On a fall afternoon last year, Tweet was at a Hollywood recording studio playing songs that were set for inclusion on “Charlene,” her first album in over a decade.
Her smile was wide as she played stirring, soulful tracks such as "Priceless," "Neva Shouda Left Ya" and a new single, "Magic," that recalled her stellar 2002 debut.
Tweet's return to music is long overdue, but up until a year ago, she was unsure if she ever wanted to perform again.
After a number of setbacks in her personal and professional life, the songstress, born Charlene Keys, said she found herself at “rock bottom.”
“I was at my wits' end. I was drinking every day, smoking three packs of cigarettes. It was like, come on, this can’t be life,” Keys admitted while sharing the spiritual journey that led her back to recording and yielded her third album (due Friday).
The story was much different in the early aughts, however, when the Rochester, N.Y., native was on the path toward R&B stardom.
Keys started her career as a member of the girl group Sugah, a trio that never released an album but was a part of the R&B/hip-hop collective Swing Mob, which was founded by Jodeci mastermind DeVante Swing and would birth stars such as Ginuwine, Timbaland and Missy Elliott.
A close friendship with Elliott led to Keys contributing backing vocals to 2001’s “Miss E... So Addictive” and a record deal with Elektra under Elliott’s tutelage.
In 2002, Tweet's debut single, a hypnotic, Timbaland-produced affirmation of self-love titled “Oops (Oh My),” topped the R&B chart and became a Top 10 hit on the pop chart.
Her debut album, “Southern Hummingbird,” which she oversaw with Elliott and Timbaland, was a smash too, bowing at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. She was an in-demand collaborator too, working on albums from Whitney Houston, Madonna, Meshell Ndegeocello, Monica and Mark Ronson.
But then things went awry.
Her label merged with Atlantic Records, and the singer’s follow-up, 2005’s “It’s Me Again,” leaned more on hip-hop beats than the rootsy soul that established her (“I compromised too much,” she said). The album failed to replicate the success of her debut, and Keys spiraled into a deep depression.
In 2007, she signed with Jheryl Busby’s Umbrella Records in 2007, but sadly, the executive died a year later while they were working on her album. She then signed with DuBose Music Group in 2011 and quietly released a five-track EP, “Simply Tweet,” in 2013. But it wasn’t until a meeting with Entertainment One in 2014 that she felt reenergized about recording and early last year she returned to the studio to begin recording “Charlene.”
Featuring work from longtime friends and collaborators such as Craig Brockman, Charlie Bereal, Timbaland and Elliott, “Charlene” is a strong return to form for Tweet, who offers the gospel-inflected, acoustic-driven soul that first broke her.
After previewing the album, Keys opened up about her hiatus and why she was finally ready to return.
It’s taken a lot for you to come back. What made it finally feel like the time was right?
Finding the right home. I’ve been through different labels and situations, but eOne felt like the right place and the right time. It’s all in God’s time and I think he’s preserved me for this moment. It feels right. Everything lined up.
They believed in me as an artist and they were fans. That’s the icing on the cake. When someone knows you as an artist and knows your struggles and everything it makes it more personal.
Did you deal with that a lot as you were bouncing around to other labels?
Not really, but I don’t think with the other situations that I was in a place. ... I was trying to find if I wanted to stick with Tweet. There was so much other stuff going on. I was confused. I was trying to figure out if I really wanted to come back. The second album I really compromised. I was still in a lane where I was trying to figure out if I wanted to still do this. But it got me to this place where I’m definite and sure about what I want to do.
What did you learn from that time?
What I learned was to stick with myself and who I am and to not do it for any other reason but the love of it. If I only touch one person, then I’m good. I’m not trying to climb a mountain to reach the highest Grammy, that’s not me. I love what I do. This is what I’ve been doing for years. The love and the musicianship -- that’s what’s missing in music. The soul of it is gone. It’s just so one-track minded.
Everybody is hearing the same song. Let’s go to different genres again, everything is so meshed together. One time I listened to the radio for a good 30 minutes and it was the same track, every track. It was the same thing. So I decided to just stick to me and put out some good soul music.
After so long, fans wondered if you would ever return. You must have heard that a lot.
I wanted to give up. People sending me tweets, saying they wanted me back, that kept me. It inspired me. It told me maybe I made a difference in someone’s life and I shouldn’t stop. I was inspired by that.
You spent a great deal of time away from the spotlight. What was the breaking point?
I had to get my life together spiritually. It took a lot to compromise [on the last album]. It hurt a lot to not have nobody speak up for me. I was in a relationship and the guy had a baby on me. Everything was hitting the fan at the same time. I remember watching BET and Tonex [now known as B. Slade] was singing “Make Me Over.” ... I was at my wits' end. I was drinking every day, smoking three packs of cigarettes. It was like, come on, this can’t be life.
What did you do to heal? What got you through it?
I took myself on a spiritual journey. My spiritual life is on point now. I wouldn't be here today if I hadn’t made that choice to go back and rededicate myself. That’s when my blessings started coming -- hit or miss, with different labels. It was all done to build me for this time. I didn’t take it personal. I knew to keep the faith. I couldn’t hit anymore rock bottom than I already did.
I moved to Florida to be closer to my parents. I focused on being grandma, mom, daughter, best friend -- just living. I was still writing and doing shows, but just not in the mainstream.
You worked with the same crew from your first two albums. That must have felt great.
If it’s not broke, I’m not going to try to fix it. It works. You know Missy and I, we have a lot of records in the vault -- we could just sit and play so many records that people haven’t heard. But the song on this album, [“Somebody Else Will”], is so special because we’re both back to give something to the people. I really just want people to be reminded that there are artists out there still wanting to put out good music.
R&B is much different than when you last released an album. Does that concern you at all now?
No, because everybody is going one way. Let me stay on my path, my own lane. I can only do me. There’s people that really want to hear it. If it’s five people, it’s five people. If it’s 10, it’s 10. Someone asked me why don't I do some trap music and I said, “Because I’m claustrophobic.”
But no, it’s just not my style. I couldn’t pull it off. Let them be great and let me do my own thing.