Jessie Ware’s 2012 debut record Devotion was a wonderful, romantic, smooth as hell R&B album; her follow-up, Tough Love, is packed with just as many lovely, dynamic, powerful, restrained, beautiful songs. To put it simply: We are hooked. Vulture spoke to Jessie Ware about the record, working with Miguel, Ed Sheeran, and BenZel, sexy-talking breakdowns, channeling Beyoncé, and how pork buns influence her.
How was your wedding?
It was wonderful, thank you. It was gorgeous. We really had the best day. It was perfect.
What song did you have your first dance to?
It was Wayne Wonder, “No Letting Go.” Do you know that song?
I probably would if I heard it, but not by name.
You know it. When you look it up you’ll be like, “Huh?” Basically, we didn’t pick that song. It picked us, shall we say.
Why is that?
We’ve been together since we were 18, so it was a song that was on the radio a lot when we were going out. Even my mom was like, “Oh, that song always reminds me of you two.”
Is there a song of yours that you’d recommend to an engaged couple that you think would be a good first-dance song?
I think it’s so sweet, though I don’t get it, but lots of people say that “Valentine,” a song I did with Sampha, was their first dance or they walked down the aisle to it. It’s a very pretty song, but, the line is, “So will you never be my lover or my Valentine.” I’m like, “Hold on a minute. You’re getting married. Surely ‘never be my Valentine’ isn’t what you would be saying.”
That’s funny. People just hear one word and they’re like, “Close enough.”
I know. But I’m not complaining. I think it’s lovely. It makes me really happy when I get a tweet about it.
I’ve heard you say this whole being-a-pop-star thing feels like a dream or like it’s pretend. And there’s definitely a dreamlike sound to Devotion that’s not as present on this album. Does it feel more grounded?
I think so. I was more grounded and a bit more headstrong with what I wanted to do on this record. The main purpose for me was being able to make this record really feel exciting live, having toured and seen what songs work. You’re writing this song that feels very peaceful on the record, okay, great, but you also want it to be able to translate very well live. I adore performing live so much that it’s become a preoccupation.
You worked with Ed Sheeran on that song, and you also worked with Miguel on the record, who are both big pop stars and songwriters in their own right. Can you think of something specific you learned from them?
With Miguel — so, I’m very British, and we did this quite sexy tune called “Kind Of … Sometimes … Maybe,” and there’s this bit where I speak on it. And it was such a fucking ball ache for them to get me to do it. Miguel does it with such ease. Basically, the day before, he’d done all these speaking bits, and I thought it’d be really cool having me speaking on it. He was like, “Yeah, cool, just go in.” So I’m do the talking bit, and I’m just giggling all the way through. I couldn’t. I was too embarrassed. And he was like, “C’mon, Jessie. Just fucking do it.” You can even hear a giggle on the record where I’m laughing very much, ‘cause I’ve embarrassed myself very much. So I’ve learned from him to be a bit fearless.
With Ed, I fully appreciated what an incredible songwriter he is. With both, I learned from their sense of self-confidence. It’s absolutely not arrogance, it’s total self-belief, which is so attractive and inspiring to me, who hasn’t always believed in myself totally. They look like they enjoy it so much. I’m such a worrier, and I stop myself from enjoying things because I’m already worrying about the next thing, when I should just enjoy.
How did you decide to move away from the doubled vocals?
That was not my idea, I can tell you that. That was my producers’ idea. They were like, “C’mon. Why do you hide behind reverb when you can sing?” And I was like, “Well, I like it. Sounds smooth.” And they were like, “C’mon. Let’s hear a bit of fucking emotion. And if it cracks, it cracks.” That was my producers being the producers.
So have you now accepted it, now it’s the fact of the album?
Yeah, I was just scared of it. It’s a little revealing, but now I appreciate why they did it. I feel like people have really enjoyed that. I think. I hope.
There’s a lot more falsetto this time around. What does it mean to you, both as a singer and a songwriter?
Well, it means I’ve really shot myself on the foot if I’m being honest. Because singing high in the studio is a very different kettle of fish to singing live every night when you’re really tired. I was doing these songs at different times and really enjoying it. It was very relaxing. I didn’t have this massive work schedule that I have now. This record is definitely more testing for me, but it was definitely fun. It seemed like people were enjoying that up here when I was recording up there and I was trying these vocals. So it just became this thing for this album for me to sing higher.
There are a couple moments in “Say You Love Me,” vocally, that completely destroy me. I’m just going to say the lyrics because I don’t want to have someone hear me sing it.
Is it the [sings] “I want to feel burning flames?” That bit.
That was me trying to be Beyoncé, actually.
Do you remember that moment?
Well, it was Ed. Ed is so talented vocally, and he was pushing me — as was Miguel — with timing and phrasing. And with that one — “burning flames” — it felt like it needed a something, a little tack on the second verse. It just rolled off the tongue. I wanted it to be sassy. I wanted it to feel passionate and real, but yeah, we definitely did both click our fingers, and were like “Mm-mm,” because it was funny. It was something that surprised me. It was the last song we wrote and it feels like one of the most confident songs on the record.
So when you sing something like that live, do you focus on the lyrics, or are you in a sort thoughtless zone?
You really have to relish those moments that other people relish, too. It gets the audience to really enjoy it if you relish it with them. ‘Cause people are waiting to sing that bit, so you think about them, and you think about the words on that one. And believing it. I can sing “when you say my name” very differently. I can say it softly. I can say it sadly. I can say it sassily. You can really change it. It’s different on every night, really — how much you wanna push it. I’m gonna push it in America. I think they’ll like it.
I saw you tweeted how the Momofuku pork buns influenced your music. Can you speak more about how they influence you?
There was this really fond memory of being in New York in May with Benny and Ben [better known as BenZel, the album’s producers]. I was exhausted and having these amazing nights, just feeling really free and really excited and being in New York and going to Momofuku and then going to dance at Acme. It was a really wonderful time in my life, and it felt like the beginning of something. Also, Benny is the biggest foodie, and he loves it that I’m a foodie, too. But he’s so controlling with the menu. Usually I take the menu and I order for everyone, and Benny was like that. He’d be like, “Here’s the thing. This is what you’re having. You’re having the Momofuku pork buns and you’re also gonna have the shiitake buns. Then you’re gonna have the ramen and have the cold noodle salad, and it’s gonna be amazing. And then tomorrow, you’re gonna have the cereal milkshake from down the road.”
It’s also similar to the way you trusted him to not double your vocals. It’s like, “If you can order for me, I can take your word that I can sing this.”
Yeah. And I think Benny will definitely agree. As will Ben. Though I didn’t agree with them all the time and I fought him. But we found a happy medium and we found compromises, which were not compromises in the bad sense, but we met in the middle somewhere. You’ve gotta have a real relationship and there has to be trust on both sides.
Last question: Do you have a favorite karaoke song?
I don’t, because I find it really crap when singers sing karaoke. It’s like, “Shut up.” I decided the other day that I’d try to do a version of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” I think that’s gonna be my go-to next time. But I’d have to be really drunk. Like, I’d have to be slurring my words by the time I do that. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be good.