Jessie Ware is a proper pop star. with her soulful, melancholy vocal, effortlessly elegant songwriting skills and, of course, that striking slicked-back hair, she marks a new era for pop. Her outstanding debut album devotion combines the ultra-modern feel of down tempo R&B and British electronic music with the melodrama of classic stars like Sade and Whitney Houston. “I’m ready and excited,” she says, of her impending stardom, before chucking in an earthy, “and I got to make a bloody lovely record, with people who are lovely, so i need to enjoy it!”
Her debut album devotion contains that effortless poise within 11 laid-back, soulful pop songs that run the spectrum of sweet and dark. “i feel like i’ve been allowed to push it with the melodrama,” she smiles. “like [early single] running was me thinking of Whitney Houston’s queen of the night and romantic film scenes from the 80s, where the guy sees the girl at the prom…” the title track, she says, is the first song she wrote with Dave Okumu from the invisible, who would become a key part of the making of the album. “that’s why i wanted the album to be called that, because it’s where it started. that’s when i felt like a singer, and could express myself in the way that i wanted, with the music i wanted.”
The upbeat nu-soul swing of sweet talk (“one of my favourite songs”) is about someone trying to pull you in even though you’re trying to stay away, sung with flirtatiousness, but also a hint of danger. night light may seem dark, with its remarkable and dense shimmering layers and lines about shadows and ghosts, but actually, Jessie says, “the essence of it is very sweet. it’s about my boyfriend, and being scared of the dark, and him just… being there.”
Devotion takes a look at other relationships, too, not just romantic ones. next single, the tentatively desperate wildest moments is of particular significance to her. “it’s about my relationship with my best friend. we love and hate each other. i never fight with anybody more than her. she’s the person who told me i was an idiot and asked me why i wasn’t singing when i have a voice, so she means a lot to me… it’s about those extremes of being amazing and awful together.” taking in water, meanwhile, all powerful choral melancholy, is a message of support for her younger brother. “i’m proud of that one because it’s really emotional. my brother was going through a hard time, and i love him dearly, and we’ve never been very good at speaking to each other, so i put it in a song. i don’t even think he’s heard it!”
Pulling it all together with a uniquely Jessie ware sound were her producers Dave Okumu,Julio Bashmore and kid harpoon. “they’ve been my three people for this album. i like that they all bring something different out in me.” but it’s Dave in particular who seemed to tease all of her potential out into the open. “i couldn’t have done the album without him,” she says. “he’s taught me so much. he reads my mind. he’s the best person in the world.”
The mania of Jessie’s schedule that ensued post release of ‘Devotion’ poetically led to the creation lead single from the new album ‘Tough Love’. 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.
Speaking about her follow up album, also called ‘Tough Love’, Jessie explains. “It’s been an interesting year, 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 around. 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.
The sessions with Miguel brought out elements of fantasy and fun, of finding joy in the songwriting process and playing up to it. “Champagne Kisses” is a track that 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.”
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