As one of the most popular new artists for 2012 – The Guardian tips her as “most likely to win a Brit award” – it is hard to believe that Jessie Ware very nearly didn’t go into music at all.
“I actually thought it was never going to happen, that I missed the boat… I had my sensible hat on and thought I should get a degree.” After graduating from the University of Sussex, having studied English, the prospect of being a singer was “a very distant dream”.
Her lucky break came when her best friend from school, the singer Jack Peñate, asked if she could sing the backing vocals on a session he was doing for the BBC at Maida Vale studios. “Doing that gave me a bit of confidence and gumption to try.” She jacked in her reporter job at the Jewish Chronicle, and carried on working with Jack, touring across the US. And so Jessie’s unconventional journey to pop stardom begins.
A series of fortuitous events followed. Jack’s guitarist was helping out SBTRKT (before he was SBTRKT) while they were all on tour and he played Jessie all of his early material. “I always loved dance music and vocalists on dance music and he said, ‘Why don’t you meet him to do a session?’ I was like yeah, yeah, yeah, thinking maybe it would never happen and it did and I was like oh shit, I’m here! Let’s do this! And then through SBTRKT I met Sampha.” And breathe! This led to tracks ‘Nervous’ with SBTRKT, ‘Valentine’ with Sampha and ‘Vision’ with DJ Joker.
Each track that Jessie featured on was in turn very well received and Ben and Daniel Palmer of PMR Records were fast to take note. “They scooped me up quick. I love them. I like the way they think about music and I like that it’s a family, and I feel like I’m in that family. It’s very close knit.” Was she not tempted to hold out for the major labels who would surely have soon been knocking on her door? “No, I mean PMR just made sense to me because of their roster. I’m so appreciative of them. I could have been under a lot of pressure to put out music quicker and they let me work out what kind of artist I wanted to be. Ben and Daniel are like my brothers and I’m like their annoying little sister. It means there’s no nonsense.” It is unusually refreshing to hear a pop singer talk about their team with that degree of respect, admiration and love. It sounds cliché, but they have clearly done a very good job in keeping Jessie ‘normal’.
I met Jessie on one of those anomalous early summer days when no one knows quite what to wear. She looked stunning in a black polo neck crop top, oversized tweed jacket and harem pants. “I wear a lot of black. I think I’m basically trying to mimic what my mum looked like in the 80s.” The jacket she is wearing today is her mum’s. “I’ve kind of exhausted her wardrobe. I didn’t think she was very stylish at the time but I keep on finding these gems!” she says, gesturing to the padded shoulders of the Jaeger jacket she is wearing. Her hair is slicked back in her trademark top-knot, but she’ll probably have it down in her next video – “My mum is always asking me, ‘Why do you tie up your lovely hair?’ I’m like, it’s my image mum!’” Her mum lives around the corner, and Jessie has lived the most part of her life in south London. “It used to be very different, now it’s yummy mummy central.” We count the number of glossy mums that saunter past with their prams while we are there.
Despite whatever protestations Jessie makes – she laments that the same profile shot is always used of her because she is “so boss-eyed” – Jessie is a natural in front of the camera, all cheek bones, eyebrows and elegance. “I’m quite self conscious as I’m still learning the ropes. It’s very different from being a backing singer to the spotlight being on you – you can’t hide.” I point out that in the video for her latest single ‘Running’ she has confidently mastered some 80s dance moves. Was that choreographed? “No! I don’t know where that came from. I watched a lot of Whitney Houston videos before I went and did it. She was definitely my inspiration for that. I just thought, what would Whitney do?” Surely Jessie had to do routines as a backing singer? She laughs, “I’m not very coordinated. I just about learnt how to clap and sing!”
‘Running’ is one of the most exciting releases of 2012, with elements of 80s dreamy romanticism giving it a classic timeless quality. There’s nothing else like that in the market. “It was nerve-wrecking when ‘Strangest Feeling’ first came out. It was me. It was Jessie Ware on my own. Then people liked it, and it was like, oh…this is ok! That’s why I’m so proud of ‘Running’. I was so mad about that song when I wrote it and for people to be equally into it has really reassured me as a songwriter and as an artist.” As ‘Running’ is so unique in its vocal delivery and its production, I wonder whether she set out to create a sound that no one else has claimed in the over-crowded music marketplace. She assures me that she definitely did not, and that while she had a lot of influences she “didn’t want it to be too pastiche.” “I really wanted to pay homage to the greats that I love, so if you overthink things and try to be too unique it can come out wrong. My producer always says it’s like a recipe, making a song, and it’s about getting the right amount of salt and pepper – not making it too sweet or too salty.”
Having said that ‘Running’ as a track is very distinctive, I ask whether Jessie has seen the many comments on its YouTube video. Sade fans have been angrily posting that Jessie has ripped her off. She interjects that the video was “totally paying a huge respect to Sade”, clearly keen to set the record straight. “There was nothing original about it. It was me trying to respect somebody who I think is the most wonderful singer in the world”.
So what can we expect from Jessie’s debut album? Well, it is Jessie’s creation – she has written or co-written every track. It is not going to sound like the tracks that she has featured on as a guest vocalist – “I appreciate all the stuff I’ve featured on, and I appreciate the world that I’ve come from but my mind-set has changed because I’ve had to write an album, and it doesn’t sound like that.” In fact, she doesn’t listen to a lot of dubstep or trip hop at all, instead choosing 80s and 90s soul, with a bit of Michael Kiwanuka on the side. None of her previous collaborators will feature on the record, but DJ Joker does want to collaborate again soon. It will have aspects of a retro vibe running throughout, either by “using 808s or a certain delay or reverb which gives a nostalgic feeling”. In Jessie’s words, it will be “very feminine. A lot about love, sometimes fantasy. And it’s got grooves, rather than heavy dance-led music.”
Before releasing her album, the next few months will bring a new music video, and she will be playing a lot of festivals with her band. “I’ve come from a live performance background. I love it and really want to master that in my own set”. With Jessie being somewhat of a curveball, her reception has been reassuringly supportive. “No one’s hating on me yet. Hopefully that won’t come.” And with tastemaker DJs such as Annie Mac and One Man championing her, the only way for Jessie to go is up. “People have been very nice – touch wood!”
Written originally for Disorder Magazine, April 2012