When we meet at her Manhattan hotel one breezy afternoon in August, Jessie Ware has been vegan for six days. Six days vegan, but she’s still waiting for wholesome benevolence to sink in: “I won’t say I feel bloody good!” The London-based singer-songwriter is in New York after finishing recording her third studio album, Glasshouse, which she tells me has been mastered for a grand total of about 48 hours. Her natural ability to talk openly, combined with the newness of the material, makes for a conversation as freewheeling as our afternoon. To start, we consider grabbing lunch at the iconic Lower East Side eatery Russ & Daughters, but Ware’s new dietary restrictions lead us to a compromise for sandwiches at a vegan Jewish deli before stopping for a walking food tour at the nearby, immigrant-focused Tenement Museum. They’re the two things she wanted to do most while in the city.
Five years into her solo career—her debut Devotion was released in 2012—Ware still likes to joke that she’s her fans’ “best kept secret.” This despite having worked with a range of producers and writers, from SBTRKT to Ed Sheeran, writing for and appearing on Nicki Minaj’s Pinkprint, and having a song on the soundtrack of Fifty Shades of Grey. 2014’s “Say You Love Me,” a song she wrote with Sheeran, is Ware’s best-known track; it reached No. 22 on the U.K. charts and has been covered on countless televised talent shows.
But Ware’s larger body of work floats between genres, from earlier R&B cuts like “Running” (later remixed by Disclosure) to brooding ballads like “Wildest Moments” (later remixed by ASAP Rocky), with her seductive and powerful voice as the constant. That voice has instilled a devoted following and has made Ware a critical darling, and it’s at the forefront of Glasshouse, an album that contains her most compositionally ambitious tracks and revealing lyrics yet.
Ware turns 33 on October 15—“I got signed as an older person,” she says with a grim laugh—and she’s coming off a year of intense life changes. Two years after marrying Sam Burrows, a personal trainer and her childhood sweetheart, Ware gave birth to their first child in September 2016, and she recorded much of Glasshouse with their daughter in the studio. It’s a turning point for an artist who has always written convincingly about burning desire and complicated love, to compose lyrics from such an ostensibly secure place. “I can’t be too happy,” she told BBC in 2014, a few months before her wedding, “otherwise I’ll make a very boring domesticated album.”
At the Tenement Museum, a very patient tour guide asks the crowd if we’ve ever had the experience of going out to eat and finding that a professional chef’s recipe just didn’t quite compare to our mother’s home cooking. “I get that with chicken soup,” Ware volunteers. “I always prefer my mum’s chicken soup.” What do you think the ingredient is, asks the tour guide, and Ware thinks for a moment.
“Ah,” she says, brightening. “She says it’s always, you get an old hen. You have to have an old hen’s carcass.”
Our guide looks taken aback, but she goes with it. “Okay! I always think the ingredient might be… love. I don’t know?”
“Oh yes, sorry,” Ware deadpans. “Yeah, that too.”
This sort of easygoing banter is visibly disarming to almost everyone I see Ware interact with. During our time together she appears incapable of putting on airs and is a natural at deflating those that might exist around her, thanks to good manners and a ready laugh. At Orchard Grocer, a vegan deli, she gets a shy cashier to open up about the types of vitamins she takes to offset any vegan-related fatigue; later, on our tour, she gamely interacts with the group (“Bratwurst!” she blurts out, when we’re asked to name German foods). She has wonderfully expressive eyebrows that bunch at the center of her forehead when she’s thinking, and a tendency to grab your forearm in moments of delight, or over a shared secret, like off-the-record gossip about a pop star. She curses comfortably and without apology, and within minutes of meeting her, you’re her “babe,” “man,” or “mate.” When I compliment her outfit—a blue-and-white polka-dotted blouse over satin karate pants by the New York designer Datura—she laughs it off: “I’ve graduated from sweats to still having an elastic band but with a little bit more tailoring.” She registers, outwardly and with joy, as someone who has stumbled upon this life, just happy to be here.
Before we leave our food tour at the museum, Ware breaks her aspirational veganism with a bite of soppressata and cheese. “Should I just do it?” she asks me. “I don’t give a shit.” She goes for it and cackles: “Are you so angry that I made you go to a vegan deli now?”
Glasshouse features production from Ware’s close friend and longtime collaborator Benny Blanco, as well as writing credits from Dave Okumu, the guitarist and frontman of The Invisible who wrote and produced on much of Devotion. Ware and Blanco’s families have shared Passover dinner, and she and her daughter stay at his house in L.A. when they record together. “She’s just the sickest,” says Blanco, who produced on three tracks on Glasshouse, including, with Cashmere Cat, the single “Selfish Love.” “She knows how to party, she knows how to stay in, she knows how to be an adult, she knows how to be a kid.”
“Jessie is a very lovable and accessible person,” says Okumu. “When I first met her I just thought, ‘you’re really, really cool’—in the true sense of the word, not in the kind of ‘dressed head-to-toe in black and kind of intimidating’ cool thing, but I mean like, properly cool.” He appreciates how that bleeds into her music, too: “There’s a part of Jessie that’s as accessible as, like, a Disney song, and then there’s a part of her that’s fully kind of engaged with the other side of things. That’s what I really love about her.”
Ware’s social and professional adaptability might have something to do with her fairly nontraditional career path. She grew up in London, daughter to John, a former reporter for BBC Panorama, and Helena, a social worker who raised their children Jewish. (Her older sister, Hannah Ware, is a successful actress; she also has a brother. Their parents divorced when Ware was 10.) After studying English literature at the University of Sussex, Ware briefly pursued a career in journalism and television production. Eventually, she found work as a backing vocalist for her friend Jack Peñate, and later recorded a catchy, post-dubstep track with SBTRKT that landed her a deal with PMR. Devotion, her 2012 solo debut, leaned toward soulful dance and R&B as a result, and quickly made her a critics’ favorite. Tough Love, which featured collaborations with Miguel, Simian Mobile Disco, and Sheeran, followed in 2014.
Glasshouse represents a threefold shift for Ware—in process, sound, and subject matter. The album puts her voice front and center, which will come as a relief to fans and critics who felt that production in earlier releases overshadowed her natural gift. It’s a more musical project, a point that Ware brings up with obvious pride. Multiple tracks feature pedigreed session musicians recorded live in studio, including the bassist Pino Palladino, the drummer Chris Dave, and the trumpeter Nico Segal (née Donnie Trumpet, who Ware met through her “Wonderful Everyday” collaborator, Chance the Rapper). The album ends with an extended, stunning trumpet solo by Segal, over a soundscape by Okumu, to close out the tearjerker “Sam,” which Ware wrote for her husband. The choruses throughout are layered and soaring, and Ware will have her band singing backing vocals on tour for the first time to support the bigger sound.
The result is the first record Ware’s released that might more convincingly fall into the “adult contemporary” genre she’s often pushed into by default. “Selfish Love,” written with Blanco and Ryan Tedder, and “Your Domino,” produced by Stint, are the album’s reliable dance numbers, but the majority of Glasshouse is a careful, honest meditation on marriage and motherhood, with Ware’s vocals at the focus.
“I think she’s been trying to really embrace the full dynamic range of her voice,” Okumu says. “There’s a real theme with Jessie, as she develops as a person and as an artist: she’s just really wanted to own herself, and not hide behind anything. I think that will be something that’ll be a continuing part of her growth, a sort of continual flowering as she grows in her confidence.”
“I kind of hid underneath the production,” Ware says of her early sound. “Which was absolutely brilliant for the time. I think I wasn’t ready to show as much of myself. Now I guess I feel like, I don’t care about that… I hope they like hearing more of me.”
That shift in perspective seems to come partly with experience in the studio, but also from carrying and raising a child throughout a year-long creative process that got off to an admittedly bumpy start. On a hike in Los Angeles with Blanco late last year, Ware played a few songs she’d been working on off of her iPhone. Blanco says he listened patiently and then told her, “you’re better than this.”
“It just didn’t have enough of me in it, Ware explains. “It felt kind of slightly paint by numbers.”
“She was playing me this music where she was trying to be someone else,” Blanco tells me over the phone. “She was just trying to do songs that anyone else can do. And the special part about her is she has this smooth, sexy sound that she created. And I was like, why would you try to be like everyone else when you can just continue to do what you do, and be better than anyone else in the world at it?”
Ware and Burrows’ daughter just turned a year old, and is the frequent star of the singer’s Instagram stories. (On the road recently, she shared a picture of a playground slide with the caption, “Touring has changed.”) Their child’s face is always obscured by an emoji, and Ware won’t share her name, saying that she wants her to “have as normal a life as possible.” She says motherhood has made her more politically active—she backed her friend Sadiq Khan’s successful 2016 London mayoral campaign, and attended the London women’s march with her mother and daughter in January—and also made her “far more decisive and direct and driven” in the studio and in her writing. “I can’t put my finger on what she’s done, but there’s eight songs from this record that have happened since she was born, which I never really thought was going to be the case,” she says. “I think she’s provided me with a real focus.”
Motherhood also changed Ware’s schedule. For Glasshouse, Ware often started her sessions at 9:30 in the morning, a time considered inhumane by plenty of recording artists, and she cut them short and made them more efficient simply because she had a little girl to put to bed at the end of the day. “I was very much like, if I’m going to be away from my kid then we’re going to make this work,” she says. “And if it’s not working, cool, bye, I’ll see you tomorrow and we’ll try again.”
Blanco recalls seeing his friend with her daughter in the studio, sometimes holding her as Ware recorded vocals. “She was basically like my mom,” he says of their friendship, “so it made sense.” He also saw the change in Ware’s studio presence this time around. “Look, when I first met her, she was really insecure, vocally,” he explains. “Which is crazy, because her voice is insane. She’d literally record and she’d be like, ‘ack!’ or ‘ugh!’ She’d make all these weird noises. She was really sensitive and insecure about her work. And I’ve seen her over these past few albums grow into this amazing—it’s like, ‘I step in the room I know exactly what to say.’ And you feel it, and understand.”
Okumu says Ware does her best work when she feels at home. When they took their work to a fully outfitted studio, for example, they brought along “props”—some photographs, a few vases of flowers, a Whitney Houston album cover—to recreate the vibe of Okumu’s kitchen, where the pair wrote much of Devotion together. “I think she has a real gift, I think it’s a rare thing,” he says. “I really consider her a singer in the truest sense, in that she’s someone who can really convey something profound through her voice and how she uses it. It’s instantly recognizable. I always know when it’s Jessie singing.”
Six years and change into their working relationship, Blanco says their creative process is now something like “ESP” (Ware echoes the sentiment: “I trust him entirely.”). But he still sounds baffled when trying to describe her process: “She makes everything her own. It feels like she came in and already wrote [the song]. It’s so well crafted and put together and it just feels really honest. It happens so slow, then so quick. Like, we’ll be in the studio for so long, and then it’s just like, she’s like, ‘Alright, fine!’ And just does the craziest thing, and it just all comes together.”
“Also,” he says, dead serious, “she can sing the fuckin’ phonebook or the alphabet and it’s gonna sound good.”
Glasshouse’s first two singles, “Midnight” and “Selfish Love,” feature connected film noir music videos in which Ware makes a getaway after dispatching of an unfaithful lover with a hunting rifle in a swimming pool—a surprising narrative turn from a woman who is happily married to her longtime sweetheart and successfully navigating parenthood. This tension is a thread throughout her catalog, the kind that touches on every high and low of intimacy and has likely gotten listeners through untold breakups over the years. Ware’s music spans broad emotional distances. “Alone,” the album’s third single, departs from the revenge fantasy and goes pure sexual yearning: “Say that you’re the one who’s taking me home/’Cause I want you on my skin and my bones.”
That Ware can consistently capture the bittersweet nuances of love is the greatest testament to her ability as a songwriter. Devotion’s “Wildest Moments,” for example, registers as a breakup song for lovers so passionate their relationship can’t possibly survive, but Ware wrote it after getting into a food fight with her best friend at a wedding. Similarly, Glasshouse’s second track, “Thinking About You,” might sound like an adoring paean to an oblivious partner (“Baby I’m yours all of the time/I know that you’ll never see/I’m thinking about you”); it’s actually about the guilt she feels being away from her one-year-old daughter.
“That’s the beauty of songwriting,” Ware says, “your story can be somebody else’s story.”
For all the obvious growth and newfound confidence on Glasshouse, and as it reflects the changes in her personal life, an undercurrent of anxiety remains in her music. The title for the album came from an Edward Thomas poem her best friend shared with her, “I Built Myself a House of Glass.” (“I built myself a house of glass/It took me years to make it/And I was proud. But now, alas!/Would God someone would break it.”) It resonated with Ware, who felt there wasn’t a song title that “dictated the rest of the record,” as she’d had on Devotion and Tough Love. The house of glass represented “this beautiful, strong thing that could be completely shattered,” she says, and that respect for precariousness reverberates throughout Glasshouse. “Put on a brave face/Act like an earthquake didn’t come right in and tear it up and everything we built inside this/Beautiful and safe space,” she sings on the opening lines of the slow-burning “Hearts,”; “it could be easy just to give it up,” she suggests on “First Time,” before allowing, “baby we both know that’s not who we are.”
While picking through our vegan lox on a bench in a park a few blocks away from the museum, Ware cites Nina Simone, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell as general inspiration for revealing more vulnerability on Glasshouse, and brings up Feist’s The Reminder as an album that showed her it’s okay to be more open about herself on this record.
When I ask if she feels settled now, in her early thirties, she hoots with laughter and yells out, “Hell no!”
“I think I have fear and anxiety about being a good mother, about being a good friend, a good wife, a good artist,” she explains. “They never seem to go away; they just seem to get a bit stronger.”
Glasshouse closes with “Sam,” an acoustic ode to Ware’s husband, written with Sheeran and Francis Farewell Starlite and produced by Blanco. Ware started the song three months into her pregnancy, during a session in L.A. with Blanco and Starlite after Sheeran had popped in for a visit. But they couldn’t get it right, so they shelved it. Then, when Ware was eight and a half months pregnant, she traveled to Suffolk to record some backing vocals for Sheeran’s divide, and she asked if they could revisit the track. They rewrote the chorus that day.
The result is the most revealing song Ware has written in her career. “And I hope I’m as brave as my mother/Wondering what kind of mother will I be,” she sings on the chorus, “I hope she knows that I’ve found a man far from my father/Sam, my baby and me.”
“I’ve never really been that direct in a song before, and I’m scared about that directness,” Ware says. Sheeran helped her realize that her discomfort was an argument for including the line about her father, and not the other way around. “Ed was like, ‘you have to do it. It’s real,’” she recalls. “I was uncomfortable about it, but I think because it struck such a chord it felt like it was right to do.”
In the salon that day, Ware said she was nervous to sing “Sam” live, because she wasn’t sure how people would respond: “I feel like it’s a bit of a Marmite. I think people are really gonna love it or they’re gonna be like, not for me.” But when we talk a month later, she’s just closed her Paris and Berlin shows with it, and she’s energized by the reception.
“It’s feeling really good to sing it live actually, quite cathartic,” she says. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m really enjoying seeing people, like, sobbing in the audience. Is that awful of me? It’s so satisfying, though! I fucking love the song! I bloody cried in Paris. My band all cried. It was mental. I don’t know what was going on.” She doesn’t acknowledge the obvious, implied compliment: it’s an emotionally honest ballad that most people with beating hearts will respond to.
She has one more theory: “Maybe it was a full moon. Who knows?”
After wandering further into the Lower East Side, Ware decides she could use a pedicure, so we stop in at the first salon we see. As our nails dry, she meditates on her career arc. I mention a show I’d seen over the summer at Forest Hills Stadium, in Queens, and suggest, without really thinking, that she look into it for a booking. She laughs at me when she looks up the capacity, which is 14,000: “Who knows if I can sell a ticket yet?” I ask if she really still feels that way, five years in, with a devoted following and a critically beloved catalog.
“I do. I feel like people are always introducing me to people, proudly, and I love them for that,” Ware says. “And you know, it’s very kind when people say I’m underrated on Twitter, but I actually feel like I’m pretty rated. People turn up to my shows, and I’ve been really lucky with people being kind to me. It’s all right, like, I’ve got a house. It’s okay. I’m doing a third record, it’s okay. Don’t worry about me so much.”
We talk a little bit about finding success on your own terms and being content with what you’ve built. Ware loves writing with other artists, and says she’s dying to work with SZA, Frank Ocean, and her close friend Sam Smith. One day, she’d like to make an album of lullabies. But, she says, “I still need to have ‘that hit.’” She mentions “Say You Love Me,” the Sheeran-Blanco song that is her most widely known claim to fame, and the fact that it never charted in the United States.
“I’m really proud of the catalog that I’m creating,” Ware says. “Hopefully there are songs that people can go back to and they don’t feel like they’re just of the moment. But it does make me laugh that this song has played on every talent show, and it goes back into the charts. But I can’t get it higher than 23, and I’m the bloody singer and writer of it.” (The song actually peaked at No. 22.)
I ask if that sense of commercial stagnancy makes her angry, and she shakes her head no: “It’s not angry. It’s not exactly the most sexy story to tell, but it’s pretty normal. And I’ve always said this: if it doesn’t work out with the music, I had a really good shot at it. And like, I’ll go get another fuckin’ job.”
When we speak a month later, in late September, Ware’s had more than 48 hours with her mastered album, plus six shows behind her. She sold out four nights in London, at Islington Assembly Hall, as well as shows in Paris and Berlin, where she and Burrows took their daughter to the city aquarium. (Soon after, she announces four U.S. shows, all of which sell out quickly.) She says she’s pleased to find that her “beautiful, romantic notion” of touring with her family might just work out, and that she’s “relieved and chuffed” to play the new music live; the reaction to her new material, particularly “Midnight” and “Alone,” is “the most positive” she’s ever had in her career.
She tells me her veganism lasted two weeks, not counting her slip-up on our food tour, and that her pedicure has chipped away. But she’s back onstage, seeing tears in her fans’ eyes, and she’s feeling more confident. “I’m getting there,” she says. “I think I’ve still got a way to go in the studio, but having three albums now, I have gotten this—it’s not even an armor, I think I just have something to refer to and to understand. I feel better about the artist I’m becoming.”
It’s a strange feeling—and a recurring one during our conversations—to listen to an artist explain the growth and presumed limits of her pop career just as she’s poised to make another attempt to expand it. I’m reminded of our conversation back in New York, when my impulse as a fan was to defend Ware’s legacy in the same protective way that supports her growth. A “best kept secret” is, after all, still a secret. When I joked that she’s still rising, that she would play Forest Hills someday, her reply was as cautious and self-effacing as she’d been throughout our time together: “I’ll owe you a drink and I’ll thank you for your optimism,” she told me. “Hopefully, I’ll get there. I’m just happy to keep on bloody playing.”