There’s a certain effortlessness to Jessie Ware’s music. The soulful Londoner first made waves when she provided guest vocals on some trendy dubstep singles but her own music is smooth and more subdued. She never over-sings and her fusion of electro, R&B and retro sounds has a sophistication that’s often lacking in today’s chart pop. It’s no surprise that she keeps getting compared to Sade.
And that comparison is something she’s embraced. When it came to shooting a video for her recent single Running, Ware told her director that she wanted something like Sade’s Smooth Operator. Neither the director nor Ware’s styling team let her down. In the video, Ware is seen singing in a plush wine bar, dressed in a sleek, black dress, her hair whipped back into a bun. It’s the epitome of 1980s elegance.
Ware, 27, grew up idolising Sade, and has formative memories of listening to artists such as Whitney Houston and Annie Lennox in the car. However, despite having a strong voice and appearing in school musicals, she never thought of becoming a singer. This was partly because pop stardom looked like a pipe dream, and partly because it seemed “indulgent” as a career choice. Her father, John Ware, is an award-winning investigative reporter who worked for the BBC for 26 years.
So, in a move that she now calls “too sensible”, Ware went to university to study English literature and became a journalist. Then fate intervened. At work one day, she got a phone call from Jack Peñate, an old school friend who had become a successful indie musician – would she be his backing singer on a radio session? Ware accepted, enjoyed herself and joined Peñate’s band for a US tour. Sensible as ever, she kept the idea of law school at the back of her mind in case regular singing gigs didn’t materialise.
Again, luck was in her favour. Peñate’s guitarist introduced her to the underground dance producer SBTRKT, who tapped her vocal talents for a single called Nervous. The track – and Ware’s sultry performance on it – generated enough buzz to land her a record contract with the London indie label PMR.
Ware was thrilled, but also slightly flummoxed. Because she had only ever imagined herself as a backing singer, she had no idea what kind of record she wanted to make. In fact, she had never tried to write a song before. “I never thought that I could and I didn’t think anyone would care what I had to say,” she recalled in a recent interview. “So, in the beginning, that was probably the hardest thing, just trying to work out what I wanted to say.”
Ware has since described herself as a “neurotic mess” during this period – one who eventually had a “bit of a freak out”. Salvation came when her manager introduced her to Dave Okumu, from the experimental British indie group The Invisible. Originally, the pair were supposed to write a song together but Ware felt a creative breakthrough during their jam session, so she asked Okumu to be her producer as well.
“He found a way to let me express myself without exposing myself too much, and it felt like a therapy session,” Ware recalled in an interview with the US website Hello Giggles. “It made sense to me to have him be a producer [as well] because it already felt so exciting to see what we were creating. It felt new to him to be a producer and I wanted him to have an opportunity to do this since he’d been so important to me while writing.”
Working with Okumu may have felt like a “therapy session”, but Ware’s debut album, Devotion, isn’t filled with confessionals. In fact, one of the ways she overcame her writer’s block was through role-play. Discussing the album’s themes with the website Pitchfork recently, Ware confided: “There’s a lot of fantasy or embellishment in there and, as a not very confident songwriter, it was easier for me to pretend to be somebody else sometimes.”
She used this tactic fruitfully during a session with up-and-coming house producer Julio Bashmore. On paper, their collaboration looked mouth-watering but when Ware arrived at his house, she was struck by nerves. Bashmore played her an instrumental track to write over but nothing came out. She tried writing about herself, gave up and eventually came up with a story about “getting a guy to dance with a girl”.
The result is 110%, one of the standout tracks from Ware’s album. Bashmore’s production feels breezy but it has an urgent edge, too. This chimes perfectly with Ware’s performance, which sounds cool and nonchalant at first but actually isn’t at all. “But I’m still dancing on my own, I’m still dancing on my own,” goes her lingering refrain.
Even more haunting is Running, the song that earned Ware her reputation as a modern smooth operator. It’s not a crass attempt to write an Olympic anthem, it’s a dark love song about losing control. “Your words alone could drive me to a thousand tears,” Ware sings. By the end of the song, which updates Sade’s “quiet storm” style to sublime effect, she’s “just ready to lose it all”.
Though she sometimes sings in character, there’s nothing schizophrenic about Ware’s album. The track titles alone show a common thread: Devotion, Something Inside, No to Love, Still Love Me, Sweet Talk. Ware’s focus on love songs was deliberate. “I’m a huge romantic,” she admitted to Pitchfork. “This album is about relationships, but I definitely wanted it to feel as effeminate and romantic as possible without being saccharine.”
She strikes the right balance on Sweet Talk, a jazzy shuffle that sounds like a cute early Whitney Houston or Janet Jackson track. The melodies slip down like a strawberry milkshake, but the lyrics leave an aftertaste. “You can always make me feel like I am slipping in way too deep,” Ware tells the song’s protagonist.
Another song that sounds hopelessly romantic is Wildest Moments, a ballad with booming drum sounds inspired by Beyoncé’s Halo and Alicia Keys’ Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart. “From the outside, everyone must be wondering why we try,” Ware sings on the first verse, before delivering a poignant chorus: “Maybe in our wildest moments, we could be the greatest / Maybe in our wildest moments, we could be the worst of all.”
Actually, the song was inspired by Ware’s relationship with her best friend; she wrote it after a “ridiculous fight” at a wedding which ended with Ware getting a cake in her face. During the creative process, Wildest Moments became a more universal song about the “highs and lows” of relationships but its foundations are firmly autobiographical. There’s also a more personal side to Ware’s writing on Taking in Water, a tender song filled with empathy that she wrote for her brother.
Taking In Water really shows off Ware’s gift for emotional storytelling. Having overcome her early nerves, she clearly hit her groove as a writer. “I always wanted the album to have a classic songwriting feel while also being modern,” she revealed in a recent interview, and Devotion achieves this. It sounds fresh and contemporary but there are witty winks to Ware’s influences: an 1980s drum sound here, a Sade-style guitar lick there.
Most of the time, it doesn’t really sound like Ware’s idol but her influence looms large in the music’s restraint and sophistication. Devotion should certainly satisfy impatient fans of Sade but it’s too classy an album in its own right to be called a stopgap.
Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.