Interview with Jessie Ware

From breaking onto the scene singing in a dingy London basement to selling out her first London headline show, Jessie Ware is going places. Following her first performance she was quickly snapped up by a hip London record label and is set to release her debut album in August. A true upshot of new wave media and upstart record labels, Jessie seems sure of the direction in which she is going.

Jessie Ware was a rare sight when she made her debut in the Boiler Room, “the world’s leading underground music show”. She was female, and a singer. Teaming up with producer SBTRKT in late 2010, she performed her first recorded track, “Nervous”. It proved successful move and “Nervous” became an instant hit. By working with SBTRKT, at a time when so much attention was focused upon him, Jessie was propelled into the spotlight.

Her collaboration with SBTRKT was, interestingly, thanks to an earlier musical endeavour of Jessie’s. While singing backing vocals for friend and young star Jack Peñate, she was introduced to the people behind influential record label Young Turks. At this time Young were relative king pins within the music industry, having just released The xx’s album. It was here that a friend recognised that she may well be the perfect vocal accompaniment to SBTRKT, himself a new ‘Young Turk’. “That was Tic, my friend who worked at Young Turks. He was like “you got to meet SBTRKT””. Jessie was persuaded to go over to SBTRKT’s house in South London to meet him: “I was so petrified that Tic came with me and we just made that song in his living room in one day. I got signed after “Nervous”. I got snapped up quickly.”

What worked so well in “Nervous” was the pairing of Jessie’s soulful and romantic voice with SBTRKT’s jumpy beats. This unique edge can be linked back to the music Jessie listened to whilst growing up. “In my early teens I weirdly listened to loads of stuff like Dusty Springfield, Ella Fitzgerald and Lauryn Hill”.  However, this was the generation of MTV so, like most teens, whatever was on MTV was a huge influence. “I watched huge amounts of MTV base, so was listening to really great R&B”. As Jessie is aware there was one key connection in this mixture of pop, soul, jazz and R&B: “a lot of really strong vocal women”.

Although Jessie had always sung at school, the likes of MTV almost persuaded her not to pursue her musical ambition. “I was always quite frightened about being a singer because you thought, as you were watching MTV base, ‘I don’t look like J-Lo and I can’t dance like Destiny’s Child’”. Wishing to keep her options open, Jessie continued to do well in school and went on to study, albeit briefly, at Sussex University. “I went to a really good school where they worked you hard and it was very academic. My mum always wanted me to be a singer but I had to try and be realistic that maybe that wouldn’t happen and so I did get a really good education.”

Perhaps she didn’t look like J-Lo and dancing like Destiny Child was a mere fantasy, but she could definitely sing. Her next release, a collaboration with Sampha entitled “Valentine”, flaunted this soulful voice. “Valentine”, though only two minutes in length, was the fitting runaway Valentine’s Day song of 2011 for many. Once again it burst onto the scene through an intimate Valentine’s Day Boiler Room performance, streamed live by hundreds of listeners. Following this special performance the song had a limited 500 copy press on 7″ heart-shaped pink vinyl that sold out almost instantly. The story behind the actual writing of the track provides an interesting insight into Jessie’s creativity. “Sampha produced the song and we both wrote it. There was no agenda to it. It was just us trying to write a song. We had been listening to James Blake’s “Wilhelm Scream” to him saying “I don’t know about my love” and we wanted to do an answer back to it saying “I know about my love”.”

Although these two collaborations, along with a further partnership with dubstep producer Joker, have been instrumental in Jessie Ware’s success to date, she is now keen to go it alone. Her label, PMR Records (an upstart label with Julio Bashmore and L-Vis 1990 also signed) luckily gave her the time and space to decide this. “My label let me work out what I wanted to do. I’ve got a real sense of who I am now and I had to really work that out. I now know the direction I’m going in. It is me going alone, though along the way I was lucky enough to do some strong collaborations with some amazing people.”

This new, solo approach looks to be going well. Her two latest releases, “Strangest Feeling” and “Running”, comprise powerful neo-soul vocals and have attracted further attention. She has been marked as a ‘one to watch’ by many influential publications, including the Guardian and i-D Magazine. In March she had her first London headline show under her own name, a sold-out affair. She is in high demand to perform at upcoming festivals and is set to have a busy summer, pleasing existing fans and enticing new ones. The first of these is Live at Leeds, in May, a date that she has expressed excitement about. “It’ll be my first time in Leeds. I think it’s going to be on a big stage – possibly the Academy. The set list will be just a bit of everything. I’m aware it’s a festival so I don’t want be too self-indulgent.” The list of festivals she is due to play seems ever growing, already including Field Day, Beacons and Melt to name a few. Indeed, her ambition for the future is apparent: “If people will have me, I’ll be there.”

All this growing hype is set to coincide with the release of her debut album in August. It has already been completed, so online taster releases in the near future seem likely. “There will be more music that people can hear before September. There will be live videos of performances before then so I can show my band and people can see how my music translates live.”

Jessie Ware is a big promise for the near future; her talent and creativity are obvious. Crucially, she has been one of the first singers, rather than producers, to really benefit from a new wave of online media. While the Boiler Room has broadcast her live collaborations to thousands, she is now moving into new territory, headlining shows under her own name.

Luke Innes