Jessie Ware Is ‘Never Going to Be a Pop Star Like Lady Gaga’
The sultry-voiced English electronic music favorite discusses the U.S. release of her debut and working with A$AP Rocky
Astute fans of British dance music have been clued in to the diamantine brilliance of London singer Jessie Ware for a while now, largely due to her appearances on tracks from electronic music heavyweights SBTRKT, Sampha, and Joker. But last year Ware stepped fully into the spotlight with her sterling solo debut, Devotion. The album proved that early singles “110%” and “Running” were no fluke, offering listeners a sumptuous mixture of R&B and relaxed dance beats in support of Ware’s pure, emotional vocals. (We dubbed the album one of the year’s 50 Best.) On April 16, Devotion finally receives an official U.S. release, accompanied by two additional tracks: the radiant “Imagine It Was Us” and a remix of album her breakout, “Wildest Moments,” featuring A$AP Rocky.
SPIN sat down with the singer at a bookstore near Manhattan’s Times Square to talk about her growing confidence, the Harlem rapper’s courteous email correspondence, and how she’ll never be like Lady Gaga.
On the U.S. release of Devotion you’ve added a new song and a remix. How do they fit in with the rest of the album? Or do they point in a new direction?
I wrote “Imagine It Was Us,” about a month ago. I thought it would be a really fun one to add to a record that came out quite melancholy. I’m a really happy person, and I just wanted to have one that was upbeat. It’s a bit more where my head’s at and what I’m thinking about for the next album.
At the risk of asking an obvious question, if you’re naturally happy why did the album come out so downbeat?
I think because I was searching and I was quite nervous. I’d written a few upbeat ones, happy ones, and it made me kind of cringe. I think it was kind of suited to something more downtempo, more minor keys.
So the new songs filled holes you saw on Devotion?
Potentially. I think I was missing the dance world a bit. I’d been playing the album a bit, and it was like, ‘What do I need in my set? What am I missing?’ [“Imagine It Was Us”] is really fun to play live.
Do you see a distinction between dance music and pop? Aren’t those lines already blurred?
For me, at the start, Katy B was really important, because she was making dance music that was being played on the radio. She opened up dance music to a more popular, universal audience, in the U.K., anyway. Then James Blake‘s “Limit to Your Love” cover — that was an extraordinarily experimental song and it was getting played on the radio. I think that people are more accepting. [U.K. bass duo] Disclosure, who remixed my track “Running,” they just opened in the Top 20 [UK Singles chart] with “White Noise” and “Latch.” It’s really cool.
What was it that first drew you to dance music?
I think there’s something very exciting about being part of a scene. I remember listening to a lot of drum and bass when I was younger. Lots of our friends, we’d go to the same clubs, the same nights. We were a team, it was very exciting. I think it was also a great way of me entering music because there was less pressure being a vocalist for somebody else. That was very good for me when I didn’t have that much confidence. And people were very generous to me — getting played in clubs, getting played on radio. I want to maintain some of that kind of experimental electronic music on my album, but I’ve also got to be true to myself. I’m not a producer. I know what I like, but I also want to be able to sing. It’s about combining the two for me.
What did you learn from working with the producers that helped bring you to prominence? I’m thinking of people like SBTRKT and Sampha.
I was kind of amazed by how much [SBTRKT] could do. He could go from being on his computer making a beat, to being a really amazing chord player — making a string quartet, using just a tiny little keyboard. I wish I was as musical as that. Our first song, “Nervous,” it was a beat he had and we sung over it. Then he made this weird breakdown that tapped into all the weird R&B things I wanted. He really taught me a lot about how to use my voice. And Sampha, he’s so experimental. I don’t have the confidence still to do this, but the way that he improvises — he’ll just start singing over a beat and make sentences up. He’s so confident in the studio, but not cocky. It comes naturally. It’s exactly where he should be.
Are producers approaching you with beats now?
It’s a mixture. For the first album it was me going to people. I think that maybe there will be more opportunities that arise now. It’s really bizarre and so flattering. But I think the most important thing is that whoever they are I get on with them and I trust them. Because I can get really get scared in the studio and I don’t trust myself. There can’t be any egos in the room.
Tell me about working with A$AP Rocky on the “Wildest Moments” remix.
I think we’d emailed before, we’d had an intro, but nothing had happened. And then I was in New York and I heard that he’d done an interview in London promoting his album, and he said that he wanted to work with me. So we sent him the track and didn’t hear back. And it was like, ‘Oh, okay, at least we tried.’ Then next thing we know, when we weren’t expecting it, his verse came in. I emailed him and thanked him and he wrote back a charming email, like, ‘Such a pleasure.’ He’s a nice guy. I work with nice people. I want to meet him. The fact that he knows who I am is just ridiculous. I feel very pleased with myself. The geeky, white Jewish girl in me is patting myself in the back and jumping up and down.
You’ve talked a lot about lacking confidence when you first started out. How did you overcome that?
I think it’s really had to do with friends, and people being really supportive and probably having more faith in me than I had in myself. And me being like, ‘Fuck, I’m in this position where lots of people aren’t and I’m very lucky, and I’m going to work hard and fight back the nerves.’ I was petrified when I got signed. You don’t want to let your friends down. And I was scared about that.
You’re clearly someone with pop ambitions. Does the fear you were just talking about enter into how you navigate your career?
What’s happening is very organic. Especially in the States. There’s such a warmth and generosity towards the music. I’m never going to be a pop star like Lady Gaga. I’m never going to be that person as much as I’d love to have a dance troupe. I want to be a respected singer, with a fucking good live show, and some really nice songs that people care about. It’s been scary moving onto this bit, but now it feels really great. It feels great that these are my songs and I make all the decisions on them. I ask people’s opinions, but it’s my baby now. I feel like I’ve been getting away with it for a while. I’m always a bit surprised when people are interested.
So you never assumed you’d get to this point?
God no. I thought I was going to bomb. But it seems to be carrying on. If I make a terrible next album, at least I had a good time this time.