Donna first introduced The Life Chest Team to Kiaree when she shared his brand-new music video for “Tell Me It’s Not Over”, a smooth and soulful ode to heartbreak. We were all in awe of his talent, so much so that Donna immediately asked that I call him to bring him in for an interview. When I first called him, his voice was hesitant, as any person is when they receive a call from an unknown number. When I explained that I worked with Donna Yost, his demeanor automatically brightened, and I could hear his smile through the phone as we arranged a time for him to come in. That change upon mentioning Donna would be the first indicator of how much she and her husband had impacted Kiaree.
When Kiaree first entered through The Life Chest doors, smiling wide with his brother Elijah in tow, I was immediately struck by his presence. Decked out head-to-toe in an expertly coordinated outfit (he later explained it was a nod to our resident fashionista, Mrs. Donna herself!) and extending his hand, he introduced himself and his brother, and when I led him in to meet with Donna, they hugged and greeted each other like long-lost friends.
After some initial catch-up, conversation circled back to when Kiaree handled Donna and Kim’s golf bags at their club. Kiaree explained that the members at the club were not always sharing their kindest selves, rushing off to play a few holes or reeling from a loss! No matter how dreary the encounters, Kiaree would always scan the list and look forward to when Donna and Kim would be in. He detailed how considerate and positive they always were, and how in return for their kindness he would ensure every detail of their day was according to their preferences. He knew how they liked handling driving the golf cart if they had guests, he made sure the clubs were sparkling clean when they were put back in their bags, and coordinated all sorts of details in between. What really struck me, not only for its truth but its universal nature, is when he said that it’s easy to do kind things for those who are kind to you. That, he said, he learned the hard way.
Kiaree has been singing for his entire life- actually, since he was two years old. Music is his passion, his heart and soul and purpose. Raised by a musically gifted single mother who encouraged him in his singing talents, Kiaree is the oldest of three sons. He began performing at age 5 with a popular local group known then as “New Confidence”. For three years, the group sang and performed throughout North Carolina and South Carolina, opening for popular artists like Boyz II Men and Adina Howard. Kiaree relocated to Pontiac, Michigan with his family in 1999 and began touring local high schools and community events. Since then, he has performed all over the country and spent two years singing background for world-famous gospel artist J Moss. He’s shared stages with artists like Kierra Sheard, Karen Clark-Sheard, Kelly Price, Chrisette Michelle and many more… all by the age of 25!
Kiaree’s musical resume is clearly impressive, and I asked him to tell me about his industry experience, as it’s notoriously tough to break into. He explained that there are many people in the industry who use their positions to ‘get one over’ on aspiring artists, and that one of those ways is using the word “internship” as a means not to pay them. Kiaree also clarified that only certain people take advantage, and insists that it isn’t a general statement about the industry, as the experience as a whole helped him immensely in learning about the ins and outs of the business.
We moved across the hall to show Kiaree a few videos of the charities that we deal with here at The Life Chest, such as the All Veteran Group, Jill’s Wish, and The Pink Fund. We have a deep personal connection to each organization, and work with them heavily in many areas. I watched Kiaree and Elijah’s faces as they watched Mike Elliott jump out of planes, as Todd Love overcame all odds, even competing in the Spartan Race obstacle course, and as Kristi Sainchuk and Jill Conley shared their struggles with breast cancer. We discussed the incredible nature of these people, and Kiaree marveled at the strength of the power of the human spirit.
Donna then told Kiaree she had invited him in because she had a wonderful idea for an opportunity for him to work with The Life Chest. She explained that she wanted him to write and sing an original song for us to use in a new video. You could immediately see his wheels go into overdrive! Kiaree pulled out his phone, and said that his new single, titled “Winner”, would be absolutely perfect. The song wasn’t final quality yet, but he laid his phone on the table and played it for us right then and there. As Donna and I listened to the lyrics and heard statements of power, complete with a rallying cry of a chorus that declares “Pick myself up off the ground, turned the negative around, you can never keep me down, I’m a winner!”, we looked at each other and knew that this song- and Kiaree himself- was a perfect fit for this project. He even joined in halfway through the song and sang right along, and let us tell you… He can really belt it out!
Donna talked about the impact of the message behind the song, and how it tied in directly to the charity work that we do. She shared the chilling statistic that 22 veterans a day take their own lives. Some are dragged down by the traumas of PTSD, some by the adjustment back to normal life, and yet others by their injuries, such as missing limbs. All of those factors, among others, combine to produce a terrible sense of hopelessness. Despite counseling and rehabilitation, many of these amazing veterans choose suicide due to that loneliness and loss of hope. Kiaree softened, and explained that he understood that feeling all too well. He hit a low point last year after several people close to him had used and taken advantage of him, and he felt so broken and burned out from giving his all in trying to accomplish his dreams. He explains the worst was when he found out that someone that he considered a best friend and a true confidant had been sharing his secrets left and right, alienating him from his local music scene connections as well as total strangers that thought they knew him from the secondhand information. That person left him with no explanation, and Kiaree felt that “he wasn’t worth sticking around for… and that [he] must not matter to people if they could leave [him] so easily.” It was then that he attempted suicide. He recalled that day, and how he was just sitting there in his room after swallowing a bottle of pills, waiting for whatever came next.
Someone was truly looking out for him that day. His mother sensed that something was wrong with him, and saved his life. Who could better sing a message of overcoming life’s obstacles and continuing on to be a winner than someone who had been there himself?
I smiled and told Kiaree that the hard part of the interview was over, and that I had a few fun questions for everyone to get to know him better, not only as an artist but as a person. Kiaree’s favorite musicians are J. Moss and Nick Jonas for their involvements in all aspects of their music, Jason DeRulo for his creativity, and of course, Justin Bieber! We talked at length about his appreciation for Justin, and Kiaree explained that Justin is who he wanted to be as a young artist. He holds Justin as his biggest influence of all, explaining that “he’s amazing in every area (singer, musician, writer, producer, and performer). He’s mastered his craft, and he’s still humble. People only know what the media allows them to know, but no matter what, Justin has been loyal to his fans. He’s always shown a concern and appreciation for those who support him, and that’s why his connection is so strong with them. That’s why no matter what happens, they stick by him. Those are the types of supporters I long for. He also overcame a lot of odds. He was told no a lot before he became a success. He was turned down by labels, it was said that he couldn’t be a star without a big company like Disney backing him. But he worked hard, got out and traveled, and sang wherever he could. He didn’t take no for an answer… despite all the criticism [he receives]… I still support him no matter what, and I don’t see that ever changing.”
I laughed as I asked Kiaree my next question. What is the most embarrassing song on his MP3 player? That song, which he isn’t actually even embarrassed about, is Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Really Like You”, which is pure bubblegum pop at its finest and catchiest. When I asked where he would most like to perform, Elijah grinned ear to ear: “Madison Square Garden!” Kiaree agreed that Madison Square Garden is where artists typically play when they’ve truly made it big, but for him, he would want to play at the Palace of Auburn Hills, right here in Michigan and not too far from where he lives now. He explained that it has special meaning to him, because that’s not only where he first saw the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber perform- it’s also home. Speaking of Bieber, he is also who Kiaree would most like to open for one day! If he wasn’t singing, Kiaree says he would definitely be running his own business. He isn’t sure exactly what it would be, but he would perhaps be a music manager. With another smile, he said he seems to always end up in management positions! I asked if he played any instruments, and he laughed that he would if he had the patience! He can play a little bit on the piano, and is proud that he figured out several chords by ear to one of his favorite songs, “Fall”, by none other than Bieber himself. He would like to be able to play the piano as well as the guitar and drums.
One of his hidden talents is cooking, which he boasts that he learned from his talented mom. His grandmother was a legendary cook herself; sadly, she experienced some health issues which left her paralyzed, so Kiaree never knew her cooking firsthand, but her recipes live on through his mother. When I asked what other genre of music he would consider dabbling in, he only had to think for a few seconds before surprising me with “Country!” Kiaree said he’s always loved the storytelling aspect of country as well as the meaning and intent behind the lyrics. Although Kiaree prefers that nature of artistry, he said he doesn’t have a single style of music that he won’t listen to and appreciate. He admits that he used to feel that rap and hip-hop were meaningless due to their subjects, but he has decided that there’s a time and place for it- granted, of course, that parents moderate listening accordingly! He can even appreciate metal! One of his good friends, supporters and mentors offered an opportunity for Kiaree to write and sing a chorus in a song for his metal band, A Righteous Downfall. It sounds like a surprising partnership, but Kiaree details how wonderful the experience was and how much he appreciated the chance to grow as an artist.
So what’s Kiaree’s favorite piece of advice? He has two: J. Moss told him to “…always handle your business first”, as well as Maya Angelou’s infamous quote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” I then proceeded to ask Kiaree to tell me about a ‘Life Chest moment’ that he’s had. He recalled his first solo mainstream show in the Vernors Room at The Crofoot. He was worried sick about losing his fan base, explaining that once artists crossed over from gospel into more of the pop genre, the original fans felt alienated. Despite all of his worries, the show was sold out! The room had an 80-person capacity, and Kiaree sold 90 tickets himself. That show paid for his first release, which was a mixtape of cover songs. Relating to that experience, I asked him which five items he would put in his Life Chest. He chose the ticket from that show at The Crofoot with his name on it, along with a recording of his first music video. He also said his ‘My Buddy’ doll, which was the last physical item that his grandmother gave him, and he would put on Buddy a pin that says “You are loved” that he received from his friend Sean Jacobson from A Righteous Downfall, along with his favorite bracelet that bears the band’s name.
The sincerity and humility of Kiaree’s answers was refreshing. He is seeking to better not only himself as an artist, but to mentor and support all those around him. He had even explained that is why he puts so much pressure on himself; not for his own success, but to ensure the successes of those around him. He strives to be a positive force of change, which is exactly what we strive to do here at The Life Chest. Donna summed it up: “Negativity buries the beauty in life. What we do isn’t easy, but it’s worth it… Hate and love are both free. One builds and one breaks.” You can easily see that Kiaree is choosing to build.