whole concept of this album came about because I came to a place in my life where, you know, Mr. Love calls and thought he knew everything that there was to know about being in a relationship, being out of a relationship. And I really realized that I'd only been scratching the surface. And it is difficult, you know, to be vulnerable, to share really. You know, I'm quick to give you material things, to share my money, to - you know, and there's a place for that and there are times when that's appropriate but...

MARTIN: We can appreciate that, yeah, the sharing the material things part.

KEM: You know but there's also a place for you know for making room for other people in my life and for spending my time, which is my most valuable asset. And so I really began to really discover that and to learn what that was for myself.

MARTIN: Now do you want to play something first from the new album first or do you want to go back and play something from "Kemistry"?

KEM: I want to go back and warm up.

MARTIN: Warm up and do that, okay. And will you introduce the other fellows who are with you?

KEM: Oh, these are my cats, my Detroit musicians, right? I like to call them The Baddest Band in America, right? Racy Biggs on trumpet, Darrell Wakefield on saxophone, Brian Bean O'Neal on keyboard, Quenton, Sugarbear Baxter on guitar, Al Turner on bass and Ryan Otis on drums and Wild Bill Curry on percussion.

MARTIN: All right.

KEM: Give it up for the band yall.

(Soundbite of audience clapping)

MARTIN: And what are we going to hear? We're going to hear, something from "Kemistry". What are we going to hear?

KEM: "A Matter of Time".

MARTIN: "A Matter of Time", here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Matter of Time")

KEM: (Singing) How can you be more like your brother? He was tall, tall, thin and fine. He spent his whole life chasing heaven. But heaven resides on the inside. And people go from bad to good in a blink of an eye. If they can go from bad, then so can I.

It's a matter of time. Hey-hey. Its a matter of time. Yeah. Hey-hey-hey, girl.

He'd take us downtown to the mission. Over on Martin Luther King Boulevard, some people call Merl, but I like to call I Mack and Third. Those were the strangest sounds - hey-hey-hey, girl - we'd ever heard. Hey, yeah, hey-hey-hey.

He'd say that bad things, they happen. But it's all divine. Hey-hey-hey, girl. So don't let this crazy cruel world baby, dont let it make you blind. Hey-hey-hey-hey-hey.

'Cause people go from bad to good in a blink of an eye. If they can go from bad to good, so can I.

It's a matter of time. Hey-hey-hey. It's a matter of time. Oh-oh-oh. Yeah. It's a matter of time. Baby. It's a matter of time, yeah. It's gonna pass, girl. Yeah. It's gonna pass girl.

That's that Al Jarreau coming out. Love you, Al.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE. Our special guest in our performance studio today, singer Kem.

You know, when people write about you, they write about the silkiness of your sound. Oftentimes, people will talk about the kind of the spoken word quality of the lyrics, there's a story in them. They dont often talk anymore about the hard times you had before you got to the level where you are.

KEM: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, a lot of people are having hard times right now. I think I might be helpful to people to know how you got to that place and how you got out.

KEM: You know, my dark night of the soul is something that I talk about from the stage. You know, and specifically, for the purpose that you just indicated. You know, my music is not only a means of a provision in my life or a means of entertainment, it's really a testimony. You know, its a testimony, my faith foundation.

And I've been given so much and brought through so much that it is important for me to talk about what I've been through so that if somebody else is going through it, they can be encouraged through the music to get through whatever it is that they're going through.

So, yeah, so I'm a recovering alcoholic, drug addict. July 23rd, celebrated 20 years of sobriety and, you know, and I dont regret a day. I grew up - both my parents went to Tennessee State, educated, two cars, you know, the whole nine yards, had younger sisters. I had an opportunity to go to college and to do all of those things that we dream for our children and I didnt take advantage of those things. There was abuse in my childhood, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, childhood depression, anxiety, all these things.

And, you know, at that time, you know, who knew, you know? We just kind of, you know, we just fended for ourselves. You know, there weren't these labels and these medications and these therapies and all these things. And, you know, every family has its own dysfunctions. So, you know, communication about what I was going through as a kid was never really conveyed, you know, to those who really cared about me and who loved me. And, so it was no fault of their own. My parents did the best that they could and could they have done better they would have.

So, yeah, so drugs and alcohol became my best friend. But that path led me to being homeless in Detroit. It led me to not being welcomed into my mother's home. And I hit my bottom. You know, and bottom for me was sleeping outside on the Detroit River, trying to nurse a can of King Cobra malt liquor, a tall can, understand. It was a tall can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEM: Trying to nurse it till the next morning so that I could get back into this treatment facility. And it was my birthday. You know, the next day would be my birthday. July 23rd is not only my anniversary date, it's my chronological, my biological birthday and, you know, which is in divine order, you know, because it was definitely a rebirth. And the next day, I went into this treatment facility and I made room for something else to happen.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. We really appreciate that.

KEM: Yeah.

MARTIN: Thank you for that. We'd love to hear something from the new album.

KEM: Yeah.

MARTIN: And then we're going to talk a little bit more.

KEM: Okay.

MARTIN: Okay? What are you going to play?

KEM: "Share My Life." "Share My Life" is going to be the second single off of the "Intimacy" album.

(Soundbite of song, "Share My Life")

KEM: (Singing) Makes any difference. I still love you girl. You're my weakness. You changed my world. Share my life. Trust in me. You're all I want. Everything I need. Ooh, baby.

If it makes any difference, I give you all my heart. Girl, my sun sets anywhere you are. Maybe I'm a dreamer. You're still my queen. You love's like a river, girl. It's running right through me.

Share my life. You can trust in me. You can trust in me, girl. You can trust in me, girl. Youre all I want, baby, baby, everything I need.

Share my life.

(Soundbite of cheering)

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: You know, I've been thinking about this since I've been listening to this album in preparation for our conversation. And I am thinking about the fact that, you know, men have been singing love songs since, you know, forever. I mean, we wouldnt have country western if, you know, if we didnt...

KEM: Right.

MARTIN: And we have, you know, R&B, whatever that term means. And yet, do you still have the sense that real intimacy is something that is denied men? Do you have a sense that men are still not supposed to try to aspire to a truly intimate place? Do you ever feel that way? I mean, we hear a lot about sex, but...

KEM: Sex, sex sells.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

KEM: You know, sex sells. And, you know, we talk about those things and we blame it on the music industry but, you know, people buy, you know, people buy it. If people weren't buying it then, you know, then it wouldnt be selling.

I think that as men, and one of the things I think, one of the purposes I hope my music serves is saying the things that men either can't say, dont know how to say or aren't willing to say. Communicating those things, and those are also the things that women need to hear.

You know, we haven't been groomed to do those things. We haven't been groomed to communicate those things. You know, but I think that there's room for men to grow in the area of intimacy, particularly, you know, present company, myself being, you know, I, you know, write because, you know, really, that's all that its about; life is about relationship, you know, really, at the end of the day.

MARTIN: Kem, his new album, "Intimacy," is in stores now. And he joined us with all the fellas. And I thank you all for coming in our studios in Washington, D.C. I think you have one more for us that you want to play before we let you go.

KEM: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: And what's that going to be?

KEM: "Find Your Way." It's Been Good To Me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. So we are going to go out on "Find Your Way." It's from the second album.

KEM: It's from the second album.

MARTIN: Called "Album Two."

KEM: Yes ma'am.

(Soundbite of song, "Find Your Way")

MARTIN: To watch a Web exclusive video of Kem's NPR performance and hear full songs, check out our music website. Go to npr.org and click on music.

(Soundbite of song, "Find Your Way")

KEM: (Singing) Said I'm leaving. Have I made myself clear? Every time I find someone, I find myself here. No more screaming, there'll be no more lies. Packed up all my things to go, even made my flight. So how did you find your way back in my life?

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song, "Find Your Way")

KEM: (Singing) How did you find your way back in my life? How did you find your way back in my? I cant tell it, how we make this thing fly. I really thought we...

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