As genuinely thrilled as she sounds to be where she is—which is right on the threshold of major pop stardom—Jessie Ware lets it be known that she doesn’t have everything riding on her musical career. The South London–based singer was born into a household of high achievers, and is only one of three members of her immediate family who have their own Wikipedia entries; the others are her father, award-winning broadcast reporter John Ware, and her big sis, television and movie actor Hannah Ware.
Ware looked set to follow in her dad’s journalistic footsteps, first landing a job as a web reporter for the Jewish Chronicle and then working for a TV production company. But the 28-year-old born Jessica Lois Ware is evidently keen on keeping her options open: she studied English lit, not to mention applying for, and getting accepted at, law school, all while dabbling in music as more of a fun pastime than anything else. In 2009, she toured with singer-songwriter Jack Peñate, an old school friend, but it was her work with post-dubstep producer SBTRKT that got her noticed. Ware provided the vocals for SBTRKT’s 2010 single “Nervous” and sang on his self-titled album, released the following year. She further established herself in the dance-diva sphere by contributing to tracks by producers Sampha and Joker, which brought her to the attention of Ben Parmar, an A&R rep from the Island Records imprint PMR, who met with her, ostensibly to discuss some potential session work. The meeting, it seems, went well.
“The next day, he was like, ‘I’m going to offer you a development deal,’ ” says Ware, reached on the road in Amsterdam. “It was too good an opportunity to say no to, so I was like, ‘Oh God, I’m getting signed, but I have no songs. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m not going to say no.’ So I had a bit of a freak-out, but it’s all kind of worked out all right.”
That was the moment when Ware realized that singing could be more than a hobby, something other than a momentary lark to reminisce about when real life takes over. “I was just doing it more for the memories,” she admits, “and then it became a reality where I had to pick between taking my law-school place or getting signed. And I was like, ‘You know what? Law school can wait another year, because this is too cool.’ ”
Law school, it turns out, has been put on hold indefinitely. After that initial “freak-out”, Ware discovered that she did indeed have some songs within her after all—an entire album’s worth, in fact. With a few carefully chosen cowriters, including Julio Bashmore and the Invisible’s Dave Okumu, the singer penned the 11 songs that make up her debut LP, Devotion.
These include “Wildest Moments”, a quiet-storm confessional that places Ware’s subtly plaintive yet unfailingly confident singing over a sky-splitting gospel backbeat, and “Running”, a sleek soul number on which her multitracked vocals are as silky-smooth as the electric-guitar lines woven around them.
Ware’s singing on the latter is reminiscent of Sade Adu (one of her primary influences), and its rhythmic thrust owes a debt to Prince’s “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”. Similarly, “Sweet Talk” bears the imprint of the Whitney Houston cassette that got its share of plays in the Ware family car. Devotion is more than a throwback to ’80s pop-soul, though. The title cut, for instance, is a slippery sylph of a song built on shimmering guitar tracks and atmospheric loops, while “Still Love Me” is accented by a throbbing groove that isn’t quite chillstep but isn’t really anything else, either.
“I’d started singing on my own by being on dance records, and so I definitely wanted to bring in an electronic aspect, and something that was fresh and modern, but not too of now,” says Ware of her sonic intentions. “Hopefully it would feel kind of timeless—fingers crossed—or it wouldn’t just feel dated in a few years. But I wanted to celebrate electronic music while still combining classic songwriting into it as well.”
That’s easy for her to say after the fact, but Ware admits that, until the opportunity to make Devotion came along, she never pictured herself as a top-shelf tunesmith. “This is the first batch of things I’ve ever actually written,” she reveals. “I was too scared to write. I thought I’d be crap. This is my first time.”
The fledgling songwriter forged ahead by, as she puts it, “freakin’ out, writing loads of crap songs that will never be heard”, and by learning to embody different characters when the lyrics demanded it: “Sometimes it’s easier to write pretending you’re somebody else. You can get into it a bit more. Sometimes you don’t want everyone to know everything or reveal too much. But songs like ‘Taking in Water’, that’s about my little brother; ‘Wildest Moments’ is about my best friend, and I can pinpoint why I wrote that songs and when. It depends.”
The too-modest artist notes that one of the things she discovered while making Devotion was how little she actually knew. It’s to her credit, then, that she’s keen to fill in the gaps by studying past masters of her chosen craft. “I still feel like quite a philistine,” she insists. “I’ve still got so much to learn about music. When I was in the studio, when we were making the song ‘Still Love Me’, I was like, ‘Oh, it sounds like that “Sledgehammer” song,’ and then, like, got madly into Peter Gabriel whilst we were recording the record. So I feel like I’m constantly learning.”
The lessons are clearly paying off. Released in Ware’s homeland in August of last year, Devotion reached the number-five spot on the U.K. Albums Chart, was shortlisted for the 2012 Mercury Prize, and garnered the singer a pair of BRIT Awards nominations.
The LP finally gets its North American release on April 16. You might expect that, having tasted success at home, Ware would find the notion of breaking into new markets a little less daunting, but that’s not necessarily the case. Sure, she’s feeling positive about what lies ahead, but sales and acclaim have little to do with that.
“I don’t think it makes it easier, to be honest,” she says. “I think what makes me more at ease is the constant touring at the moment. However tired I may be, it’s very satisfying to be able to be playing to full rooms of new faces in different countries. Last week I was in Poland, and I was playing in Prague, and Zagreb in Croatia—places that I’ve maybe been for a holiday and never thought I’d be able to fill a room playing my music. I think, actually, the thing that makes it easier to go to new places is that you’re just getting more and more experienced at playing live, and that’s kind of the best thing about it. Especially because I made that record now a year ago. It’s very satisfying to be playing it to new people.”
In the case of North America, it doesn’t hurt that Ware has already crossed the pond to test the waters, an experience that she recalls as a resounding success. “I did a small tour in January, and I went to places like Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and then L.A., San Francisco,” she says. “And it was really, really great, and I had such a great time, so I’m really looking forward to the tour. I’ve done some press stuff, but I’m fairly unknown there.”
Fairly, perhaps, but not entirely. Ware has made one major fan in Katy Perry, who took to Twitter to endorse the English newcomer: “I think this lil’ lady is going to be massive so if you haven’t discovered her yet, jump on board: Jessie Ware,” Perry tweeted last November, following up in January with: “Tonight I saw Jessie Ware play and It [sic] was wicked.”
Another stateside fan, fast-rising Harlem rap star A$AP Rocky, dropped a verse on a “Wildest Moments” remix that will be on the North American version of Devotion. With that as her entrée into the U.S. hip-hop and R&B world, the door might well be open for Ware’s dream collaborations. “I really want to work with Frank Ocean,” she says. “I love him, and I recently met him and became the biggest fangirl in front of him. I think Kanye West or Frank Ocean. I’d love to do that. Who knows if it will ever work, but I think they’re really exciting.”
More exciting than law school, at any rate—at least for now.