How Tweet Rediscovered Life, Love & Clarity With ‘Charlene’

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“They say its fine okay today,” singer/songwriter Tweet sings ever so sweetly on “The Hardest Thing.” “Tomorrow overwhelmed with the pain of yesterday, it’s the hardest thing to give up.” Letting go is hard, but holding on—to broken relations and winding rocky paths—makes the journey to the top just another fantasy. The track tells one small portion of her return to the R&B terra on Charlene, her first album in over six years.

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Named after herself, Charlene “Tweet” Keys says the project, released back in February, took her back to her first love: music. The mom (and glamma!) reunited with her former dream team consisting of producers Craig Brockman, Timbaland and Missy Elliott to create a project narrating various timelines of love and a reassurance of self-worth. Instead of an album filled with break-up jams with candy coated hip-hop beats, the singer kept true to her gospel/soul roots to tell the story of Charlene.

It’s something she’s learned since the days of her earliest hit single, 2002’s “Oops (Oh My.)” Written by Tweet and Missy and produced by Timberland, “Oops” brought her debut album Southern Hummingbird to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and gave everyone a clever way to sing about masturbation.

While the song brought her pop star attention, the demand for a similar sound led to ill-fated projects, label changes and a wave of stress that would disgruntle any creative soul. “This business is hard, you’re going to come into a lot of no’s and people aren’t going to like you,” she said. “It’s a whole lot of things that go on that will mess with your confidence. I knew I had to be strong enough to come back and endure, I had to have God and walk in his will to be able to do it.”

Since the release of Charlene, the singer has embarked on “The Charlene Tour” and currently prepping for her performance at the Essence Music Festival this week. Speaking with VIBE via phone interview, Tweet shares advice for ambitious singers, what makes up the perfect love song and why God is the homie.

Check out the interview below.

It’s been a while since you’ve made a project. How did Charlene come to be?

Tweet: It’s kind of been in the works for a while. After deciding to come back into the business, I signed a deal in 2007 and then signed another deal in 2011 so ever since I’ve been working on the music. It’s what I really wanted to put out into the atmosphere. The reason why I decided to first name it Charlene is so I can go back to basics, learn why I first fell in love with music before the artistry came before the name “Tweet” came. So my process was going back and listening to the artist I grew up on. Gospel music, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, really all the artists that inspired me. I really just wanted to put out some good soul music, which I think is missing in the industry right now. There really wasn’t any blueprint; I just wanted the music to be great. I wanted to focus on a whole project and a full body of work, not just a bunch on singles. A lot of artists today want to put out a hot single and that’s it. “Let me put out 12 to 13 or 14 real great records, you know, songs to make a complete album.

How would you describe your spiritual journey on this album?

I grew up in the church. So I knew as a child, my source was always the church. It’s learned behavior and me experiencing for myself the magnitude of what God is. When things weren’t going so well, I knew that’s where I had to turn. It’s what I’ve grown up knowing. God is definitely the one to bring me out of some messed up situations and sometimes when I didn’t even want to be here. I knew that in order for me to be back to music, I had to get my spiritual life and my walk with Christ and all of that had to be right. This business is hard, you’re going to come into a lot of no’s and people aren’t going to like you. It’s a whole lot of things that go on that will mess with your confidence so I knew I had to be strong enough to come back and endure, I had to have God and walk in his will to be able to do it.

God is the homie and you can’t forget that. 

It’s the only way.

For the music, you have this big inspiration. How did your faith help you with the songs? 

All of the songs are from experiences and if they aren’t, they’re from me desiring. For instance, I hadn’t had a boyfriend (I do now) while I was writing these songs. I hadn’t dated in 10 years or anything since 2005. That was when I had my last boyfriend. I always wanted to be in love. Every woman wants to be a princess or someone special to someone so a lot of the songs are drawn from my desires to love or desire to be in love or the imaginary perfect man I want. A lot of the songs are also from my diary. I write a lot. A lot of the times I’m not able to vocally express myself and I learned that from being a little child to write my emotions down.

That’s what makes this project so relatable. What do you think makes up that perfect love song, if that even exists? 

You know what, I don’t know because it varies on what people feel like is the perfect love song to them. For me, the perfect love song right now would consist of…let’s see. The person I’m with now makes me feel like I’m special even when I don’t feel like it and he calls me beautiful every day. So a love song would have to be that. That’s what I’m feeling right now. I feel safe in his arms. I feel those types of things. So my perfect love song would be that.

What would you say to soul artists today who feel insecure about their sound? 

Don’t ever be insecure. I fell into that and I comprised you know, the second album a little bit and I wasn’t happy. Your happiness comes from where your heart is and if you heart is into whatever music you want to make, that you feel good about, just leave it there. Everybody wants something real now, something they can relate to. Everybody doesn’t want to hear how many girls you’re smashing, how much drugs your taking, making or selling. It’s boring. We heard that music so many times. I want to know how I can get over this heartbreak, really things that you can relate to. I can’t relate to any drug song because I haven’t been through that. A lot of people don’t want to go through that; they’re hurting in other ways. I would tell every artist to do what he or she wants and keep it real. Don’t compromise and stay true to how you are. If it’s meant to be, it will be. Even if you have to sing at the local bar for a while, then do it. Do it for the love of it, that’s what I say.

You’ve been a part of several large labels. What brought you to indie label eOne?

Today, record labels will sign you to one single deal. The industry has changed period. That’s why we have a lot of independent labels popping up and the larger labels are dwindling away because major labels really want what’s hot right now. This way they can sell millions of singles and they can be good, but the smaller labels focus on the quality of the music.

You started out with legends like Missy, Timbaland and DeVante Swing. With you starting off in the girl group Sugah, how was it like working with DeVante in ‘Da Basement’ days?

My fondest memories of that era were that we were making music like that 24 hours a day. It was no break time, besides to eat, but it was strictly singing. We were in the studio and DeVante rented out a studio in Rochester, New York and we were there all day. It didn’t feel like a job, but he instilled in us to work on our craft every day and that’s what we did, every day all day. I did go to an arts school, like a Fame, and to be like that in that environment and it helped me to perfect my craft.

Anything you’d like to add?

I just wanna thank people for all of their love and support and I’m just excited to be back.

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