Jessie Ware has come a long way from singing back-up vocals in 2009 for her friend, the English musician Jack Peñate. After studying to be a journalist in college, she entered the music industry with support from her friends, including the producer SBTRKT, with whom she wrote "Nervous," one of her earliest songs.
It's fitting that she wrote a song titled "Nervous" early on, because that's where she was at musically. After releasing "Valentine" with Sampha on Young Turks, and getting a deal with PMR Records, she approached her first album, 2012's Devotion, from a more soulful, R&B-influenced perspective than the dance music route most expected her to take. Critics rightfully compared it to Sade and Alicia Keys.
Now on her second album, titled Tough Love (released today in the U.K., Oct. 21 in the U.S.), Ware's confidence—in her vocal range and songwriting abilities—comes through even more. She wrote the album leading up to her wedding, celebrated in Greece with her high school sweetheart, and says the album's sad moments are more influenced by relationships she's witnessed over the years than her own.
While some popstars mask their collaborators, Jessie Ware celebrates and happily talks about the brilliant exchanges she has had working with other producers and songwriters. On Tough Love, she worked with Benny Blanco and Two Inch Punch (who executive produced her album), as well as Emile Haynie, Ed Sheeran, Dev Hynes, Romy from the xx, Julio Bashmore, Miguel, Sam Dew, Dave Okumu, James Ford, Nineteen85, and Tourist.
In our interview below, we discuss her growth as an artist, her forthcoming remix EP, and why Kanye West is the one person she wants to work with.
everyone has been asking—'You call it Tough Love, but you just got married.' It’s just not as autobiographical as that.
How was your wedding? Was it a welcomed break from the cycle of promoting your album?
The wedding was fabulous. We haven’t had our honeymoon yet, because I’m too busy promoting the record, so we’re going to have a honeymoon around Christmas-time.
It definitely feels like a distant memory now, because it’s been so full-on with work. But you know, I’m not complaining. I knew what I was getting into when I decided to put my album out at the same time as getting married.
You just did two shows at churches in England. Does that have anything to do with being newly married?
Definitely not! I’m Jewish, but I also didn’t get married in a synagogue. I got married in a bar.
We just wanted to make the shows feel special. It felt more decadent and a bit more inspiring playing in a beautiful church than in a dingy club. We wanted them to feel a bit more magical.
Overall, what were your thoughts, creatively, going into this album after the success of Devotion? You definitely expanded and continued what you started.
I had no expectations. All I knew is that I wanted to show what I’ve learned in the time that I’ve been a singer, and been touring, and what I’ve learned about what my fans would like. I wanted to put that into this record. Above all, I just wanted to write again, because it felt like ages; I’ve just been on tour and promoting. Really, it was an amazing time to write and think a bit bigger. I don’t mean “bigger” in the poppy sense, necessarily. I mean in showing more of myself to my audience and thinking a bit gutsier with my melodies and being a bit more direct.
Some people online say they think your new album is sad, which conflicts with your personal situation of being in love and getting married. I think that overall, it's much more celebratory than it's being given credit for.
It’s definitely less sad than the first record. It’s a question that everyone has been asking—“You call it Tough Love, but you just got married.” It’s just not as autobiographical as that. There are definitely more lighter moments than there were on the first record. That’s probably got something to do with working with Americans, to be honest.
They’re just a bit more optimistic. You know, we’re so miserable, and they see the positive. Especially Benny [Blanco], who’s half of BenZel—he’s the most positive person in the world. And actually Two Inch Punch, who isn’t American, is also really positive. So those two together, they wanted those moments. We did a song called “Champagne Kisses,” and it has a euphoric feel to it. Then you’ve got songs like “You and I (Forever)” that hopefully people will feel is a happy song. Even “Say You Love Me” is quite a sad song, but it has this triumphant breakdown to encourage people to sing along with it. We’ll see next year at the festivals.
Yeah, I remember when I saw the song title “Champagne Kisses,” I didn’t expect to hear something so triumphant and big. I thought it might be a little more intimate.
It’s supposed to be outrageously melodramatic. With a title like that, I wasn’t going to tone it down.
I’m interested in the universality of songs that can unite or divide people with what’s said. You can either relate or you totally can’t, and that’s fine.
Speaking of Benny Blanco and Two Inch Punch, why did you decide to have them, as BenZel, executive produce the album? Were they responsible for gathering a lot of the collaborators, or was that more directly from you?
I decided to write with them, because we had done a track together about three or four years ago. We just gelled, us three together. It wasn’t meant to be a session. I just took a plane to the states to see my sister and went in the studio with them one day. It was really exciting. They were just starting their duo BenZel then.
So we kept in touch. Then I was in the states again anyway, so we thought, “Why don’t we try writing together for more than a day?” We then spent two weeks together—really it was a nice excuse to be in New York for two weeks in the spring and be creative—and it felt like the start of something.
Regarding the collaborators, Benny properly introduced me, in a professional sense, to Ed Sheeran. He also introduced me to Emile Haynie, who ended up producing “Pieces.” Benny has opened things up for me, no doubt, but a lot of the collaborators on this album are from my first record. I think Miguel came onboard because I had done a remix for him, so he was kind of returning the favor and was up for working with me, Benny, and Two Inch Punch. It was all very uncontrived and fun to collaborate. We had a wishlist, and then we just got down to it.
In a previous interview, you mentioned being able to write more from witnessing other’s experiences. Has this always been the case, and how do you get yourself into a mental state of being able to write from what other people have told you?
I don’t think I have a foolproof way of writing something. I still feel relatively new to it, even though I’ve done two albums now. Regarding writing about other people, I think if I had written a whole album about my husband, I myself wouldn’t have wanted to listen to it! It’d be really dull. Like, what we’re doing now—he’s sitting across from me having a cup of tea. We’re writing some thank you cards for presents we got at our wedding. I don’t think that’d be a really good subject for a song.
I definitely don’t ignore him, though. There are a few songs about him on the record. I’m more interested in other people’s relationships, and I’m interested in the universality of songs that can unite or divide people with what’s said. You can either relate or you totally can’t, and that’s fine. I wanted to write in a more storytelling fashion.
I want to ask about two specific songs on the album, in terms of how you made them, especially “Keep on Lying,” which you did with Julio Bashmore and has a remix EP coming out with producers like Preditah and Nina Kraviz.
I love that one. We wrote it with this guy Sam Dew, who is an amazing artist. He was on the song “LoveHate Thing” with Wale. We wrote together, and there are a lot of his lush vocals in the back, along with mine.
Bashmore had this beat. I never have any doubts about Bashmore’s beats, because they’re either completely far out and weird, or they’re very direct. This one felt very nursery rhyme-y, like something you’d hear on a playground or fairground, with the way it starts. We wanted the chorus to have a choral, completely over-the-top aspect to it, which is something Bashmore and I really like to do. We wanted to really savor it and really push it. “Keep on Lying” is really fun to sing live, and we have all these remixes commissioned for it.
“Keep on Lying” completely shows where Bashmore and I can take things, and much to the credit of Sam Dew for joining our nutty world of working together. He was just amazing.
Kanye produced one of my favorite songs, which is 'You Don’t Know My Name' by Alicia Keys.
The second song I want to ask about is “Share It All.” Did that one make it on the album? You wrote it with Romy from the xx, right?
That one is on the deluxe edition. I wanted to write with Romy, because I love the subtlety in how she writes. I’m really inspired by her, and we’ve grown closer in the last few years.
Romy pretty much wrote this song for me. She had this really rough sketch of it, and the second verse wasn’t sorted, but I just loved it already. It was very much how “Devotion” came about. We talked about what we wanted to do, and bless her, I came into the studio, and she said, “I have this thing for you, don’t worry if you don’t like it.”
It was very, very simple; she had been doing it on GarageBand, I think. She programmed the beat, which was new for her to do. I love how the guitar comes in. After working on it together, I thought it’d be perfect to get Bashmore involved, because it’s interesting what Bashmore can do. He took Romy’s beat idea and put some Bashmore stuff on it. It was a real pleasure. I want to work with Romy again.
Were these songs recorded in England or elsewhere? I know the remixes were recorded globally.
Both “Keep on Lying” and “Share It All” were recorded in England at Red Bull Studios in London. I did my first record at Red Bull Studios in London, and now we’ve opened it up for the “Keep on Lying” remix to go to all the different Red Bull Studios around Europe and the states. They’ve been really good to me.
Why is Kanye West the one person you want to collaborate with?
I need to chill out on that. I mean, he’s amazing. He’s a pioneer, and he pushes himself and his sound. I respect that, and I’m excited by his music. He produced one of my favorite songs, which is “You Don’t Know My Name” by Alicia Keys.
I don’t know if we’d get along in the studio, because I talk too much, but I find him very intriguing. I love 808s and Heartbreak, and I love My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There are moments I hear Sade, like on “Say You Will.” It sounds like an expansion of a Sade song. I really love his melodies from a singing and songwriting standpoint. The kinds of melancholy and yearning, like on “Runaway,” make me feel something, and I love them.
I wanted to ask about the visual aspect of your music. I can tell you put a lot of effort into your music videos to make them artistic and cohesive, as opposed to just relying on exposing your body, which is the default move in pop videos these days. How have you chosen your visual collaborators, from Kate Moross to Tell No One?
I don’t want my music videos to be the be-all to my music, because they’re secondary to what is hopefully a good song, first and foremost. But I do think that they can enhance something and help people understand a song better.
It was such a pleasure to work with Kate Moross on the first record, and she really helped me show my ideas. I liked the simplicity, and I wanted it to be quite simple, but I always have a total say in it. I think it would look mad if I was scantily dressed—not to say people shouldn’t do it, but it wouldn’t suit me. I wear clothes that will make me feel strong, and empowered, and comfortable, so I would never put myself in something I wouldn’t usually wear. I’m a suited and booted kind of girl. I definitely wouldn’t feel comfortable, and I don’t think that would be relatable to me as an artist.
Never say never. If I really felt like I needed to wear a bikini in a video to get my point across, so be it, but so far I’ve never felt the need to do that kind of stuff.
Have you already started thinking about your third album, or are you very focused on this one and touring?
I’ve started to think about it, but there’s really just no time. I want to write about it at the end of the year, so we’ll see. I’m still trying to enjoy this.
Bonus Question: What’s your favorite dish at Momofuku?
I love all the buns. I like the mushroom one, the shrimp one, and the pork one. I get one of each of them. I also really like their cold noodle dishes and their ramen, as well. That’s where I’m going when I get to New York, straight away!