Interview: KEM – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

Posted: January 20, 2011 in interview, music
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KEMDate of Interview: 01/20/2011

In a world inundated with Auto-Tune singing and GarageBand beats, KEM has managed to create a space in the contemporary marketplace for his jazz-inspired music to thrive and survive. And since 2003, to the surprise of industry prognosticators, his first two solo projects – Kemistry and Album II – attained gold status. KEM’s third project, Intimacy: Album III, would become his best-performing album on Billboard’s Top 200 Chart.

Intimacy: Album III features “What Would You Say,” a heart-wrenching ballad that garnered two nominations at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards: “Best Male R&B Vocal Performance” and “Best R&B Song.” In preparation for “music’s biggest night,” which takes place a few days before the start of his headlining Intimacy tour, KEM managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on the decline of live instrumentation, the importance of authenticity, and his “ironic” signing with Motown Records.

Clayton Perry: Between the release of your second and third albums, you reached a golden year in your life: 40. As you entered your forties, in what ways did you begin to look at life – and the music business – differently?

KEM: I guess I like to think that as we age, we should get better. We should make better decisions and become more comfortable with ourselves. I think for the most part, I’m on track with that. As far as how it relates to the music industry, I just think that no matter what stage we are in our lives, you just need to make every effort to be authentic and be true to yourself. When you do that, that in itself is rewarding. Everything else works out when you’re able to be authentic with yourself. I’ve been very fortunate in being able to have a job that I love, doing something that I’m passionate about. Those types of things, I’m in touch with that. They feed themselves and it creates good business on its own. I’m very fortunate for that and very grateful for that.

Clayton Perry: One aspect of your music that people can readily identify is its “spiritual” nature. And over the years, in your concert performances and television appearances, you have always been very open about your bout with homelessness and addiction. Why is this such an important part of your testimony?

KEM: Because I think that we reap the most reward when we are celebrating and trying to live in the truth of who we are, and allowing other people to do the same. That’s really what intimacy is, living in the truth of who you are and allowing them to do the same, sharing that; and at the end of the day, everybody being okay with each other. What else is there? I mean, life is about relationships. We only have so much time here to work it out. My aim is to be the best version of myself that I can be, and that varies from day to day, trust me. And in the words of the very prophetic and profound prophet Billy Dee Williams, “Don’t let the smooth taste fool you.”

Clayton Perry: Good ol’ Mr. Billy Dee! [laughing] Since you are going to steal a quote from him, I am going to steal a quote from you. You were once quoted as saying that “[you] try to write the words that men don’t know how to say [and] that women definitely need to hear.” Why do you think communication is so crucial in supporting and fostering loving relationships? Why do you think that is always such a trying point within relationships?

KEM: Yeah, and for me, man, it’s the most difficult thing in the world. The most difficult thing in the world is to allow yourself to be vulnerable and allow people to know exactly what your fears are, what your concerns are. There’s always a voice that says if you do that, then you’re giving people ammunition to hurt you. Or it’s not good for the ego. It makes you look weak and soft. For me personally, there are control issues. You can’t control people when they know where to hurt you. All of this stuff, it’s all life. And when you communicate effectively, man, it just cuts to the bone. There’s a reason the Bible talks about that truth sets you free. There is no truer statement. And I know for me, my perception of what’s going on and what’s actually going on at any given time with anybody ain’t necessarily the same thing. So when you communicate, you understand that. “Oh, I thought it was this, but it was that.” So now we don’t have to kill each other. When everybody can have an understanding, we can alleviate a lot of strife.

Clayton Perry: To date, all of your albums have attained gold sales, in spite of your relative absence from mainstream pop and urban radio charts and outlets. What do you consider to be the biggest contributor to this success?

KEM: Well, we’re not following the trends necessarily, which is a testament to people out there who still have an affinity for the type of music that I make; artists such as myself and Jill Scott and Maxwell. John Legend, too. There are people who are still making this music. It’s important and it’s necessary, so I’m grateful that it’s being received the way that it is. And my hope is to continue to make great music and to continue to have people fall in love to it and fall in love with it.

Clayton Perry: It is often said that the music industry runs in cycles. And since your grand debut in 2003, you have been cited as a member of the “neo-soul movement,” even though many of its most popular artists have struggled to attain the same level of airplay and sales that they once enjoyed. What do you see as the principal cause for the shift in the tone, direction and focus of R&B music? And what do you hope will bring the music back to the love and spirituality that you tend to focus on?

KEM: I don’t know. I don’t know that the appreciation for the music goes anywhere. I just think that it’s how it’s marketed. It’s how it’s received by the powers that be. If they think they can make some money, they do it. If they don’t think it’s going to make any money, they don’t do it. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there who still appreciate it. I don’t know what will change it. I don’t know that the music ever truly fits in a bona fide way into the neo soul category. I think we could be there, a little bit. There are jazz overtones in what I do. I try to write great songs that can stand up in the mainstream market. It all starts with the song. But I think people need to be true to themselves, and create what’s right for them, and you’ll be successful with that. Your success may not look like mine, and mine may not look like someone else’s, but it will be mine, and we can flourish in that way. People get tired of hearing about we’re trying to make it sound like it was back in the day, we’re trying to go back and capture this sound, and we’re trying to make it sound like that. It can just be what it is. We don’t have to be who you are. And I think that’s how artists get lost, trying to be what they’re not, and not being their truest self. Hopefully I can continue to do that.

Clayton Perry: Now, how did you come to this place? In your case, when you released your debut album, you actually had it finished before signing with a major label. Do you think that played a part in why you are so secure in yourself as an artist?

KEM: We had it done before we got a record deal, but the main thing is selling records. It’s why we were able to sell records. A lot of people have a CD, but have you created something that other people are willing to pay for? Or steal?

Clayton Perry: Or steal? [laughing]

KEM: People stealing music. That’s a good thing. If people view that as something somebody wants to steal, that’s a good thing. You just need stronger legs, really, to be able to do that. I can sell records on my own without having a record label, and people get it, and I’m just being myself. That’s great.

Clayton Perry: “Why Would You Stay” is a song that people are willing to buy, steal, and buy, again! [laughing] When you are  in the studio and creating music, you do not have that instantaneous response.  You are just creating it in the moment. But now that you have actually had the chance to receive feedback on this track, what thoughts come to your mind?

KEM: Actually, “Why Would You Stay,” the real story on that song is it almost didn’t get on the album. That’s the story. I thought it was a great song. I recorded it. Originally it was just going to be piano and strings and my voice. I recorded it that way and I didn’t like it. I put it on the shelf, and I wasn’t going to use it. Rex Rideout, who co-produces this album with me, he heard it.  We were in Detroit at the time. He asked me if he could take it back to L.A. and work on it, and then pitch it to me again and see what I thought. And that’s why that song is on the record, because he put his stamp on it. So I’m glad for that. I’m glad for that. I knew it was a great song, and I wanted it to do well, and so it’s good to have this hard work celebrated, in this way, with a GRAMMY nomination. It’s a great thing.

Clayton Perry: Now, this begs the question: do you have a vault of songs that you need to go back and revisit? [laughing]

KEM: Right, right, right! [laughing] There are different pieces of songs and ideas that I’m still cultivating. There is one that comes to mind that people wanted to hear on the record that didn’t make it to the record. I may go back and take another look at it and see if it’s salvageable. But I don’t think that story is different. I think a lot of artists have stuff that they don’t really feel. We all probably have hits on the shelf.

Clayton Perry: Hanging around somewhere… [laughing continues]

KEM: …that never came out – for whatever reason! [laughing continues]

Clayton Perry: You are a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Of these talents, which do you think comes most naturally to you? And when you are spending time crafting songs for an album, which element do you tend to spend the most time on: vocal arrangement, lyrics or the production?

KEM: I think what I do best is probably write songs. I started writing songs first. And I started recording songs by default. I had been in studios. I had worked with producers. When it came time to do Kemistry, I didn’t really know how to produce a record. I just wanted to go into a studio and record these songs. It was a “learn-as-you-go” type of thing. A lot of heartache. A lot of blood, sweat and tears and a whole bunch of God’s grace that helped me cultivate this music and this sound. It changes, and it evolves and each experience builds on its predecessor. And then, at the same time, some of the things that I did on other records don’t work for the new music, and we had to change some things around. And I was probably more involved on this record than I have been on the other records, because I actually started doing my own editing. I have ProTools at the house, so on this record I’m editing the drums. I’m editing the vocals. I’m involved in every aspect. And actually, until having this conversation, that really hadn’t dawned on me to what degree I’m involved in making the record. And to a lot of people’s dismay.

Clayton Perry: Over the course of this past decade, what do you consider to be the biggest professional lessons you have learned along the way? You were saying as you went between albums, you grew in some ways and looked at some other things and kind of pulled back saying, “It didn’t work so hot.” So when you look at this decade, what are the lessons that shine bright?

KEM: Oh, wow. I think that it’s necessary for me to be involved in every aspect of the music-making process. If I’m not involved, I can’t take the time to participate in any aspect or process, and I can’t blame anybody but myself if the end result is not what I want it to be. And to try to get what it is that I’m looking for, in spite of outside influence. It’s really all about just learning how to be more true to who I am and to what I’m doing, regardless of what outside opinion is. So at the end of the day, it’s about me. I’ve got to look in the mirror, and I’ve got to be happy with what it is. All of the other folks go home, and they move on and they do other things. They all mean well, but at the end of the day, I have to be okay with what’s going on. So learning to be more authentic with myself in the process, being involved, and taking ownership of everything. My name is on the building, so to speak, so I have to take ownership of every aspect of the project.

Clayton Perry: In reference to your first two albums, you stated that the backbone of your music was the Rhodes. Do you still consider this to be an accurate statement?

KEM: Well, I would probably expand on that and say just keyboard in general, because on the new record, a lot of it flowed out of acoustic piano. On the other albums, there was mostly Rhodes influence: Yamaha, Motif, Rhodes patches that I used. But it’s really the keyboard. It’s really just the keyboard. The songwriting process starts at the keyboard, for me. That is the foundation for everything else. And getting it right there, finding something there in that space is a launching pad for everything else. So the trick is taking that idea whether it’s just me fiddling in my basement, playing the piano or the keyboard and then adding elements to it, adding other instrumentation to it without leaving that original feeling, that original thought that I had when I first came up with the idea. But it all starts with the keyboard.

Clayton Perry: Do you ever find it ironic that given your Detroit background you eventually signed with Motown, even though it’s officially a part of Universal Music Group?

KEM: Yes, definitely. I wouldn’t say it’s irony, but it’s fitting, particularly for the kind of music that we make, and in the tradition that I make my records with live musicians in the studio, and working in some of those studios where the old Motown cats recorded. It’s definitely fitting. It was a business decision, though. I did not seek Motown out. It just happened to be one of a couple of labels that had expressed interest. They made us a good offer and we went with that; but again, it’s fitting to be a part of the Motown legacy, and I’m grateful for that.

Clayton Perry: Speaking of live instrumentation – a lot of contemporary artists do not use live instrumentation in their music. What “magic” do you think is lost when you perform with a static track? And then what do you think is gained when you have a singer who is surrounded by real musicians that can add another layer of feeling to a track?

KEM: I think that there’s room for both. I think that it just depends on what the sound is that you’re going for. When you’re using electronic drums and the music is programmed, it’s more precise. It’s cleaner. It ain’t easy to record a band.  When you program a drum machine, that’s exactly what you’re going to get, just like what you put in. You can quantize it. You can make it just as tight as you want to. With a live band, you can do the same thing, but it takes a whole lot more to get to that. The idea was to start off with great musicians. I still do that, and I still move things around. I still quantize some things. I do that to the live musicians. But that live instrumentation is what has served these particular songs that I’ve written so far in my career. That’s what serves these songs, so that’s what we do. We serve the song. I have songs that have programmed drums, and I like them. It just depends on the song.

Clayton Perry: I think that is a really great quote: “we serve the song.” I think that is an important message to have and also to share.

KEM: Yes. I just want to thank the fans and all the supporters of this music on behalf of all the artists like myself. We appreciate you and we make this music for you, and we don’t take that lightly. We don’t take it for granted, particularly with all these other choices. Like they tell you on the plane when you’re getting ready to land, “We know you’ve got other choices. Thank you for flying with us.” [laughing]

For more information on KEM, visit his official website: http://musicbykem.com

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