They gave us memories, music and the soundtrack to our lives back in the early nineties, when life, music and love was grand. Lyrically speaking there was no other female RnB group that equalled their power, passion and drive or signified the era of the independent female better than SWV! Sisters with voices became every man and woman’s musical cheerleader as Tamara “Taj” Johnson-George, Cheryl “Coko” Clemons and Leanne “LeLee” Lyons provided their messages of love, heartbreak, dreams and just living life to the full.
SWV first burst onto the scene in 1990 as one of the most exciting groups under the RnB / New Jack / Hip Hop banner and soon found themselves aligned with the likes of Teddy Riley, Puff Daddy, Babyface and Faith Evans to name a few. Initially starting out as a gospel group the ladies voices quickly channelled the RnB genre and created a super laneway all of their own. With over 23 three years of success in the game, SWV have amassed close to 20 million album sales worldwide, won countless Billboard Music Awards ranging from Top RnB Group, Top Pop Artists and Top 100 Single Artists to a Grammy Award win for Best New Artist. With hit singles “ Anything”, “ So Into You”, “ Weak” and “ Right Here”, that have secured themselves as throwback anthems still played on the dancefloors today, proves the appeal and staying power of three lyrically blessed powerhouses from New York and the effect they continue to have on the music world.
As with every success story, what goes up must come down and unfortunately the downtime proved a long and challenging one for the group. After sell out world tours and four studio albums, SWV decided it was time to disband their group in 1998 and take some time to find what they had lost as individuals. A risky and gut wrenching decision at the time proved to be a hiatus in which each of the ladies grew and evolved into greater versions of what SWV had captured them as. Coko went on to have solo success with her album Hot Coko, released in 1999, with the first single “ Sunshine” a song dedicated to her son Jazz, reaching Top 40 position in the R&B charts. Taj and Lelee focussed on self and family, taking paths away from the spotlight during their time apart. Reuniting in 2005 and with the music world being just a little different, SWV started touring and getting back in the public eye on TV shows, guest appearances at concerts and festivals and eventually in 2011 released their comeback album “ I Missed Us” through Mass Appeal Entertainment and E1 Entertainment. The sisters with voices were back with a vengeance.
The new album, reunion and media attention has brought the ladies slam bang into the current era of Reality TV with their own journey to document through WE TV’s “SWV Reunited”. The show covers Coko, Taj and LeLees relationship the second time round, the pressures they face coming back together on the tour circuit and the multi-tasking they have to do with husbands and families and now more fame. With the show capturing the old, engaging the new and inspiring any fan keen to follow the trio on their journey of evolution, SWV Reunited is now entering its third season and proving to be yet another successful feather in the ladies wide brimmed hats. In the midst of all of this recording, shooting, touring and singing, somehow SWV find a way to make it all look so easy. Not withholding their fair share of drama on screen, the trio have always maintained their authenticity and honesty to each other as their friendship has endured the varying degrees of highs and lows. Gaining this interview for a flag bearer of old school hip hop soul such as myself and the era it represented was nothing short of a blessing and one of those ‘aha’ moments in a writer’s life. Speaking candidly with Taj and LeLee (Coko was unable to make our interview) was not like interviewing the best-selling female group of all time. There was no star-struck moments, no diva antics and no question unanswered for fear of recourse. No, this was an honest and open conversation amongst women who love what they do, do what they love and don’t live with regret. Life happens and they have and continue to make the most of the journey they are on, further proving that SWV are true Renaissance Women of their time. Strong, resilient and never afraid to flip the script, this interview gave me life on so many levels and I can only pray it gives my readers that same depth of insight and heart. SWV are true survivors and are rewriting their journey one memory at a time!
Hey ladies, how are you all doing today? I’m so blessed to be talking to Taj and Lelee from the iconic girl group SWV …… how has life been treating you all?
LeLee: I am wonderful thanks for asking Maxine. So excited to be speaking to you all the way in Australia, which I have to say is one of my most dreamed of places to visit (laughs)
Taj: Hello there (laughs) thank you for having us. Life is good you know, no real complaints, living, breathing and doing what we do best.
When we first met Coko, Taj and LeLee you were the quintessential 90’s girl, hip, funky and fly and in possession of some of the most powerful voices in the game. Sisters with Voices chartered in a new era for strong, independent and sexy woman to stand up for love and also declare their singledom if they wanted it. Looking back at the earlier you – what do you know now that you would have wanted to know back then and individually, how has life changed and opened up for you being a part of SWV?
LeLee: I’ve leant that, and I really believe that sex is over-rated and I can’t express enough how I want these young girls to realise that there is so much more to life than just chasing boys you know. Going through all we went through as young women in SWV and looking back on it all now that we are older, man I cannot stress it enough – it is so much better to wait for the right person to come into your life and explore with that person than with any old random guy that you aint even gonna remember his name the next year (laughs) – you feel me?
Taj: Exactly and to add on to LeLee’s comment, as young women we may have looked and felt all confident and sexy etc. but we were still learning and growing ourselves and having to do all of that on a public stage was really quite daunting at the time. So being in SWV we have grown up together with each other and our fans in a way as trust me, what ya’ll were growing through in life so were we, we just expressed it all through our music.
Let’s talk the split in 1998, which lasted until 2005 and saw you all branch off and pursue your own careers, get married, become mothers and basically find yourselves outside of the group? How was that time for each of you on a mental and emotional level, going from the success of SWV to all of a sudden solo singers looking for a redefined purpose? What would you say each of you gained the most from that hiatus and ultimately what was the deciding factor to reunite again in 2005?
Taj: I look at that whole experience like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Your emotions ate on, they are raw and everything you are going through is just so damaged and broken. You try and deal with things as best as you can but because you have never experienced anything like this, you really don’t know what to do so you go into survival mode. You have to find a process to go through to make sense of it all and I know for me the saving grace in that process was learning that I was enough for me. Prior to that and being in the group it was always pressure to perform, to be the biggest version of yourself and I was so far deep in that mess that I even started taking pills to feel more worthy. So for me, the break, although it was hard, I thank God every day for pulling me through and showing me my worth when the lights stopped flashing because today I am a stronger woman who is comfortable being just me.
LeLee: (laughs) oh my goodness how I even follow that. I think we have had a lot of similar experiences, we went through similar struggles, but she married a baller and I didn’t (laughs) but to be honest I went through so much. I didn’t even want people to look at me when I out you know, like if I could have painted my face so they wouldn’t recognise me I would have because you know people can be so cruel and judgemental in something they don’t even know much about. I mean we were being called ‘has-beens’ and they would laugh at us in the street and, I had to go out and get a normal 9 to 5 job for a bit and people would find out where I worked and call me up just to hear my voice and then laugh at me ….man it was hard. It was those moments when I had to say “okay why I am feeling sad about what I am doing at this moment, I am taking care of my kids and doing what I have to provide for my family so you need to respect what I’m doing. I think once I looked at it like that it didn’t bother me anymore because at the end of the day you cannot really depend on anything other than yourself to make your life happen. Emotionally, I don’t even want to get into what it did to me emotionally as we gonna need a whole separate interview for that alone (laughs) but you know like Taj, I needed to find my space and what was my purpose in this world and without the SWV tag, we had to find out just who we were beyond that!.
Everyone who is an SWV fan has their favourite track that resonates to a special feeling, someone or time in their lives when they heard that song….. mine is “Anything” …. It still makes me feel carefree and fierce! What was it like recording these timeless songs and did you all have a mission in mind for how you wanted your music to relate to your fans? What would you say (individually) your favourite track or album would be to date?
Lelee: You know what we came up musically in a time when people were way more creative you know, producers were open wanted to try new things and we would do some cool things. My favourite song is “Anything”, mmmmm that’s my jam right there. In fact it’s one of my all-time favourite tracks we have done.
Taj: I have to agree – I love “Anything” myself – one of the best songs we have recorded! Good choice ladies (laughs).
So you are back together now and enjoying the success of your reality TV show SWV Reunited. I have watched the first season and was really surprised by how open, raw and vulnerable you all are about being back together again and getting back into the touring side of things giving you have families etc. now …… reality TV is a trip in itself so how have you all managed to get on the reality TV bus and ride it for the last 3 seasons? What do you enjoy about the TV medium and what makes it harder about coping with celebrity today that cameras are everywhere?
Taj: Social Media makes me hate it (laughs)
LeLee: Mmmmm you know that’s right ( giggles) You know I think the hardest thing about reality tv is sometimes you gotta say things you really don’t want to say and relive moments that you would rather forget you know, like have a discussion about it and kind of go through the motions all over again. But like I am always learning in life, you gotta go backwards to move forwards right so if you don’t fix your past It will affect your future but sometimes it’s hard you know, because people just don’t know the ultimate truth behind your story, no matter how many times you relive it you know. They just don’t get it and that’s where the challenge lies sometimes.
Taj: Right, I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s hard to answer to things that maybe are 25 to 50% true but the rest is embellished but people take it as law and that’s hard but it is what it is at the end of the day.
Your latest music has gained you a new legion of fan capturing them with that unmistakable SWV sound. What are we singing about today as opposed to 23 years ago and has the SWV fan grown with you and if so what do you think she gains from listening to your music and the journey you all travel?
Taj: I definitely feel like the SWV fans that grew up with us are still there beside us today, a little wiser and more mature and obviously not rolling out to the club every weekend but they still listen to us and now their kids are listening to us which is really cool. So for me the SWV fan has grown with us and will continue to grow with us no matter where our creative road takes us. I feel like our reality show is actually helping the younger generation understand the foundations of real music and real RnB like what we created as today, everything is so sexually out there, no mystery, just shock value right.
LeLee: I’m happy to say we are starting work on our second album ( off the current label ) and I think the fans old and new will like what we are bringing ( laughs). We are just blessed to be doing this a second time around but this time knowing exactly who we are and what we want!
You are no stranger to touring – can we see you in Australia one day? Let me test your Aussie knowledge – what do you know about this country that you can share with me?
LeLee: Imma make Coko and Taj kiss a koala just watch (laughs)
Taj: Don’t come near me with now Koala kisses now (laughs)
Lelee: Look we just want to come and visit Australia so we don’t care how we get there, we need to make it happen. I have heard so many great things about Australia from so many artists that have visited there saying how amazing it is so hopefully we will be out there soon!
Who are your musical inspirations?
Taj: I love everything, let me tell you. I’m a melting pot and just into everything. Living out here in Nashville has made me discover country music (watch out now) and it just adds to all the other genres I listen to already. I love funk, jazz, hip hop, pop, dance, you name it I’m into it all. I have a universal ear for music. I even listen Eckhart Tolle “Music to Quiet the Mind” at night when I need to calm my mind and I just love where music can take you.
Lelee: Oh man I’m an old school fan so I draw a lot of inspiration from that era but I’m also into Gospel music and have to say that the song “Heaven” by Mary Mary is that song that just does it for me you know. I have done so much bad stuff in my life that when I listen you that song I feel all is forgiven and I am able to go on to heaven ( laughs) – that’s that song. It’s just an inspirational song and reminds me that we are all on the same path to eternal life.
What do you hope SWV and your legacy will be one day?
LeLee: I would hope our legacy wold be that when people look at our lives and our journey they would see the struggle we went through to make it happen. That it didn’t come easy and still doesn’t you know, we have worked and fought hard to make this happen and that through it all musically we didn’t really get any accolades for what we created, if that makes sense. We were either too black or too ghetto and everything got lost in the “who we are” as opposed to just letting our music be what it was and that is timeless. So if there is a legacy to be left with SWV let it be that our music meant something to someone and that our voices were heard above it all!
Taj: And LeLee says it exactly right – nothing further need be said other than thank you for having us, talking to us and sharing our story with Australia Ms Hennessey, we are truly so appreciative!
For more on SWV, their music, tours and reality show visit:
SWV Reunited: www.wetv.com/shows/swv-reunited
SWV Twitter: https://twitter.com/therealsw
LeLee Twitter: https://twitter.com/leleelyons
Coko Twitter: https://twitter.com/only1coko
Taj Twitter: https://twitter.com/tajgeorge
Music, Love and Life