Kem to celebrate holiday homecoming at Fox Theatre show

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

The Fox Theatre is empty as Kem strolls onto the stage.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in November and the theater is quiet, save for a few workers milling about in the lobby area. Kem looks out over the ornate room and takes it all in — the massive globe chandelier hanging from the 10-story ceiling, the rows of velvet seats, the vintage Wurlitzer organ on stage — and lets out a deep breath.

“It’s intimidating,” says the Detroit R&B artist who plays the venue Friday. “It’s so opulent, it’s so grand. We have great venues here in Detroit, and I’ve enjoyed playing at all of them. But to be in this room is a whole other thing.”

Kem’s day-after-Thanksgiving headlining concert comes at the end of an important year for the singer. After releasing his fourth studio album, “Promise to Love,” in summer 2014, Kem spent most of 2015 on tour with Charlie Wilson, playing 43 arena and amphitheatre dates with the former Gap Band singer/songwriter.

For Kem, who makes adult-oriented R&B in the style of the Isley Brothers and Anita Baker — save for a guest appearance by Snoop Dogg on “Promise to Love,” there isn’t a hint of hip-hop in his music — the tour was a huge step forward.

“It was kind of unprecedented for R&B artists of our stature,” says Kem, who overcame pre-fame bouts with homelessness and addiction and recently celebrated a quarter-century of sobriety. “It was an important statement to make for R&B music.”

He’s now taking the lessons he learned on that large-scale tour and bringing them to the comparatively cozy confines of the Fox. He has played the venue several times before, going back to when the wedding band he fronted, Persuasion, played fundraiser gigs in the lobby. He also remembers being in the audience at a Kenny Rogers Christmas concert. “I love Kenny Rogers, what can you say?” he says, letting out a hearty laugh.

But this time is special — moreso than usual.

“This year has been a year of very heavy investment into the live performance,” says the three-time Grammy nominee. “We’ve arrived, we’re in another place. And I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised.”

Off-stage, Kem — born Kim Owens in Nashville and raised in Southfield — has a low-key persona to match his unflashy musical style. He’s a private guy; he keeps his age to himself (he’s in his late 40s) as well as most details about his personal life. He is not married, has two daughters (ages 20 and 5), and downplays nonprofessional matters. “Real simple,” he says, describing his day-to-day affairs. “Never do a reality TV show on my life.”

When he’s not singing or dealing with career matters — his Mack & Third charity, which supports the homeless and those recovering from substance abuse, was established in 2012 and has staged several large-scale concerts in the city — Kem is a self-described “Star Wars’ cat” and movie fan who was wowed by a recent viewing of “Sicario.” He tends to end his days watching Netflix in bed on his iPad, and recently plowed through the series “Peaky Blinders” and “Marco Polo.” “Netflix is my friend,” he says, a smile creeping across his face.

When he listens to music — favorites include Pat Metheny, Jill Scott, Al Jarreau and Prince — it’s usually in his car, and he uses Shazam to identify songs he hears in public to later download.

He stays in shape by hitting the gym and doing weight training, and runs on his home treadmill “just enough to break a sweat,” he says.

He may be running a little more than usual on Friday after celebrating Thanksgiving at his mother’s house along with his siblings and a few close family friends. They’ll pass the turkey, dressing, homemade cranberry sauce and, if his mom “really wanted to put her foot in,” a peach cobbler for dessert. “That’s the best meal of the year,” he says.

Kem plans to spend 2016 working on the follow-up to “Promise to Love,” which he’s in the early stages of developing and pegging for a 2017 release. Kem has traditionally taken several years between projects — there was a five-year gap between his second and third albums, and a four year gap between his third and fourth — but in the face of changing consumption habits, he’s contemplating a mixtape-style release of new material to tide fans over in 2016.

Kem’s music is available on Spotify, but he doesn’t stream music himself. Since he started selling CDs from the back of his trunk in the early 2000s, which led to his deal with Motown Records, he has seen the entire record industry shift from CD sales to downloads to today’s streaming model. As a member of the Chicago chapter of the Recording Academy, he’s invested in finding even ground in the changing music marketplace, both for himself and his fellow artists.

“I’m not missing any meals because of Spotify,” he says, “but there’s a lot of artists out there that (album sales) are their bread and butter. I think the issue on the table for Spotify and Pandora is getting them to fairly compensate artists for their work. I don’t need to have the whole pie. I’m like the Godfather, I’m just trying to wet my beak.”

He lets out a big laugh that echoes through the Fox, a room he says he still hasn’t gotten used to playing. But come Friday night, he will be ready, and he knows fans will be ready for him as well.

“To me, the pinnacle of a Detroit performance is to play the Fox,” says Kem. “The show you guys are going to see on the 27th is all of the growth, all of the investment of the last year, and you’re going to witness it on stage.”

Kim Owens, professionally known as KEM, photographed at the Fox Theatre in Detroit on Nov. 17, 2015. KEM has been nominated for a Grammy three times and has had many songs at the top of the charts. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)


with Avant

8 p.m. Friday

Fox Theatre,

2211 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets $55-$108.50 or (313) 471-6611