Ten years ago, some hours after Jessie Ware had played the John Peel tent for her debut at Glastonbury, she found herself at the festival’s infamous late-night South East Corner at what was then Lost Vagueness, now Shangri-La. “I was probably a bit worse for wear, and it was really late. Skream and Disclosure were playing. I was like, ‘Come on, give me the mic, guys.’ And Howard (Lawrence, one half of Disclosure) was like, ‘Babe, you’re not doing it. Absolutely not.’ And thank God, they didn’t let me,” Ware’s eyes widen at the prospect of a narrowly avoided career mishap during those more hedonistic days when she wasn’t balancing family life with three kids and a number 1 podcast alongside her own flourishing music career.
“We would be like family, and we’d have so much fun together. We’d always find each other at the end of the night,” recalls Ware of a time when her and her labelmates were on the cusp of breaking through and winning mainstream success.
A few years earlier, Ware was cutting her teeth as a backing singer for childhood friend Jack Peñate, when the chance to tour the US came along. On the advice of her mum, Ware delayed her plans to start law school: “Go and have fun,” her mum instructed. So, she did. It was all “pretty low-budget”. “We were staying in motels and sharing rooms,” Ware says of what then felt like the least sensible thing she’d ever done. “I felt like it was something that I could tell my kids, that I’d done this mad thing. And then it kind of kept on going. So, what was just about having an experience with my best mate turned into a career.”
One of Peñate’s bandmates, Tic, introduced Ware to Aaron Jerome, aka SBTRKT, which resulted in them collaborating on 2010’s ‘Nervous’; then she hooked up with Sampha for ‘Valentine’, which was released two years later. By the time she was on stage at Glastonbury, Ware was officially a solo recording artist, having debuted her celebrated first album Devotion, a sublime record that fused soulful pop with R’n’B, which deservedly earned her a Mercury Music Prize nomination. The delicate melodies of songs like ‘Wildest Moments’ were a world away from her teenage raving years when she was hitting drum’n’bass clubs and where she would meet her husband.
“I remember there being this beautiful moment when my first record had come out, and I had been at one of Disclosure’s first gigs because my mate had put them on in Brixton,” says Ware. “I said to my label PMR, ‘I think you should check these boys out.’ And they ended up signing them, and then that led to Disclosure remixing ‘Running’, ‘Running’ becoming this huge thing for me, then me going on a Disclosure record, and all of us playing around the festivals. Because they’d always be on a bit later, after my sets, I’d be jumping on their set to go do a thing. It was this energy.” Meanwhile, Julio Bashmore, who produced ‘Running’ along with other standout tracks on Devotion, would be playing another tent. “I remember it just feeling like we were this big family: me, PMR, Julio Bashmore, Disclosure. It had a real identity. We were having so much fun. It went from kind of underground to us becoming slightly more mainstream, and then absolutely killing it.”
From Ibiza to Coachella, their stars were in the ascendant, and not just in the UK and Europe, but globally. “Coachella was a bit mad. I was really exhausted. I’d been going flat out,” says Ware. “The day before Coachella, I’d turned my foot and I was really just knackered. So, I went on stage with this kind of walking stick, which was not the way that I intended to go on to Coachella. But I had this huge amount of people in the crowd that it was amazing. And then Disclosure played the same tent. So, I hopped on later. That was beautiful.”
If you’d told Ware during one of those more riotous nights that a decade later she would be performing to a crowd of 20,000 screaming Harry Styles fans for five nights in Chicago, she’d likely look at you with a sceptical stare, which would translate as a stern: “Fuck off!” (Bearing in mind, this was way back when Styles was in peak-boyband, One Direction mode, and not the beloved British pop prince he now is.) Her assumed reaction is no slight to Styles. It’s simply that Jessie Ware has had a peculiar journey from backing singer, to unsure solo artist before establishing herself as one of the UK’s most respected vocalists and unassuming pop stars.
When I meet Ware at Chicago’s United Center arena in October 2022, she is riding high off that summer’s release of ‘Free Yourself’, the first single from her forthcoming fifth album, That! Feels Good!. A storming call to hit the dance floor with unbridled pride, ‘Free Yourself’ kicked off Ware’s new era by scoring a career high for first-week streams for the singer-songwriter. I join the morning’s rehearsals in the cavernous empty arena as Ware works through sound check and goes over the dance routines for what is set to be the biggest show of her career. Across the five nights, she will play to 100,000 people. Being a support artist is tough when diehard fans are really just there for the headline act, but she’s also following the likes of Wolf Alice and Wet Leg, who had supported previous legs of the tour. No pressure, then.
When we return for the main show that evening, Ware proves herself to be every bit worthy of that main stage as Styles. Even Styles’ management agree that her performance has been a highlight of his touring support acts, with Ware’s club-ready hits and pristine vocals filling an auditorium comprising young teen girls, mums and queer fans. Pink feather boas flutter overhead in an arena awash with glow sticks, a stark contrast to Ware, who is dressed in black while displaying her dominatrix persona with full-on whip-cracking moments during album title track ‘What’s Your Pleasure?’. After each song, the crowd responds with rapturous applause. Everybody is on their feet – even if the younger kids don’t know the music, the hooks and melodies have them dancing. On night two, she takes to the stage and holds her own on a duet with Styles on ‘Cinema’, one of the finest cuts from his Harry’s House album.
During her Chicago run, Ware takes a detour from the arena and indulges her club roots. I’m at Berlin, a club in Nothalsted, the city’s LGBTQ+ district formerly known as Boystown. Around the size of your average London flat, the club is small but packed to popping with fans who know that tonight Jessie Ware will be performing. When she comes on stage, the crowd erupts in appreciation, showering her in dollar bills – a tradition in the USA – as she works her way through a set that includes single ‘What’s Your Pleasure?’ with that whip and ‘Free Yourself’. “From going and supporting Harry in an arena in front of 20,000 people and then going to this, it felt just as loud as the arena. It was a bit grimy… it was a lot of fun,” Ware says with glee.
The next time Jessie and I meet, we’re a world away from Berlin club in Chicago at BBC’s esteemed Maida Vale Studios. She’s here recording for Radio 2’s Piano Room sessions, performing ‘Free Yourself,’ a stripped-back cover of Cher’s ‘Believe’ and the debut live performance of second single ‘Pearls’, with a full orchestra. Gone is the shiny catsuit from the gay club, here Ware is demurely dressed in black trousers with a gold top. After the recording, she’s still clearly buzzing from singing ‘Pearls’ live for the first time, and particularly pleased to have nailed the high notes that come in during its crescendo. “I was like, ‘Fuck, I really hope that I can do it live.’ Of course, I sing live, but it’s that new thing of… you sing it once in the studio, maybe twice, if you’re kind of redoing it. But being able to have that muscle memory, being able to practise it, that’s something else,” she says as she kicks off her shoes and takes a sip of water.
“That was what was so nice about being on tour with Harry Styles. It came at the end of the touring cycle for What’s Your Pleasure?, where I felt so comfortable with the songs and the show. When people come to a show, you want them to escape for a bit. And they were not there for me, they were there for Harry Styles, but I wanted to get them a bit more. And they were wonderful. It makes you work hard, and have to check yourself a bit,” she says humbly.
The gratitude is genuine. Five years ago, Ware was at a painful crossroads where she almost walked away from music. After the lukewarm reception to third album, Glasshouse, losing money on a US tour that followed its release, topped off by a disappointing return to Coachella when her set clashed with that of Cardi B at the height of Cardimania, she felt unsure of her place in the music industry.
Those early years of balancing being a mother for the first time with an unrelenting and demanding career felt insurmountable. “I struggled with that when I had my first daughter, and I wrote about that in the music, and nobody really wanted to hear about it. And that’s OK, I accept that. I am still am really proud of what I did,” she affirms. “There’s a song on Glasshouse, ‘Thinking About You’, I almost can’t listen to it because it’s about me working too much, my daughter, and me not being there. I think she was probably about a year [old], and she knows it’s about her. It’s quite a celebratory chorus. But I just want to cry when I hear it, because I feel so wretched. It’s just a different time.”
Torn between the desire to be present as a parent and giving her music the time she felt it needed was challenging to say the least. “I was in a bad place. I was trying to please everybody, and trying to do everything,” Ware says of the self-reflection that followed. “I think I was not allowing my ideas to be heard loud enough. I think being a parent changed things. I’ve always been involved in my music, but I think I became a bit more no-nonsense. I managed to find a way that I could work that really suited me, that was really focused. And actually, even though I’ve got loads more that I’m doing now, with the podcast, doing books or making music, it weirdly feels far more balanced now. I’m just happier, I think.”
One saving grace came along in the form of her Table Manners podcast in 2017. Hosted with her mother Lennie, it has featured star guests like Dolly Parton, P!nk and Andy Serkis all sharing their earliest memories of food and how it brought their friends and family together, and is made all the more enjoyable by Ware’s relationship with her inquisitive mum. The series became a massive hit, with over 50 million listens to date. Following a change of management and a move to a new label, Ware had the reset she needed for her music, too: “I wanted to escape from all of that. I was bored of talking about myself.”
The first step was to connect with a new creative crew. Ware was set up by her management on a ‘blind date’ with new writing partners Danny Parker and Shungudzo Kuyimba in Los Angeles. They hit it off instantly. “We have such a kind of open, beautiful relationship. I found real friendships with those two. I trust them implicitly. I love our conversations. I love the worlds that we create,” Ware says of their creative synthesis. “Shun is a master with words and poetry. Our chemistry together, it just works. Shun, Danny and I are like the Holy Trinity when it comes to making my best music. I think we’ll work together for my whole career.” Along with producer James Ford, they crafted one of 2020’s finest albums, What’s Your Pleasure?, a seductive journey inspired by late-night clubbing and overnight love affairs. It exudes a sensual, erotic passion that propelled Ware back into music consciousness, hitting top 3 on the album charts.
It was the revival Ware needed to reinvigorate her love of singing and performing. The closing song on the album, ‘Remember Where You Are’, embraces a more retro, soulful sound. Written in reaction to the negative events of the real world happening at the time, from Trump’s election to the Covid pandemic, it found a whole new audience when Barack Obama listed it on his famous end-of-year playlist in December 2020. Quite the result for a track that almost never made the final cut. “I toyed with waiting to put that on the new record, and I didn’t because I was like, ‘No, I don’t need to bank it. It can finish the album.’ That’s why it was the last song on the record, that’s where the story was supposed to continue to the next album,” Ware says of the epic closing track that would become a precursor to That! Feels Good!.
After the critical and commercial success of What’s Your Pleasure?, Ware found herself ready to embrace a new identity, diving deeper into the soulful grooves of disco and dance. She listened to the music of Earth, Wind & Fire, Grace Jones, Prince, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, Rotary Connection, Teena Marie, The B-52’s and Blondie to infuse her new direction. “It was about not repeating What’s Your Pleasure?, so ‘Remember Where You Are’ was the starting point of a more live, luscious, groove-led sound, which is a bit of a bugger when you don’t have the budget for loads more instruments, live,” says Ware of the new record’s conception.
The first sessions were done during lockdown with Ware and James Ford in his home loft studio in Hackney, where they collaborated with What’s Your Pleasure? co-writers Kuyimba and Parker via video link. “We’d start the session at four in the afternoon, and they’d be getting up from LA, with a coffee. It shouldn’t have worked. It was really awkward. Totally…” she pauses, searching for a word…
“Inorganic?” I offer.
“Totally,” Jessie concurs. “It was exactly what I didn’t want. But, because I’d done the record with them before, because we had this world we’d created and we felt so comfortable, I could have only done that with them. We’d have this thing where they could hear the music at the same time as us, but we were all a bit delayed, so we couldn’t sing over each other because it would just be a fucking catastrophe. So, then we’d all have to silence ourselves, and send voice notes of our ideas. It was incredibly long-winded, rather than being in the room and being like, ‘Oh, I love that bit. Let’s go there.’”
The first song they created would become the album’s third – and current – single, ‘Begin Again’, which, lyrically and thematically, echoed the physical experience of recording. “There’s that tension in it with the lyric “I work all night”. And maybe it was just because I was fucking tired, but there’s the line in it: “Why does all the purest love get filtered through machines?” It felt like there was this barrier, a frustration. But it had all the elements of what I needed and wanted.”
Ware breathed a sigh of relief when Kuyimba was able to fly over from the USA. ‘Finally, this is going to be perfect,’ she thought. And then Ford got COVID and gave it to Kuyimba. Restrictions meant they were forced to isolate. “We were back on bloody Zoom, but at least there wasn’t the time difference. It really was not the romantic story that I wanted. However, I think it shows the strength of our working relationship together, and also maybe having that longing for these live moments amplified the beauty in it.”
They needn’t have worried – the result is a collection of songs that imbue a kind of ethereal energy that floats effortlessly through the album, each track gloriously distinct from the next, while maintaining an elegant, cohesive quality that concept albums can fall short of. “I’m in my Age of Aquarius,” Jessie beams, embracing the power of the astrological era that promises revelation, truth, an expansion of consciousness and enlightenment to humanity.
“I feel the most confident I’ve ever felt, stepping into making music,” says Ware. “I really want to celebrate the beauty of an album, and what an album can represent. I really appreciate the traction I get off streaming sites, and all of that. It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong. But the romantic in me wanted that person to put this album on their vinyl, and just listen to it. And that’s it. I want to be able to cherish that experience, and savour that.”
They recorded a number of tracks, before distilling it down to a neat collection of ten. Acutely aware of how these songs will also come to life, Ware had one eye on the album, and the other on bringing the music to life at her gigs. “I crave this newfound confidence performing, and I feel like the songs are brought to life in another way, and I adore that. I love theatre, I love performances,” Ware says, energised after a sell-out What’s Your Pleasure? tour and supporting Harry Styles.
Thinking about future live shows, she wanted “a kind of cousin, another character one” to ‘Ooh La La’, from the last record, which came in the form of ‘Shake the Bottle’, a song that brims with attitude while recounting a series of affairs through various fictional stories. “It felt melodramatic, and it felt performative with the chorus,” she says. “Then it was like, ‘Well, let’s just amp this up in the verses, too.’ And maybe in the back of my mind I was thinking RuPaul’s Drag Race, maybe I was thinking ‘Lipsync for Your Life’, with these anchors of performance, musical theatre and character.”
That theatricality kicks off the new album with its title track, in which Ware ran through her phone’s contacts to enlist some seriously A-list talent. Listen closely and you’ll hear Róisín Murphy, Jamie Demetriou, Kylie, Aisling Bea and others teasing ‘That! Feels Good!’ in various intonations, from flighty and flirty to downright dirty. Even her mum made the cut. “I think probably I’d been listening to the Prince album Controversy a lot, or something. I wanted that energy. I was like, ‘Who’s a good sport? Who’s got a good voice?’ Like Barry Mulholland (CEO) at Christopher Kane. He’s got a really good Scottish accent, and he’s fucking great.
“I think it’s confident, I think it’s naughty. In my head, I want an army of pleasure-seekers… and we’re all doing it together,” she says. “I’m kind of obsessed with that feeling of togetherness.”
With the album’s first single, ‘Free Yourself’, Ware fully embraced her emancipation. “It was definitely speaking to myself, but also to that person that maybe in their daily life didn’t feel like they could be the one that’s free on the dance floor,” she says. “I quite like to tie in nods to old songs of mine. So, with the ‘please’ in the ‘please yourself’ line and in ‘That! Feels Good!’ there’s the lyric ‘pleasure is a right’, because of What’s Your Pleasure?. I like to feel like there’s a train of thought, and there’s a journey.” Production came from dance pop genius Stuart Price. “Stuart had worked with Madonna, and so she was in my mind, too. It’s hard to forget when you’re holding the same mic that Madonna recorded Confessions on a Dance Floor on to not feel like maybe you are hopefully going to be a bit blessed by something.”
Unrestrained dance-floor abandon continued with second single, ‘Pearls’. “Let it go, let me dance / And shake it ’til the pearls get lost / In romance, let’s just dance / And shake it ’til the pearls fall off”, she sings. Given the album cover artwork featuring a topless Ware looking over her shoulder while draped in a long string of pearl necklaces, one could be forgiven for wondering if there was any intended innuendo in the track? The sexually charged tone that undulated through the What’s Your Pleasure? album side-lined gratuitous sexual references for a more seductive sensuality that is rare in pop music today: “It wasn’t explicit, I think it’s all through the innuendo,” affirms Ware of that last record. So, are the pearl necklaces on That! Feels Good! just pearl necklaces, or…? “Abso-fucking-lutely not,” Ware’s eyes widen as she lets out a huge laugh. “But it can be, if somebody wants it to be. I think we realised after, what it could be. And I was like, ‘I’m not mad at that.’ While I like to always look quite classy and sophisticated, it’s also quite fun to have that little nudge, nudge, wink, wink.”
The real story behind ‘Pearls’ came about when production quartet Ware and Price with Coffee Clarence Jr. and Sarah Hudson were looking at a mother-of-pearl guitar. “We were going, ‘Shake it ’til the pearls come off,’” she clarifies, citing inspo from Evelyn Champagne King. “We wanted people to kind of start shaking their shoulders, and then it’s kind of like, ‘OK, we’re limbering up’. A kind of Teena Marie, gorgeous diva moment. But no, I did not do a song about somebody ejaculating on my chest. Absolutely not. It’s about fucking dancing, and being free,” Ware says admonishingly, her eyes channelling her inner mum and giving me a proper telling-off. Sorry, I had to ask.
We then discuss album track ‘Hello Love’, a sumptuous song that ripples with emotion. “I was listening to quite a lot of Donny Hathaway,” she says. “I like the kind of cinematic moment to that song. I also just think the sentiment is so simple. I’m proud of the song-writing, the beauty of it. I love Sheila from Kokoroko’s brass on it. It’s majestic.” Ware adds how she’d love to see the song released, perhaps as a duet. I suggest that I can instantly hear the smooth tones of Miguel or Steve Lacy alongside Ware’s floating melodies – and here we are actively manifesting this moment to life.
On ‘Beautiful People’ (produced with Kuyimba, Ford and Parker), Ware ups the ante and brings it back to the dance floor: “It’s got this kind of impatient energy. And it’s very much about that experience of being able to open those doors to a club, and the beautiful people are everywhere. That moment of feeling like you’re so part of a community, and that escapism. It’s about taking your life, putting it on hold for a moment, and just fucking dancing and enjoying yourself.” Stuart Price returns on production duties to take us later into the night with the next track, ‘Freak Me Now’: “The closest I’m getting to French house, or something like that. I feel like it’s kind of my Mousse T. ‘Horny’ moment. It’s a no-nonsense club song. It’s cheeky,” she says, before adding with a grin, “I say ‘Ootchy, cootchy,’ in it.”
Ware describes ‘Lightning’, the record’s penultimate track, as a palate cleanser. “It’s a slow jam. I’m entitled to have slow jams,” she says. “I kind of have always danced within this R&B world, and I love it. I like that I can be versatile, and it is a bit of a gear change.” Finally, album closer ‘These Lips’ has Ware teasing a lover – “It’s going to take two hearts, two hours, two more / I’m telling you, these lips can do so much more – as her voice glides over Ford’s effortless production. “It’s kind of yearning, and then it just pulls it back to be like, wink. It’s one that wants to carry on, it feels like the story’s not necessarily finished, like maybe you’ve just left that room, that dance floor, but the party’s still going on, so that’s why there’s this fade-out. I wanted the fade-out to go on for fucking ever.”
It’s Ware’s clubbing roots blended with the actual ‘at home’ insight that the Table Manners podcast serves with each episode that makes her the most unstarry pop star I’ve ever meet – in the best sense. When she arrives on set for her Rolling Stone UK cover shoot, she’s in comfy clothes, hair tied up in a bun. Within an hour, she is transformed into a disco diva worthy of the biggest stages in the world. We relocate across the road from the photo studio to The Glory, a queer club/bar in east London’s Haggerston, where she throws herself into every shot, outfit change after outfit change. This is Ware in her raw, unfiltered element: running around barefoot while glammed-up to the nines, it’s the perfect juxtaposition that is her refined elegance cut with a London-born-and-bred edge. There’s a cheeky sense of humour to match, and for all her modishness in designer flowing dresses, styled hair and striking makeup, her language is littered with more ‘fucks’ than this reinvigorated Jessie Ware could ever give now that she’s back in control. She more than once says: “Oh, maybe don’t mention that in the interview” when we stray off course into more personal matters.
There’s a moment, mid-chat, when she starts fiddling with one of the hair extensions that is bothering her. “My hair is coming out,” she declares mid-flow as we talk. “Fuck it, I’m just going to take them all out.” I can’t imagine Mariah or Beyoncé ever being so casual. “Don’t wait for me, go on,” Ware says, as she pulls out hair piece after hair piece.
How much does being a pop star mean to her? “You have no idea the amount of things that I RSVP ‘no’ to because I need to put my kids to bed or I’ve just done two podcasts, or I need a night in watching telly to finish Succession, you know what I mean?” she says. “My priority is my family, my work is obviously very, very important. But and that’s why when we went through the diary, I kind of took a breath and I was like, ‘I’m not going to be at many pickups and drop-offs at school’ and I feel really guilty about that. But then also, you only put out a record every few years.”
Away from the slick music and that undeniably emotive voice, this everyday personable nature is what gives Ware that highly sought-after and rarely delivered authentic quality in the music industry: relatability. In February, she was hanging out on the dance floor at Body Movements at London’s Printworks. Earlier this month, she was on holiday with her family, befriending strangers by the pool at the Almyra Hotel in Paphos, Cyprus.
Her parents’ divorce when she was a child was a clear indicator of the kind of adult life that Ware wanted for herself. “It definitely made me decide that I didn’t want to replicate that. I met my childhood sweetheart, and we’ve been together since we were 18,” Ware says of her relationship with Sam, with whom she shares three kids. “I think I’ve always been very mindful of how positive our relationship is without being saccharine at all. Like, of course, it’s not always perfect, but I have a lot of respect for him and with how he supports me.”
Their relationship is almost too picture-perfect even for a Disney film. The pair attended primary school together, although they weren’t close friends, then years later would see each other at drum’n’bass clubs when they were 16. And then she fell for him aged 17. “I pursued him for about six months to try and get a date. I told him that he couldn’t come to my 18th birthday party, because the guest list was full. My mum would kill me if I had any more people. And then the following year, we went on a date on Streatham High Road and the rest is history.
“He’s calm, he is the coolest person I know. He’s always been the coolest person. It’s quite effortless. And he’s got a way with words where he kind of says something so concisely. Whereas I sound really, like, hysterical or rude or something. He says it so matter-of-factly. He’s wonderful. He’s amazing. I’m not allowed to pull any diva shit with him. Like, I just look like an idiot. Because he’d be like, ‘Hang on, who are you?’”
Last December, Ware decided to embrace her heritage by being Batmitzvahed in her mum’s living room. “I felt like I needed to have a bit more of a connection to my Judaism. I think it was probably a reaction to me growing and becoming more aware of it,” she says. “So, my reaction was, ‘Well, I’ll go be a bit more proud.’ I’m so proud to be Jewish, I love my culture. But I knew nothing. I kind of felt like I was being quite fraudulent.” The process took Ware two years to prepare for, studying at every spare moment, having Hebrew lessons, reading backstage at gigs in Brooklyn.
The goal, says Ware, was never about being religious. Instead, it was more about reclaiming an identity that she hadn’t previously embraced. “I’m not religious, [but] I do believe in something. I believe in serendipity and kismet. For me, it’s not religious, it’s ritualistic, tradition, heritage, culture. I wanted to hopefully be able to do my version of it with my family and my friends, whether they’re Jewish or not. I’ve kind of always been proud of it. But there was definitely a moment where I stopped wearing my star of David.”
While ‘Remember Where You Are’ touched on political and social unease in the world, Ware – who has been a vocal Labour supporter and attended Black Lives Matter protests – is even more despondent about the state of the world today. “If I think too hard, and I think about my kids’ future, then I will probably crawl into bed and despair,” she says. “I guess for me I make music that can escape all that.”
As we wrap our interview, our conversation moves to the future. “I had the idea that the next record is gonna be a really hard dance record. Or maybe it goes further into my Age of Aquarius moment,” Ware muses. “As long as it’s good, I don’t care. I’m gonna just actually really enjoy exploring and experimenting. I’m not going anywhere. I’m in it for the long haul. That’s a really new attitude for me where it feels incredibly freeing to be able to just be like, ‘I don’t need to worry, because I think I’ll be OK.’”
CREDITS:Hair -Liz Taw at The Wall Group. Photography – Mark Cant. Creative & Styling – Joseph Kocharian . Makeup – Francesca Brasso at The Wall Group. Fashion Assistant – Aaron Pandher. Location – The Glory, 281 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8AS