Love Lockdown, Jessie Ware’s Tough Love
Twenty-fourteen is setting up to be an unforgettable year for British pop star Jessie Ware. Firstly, she wrapped her sophomore full-length album, Tough Love, a follow-up to 2012’s timeless Devotion, a debut that placed her among pop’s elite. At the same time, she’s been making wedding preparations hand in hand with her childhood sweetheart. Art mimics life this time around for Ware, the singer with an uncanny ability to match progressive electronic sounds with an utterly classic voice. Once more she offers sonic musings on the dynamics of intimacy and pledges of love.
Jessica Lois Ware was raised in Brixton, a district of South London. She was a theatre kid who fancied herself a figure skater, “Even though I was never very good at it!” (self-deprecating humor might have been her signature attribute if not for those unforgettable pipes). She never dreamed of one day charting at the the top of the pops. After graduating with a degree in English Lit from Sussex University, Ware nearly followed in her father’s footsteps as a journalist (he advised against it) and landed a job at the Jewish Chronicle. Everything changed course, though, when a friend and musician asked her to stand in for some backing vocals.
With a voice impossible to overlook, the right people took notice and soon connected her with Aaron Jerome, a producer called SBTRKT (pronounced subtract), who was making his own introduction to the world of electronica with a few choice singles. One of them was the track “Nervous,” which featured Ware adding a restrained passion, “Don’t want you to see that I’m nervous,” atop Jerome’s skittering hi-hats and vocoder-inflected bass melodies. Shortly thereafter, Ware provided her voice to the dubstep producer Joker, was featured twice more on SBTRKT’s full-length debut album, and recorded a classic take on modern love in “Valentine” with singer/producer Sampha (another Aaron Jerome protégé).
Quickly signed to a solo deal, Ware began work on Devotion. It was the first time she spent extended time in the studio; her first gigs, first tour—first everything. She found herself constantly second- guessing her place as an artist despite her rising star. “It’s hard to trust your instinct when you’re completely new to something,” she remembers, describing the experience as equal parts grand and stressful. Even still she hesitates to call herself an artist, preferring singer instead. The record was a smash of course, earning Ware Brit award and Mercury Prize nominations, headlining tours plus festival gigs across Europe and America, and most importantly, an adoring fanbase.
Conventional wisdom might hold that immense pressure comes in anticipation of a sophomore release, especially following such a debut. But her feelings are quite to the contrary, “I’ve exhausted all my nervous energy on the first one,” Ware says. “I trust my instincts when it comes to this new record and thus it allowed me to enjoy the entire process far more.”
For Tough Love, she spent time in a Los Angeles studio with producer duo BenZel, a once mysterious pair who only recently revealed themselves to be renowned hit-makers Benny Blanco (Katy Perry, Rihanna) and Two Inch Punch (Justin Timberlake, Sam Smith). The B-team did well to color Ware’s evolved sonic direction. The collaborative relationship was so close-knit in fact that she describes it as familial.
Added confidence and a bit of brotherly love also helped to push Ware’s vocal range to new registers. “The BenZel boys really told me to just do it, and I was like no way!” But in channeling upper octaves, Ware exhales new life through the record. “I’m really scared to sing the tracks live,” she admits, “but I’ve been rehearsing and hope to pull it off.”
On stage, Ware seamlessly transitions from endearing geek, bantering with the crowd between songs, to knockout diva, with a voice that aims for the rafters and brings the audience along as she ascends. The flight pattern, she says, takes planning and patience, “You have to pace yourself. It’s quite exhausting sometimes, but so so so fun.”
Love is a recurring theme on the new record, which comes as no surprise to any listener that’s enjoyed Ware’s already heart- conquering ballads. Take “You And I Forever,” a song title that speaks for itself. “It’s about the person I’m marrying,” she blushes. “It’s about being ready to commit.” Still, Ware finds places on the record to shine light on the tribulations of intimacy. “Cruel” tells the story of playing voyeur to a friend’s relationship: “Never knew our love could be so cruel / it’s not just what you say, it’s what you do.” Then, on “Pieces,” she sings, “I was so sure this was real, but / now I’m sure of nothing at all.” The tempo down, the production sparse—a space that showcases Ware’s poignancy.
She finds it exciting to share these new pieces with fans online and in person alike. “One minute it’s yours,” she says, “then it’s anyone’s who wants to listen.” But revealing herself artistically remains a confluence of emotions. “It can be scary too,” she admits. She always hopes that people will enjoy the music, “but you never know.”
As up-and-coming talent storms the charts with club anthems, the 28-year-old Ware offers a certain serenity and class without the gimmicks and tricks so often pervasive in pop music. In that vein, she shares admiration for the legends, Prince and Brownstone, to name a few, both of whom she’s covered. When it comes to covering her contemporaries, she offers the thought of taking on Hozier’s bluesy “Take Me To Church” and the mega-hit “Problem” by Ariana Grande. But if there’s a song she wishes to have written herself, it would be Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” she reveals. “That’s a really special song.”
Given the vocal voyage she’s taken on the new record, it comes as no surprise that Ware makes mention of Kate Bush as one of her foremost influences. Though Bush’s repertoire goes unrivalled, it’s not crazy to compare the two. Jessie Ware has the talent, the class, and the voice of an icon.
As it happens, our chat falls on the eighteenth anniversary of Spice Girls releasing their 90s smash hit, “Wannabe.” “Oh gosh, I feel old!” she squeaks. She pauses to consider what the next two decades will hold in her own life. “Maybe sing in Vegas! And I’d like to have teenagers by then—I hope they think their mom is still pretty cool.” She’s certainly living out a diva’s dream, but Jessie Ware’s WILD Wish is to one day settle down and find calmness. “Record music and have a family. Have fun, and stop worrying. I’m always worrying about something.”
Photographer: Arved Colvin-Smith
Stylist: Sabrina J Henry
Hair stylist: Liz Thaw @ Naked Artists
Makeup artist: Kim Keifer @ Frank Agency
Photographer’s assistants: Joseph Seresin and Shaun Barnsgrove
Stylist’s assistant: Rhona Ezuma