In 2002, Charlene Keys, better known as Tweet, released her wonderful debut, Southern Hummingbird, featuring the chart-topping single, “Oops (Oh My).” Recorded for her friend Missy Elliott’s The Goldmind Inc. label, the world was introduced to a stellar talent. Born and raised in Rochester, New York, after years of singing in church and various groups—including a long stint with the DeVante Swing-assembled girl group, Sugah (they recorded much material, but never released an album)—Tweet was more than ready to shine.
In addition to Tweet’s singing skills and sex appeal, she was also a wonderful songwriter who wowed both fans and critics of her gold-selling nominated debut. Having already been through much industry stress prior, early-2000s R&B era was a golden moment for her, which also included writing a song for Whitney Houston.
Of course, in the fickle music industry nothing lasts forever, and Tweet’s 2005 sophomore disc, It’s Me Again, didn’t match the sales of Southern Hummingbird. In ’08, when her Love, Tweet follow-up was shelved, the singer returned home unsure if she’d ever record again.
However, with God on her side and her talent still flowing, Tweet has finally delivered her fourth album, simply titled Charlene. A fusion of her own brand of downtempo soul, gospel riffs and beautiful ballads, the new music shows that Tweet has not only evolved as a woman, but also as a vocalist and songwriter. Refusing to take herself or her talents for granted, Charlene delivers.
EBONY: Talk a little bit about the new album, Charlene. It has an old school vibe that reminds me of Southern soul, but you’re originally from Rochester. Where does that down South feeling come from?
Tweet: I’m the only one out of five kids that was born in upstate New York. My parents are Southerners from Alabama and Florida, and that’s where I spent all my summers. I live in Florida now. That’s where I get it from. My mom and dad were quartet singers, so I also get it from the church. During my hiatus, I found myself falling out of love with music and almost quit completely. I decided for this album that I would have to go back to the beginning. To make this album feel good, let me go back to what influenced me in the beginning, before my name was Tweet, before the first album. I went back to my roots, back to the quartets, the gospel, the Tina Turner, the Aretha Franklin, the Al Green and the Marvin Gaye. That was the vibe I got in this record.
EBONY: Watching the video for the first single “Won’t Hurt Me,” I just felt so bad for the guy in love with you, it made me cringe. He was just trying so hard.
Tweet: (laughs) We chose “Won’t Hurt Me” because, to me, it was the song that stood out. At the time it just sounded good. It’s a song about being in the friend zone. For me, I’m good having a friend that’s a man and not catching feelings. I had a friend who caught feelings and really wanted to be with me, but I was, “No, we’re still friends. I don’t see you in that light.” He started doing little sneaky stuff hoping it would change our status. So that’s what that was about. “Magic” is the follow-up single, and we also shot another video for “Neva Should’ve Left You,” which was one of my favorite records.
EBONY: Talk about the producers you’ve used on this project.
Tweet: Craig Brockman, Nisan Stewart, John “Jubu” Smith, and Charlie Berea, who I’ve worked with since Southern Hummingbird. They’re my family and I can’t do an album without them.
EBONY: I know you write most of your own songs. Are there any songwriters you listen to for inspiration?
Tweet: Smokey Robinson. His pen is just ridiculous. Also, Marvin Gaye. Those are the people that influence me to write as well as the gospel side of me.
EBONY: It seems to me that not a lot of singers come out of the church in the way they once did. Choir directors used to provide a real musical foundation for aspiring singers and songwriters. Talk a little about the church you grew up in.
Tweet: I grew up in the First Born Church of the Living God under Pastor Gladstone Blake, a Pentecostal church in Rochester. We went to church from Monday to Monday. There was bible study, there was prayer meetings, and I did all of that up until high school and college. It was a great experience. It was like a family in the choir. During high school, I was also in a group called Greater Love and we sang all over. From there, I auditioned to be in a group with DeVante Swing. That was how my musical career began really, but I was always singing.
EBONY: That was the girl group Sugah that DeVante Swing of Jodeci put together as part of the Da Bassment Crew, that included Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Ginuwine, Magoo, Playa and others. Tell us a little about Sugah and what happened to the group.
Tweet: In 1994, right before DeVante came to Rochester to record The Show, the After Party, the Hotel, he wanted to put together a Motown-type crew of talented people. That became the Bassment Crew. He had a girl group that needed another singer, so I auditioned and got in. It was Susan [Weems] and Rolita [White], and we were like the Supremes. We were that old school group. We dressed in old clothes and traveled with DeVante for years. We recorded a record, but it never came out. We were signed to Def Jam and a couple of other labels. Then, in 1999, we just got tired of going through the motions of recording the same record six times. We just wanted to go home; we were tired.
EBONY: Are you still in contact with the other members?
Tweet: We’re still best friends to this day, we talk every day.
EBONY: Tell me a little about the Sugah songs “Fly Guy” and “Smoking in the Dark.”
Tweet: Those were both written by Missy. Mr. Dalvin from Jodeci produced “Fly Guy” and the other was produced by Timbaland. We had many more records.
EBONY: I’ve spoken to Missy about those Rochester days, and she said the experience was stressful. How would you describe what it was like working under DeVante?
Tweet: It was good and bad; I totally learnt a lot from DeVante. I understand his vision now, but I think it was just the long way to make it a reality. He had a lot of people that he taking care of, but a lot of the things we went through had nothing to do with music. I learned a lot from him, but it was a trying time. I think DeVante is a genius and he knew what he wanted. He had us in the studio 24-7. We wrote, played and listened to music.
EBONY: Did Sugah ever work with Missy’s group Sista or with Playa?
Tweet: As I was coming in, Sista was kind of going out. I think I spent a good month or two or three around a few of the members, but Missy was still there. They were going through something, so the other members weren’t really around. We did try to do something together, but DeVante wanted us to be separate. We did songs with Playa; they were our besties. We were like sisters and brothers. We rolled ride or die together.
EBONY: How long were you a part of the Bassment before you went to Florida?
Tweet: We moved around a lot, but we were together from 1994 to 2000. After we moved to L.A. in 2000, we broke up and I came home to Florida. Maybe six months later, Missy called. I hadn’t heard from her in three or four years. She said, “I’ve been looking for you. I want you to do the backgrounds on the Miss E…So Addictive record.”
One day I played my song “Motel” in a room and Missy heard me singing it. She was, “Oh my God, I didn’t know you played guitar and I didn’t know you could write like that.” I really didn’t do much of that in the Sugah days. Missy took me to a meeting with Sylvia Rhone [then CEO of Elektra Entertainment, Missy’s label] a month later and I got a deal right then. Everything just turned from there. Southern Hummingbird came out in 2002.
EBONY: Southern Hummingbird was one of the best R&B albums released that year. I know “Oops (Oh My)” was the hit single, but “Smoking Cigarettes” was my favorite. It’s a great torch song. I can imagine you singing it in nightclubs when you’re 70.
Tweet: (laughs) That is great. I love it, and I probably will be.
EBONY: Do you still smoke?
Tweet: No, I stopped smoking in 2007. I just wanted a change in my life and I rededicated my life to Christ and stopped drinking and smoking and all of that. My favorite cigarettes at the time were Marlboro Ultra Lights. I couldn’t do the Newports, they were too strong. People used to joke with me that I wasn’t a real smoker because those Ultra Lights were like smoking air.
EBONY: The same year that Southern Hummingbird came out, you also collaborated on writing “Thing You Say” for the Whitney Houston album, Just Whitney. Can you talk about that experience?
Tweet: That will go down in history as the biggest thing that ever happened in my life. She’s always been one of my favorites, and to have her sing my song was like a dream come true. Missy, who produced it, sent her a CD full of songs and she picked that one to record. When she did her vocals, I was in the studio and it was just amazing. I was still dealing with being star-struck, but that experience developed into a friendship.
EBONY: You mentioned that during your hiatus you weren’t sure if you would ever return to music. So what brought you back?
Tweet: Seeing people daily and having people tell me how much I influenced them. Knowing that after I decided to give it up, God brought the opportunities back. I figured if God brought them back, it must be what I was created to do.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also a columnist for soulhead.com. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.