The Reluctant Diva: Bonus Quotes
Apr 18, 2013 Web Exclusive
Mercury Prize-nominated singer Jessie Ware possesses a malleable voice, able to belt out a ballad with a diva-like force or slink through the skittering R&B beats of a SBTRKT song. Her debut album Devotion (out now in the U.S. via Cherrytree) is a polished homage to the big-voiced R&B singers of Ware's youth, infused with late-night electronic grooves and an undeniable swagger. The elegant playground gives Ware the opportunity slip into a variety of personae, from the heartbroken siren of "Taking in Water" to a coy hip-hop honey on the dance floor in "110%."
From a hotel room in Leeds, Ware spoke with Under the Radar about bonding with her co-writer, girl fights, and the ins-and-outs of a career that she never expected to have.
There's an article on Jessie Ware in the print version of the Best of 2012 issue of Under the Radar. These are extra portions of our interview, quotes that didn't make it into that main print issue article.
Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): Were you the kind of little girl who dreamed about growing up to be a professional musician?
Jessie Ware: You dream, but it's a dream, isn't it? You just imagine what it's like. When I was going to Kylie Minogue concerts, and Take That concerts, and then Lauryn Hill when I was a bit older, they were always [in] arenas. If you're going to go with your mom, then it was an arena. It always felt so big and glamorous. You always thought, "Oh wow!"
Then you get older and go to crummy gigs in pubs and things like that. It's not as glamorous, but it's more exciting, because you're right next to the new emerging bands. As a little girl, you sing in the mirror with your hairbrush, but you didn't really think it was going to happen.
Did you actively pursue a music career growing up?
I sung in school plays and things like that. But it was never a serious thing. I don't think I really did pursue it. I didn't have much confidence. I always had to be asked rather than put myself forward for a solo. It wasn't laziness, it was more just shyness.
Were you going to school to study music?
There was a good music school within our school. They offered singing lessons there. So I used to get trained classically. But I was never a classical singer. All I wanted to sing were jazz standards and songs from musicals. That's what I did at school. It wasn't quite an academic school. But I did do singing lessons during my lunch break every week.
You mentioned going to shows with your mom. Did she encourage you to become a professional musician?
She never said don't do it. When I said I'm going to quit my job and go be a backing singer, she was like, "Yeah, do it. You don't want to regret [it]. You've got a great voice." So yeah, she always was supportive. But she was never pushing me to the point where it became a negative. She was pushy in all the right ways.
So when did the transition come from backup singer to featured artist?
My friend stopped touring, who I had been touring with. So there weren't as many gigs. My other friend said, "Oh, you should meet SBTRKT, I know you like his music." He had been playing me stuff, and he was a friend of his. He took me along to a session with SBTRKT. It was my first go at being a session singer. I was completely petrified. I went along, and we did a song together. It wasn't me being a backing singer at that point, it was me featured on the track.
That must have been a huge confidence boost.
Yeah, it was. It definitely definitely was.
Was there a lot of pressure after you had been signed, realizing that there was only one song to your name?
I love my label. They've been really amazing to me. They're like family. I feel very happy that it happened with them, because I was very worried that it was too early. But they let me work it all out. I guess they took a risk, really. There was nothing to really show them. I don't know, I managed to chat my way into a deal! It felt pretty mad, but I wasn't going to say no.
To me that sounds pretty gutsy, having only one song and talking your way into a deal. Do you find that you're like that in other areas of your life as well?
I think I was lucky. I don't think I'm gutsy, I think I'm lucky. I went to that meeting with Ben Palmer, the guy who signed me, we were going to talk with my manager about being featured with another one of his artist's dance tracks. I wasn't there going to get signed. I wasn't there trying to get signed. I was there to put my voice on a dance track. So I feel like it was very fortuitous. I'm thankful. I don't know about gutsy. I think it's a lot of luck, or the music gods on my side being nice to me.
Do you believe in the idea of fate?
[emphatic sigh] Yes, I'm starting to. Luck and fate. I believe in both.
I first heard of your music because I'm a big fan of The Invisible.
[squeal] Oh, are you?
Yes I am! How did your partnership with Dave Okumu come about?
They're the best. Oh man, I love them. My manager met Dave at a friend's BBQ. I had been signed for a couple of months. He was like, "You should meet up with Jessie." Dave had heard my song with SBTRKT called "Nervous" and liked it. [My manager] said, "Would you be up for writing with her?" and [Dave] said "Yes."
We sent a few emails to each other. I was really nervous. It was a friendship over email, "Looking forward to meeting you." I sent him a lot of The Weeknd. He said, "Yeah, that's really cool." He came to the first session and said, "I've written this thing for you, I hope you like it, don't worry if you don't." He had taken all these things that I had sent him, all these loves of mine, from Sade to 1990s R&B songs, and he created this piece of work that embodied all of that. It just kicked there and then. It was magic.
There's total musical generosity with him. There's no ego with Dave. He loves music and he loves to share that. He's so talented in every way, as a musician, a writer, and as producer. We're mad about each other. I'm so lucky to have found him and work with him.
After working with several other songwriters and not quite hitting on what you were looking for, were you able to go into the sessions with Dave with an open mind?
No. I'd hoped, because I have a lot of respect for The Invisible. So for me to be working with such an incredible musician, I was quite intimidated. But hoping it would work, but thinking that he might be too musically intelligent for me. Actually, he was brilliant. He made it simple when they explained it to me.
Where in this process did you realize that you had something to say, that your experiences as person were worth talking about?
I don't think I really have much important to say. I think it's an opportunity to be indulgent and to write songs that mean something to me. Although it was scary and daunting at the beginning, it's now become this place for me to be able to experiment and develop. I think it was working with Dave, and him saying, "What you think is worthwhile and a really good idea?" It's just a confidence-building thing.
I find it funny that you call this indulgent.
It is quite indulgent, isn't it? I'm not saving lives, am I? I love my job, and I don't think it's a job. I think it's a complete joy to be able to do this. My boyfriend works at a school and gets up every day at six o'clock. Here I am in a hotel room, speaking to you in Los Angeles, by myself. It does feel very indulgent. I appreciate it all.
With love as a theme running through the album, do you consider yourself to be a romantic?
I'd like to think so. I expect a lot from romance. I've been with my boyfriend since we were 18. We broke up for two years and we got back together. We've got a lovely story. We left each other and came back to each other, better than ever. I'm very sentimental.
Has he given you any feedback on the album? I imagine that he's a source of inspiration.
Yeah, he is so supportive. He really likes it. I remember when I gave it to him, when it had just got mastered, and nobody had it. He texted me and said, "Oh, I've just listened to the whole album on the way to work. Well done, I love it." I really wanted to make an album that my friends and family would want to listen to, even if it wasn't me. So I feel like maybe that's worked.
What's the backstory behind "Wildest Moments"? It feels a bit more melodramatic than some of your other tracks.
Yeah, that's about my best mate Sarah. We had a fight at my manager's wedding. Cake got thrown in my face, and a trifle in her face. It got out of hand. We're very intense friends. We met at university. We were mad about each other. When we fight—I don't like fighting but she does. You know those really intense girl friendships. She's my girl. I fight with her and make up with her more than my boyfriend, who I live with. It's quite bizarre. We've got a real love for each other, but she gets so angry with me and disappointed. I get so annoyed with her. This is my way of saying that we can be the best, but we can also be a nightmare in those wildest moments. We were so drunk at this wedding. We were having such a good time, but then it ended up being a nightmare.
It's so interesting how that kind of relationship seems to be exclusively between girls.
Guys, when they're upset, they'll either fight or drink. I wish I was a guy sometimes!
Does performing live come naturally to you?
I started professionally doing it as a backing singer. I feel like that was a nice way to ease me into performing. Although you didn't have to perform, really. You just had to smack it professionally and sing well. At the beginning I was really nervous about what I was going to say between songs. You feel like you're hosting your gig. It's so different than being a backing singer. I struggle because I think I talk too much. I hate silences, but I should let it be silent. People are just waiting for the next song. That's what I need to learn. Singing, I'm really comfortable with.
Have you learned to let it be silent?
No, I have not learned to let it be silent. I have terrible verbal diarrhea when it comes to silence! So no, I haven't learned that yet.
If you were given full permission to be a diva, is there something really outlandish that you would demand?
I'd probably just demand to fly my friends with me so I could be with them. Or my family. I don't know what I'd demand. It would involve food probably, because I love food. Lovely dinners.
If you were to go back, and talk to yourself as a teenager, do you think young Jessie would believe where you are now?
No! I don't. It still feels pretty silly and special.