The UK avant-soulster Jessie Ware accidentally made a triumphant comeback by unveiling a sassy, sanguine and sensuous disco album in the midst of the raging COVID-19 pandemic. What’s Your Pleasure? (WYP) dominated ‘Best Of 2020’ lists and was nominated for ‘British Album Of The Year’ at the BRIT Awards. But, even as Ware promotes a “deluxe” version, she’s plotting her next album. After all, Ware is on a wave.
Today, Ware, based in South London, is on a Zoom video call. The singer, heavily pregnant with her third child, is seated comfortably on a sofa, but still exudes casual domestic glamour, modelling Dame Edna cat-eye glasses. Ware is accustomed to plugging projects virtually. Yet she appreciates that lockdown is exhausting. “Oh, man, it’s tough,” Ware sighs. As it happens, she is not only promoting What’s Your Pleasure? – The Platinum Pleasure Edition, but also a memoir, Omelette: Food, Love, Chaos And Other Conversations, which, like last year’s cookbook, ties in with her top culinary podcast Table Manners. “There’s lots going on and I like it that way. It makes me really happy.”
Musically, Ware is feeling liberated, finally realising her identity as a disco diva by shedding the torch-song mystique and melancholy that defined her early career. In fact, Ware’s trajectory was serendipitous. She emerged as part of a nebulous electro-soul movement, occasionally tagged post-dubstep soul, together with The xx, James Blake and Jamie Woon – but became a pop star, styling herself on Sade.
Ware grew up in a middle-class Jewish family, her parents divorcing when she was 10. She studied English Literature at uni and briefly pursued journalism, trailing her political reporter father John Ware. She planned to go into law, but her music pastime gained momentum. Ware was approached by an old school buddy, Jack Peñate, to provide backing vocals on tour. She was soon in demand as a feature singer for underground dance producers, working extensively with SBTRKT. Ware signed to Universal Music via the fledgling PMR Records and, in 2011, premiered with the modish solo single ‘Strangest Feeling’ – The Invisible’s Dave Okumu producing. The following year, she released the acclaimed debut album Devotion, which entered the UK Top Five and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. In 2013 Ware toured Australia with Laneway. “I was really surprised that I was even invited on my first record to do Laneway – which is so prestigious,” she recalls. “It’s such an amazing experience. I made friends there that I’m still friends with now – you know, El-P’s gang, EL-P being in Run The Jewels now and absolutely smacking it as well; Shlohmo… Flume was so lovely. His whole record label, Future Classic, really took me in.”
Post-Devotion, Ware wed her childhood sweetheart Sam Burrows, a personal trainer. The queen of the cry-dance bop issued Tough Love, which, being anchored by the studio super-duo BenZel (Benny Blanco and Two Inch Punch), was more commercial – ‘Say You Love Me’ penned with pal Ed Sheeran. Alas, it received negligible promo in Australia. The same with 2017’s confessional Glasshouse, on which Ware delivered deeply personal songs about family, marriage and first-time motherhood. She contemplated quitting music after a mortifying show at Coachella, which clashed with the buzz Cardi B. Ware is now realistic about past LP roll-outs. “Look, I think that, with record labels, they kind of follow a reaction. If they don’t feel like they’re getting a reaction, they don’t push it ’cause they’ve got plenty of other people. I wasn’t a priority. I have to accept that.” Regardless, it meant that Ware didn’t return to Australia. “I was quite gutted that I wasn’t able to have that [Laneway] experience again, but equally accepting – it’s expensive to tour.”
Undeterred, Ware diversified. The foodie recruited her social worker mum Lennie for the Table Manners podcast, chatting with weekly guests from entertainment and politics over a homemade meal – among the most recent Sir Paul McCartney. On reflection, Ware believes that the revelatory enterprise “helped” to boost her music profile, rendering her sufficiently relatable to be a household name. “It was like promo that nobody had to lift a finger for. I was doing it on my own accord – not because I needed to promote myself because we were just doing a podcast. [But] people are sometimes quite lazy… I had to find my way and do it on my terms and now it feels even more satisfying.”
In June 2020, as UK authorities eased lockdown restrictions during the summer, Ware offered What’s Your Pleasure? – ironically celebrating her roots in club culture (the lead single ‘Adore You’, helmed by Metronomy’s Joseph Mount, had surfaced back in early 2019). It resonated with casual pop fans, music heads and critics alike, becoming Ware’s highest-charting album in the UK at #3. “I think maybe people needed some energy and joy in the last year,” she ponders. “I think that it accidentally came at the right time. Perhaps if people had known about me, but maybe hadn’t engaged fully with my music or enjoyed it before, this was a chance where they got to see a full personality – which maybe I’d been hiding slightly before, ’cause I was terrified. I’d always been told that everyone loved me singing these heartbreaking ballads (laughs)… No, I love a ballad. [But] I always thought I couldn’t do upbeat music. I thought I sounded really naff on it. But I found my vessel; I found the way to do it, and on my terms. People bought into that. It was very focused, what we were doing. It wasn’t contrived, it was honest, but it had a focus.”
WYP was bracketed with other disco albums that year from Dua Lipa (whose Future Nostalgia coincidentally won the BRIT for ‘AOTY’), Lady Gaga, Róisín Murphy and Kylie Minogue. Still, while WYP has a disco fervour, it isn’t an obvious disco set, instead veering off into house, electro and psychedelic soul. Ware reunited with Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford, one of Tough Love‘s producers, the pair uniquely evoking the aesthetics of successive bygone party eras. “It had definite homages to things – whether it’s the Andy Warhol Polaroids on the cover or different synthlines that would make you think about Blondie or Tom Tom Club. People tapped into that. But hopefully, it felt like a modernised version of all that.” Indeed, her mission with Ford was to simply create a danceable LP. “We tried to find different grooves – it was always dictated by a groove or a beat.” Oddly, Ware was reminded of her formative days as a dance singer, when she didn’t overanalyse the music, rather recording instinctively. “I think that was a new way for me to write, that I hadn’t done since I’d been a dance vocalist, where you come and sing on a producer’s beat and you don’t really get a say. They’ll be like, ‘I’ve got a beat for you,’ and you just try and riff something out.”
WYP‘s rhapsodic closer ‘Remember Where You Are’ – widely compared to Chicago psych-soul collective Rotary Connection – has been hailed a zeitgeist anthem. Ware released ‘Remember…’ as a single earlier this year after former US President Barack Obama listed it in his “Favorite Music Of 2020” – and she memorably performed the epic on The Graham Norton Show. “That was a song that we wrote right at the end of the writing process,” Ware explains. “It felt like this end of the night song. I felt like it encompassed all the confidence that we felt for this record and that we could really be ambitious with the arrangements and the chorus quality to it – that almost Hair musical feel to it, you know?”
Now Ware has repackaged WYP with several clubbier tracks – including ‘Please’, the SG Lewis-stamped ‘Hot N Heavy’, and ‘0208’ (featuring Kindness). “It’s definitely a bit more of a kind of late-night, banging, 3/4 am session for some of them,” she notes. Ware also added ‘Overtime’, a cult heater co-produced by the Belfast techno duo Bicep that dropped as a standalone single in 2018. She’d previously deemed it “too heavy” for WYP. “I don’t wanna just shove songs on because people really like them and then it doesn’t make sense – ’cause I treated it like a DJ set.” But Ware decided that ‘Overtime’ complemented the new material on the deluxe. “People were very pissed off that it wasn’t on the original,” she cackles. “So I was like, ‘Well, shut up! Here it is.'”
Over the years Ware has cut impressive collabs. She sang on Bobby Womack’s housey ‘Love Is Gonna Lift You Up’ off his final album, The Bravest Man In The Universe, which Damon Albarn guided. Did Ware have any exchanges with the late soul GOAT? “Sadly not, really,” she responds. “I was in the right place at the right time. I was writing a song upstairs. Damon knew I had a voice and was like, ‘Will you just come and do some BVs [backing vocals]?’ It was done in maybe less than an hour – and then it was like, ‘Right, thanks, bye.’ I forgot about that, to be honest!” Ware laughs at the absurdity. She largely remembers Albarn, “on the piano, standing up and plonking and really trying to get people going like a conductor.” Womack was present but passive. “He was quite elderly,” Ware says. “There was a wisdom around him… There wasn’t much interaction, but he seemed like a lovely man.”
Later, Ware both co-wrote and featured on Nicki Minaj’s ‘The Crying Game’ for 2014’s blockbuster The Pinkprint. “The Nikki one, I wrote for myself and then it just didn’t feel right – and she loved it. So that was just lucky.” She’s keen to write more for other acts in future, also having a credit on Sheeran’s ‘New Man’. “I would love it,” Ware stresses. “It’s a real honour to even be in the room with some of these people that are willing to listen to your ideas – and I’d love to do it a bit more. I’d love to carve out a good six months to go and do writing with other people.”
However, a hyper-motivated Ware is currently “immersed” in her own projects, as she prepares for a rescheduled UK headline tour in December, then Primavera Sound 2022. Ware will continue with the podcast – “it’s very easy with a newborn.” Optimistic about eventually hitting Australia again, she fancies facilitating “a Down Under special,” being “desperate to have Nicole Kidman” as a guest. She’d broach Russell Crowe (“I kind of know him already, which is very funny, that I do know the Gladiator”) and new Sydney residents Sacha Baron Cohen and his “wonderful wife” Isla Fisher.
Most significantly, Ware is progressing on a fifth album. “I’m working on my new music,” she confirms. “I aim to have a new record out next year.” So quickly? “I’m incredibly impatient,” Ware insists. “I think I’ve written maybe 75 per cent of it. Now we need to really dig into the production and make that right.” Artists are often coy about upcoming music, but not Ware – who’s settled on yet another fresh direction. “It’s gonna be uptempo, but very much more like different rhythms, less kind of disco, more live drums, a few more live instruments…,” she details. “Yeah, but [mainly] with kind of different drum patterns, so it feels energetic and fun. [I’ve] been listening to a lot of Talking Heads, and enjoying that, and [the Texan psych trio] Khruangbin, I’m obsessed with, and SAULT. So that’s the world that I’m dancing in.”
And Ware is considering laying down more bangers in the ‘Overtime’ vein with Bicep. “Actually, I met them for the first time at the BRITs the other day,” she shares. “I had to Google what they look like ’cause I never met them – they sent over a backing track to James and then we worked from it. So it was really nice. They said, ‘This song’s quite good, isn’t it?,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s really good!’ They were like, ‘We should do more’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, we should.’ Now I’m wondering whether I should just ask them if they wanna do like a long EP or an album or something.'” Don’t stop, Jessie.