Total ‘Devotion': An interview with Jessie Ware

Life’s funny, sometimes. One day I was sitting here listening in awe to Jessie Ware’s new single, ‘Wildest Moments’, and the next I was on the phone with the lady herself on a hazy Thursday afternoon shortly after she returned from the BBC Radio 1 studios in London. During our chat, we talked about a little bit of everything – from song meanings and collaborations to travel and her favourite sounds – and I got a real feel for the warmth and sincerity which is a touchstone in all of her music, a characteristic that makes her one of the most alluring and charismatic artists on the rise today.

With an incredible debut album ready to take the world by storm (Devotion hits shelves in the UK and iTunes worldwide in August), there is no doubt we’ll all be hearing a lot more from Jessie Ware in the coming months. In the meantime, check out what she had to say about the recording process and her plans for the future below, and when everyone undoubtedly jumps on the bandwagon, you can say you knew her first.

The first song I heard was your song ‘Valentine’ with Sampha, and you’ve worked with him since. How did that collaboration come about and what is it about you that meshes so well?

“I met Sampha because a friend of mine named Tic introduced me to him since he was trying to get Sampha’s music out there. When I was doing my track ‘Nervous’, Sampha came and did backing vocals on it, which you can hear him on. We just got on and he’s a very sweet boy – very kind and shy. I was kind of amazed by his voice and he’s so gentle and mild-mannered. One night, on a really rainy night, we were listening to James Blake’s ‘Wilhelm’s Scream’ and there’s that line, ‘I don’t know about my love’ and we thought, oh, let’s write a song about that, but a good thing that celebrates it because we thought it was beautiful, so we wrote ‘Valentine’.

We’ve just carried on working together. I’ve been really busy and he’s been really busy on tour with SBTRKT. I was in Amsterdam recently doing a gig and I had all these people watching and I saw this guy nodding his head, completely into it and I thought, wicked, I have a new fan – and I look over and it’s Sampha! It was really sweet. I want to do more with him, we’re both just busy.”

‘Wildest Moments’ has been getting a good response. Can you talk a bit about what inspired that track, and what made you choose it to be the next to release?

“That track’s about my nightmare of a best friend. I love her, but we… I never fight with people but me and her fight.  That’s my girl, Sarah, and that’s what ‘Wildest Moments’ is about. We had this big fight at a friend’s wedding and she threw a cake in my face – it was one of those ridiculous fights. We lived together too and our friendship was really fraught at the time and I was sorta sick of it. So ‘Wildest Moments’ was putting it all into a song and it was therapeutic – I love her, she’s my best friend. That was what really inspired it, but I was also thinking about relationships – like my grandparents’ relationship, everyone’s. It’s quite a universal thing, the highs and the lows, so it related to a lot of things. But yeah, it was inspired by my best friend.

We went with that because there’s something quite kind of triumphant about the song, I feel. It feels quite summery and hazy, I think. That’s why we went with that next – I wanted people to see soft things with a bit of R&B. I really wanted… you know, I love ‘Halo’ and ‘Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart’ and I wanted that impact with the drums, you know?”

Exactly! Well, your style’s quite unique compared to your contemporaries. Do you think this sound is something you’ve happened upon organically or have you always known exactly the type of artist you wanted to be?

“It’s definitely been an organic thing, because I didn’t even know I was going to do music. I knew what I loved and what I’ve made is an amalgamation of the things I love – there’s a bit of Feist, a bit of Whitney, a bit of Disney music… it’s a big old mish mash of everything I love!”

Because we’re human, we do like to compartmentalise and compare when it comes to new artists. I’ve even compared you to Sade before (though I’m not the only one). Do you find the comparisons flattering? What’s your favourite so far?

“All the comparisons are real compliments because they all seem to be with quite great singers, so to me that’s a huge thing. I feel like people are getting it – the comparisons of Sade are huge compliments because I idolize her, so that’s conscious – I listened to a lot of her while I recorded this album, so I’m happy to be compared. The ‘Running’ video was a complete homage to ‘Smooth Operator’, so I appreciate it. I think she’s an amazing artist who really represents British music, and soul music, in a great way. I’m very appreciative – so yes, it feels like a compliment.”

The album is fantastic and really flows from beginning to end – can you talk a little bit about of the process of creating it and how it came together?

“It was a very daunting process in the beginning. I was signed off the strength of one song that I didn’t really write a lot of, so I thought, oh s**t, I’ve got this voice but I don’t know what I want to say and the beauty is that the album, to me, the people I’ve worked with on it showed me how to be myself and to fear less and do what I wanted to do with it. There are so many people on that album I love – each one of them has given me something different and have made me feel like I’ve progressed as a songwriter and an artist. There’s a very romantic feeling to me to the album about my relationship with these people who’ve helped me. It’s all their albums, it’s not just mine.

From being quite a daunting process it’s become a beautiful thing, but whatever happens, it’s been a great memory. I’ve got to make a great album with people who are wonderful and care about what I say and do. It’s all felt very special – I wasn’t pressured into doing it. My label let me work out what I wanted to do. When I got signed, they probably thought I was going to do a real dancey thing, but I worked it out and now I’m really happy with it, and I’m happy with the people I’ve met along the way to do it with.”

There’s a real intimate feel to it – it’s all quite intricate and very intentional, I think.

“Totally, and that’s a lot to do with Dave Okumu, my producer. We became real soulmates while making this album. We were meant to write a song together – he wasn’t going to be my producer. My manager met him at a barbeque and told me I’d get on with him. I was a neurotic mess when I met him and I just said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ He found a way to let me express myself without imposing himself too much, and it felt like a therapy session, to be honest. He then came back and it made sense to me to have him be a producer 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.”

Obviously as a songwriter you’re attached to all of your material, but are there any particular songs of yours that you have more of a fondness for than others?

“‘Wildest Moments’, for sure and ‘Running’ and ‘Sweet Talk’ – I wrote them with Julio Bashmore. ‘Sweet Talk’ came first and it felt like this real release. We made it in August last year. I know a lot of my songs are quite melancholy, but it’s not intentional – my voice just sort of lends itself to that. ‘Sweet Talk’ felt like a bit of a let up from that and I liked that, it felt quite tongue in cheek and retro, in a way. I think recently, with ‘Running’, I felt confident, same with ‘Wildest Moments’. They were the last ones I wrote, really.

‘Taking Water’ has become really important because it’s very personal – it’s about my little brother. It wasn’t going to be on my album. I wrote it very early on and it got forgotten about and then it felt like a really important song to me with the storytelling in it and I couldn’t let it go so we added it later on, but I’m happy it made the album because I feel like it’s an important part of it.”

Do you listen to music while you write and record, or do you find that distracting? What have you been listening to lately?

“I haven’t been writing because I’m too busy working the album, doing interviews and my schedule is really busy at the moment, but it definitely helped this album. Bon Iver I was listening to a lot, just kind of his imagery helped me. And I listned to a lot of Annie Lennox and Prince, and I love the kind of grooves in their stuff. I think it definitely helps. Whether it’s a line that makes you think, oh, that’s interesting or like, I didn’t see it like that… I feel like Feist is one of the best songwriters and storytellers about. I don’t know, yeah, I’m definitely influenced by a lot of people. I think it’s inspiring.

Who have I been listening to recently? There’s an amazing jazz singer called Melody Gardot and I just downloaded the Frank Ocean album but I haven’t had a bloody moment to listen to it – I’m going to on the plane tomorrow. Is it good?”

It’s amazing – but you have to listen to the whole thing at once, don’t do it until you have time!

“Yeah, that’s what I want to do! I’m definitely going to on the plane. I heard ‘Sierra Leonne’ and I love it. But you have to check out The Invisible – my producer Dave, that’s his band. Their album Rispah is named after his mum, who died last year. It’s one where you have to listen to it all. It’s beautiful and it’s heartbreaking but it’s so amazing. He produced my album and I feel like his work with his own band is beautiful and so amazing, so write it down! Oh, and I just started listening to Jackson Browne, actually, and Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted and Black is a really good album, isn’t it?”

An amazing one!

“I know, right?”

The album is out next month – obviously in the UK, but any plans to bring things Stateside? 

“The album is going to be released at the same time on iTunes everywhere. The hard copy will come to America later. I’m hoping to come to America later this year and do a gig, maybe in New York. I need to make sure I gain fans here first, though. People can jump ship, you know, and I have work to put in here with touring so I think we’re not going to rush coming to America. It has to make sense, it can’t just be for a jolly. That’s what we’ve done the whole album – it’s been really thought out, from the artwork to picking the songs to the videos. I’m not just gonna… it’s a big thing, so I want to take my time and establish things. I don’t want to play to a half empty room, either! But yeah, it will be on iTunes the same time, and hopefully I’ll be in America early next year or at the end of this year.”

Right, final question. Who are your dream collaborations?

“I think I’d love to write with Frank Ocean, I think he’s wonderful. He’s sensitive and like, does what he wants and is very unique. I did a cover of Bobby Caldwell ‘What You Won’t Do For Love’ and I’d love to write with him – I think he does great songs. I’d love to write with Burt Bacharach. I’d like to have a song produced by Kanye West, I think that’d be pretty cool. I seem to just want to work with American people. I’m so into this like, American R&B when I was younger and hip hop, it all felt so f**king cool to me. I don’t know, I love it. It’s so particular, don’t you think?”

Well, exactly, that’s what I grew up on as well. There’s nothing else like it.

“That’s totally it.”

Find more from Jessie Ware on her website, Facebook page or follow her on Twitter @Jessie_Ware.