For Jessie Ware singing is the easy part. Uncannily beautiful vocals have been pouring out of this London native since she was kid. It’s the path from Girl With That Voice to full-fledged pop star that’s proved trickier. Nominated for two Brit awards, Ware has been a star in her native England for a while, her debut album, Devotion reached the Top 5. But it wasn’t until the release of the If You’re Never Gonna Move EP this winter and subsequent US tour that American audiences got wind of the singer’s unique power. With the US release of Devotion, featuring two new tracks, Ware’s love affair with America seems to have only just begun. “I feel like the crowds in the US really get what I’m trying to do,” says Ware. “I love how they chat to me during the songs, like ‘Hey girl, sing it! That makes me laugh. I’m excited to finally give the people that have supported me the album to own.”
Ware started singing at school, inspired by the timeless purity of her mother’s classic records. Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter was an early love as was the transporting magic of musicals. With a bit of classical training under her belt and that innate desire to become someone else through performance, Ware arrived at University and promptly suffered a devastating crisis of confidence. “I didn’t think it was ever going to be possible,” she says, explaining why she put her dreams of being a singer on hold. “It always broke my heart a bit. I couldn’t even do it casually because it made me feel too sick to only half do it.”
Convinced her career as a singer was over before it began, she studied English Literature and after graduation pursued journalism. “I wanted to be a football reporter,” she recalls. “I’m interested in other people.” Fascination with other people is not a quality you find in many pop stars. In fact, some would consider it a liability. But when Ware’s old friend Jack Penate offered her the chance to tour America as his backup singer, she discovered she had more of that sink or swim grittiness than she initially thought. “I quit my job and got in the van,” she recalls with a chuckle. “It was a very wrecked van and it wasn’t very glamorous but it felt like the American dream. I was living the dream, just, even driving through Montana. I was like: this ….is…. amazing! I’m a singer and I’m in America!”
In the States, Jack’s guitarist introduced her to renowned underground producer SBTRKT and they collaborated on a track, “Nervous,” which showcased Ware’s big voice and made a significant impact on the UK club scene. A second one-off track, “Valentine,” recorded with another of the UK dance scene’s key players, Sampha, displayed the sweeter, more delicate side of Ware’s talent. The one-two punch of these tracks was enough to score the singer a UK record deal. The humble little girl from South London was on her way.
Ware was getting the hang of pop stardom but the haze of insecurity that had initially plagued her still hovered. Sure, she could work with other brilliant artists, but could she really stand center stage and belt out a full set of her own tracks? “I needed to take a step back from being a dance vocalist,” she explains. “As much as I love that scene, I wanted to set that apart and learn how to be a classic songwriter.” So she retreated into the studio with a slew of collaborators and found her voice, which led to her androgynous dame look, which led to her now easeful-seeming confidence onstage. “The singer turned heads with her understated style,” Rolling Stone gushed, calling Ware’s debut a “set of elegant synth ballads,” in which she “confides hopes and heartbreaks in tones that command attention.”
Ware’s sound is part body-moving abandon, the kind of vibe that for thirty years has propelled pop stars from Madonna to Lady Gaga off the dance floor and onto the radio. And part serene elegance, the kind of sonic grace Ware first discovered spinning her mom’s Sinatra. “I wanted to combine electronic with a more classic songwriting,” she explains. “I didn’t want it to feel too ‘of now’, so that’s why I went back to beats and grooves of things I loved before, like Prince and Chaka Khan and Grace Jones. I wanted to make downer R&B – songs that are beautiful and bittersweet, like Sade. It was just about mixing it up in the right way.”
The glittery, downbeat shimmer of Devotion, represents the first moment in the songwriting process where Ware truly felt like a singer. “I could finally express myself in the way that I wanted, with the music I wanted.” The flirty swing of “Sweet Talk” captures the ecstatic terror of being reckless with a new love. Ware’s intention to warm up dance music has been widely praised. The New York Times drew attention to the fact that Devotion is “by no means a dance album” and noted that it nonetheless “has the outline of club music on it.” That sensibility continues with the two tracks Ware recorded specifically for the US release. “Imagine It Was Us” is “a fun dance song,” Ware says. She modeled it specifically on the elated pop of 80s dance floor goddesses like Janet Jackson. “I felt like it would be a fun one to play live at summer festivals,” she says. And “Wildest Moments” (remix) featuring A$AP Rocky,” is a reworking of one of Ware’s most stirring tracks. “I always imagined this song having a rapper on it,” Ware says. “And I am so happy it’s A$AP, I have been desperate to work with him.”
Oftentimes even the brashest of British artists lose their mojo a bit when confronted with America. Not Ware. Now that she’s gotten a taste for pop stardom, she’s going big. “I want to be a pop star, in the classic sense, like Annie Lennox, or Sade, or Whitney,” she says. But behind the hoop earrings and shoulder pads are still signs of that pragmatic girl who thought she’d spend her life writing about other people. “The whole timeless thing, it’s quite ambitious,” she muses. “Mostly, I just want to make things I can be proud of if it all goes tits up.”