When Kem, the warm, elegant rhythm-and-blues singer from Detroit, recorded his first Christmas album, he endowed the music with the same love and art he puts into his non-holiday albums.
“What Christmas Means” is no quick, throwaway project intended to exploit the happiest time of the year.
“I think it’s some of the best music I’ve done to date,” Kem said last week. “The more I’m in the studio, the more records I make, the better the process gets.”
Kem’s previous three albums — 2003’s “Kemistry,” 2005’s “Kem Album II” and 2010’s “Intimacy” — collectively sold more than two million copies. “What Christmas Means,” released in October, features five holiday classics remade in the singer’s quiet-storm style plus five Kem originals.
“I didn’t want to do the same mash-up of Christmas songs,” he said. “I wanted to add my own flavor to holiday music, craft songs that will be part of Christmas holiday celebrations for years to come.”
Kem’s Christmas album features arrangements by Paul Riser, the Motown Records maestro who arranged the Temptations’ “My Girl,” Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” and Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Guest star Ledisi joins Kem for a romantic duet, “Be Mine for Christmas.” Other selections cast Kem alongside intimate guitar and piano accompaniment.
The singer’s national promotional tour for “What Christmas Means” included personal appearances called “Holiday Moments with Kem.” He sang a few songs from the album and did question-and-answer sessions with audiences of 100 to 400 people.
The Christmas season will nearly be over when Kem performs Sunday, Dec. 30, at the Mahalia Jackson Theater, but he anticipates singing some of his Christmas repertoire.
“We’ll be amping up to bring in the new year, but we’re still in that window of the holiday season,” he said.
Kem has bigger holiday plans for next year.
“Kenny Rogers is still going strong with it,” he said. “What a wonderful way to share in people’s holiday tradition. I would love to do an annual Christmas show in the tradition of Kenny Rogers, to take a few of my friends out on the road, like Ledisi or Anthony Hamilton.”
Born in Nashville, Kem Owens spent most of his childhood in Detroit, the city that was home to soul-music powerhouse Motown Records.
“I grew up in the shadow of all that great music,” he said. “From Stevie Wonder to the Temptations, the Four Tops, Diana Ross. Aretha Franklin is still there in Detroit.”
But Kem also appreciated such classic pop and jazz vocalists as Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and, a singer much-identified with Christmas, Andy Williams.
“That’s what I grew up listening to, and that doesn’t go away,” he said. “Good music stands the test of time. My hope is to create that type of legacy.”
Kem has songs written for his next album and, following his film debut in the Detroit-set “Sparkle,” he wants to do more acting.
“Sparkle” also starred Jordin Sparks, Mike Epps, Derek Luke and the late Whitney Houston.
“That was a tremendous experience,” he said. “I didn’t have any scenes with Whitney, but everybody on the set had nothing but adoration and respect for her. We all wanted her to win. Her passing was very sad for all of us, but I think ‘Sparkle’ was a beautiful sunset on the career of one the world’s brightest stars.”
Like Houston, Kem had troubles with addiction and substance abuse. He’s grateful that his recovery began before he became famous.
“It’s difficult for people who have fame, and all of the blessings and curses that go along with being in the public eye, to get sober,” he said. “Everybody is telling them what they want to hear.
“My heart goes out to anybody in the entertainment industry who’s dealing with substance abuse. My heart goes out to Lindsay Lohan. My hat goes off to Robert Downey Jr. Treatment is by no means the end. That’s just the beginning. You have to use those tools for your entire life.”
His recovery, Kem added, comes first, even before his music.
“As long as I have that perspective, I’ll be able to do what I’m doing. I can enjoy it and, hopefully, have an impact.”