Jessie Ware emerges from the recording studio looking stylish in red Prada wedges, tailored black trousers and an oversized navy shirt. Her dark brown hair is pulled up casually into her trademark bun, showing off a pair of small gold hoop earrings. She’s just finished a jam session at the Red Bull Studios London with house producer Julio Bashmore. “We try and get in together and mess about when we have any free time, which is less and less often these days,” she says, in an accent that’s equal parts private schooling and her Brixton roots.
She is free now, however, to talk about making music, something she hasn’t done for a while. She’s spent the best part of the last 12 months writing and recording her forthcoming album, Tough Love, here with Bashmore among others, just a short commute from her south London home, and in New York with artists including hit-making production heavyweights BenZel. With a release date imminent, the spotlight is firmly back on Ware. “I feel a bit out of practice,” she says, with a grin. “It’s nice to be back at work, though. I mean, I know making an album is technically work, but it feels like very indulgent work. Publicity feels more like the nitty-gritty stuff.”
She hasn’t lost the art of conversation, though. Turns out she loves to talk almost as much as she oves to sing. She’s in full flow before she’s even sat down on a large leather sofa, her chatter peppered with words your grandmother wouldn’t like, and a warm, melodic laugh which hints at the soulful vocal that’s made Red Bull Studios London something of a second home. Ware recorded her debut album, Devotion, here in 2012, a collection of sophisticated, down-tempo soul-pop. It was her first solo offering after hitting the mainstream in 2011 with vocals on EDM hits for SBTRKT and Sampha, and its accessible mix of love songs with a dance aesthetic made Ware an instant hit with public and critics. Mercury Prize and Brit nominations followed, and A-list fans including Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Beyoncé’s little sister, Solange. Not bad for a south Londoner who never planned on being a pop star.
“I was going to be either a social worker, a journalist or a family solicitor,” says Ware, now curled up in a corner of the sofa, head resting on a pillow like she’s in her living room. “I tried journalism for a bit, then I worked at a solicitors’ in Peckham.” These were perhaps logical callings given that Ware was born to a social worker mother and a BBC Panorama reporter father. But she was the child who dreamt of normality and got stardom. Her break came via singer Jack Peñate, when they both attended the pro-arts independent school Alleyn’s, a launch pad for talent including Jude Law and Florence Welch.
“I’d never had the guts to make a go of singing on my own,” says Ware. “But when Jack asked if I’d sing backing vocals for him on his tour, I said yes straight away. I didn’t have that hunger for it to be ‘me, me, me’, I really just loved singing on stage. It was when I was singing these big belty bits in songs with Man Like Me, my friends from London and people were cheering me and enjoying it, that I thought, ‘Maybe if I had my own song…’ That was when I started to think it could be possible to make it as a solo artist. It’s bizarre how it happened, and that it’s happened a bit later in life.”
While fellow Londoners Adele and Welch were music biz aficionados in their teens, 29-year-old Ware has the excitable air of someone still surprised by the furnishings of fame. “I still get massively starstruck, like when Russell Crowe tweets me to say he loves my songs, and then turns up backstage at my Sydney gig,” she says, widening her brown eyes for emphasis. “Or when Katy Perry came to a US gig, it’s like ‘Woah’, it’s so weird that she knows about me, let alone her coming to give me a hug at the end of the night.”
This down-to-earth attitude makes it easy to like Ware. She’s part effortlessly cool music star and part everywoman, worrying about her outfits and pinching herself to make sure all this is real. She’s also able to make constant self-deprecation very funny, in a way only someone as gorgeous as her, with her big, perfectly groomed eyebrows and infectious smile, can get away with.
“I think I’ve got foot-in-mouth syndrome,” she says. “Verbal diarrhoea. Whenever I meet someone well-known I make an absolute fool out of myself one way or another. I met Chance The Rapper, who I’d actually love to work with. I was watching Sam Smith from the side of the stage, wolf-whistling. Chance leaned over and introduced himself, and went to shake my hand. I went, ‘Don’t touch that hand because it’s got loads of spit on it.’ He just looked at me like, ‘Who is this girl, and why does she have a spitty hand?’
Ware’s uncouth approach to social situations may be permanent, but four years of musical success and a growing army of high-profile fans have changed her for the better. “I’ve given up with the [adopts sweet, high voice] ‘Oh I’m going to try to be a pop star,’” she says. “It all feels more natural for me now. It’s definitely my work, and I’m really, really happy it is what I do for work. Now it feels much more like reality than Stars In Their Eyes.”
Ware has spoken in the past about her terror when faced with songwriting for the first time, her self-consciousness keeping her from handing her notebook over to the artists tasked with helping her. Before she had success with self-penned tracks like Wildest Moments, a song that became part of the summer of sport soundtrack in 2012, and which Taylor Swift has described as “her everything”, she’d often leave writing sessions in tears. Talking about her second album, it’s clear the angst has been banished. “I’ve definitely found more confidence,” she says. “I was so petrified making the first record, and that stopped me being creative. I’ve just stopped freaking out so much about songwriting, I got bored of hearing myself saying sorry and ‘I can’t do it’. It’s all felt more relaxed. And I’ve pushed myself. There’s a lot less reverb on this album, which we all agreed was like weaning me off an effing dummy!”
If making Devotion was a learning curve, it was about as successful as they come. An array of writers, singers and producers became Ware fans, both in the UK and abroad, meaning she had her pick of artists to work with this time around: songwriter-of-the-moment Ed Sheeran and Californian R&B superstar-in-the-making Miguel among them. “There’s something really nice the second time when you feel that some of your peers like what you’re doing,” she says. “It’s opened up all sorts of options, which is so lucky. Working with someone like Miguel was great, I loved his record. Then Ed Sheeran is so talented… There are loads of great people in the mix. It feels like I’ve joined the music club. It validates you, makes you feel like you belong.”
The new album doesn’t depart drastically from Ware’s signature sound, but on title track and first single Tough Love, a beautiful Prince-esque BenZel production, she pushes the vocal out of her comfort zone. “I haven’t done any of the performing yet,” she says. “I’m really excited about it, but a bit scared too, as I’ve chosen a few songs that are very high. Tough Love is quite impossible to sing. On a good day I can manage it in the shower. I blatantly won’t perform it live in the same octave. It will still be high, but I’ll sound more like a seal than a dolphin. I won’t feel bad, because Michael Jackson didn’t do all his live stuff in the same octave, and neither did Hanson. Though that was because their voices broke.”
When Ware isn’t touring, recording or travelling, she’s home at the ground-floor flat in Herne Hill she shares with husband Sam, a school teacher. They met at primary school, started dating aged 18 and got married on a Greek island in August. He is a big part of the reason, Ware says, she won’t become a diva. “I’ve had moments where I’ve been a bit of a madam,” she says, “but I like to think I’m pretty grounded. Sam doesn’t really know what I’m doing day-to-day. He’s not that interested. He’s proud of me, but he does his thing and I do mine. He’ll be like, ‘Shall we go to Chicken Shop on Sunday? And I’m like, ‘Well no, because I’m going to LA, I told you.’ His mum listens to Radio 1 and will call him up saying, ‘Annie Mac played Tough Love!’ I think he finds it all quite funny.”
Another grounding factor is that Ware isn’t the only famous sibling in her family. Ware’s sister Hannah, 22 months her senior, was first to set the trend of planning on a normal career that ends up in the limelight. She had wanted to become an architect, but is now a successful actress in the US, working on primetime TV series and taking movie parts. Hannah and her sister are close despite their now long-distance relationship. “But when we were young she was horrible to me,” says Ware. “We still bicker today.” What they argue about has changed. A recent spat involved Hannah announcing Ware’s engagement on live TV. “She was on the Jimmy Kimmel show and told him about it.” Ware still looks incredulous months after the occasion. “What’s worse is she got it all wrong and said we were having a nautical theme! We had words after that. It still feels a bit crazy that she’s an actress and I’m a singer. We’d never have imagined it.”
While fame may still seem like a strange new world, there’s no doubt Ware is starting to enjoy the unexpected perks of her job. “Last time I was in the US I couldn’t find any Marmite,” she says, “so I put out a tweet asking if anyone could find me some. Then every show after that someone bought me Marmite. I had so much of the stuff! When I realised how well that worked, I started saying ‘ooh I fancy a really good Californian red’ so got a few of those too! It’s funny what you can do. Maybe next time I’ll ask for a pug.”
Tough Love is out on October 6: redbullstudios.com/london