Q&A: British Soul Pop Pioneer Jessie Ware Finds Her Voice on 'Tough Love'

jessie ware
Courtesy of the artist

If you think that contemporary pop is floundering, South London soul chanteuse Jessie Ware is here to prove you wrong. After collaborating for years as a backup singer and working with artists like SBTRKT, the emotive singer released her stunning Mercury Prize-nominated debut, Devotion, in 2012. Two years and a world tour later, Ware's back with Tough Love, a sharper and more commanding record.

As its title implies, the songs on Tough Love are at once compassionate and fiery, and Ware flexes her impressive vocal range over tight funk grooves, R&B and burning pop ballads, along with a star-studded group of collaborators that include Miguel, Ed Sheeran and Arctic Monkeys producer James Ford.

Tough Love comes out October 21 on PMR/Friends Keep Secrets/Interscope Records. We caught up with Ware and talked about curbing self-doubt, the new record, Kate Bush performances and those awkward middle school years.

Tough Love is a shift away from your last record, Devotion. How does it feel to listen to these songs now, after you've put them away for a while?

I'm a ridiculously impatient person. Waiting is painful, but it's also a big deal. It's fine. A lot of people probably have it now, it's probably leaked. I'm not nervous, I just want people to have it so you don't have to do this kind of constant...trickling out, entice people to pre-order it. Gross!

I'm interested in the kinds of things you were thinking about with Tough Love. What headspace were you in when writing this record?

It was definitely more people this time. It was all the people from the first record, 'cause I adore everyone, and we're such good friends after that. The new people were essentially friends too, and that was important to me. I felt more confident this time. I felt like I could speak my mind a bit more in the studio—not that I was never told not to speak there the first time, but this time I knew what I wanted to do and was more confident in my approach to it. Sometimes that was detrimental, though: Being kind of aware of what kind of album I wanted to make means I would second-guess myself. I don't think my audience would like that, and sometimes I think that was detrimental. But I'm really proud of the record. I've learned a lot over the past few years from touring, and I think now I'm becoming an artist. I didn't think that before. To experiment on this record and put it out, I feel more...relaxed.

I'm interested in that distinction: evolving from a singer into an artist. Can you say more?

I've been a singer professionally for about five years. Not that long. I sung before, I had voice before, but I started a backing singer, then I was a vocalist on people's records, and I got signed and then I made this record, which was me discerning how to use my voice. I did feel like a singer in a way, whether it be a backing singer or singing for other people. This time, just having the experience of touring and an audience to watch you and hear your songs, there's something really reassuring about that. And wonderful, and it definitely made me feel like I've created this new record for the people who listened to my first record, and enjoyed it, and showed me that they enjoyed it. So there's more of a sense of artistry, because I was crafting something with them in mind, and I felt more in control with it. Does that make sense?

Definitely. You experiment quite a bit with your vocal effects on this record, too.

I mean, I used a wider range. It's too big a range, you know. I'm singing ridiculously high in Tough Love. Sometimes that's not possible when you're having an off day and your voice is a bit tired—that's the first bit that goes. So maybe it was a stupid idea to do that. But this was the record to do it! I think I kind of broadened out my range of songs too…. It was me being greedy, but I wanted that ballad, I wanted that groove song, I wanted that '80s pop. I kind of think I got a bit greedy on this record with even more ideas, and I think it has more of a pop sensibility in the best sense. I mean, I love pop. It's still completely soulful, but it has a more directness about it, I think.

Does it make you uncomfortable when people call you a pop star? Or have you embraced it?

I just don't think I am one yet. It's kind of...I laugh it off. It doesn't make me feel uncomfortable, but I just don't feel like a pop star. Whatever that may be. But, you know, I think it's a compliment, and it makes me feel quite fabulous, but I don't really believe it.

Have you been to any pop performances lately that have stunned you?

I went to see Kate Bush!

Oh wow. I heard those shows were outrageous.

Yeah. It was crazy. It was exactly what it should have been. It didn't start off crazy, or expect a Kate Bush show to start. It was a polite, well-rehearsed show, nothing extra about it. Really good band, backing singers, and Kate, who is amazing. And then shit popped off, and it went somewhere else, including moons and flying and eagles and puppets and under the sea. It was ridiculous. So that was brilliant. I went to see Justin Timberlake at the Roseland when we were just starting to write the record—we had done our first couple of weeks with [production duo BenZel].

We went and saw Justin Timberlake perform. The amount of amazing songs that Justin has unites everyone, and everyone's singing every little bit. That was so fun, and just the showmanship...that really made me think that it's so attractive to look like you're having fun onstage, and he looked like he was having the most fun. It's infectious. It really made me think about that for my show, the way that you should remember it. It should be a generous thing. It shouldn't be too self-indulgent. You're performing for people, so they can hear the songs they like or maybe so they escape a bad day, or are there to just have a little dance or whatever.

I felt like that Justin Timberlake was so fun and generous and exactly what people wanted. You've got to enjoy and appreciate it, and sometimes the best way is to do that onstage. You look out and see people there to see you, and that's amazing. And very addictive.

Speaking of addictive, karaoke! What are your go-to songs?

I think karaoke for singers is really, really dry. Like, people don't need to hear that! Hmmm. I don't really have one. What do you do at karaoke?

It varies, but when I went most recently, Green Day…

Ah!

Weezer, Hole…

Oh, so you're a rocker girl! You must be so bored chatting to me, then. I'm pop soul-y stuff.

No way. I wish I could do that stuff, I don't have the range.

You could do Boyz II Men?

Oh, I couldn't. What have you been listening to lately?

Caribou's new album [Our Love]. I've been listening to the Blue Nile, a group from the '80s. Loads of Kate Bush, before and after the concert. That's pretty much it.

If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?

I'd quite like to write with the 1975. I think that would be fun. But...hmm. I dunno!

I'm holding out for a Prince and Jessie Ware collaboration.

That would be fun! I don't know if that would happen.

He just put out two records, so he's around.

Yeah. I've always had these...near chances of meeting him, and it never happens. So I just feel like it's never going to happen [laughs].

I hear the best way to connect with Prince is to play basketball with him.

You did that?

I wish. That's what his biographer Touré apparently did, and that became how they opened up to each other and started talking.

OK! Thank you very much, that's good advice. It's a shame I can't play basketball.

Random, but I would love to hear what your first AOL screen name was.

What was yours?

Oh, mine was atrocious. It was, like, MoViEsTaRrR91 or something.

Ha! I think mine was loislanenumberone?

Wait, that's awesome. Good taste as a teen!

Yeah, that was my first proper one. My middle name is Lois. And I don't know about good taste...

Thankfully we're past those teenage years, huh.

Thank God.

What was the first piece of music you bought with your own money?

Oh man! I don't know. It was probably...and this sounds terrible to say, with some pocket money, from when we were on holiday in Turkey, a compilation tape of the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. It probably wasn't legit, it was probably a pirate version. If it's not that, it's probably Take That. They're not big in America, but they were big here way back when.

Q&A: British Soul Pop Pioneer Jessie Ware Finds Her Voice on 'Tough Love' | Culture