It’s a sizzling day in suburban south London and Jessie Ware is still in holiday mode. She strolls in her back garden, grass between her toes, occasionally ferrying loose tea, fresh fruit and a range of Brixton-bought baked goods from the kitchen. She offers a slice of something full of cheese and courgettes. “This is what a slow-burning debut album can get you,” she giggles, “proper quiche.”
Right now, Jessie’s life is in a rare moment of calm – but that’s all about to change. In a few hours, “Tough Love”, her first new single in two years will debut on Radio 1 as Zane Lowe’s hottest record in the world. It will turn the ignition on a hectic schedule leading up to the release of her second album this Autumn. On top of all the promo, shows and finishing touches the next few weeks entails, Jessie is also getting married.
Most of us want to curl up on the day before we go back to work. Does she get those pangs of back-to-reality angst?
“Nahh,” she cackles, with the same gleeful enthusiasm she had when discussing her first single. “I’m very aware that I haven’t had an album out for a couple of years. I wanted to get this record done and get it out. Actually, this whole time I’ve been waiting for people to hear these songs. I can’t wait.”
This hunger to be heard is a relatively new trait for Jessie. When she first started singing she side-stepped the glare of the spotlight, initially performing as a featured artist on club tracks by SBTRKT and Joker, preferring alliance over eminence.
But that all changed in 2012 with the release of her debut album Devotion. Recorded with little fanfare in low-key sessions with Dave Okumu of The Invisible, it became one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year, lauded by everyone from Pitchfork to Heat Magazine and nominated for the Mercury Prize. Plaudits were followed by an ever-expanding fanbase, meaning Ware was constantly on tour as she gained millions of new devotees from across the world. Those new fans included the biggest stars in the world, with everyone from Katy Perry to Taylor Swift piling on the praise.
In fact it was the mania of Jessie’s schedule that led to “Tough Love”’s creation. It was written last May, “after a really gruelling period of shows, to the point where I had just completely run out of energy.” Ware took a breather for a few weeks in New York and began working on this understated, sore love song, where attraction and heartbreak are ambiguous.
“It’s been an interesting year,” she says. “I got engaged, I’ve had all these new experiences. And there’s some of that on the record, but I still wanted to return to that theme from the first record of unrequited love. I was drawing on a lot of past experiences, cleansing myself of those demons. Even songs I thought I’d imagined on the day, I now totally realise that they’re about a certain boy or a certain time. I’m trying to get this all out before I’m going to be a happily married woman.”
The record’s executive producers are BenZell (a new production duo made up of PMR labelmate Two Inch Punch and Katy Perry and Ke$ha super-producer Benny Blanco). As is always the way with Jessie, those that were let inside the process quickly became family – “Benny’s just become an annoying older brother. I spent passover with them in Long Island, it was comforting to see how similar his family were to mine.”
You can hear the leaps in production and songwriting that come with experience and an expanded team. While the record still draws on the suave, svelte palette of synths and bass heard on Devotion, they’re combined with more confident choruses and lush arrangements. Jessie’s stunning vocal is brought to the fore – it often feels she’s whispering right in your ear
Devotion collaborators Dave Okumu and James Ford worked with Jessie again, but there are also a few household names on the record this time round. Miguel, who had previously worked with Jessie on her remix of his track “Adorn”, wrote with her on a string of sessions in the US. A long cry from her makeshift studio in Okumu’s Lewisham front room, he would bring R&B royalty in to hear their work – J.Cole could be seen poking his head round the door.
“Oh god and there was one night with Miguel, where we were celebrating a song with a whiskey reference in by drinking loads of whiskey. The next morning we recorded ‘You and I Forever’ and I was so hungover I could only manage the softest vocal – with a splitting headache and a bottle of gatorade in my hand.”
It’s one of the most honest songs on the record, “about the frustration of my boyfriend not asking me to marry him. We waited such a long time, we’ve been going out forever. I wanted it to be this motorbike riding song, lots of yearning on an open highway.”
But the sessions with Miguel also brought out elements of fantasy and fun, of finding joy in the songwriting process and playing up to it. “Champagne Kisses” is a track the indulges in the playful side of love, with kissing sounds scattered across the chorus.
Blanco was keen to get Ed Sheeran, who he’s worked with in the past, to write with Jessie on the record, but their busy schedules made it tough. Then one night, “he happened to be in New York recording SNL at the same time as me, so we made it happen. He came round, we went down to Whole Foods, bought a couple of salads, went up to Benny’s apartment, he started playing something on the guitar and I swear we wrote the song in 30 minutes. It’s called ‘Say You Love Me’ and I had to have it on the album.”
Jessie’s got a lot to be proud of on this record – but more than a musical evolution, this also marks the beginning of Jessie Ware – not the backing singer or the club-track vocalist or the girl done good – but the star. “I can’t keep going round going ‘oh my god, this is happening.’ I feel more confident and I think that shows on the record, even the way I deliver the vocals is more upfront. Being a singer is a fucking wicked job, but it’s definitely my job now.”