It’s hard to tell when Kem Owens is agitated. He wears a good poker face, and keeps his cool most of the time. He pauses and thinks before answering questions. By the time he does, his answers usually come in measured tones that seem to conceal his emotions.
But today he has good reason to be heated. He’s become a black version of Lemony Snicket since a series of unfortunate events led to the bootlegging of an unfinished copy of the soul singer’s highly anticipated sophomore album, KEM – Album II. The completed album is due in stores this week, but he’s practically gone platinum in the auto plants, where bootleg CDs are regularly moved on a thriving underground market. Now Kem Owens, the artist, has to do damage control for KEM, the brand.
Sitting in the Detroit studio where he recorded most of his stellar debut, Kemistry, and all of II, he puts the poker face on and recalls all that he knows about how the album got swiped. It happened at a listening session held at Club Icon in December. He rarely does these sessions prematurely, but wanted to generate some buzz by letting folks get a taste of the new CD’s direction. Though his management team, Project Producers, guarded the draft disc everywhere it went, a copy still managed to turn up on the streets.
Neither he nor his manager, Toya Hankins, knows how it happened. They have their suspicions, but refrain from calling names without proof. They say the most important thing for KEM fans to know is that the bootleg is not representative of the finished product.
“What people have is a CD that contains music that I used to rehearse the band with,” KEM says. “You’ll hear me giving cues. You’ll hear us laughing at the end of takes. You’ll hear what probably are not my best vocal performances, ’cause I was just singing to give the band direction.”
Hankins provided Metro Times a copy of the unfinished version. After listening to it for a few days, KEM played the mastered project in his studio. Essentially, they are two different recordings. The bootleg is barely mixed, light on effects and edits, and is missing at least three songs. A few tunes were completely rearranged A.B. (After Bootlegging).
KEM finds what might be the most glaring omission downright funny.
“Stevie ain’t on the bootleg,” he says, laughing as if the mysterious pirate stole gold, but missed the real booty.
Stevie Wonder lends his trademark harmonica solo on a love song called “You Might Win.” Wonder and KEM developed a friendship through music, and Motown Records is making the tandem release of their respective projects a priority.
The pirating of his music could result in lost revenue, but KEM is, ironically, optimistic. Theft is not a good thing, he says. But it might not be all bad. After all, people bootleg artists they want to hear.
“One way it can help,” he says, “is it might attract more people to the shows.” The statement requires probing. Turns out he’s been producing his own concerts of late. A show he performed at Orchestra Hall during the holidays was the first Detroit performance that his team put together. It was a sellout.
Hence, the optimism. Multiple streams of income mean that pirating recordings not only is not a death knell, it has an elastic effect on profitability.
“At the end of the day, maybe this is the model for all KEM CDs,” he says. Do some rough stuff, throw it out there, and then come with the real deal.”
Fans as far away as Houston have heard the bootleg. Still, Motown’s goal is to see Album II go platinum. Motown has a new leader in Sylvia Rhone, former president of Elektra Records. She’s guided or helped build the careers of a diverse array of superstars ranging from Busta Rhymes and Brandy to Sugar Ray and the Blue Man Group. And she’s taken particular interest in marketing KEM.
For KEM, that means adjusting to having the label involved in his project. He’s had to learn to write and record faster. His first album took 18 months to complete. This one was done within nine months. And Motown wanted it quicker than that. It was difficult for KEM, who takes an average of two weeks to record vocals for each song, to honor those demands.
Rhone also encouraged him to reach for new fans by recording a cover tune. He chose George McCrae’s 1974 hit “I Get Lifted” (an ironic song title, if you think about it) and put a funk twist on it.
Adjustments considered, KEM calls Rhone’s expertise and his creative ethos a good match. But he keeps his high hopes to a minimum.
“My first meeting with Sylvia was us defining what kind of artist I am,” he says. They agreed that “if it goes platinum, so be it. But I’d rather be on top in this narrow margin than try to be in the mainstream.”
His narrow margin is proving to be pretty loyal. The new album’s lead single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” received 1,652 spins last week, according to radio monitoring service Media Base 24-7. It took the release of this song to get radio to slow rotation of “Love Calls,” the smash soul hit from his debut. Along the way, such media heavyweights as Tom Joyner and such musical stalwarts as Al Jarreau have become fans and supporters.
But his core following, that “narrow margin,” are fans who live in places like the rough Linwood/Davison neighborhood where he still records. KEM remains a people’s champion whose story inspires as much as his music. Talk of his days of addiction and homelessness has receded to blahblah status since his music has proven it can stand on its own.
“Blahblah” only means that the subject is no longer broached in every article. The hood will never forget, however, that one of its own actually made it. The streets don’t just love his music. They love him.
In a sense, then, why wouldn’t his music be pirated? He represents hope. And when hope arrives early, people will grab it. He doesn’t wholly like it, but he never passes on the chance to count his blessings.
“I have to catch myself sometimes when I complain. There are worse jobs to have.” He laughs and then, when asked how it all affects him, goes back to the measured tone-and-pause thing.
“It changes you. I mean … it changes you. But thank God I’ve changed. I think I’ve done OK.”Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer and area musician. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org