Jessie Ware, a 28-year-old U.K. soul singer, may be popping up all over critics' year-end lists for 2012, but her debut U.S. gig at New York's The Box Monday night (Dec. 10) gave a glimpse into why the rest of America will be raving about her well into 2013.
Performing an intimate set that kicked off with the title track from her debut album "Devotion," due out in the States from Cherrytree/Interscope in early 2013, Ware showed a careful command of smoldering vocals that have earned her countless comparisons to Sade. But when empowered by the live setting, she revealed a more intense, emotionally cathartic side to her voice that will inevitably have Ware mentioned in the same breath as Adele. The fact that both have a cheeky, uniquely British sense of humor in full display at their live shows doesn't hurt, either.
"Sorry, I have really long outros," Ware said at the top of her set, the first in a series of unnecessary apologies for her slinky, 90s R&B-channeling music. The set ranged from album highlights like the bouncy, Tears For Fears-y "Sweet Talk" to the percussive "Swan Song" and her covers of Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do For Love" and Brownstone's "If You Love Me." "I'm basically a 90s cover band, you'll come to realize," she said with a hearty laugh. Later, a lively take on album cut "No To Love" even gave way to an interpretation of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You."
But perhaps the biggest surprise was the news Ware shared with the crowd that her song "110%," a highlight from "Devotion" released as a single in the UK earlier this year, would be re-titled "If You're Never Gonna Move" due to sample clearance issues with the estate of Big Pun, whose memorably perverse line "carvin' my initials on your forehead" is sampled at the beginning of the otherwise ethereal love song. A debut EP of the same name will be released in the States Jan. 15, featuring the original version and a remix of "Move" plus "Sweet Talk," "Devotion" and her Caldwell cover.
"We had to be imaginative and change the words. It's annoying but it always happens," Ware told Billboard in an interview prior to the show. Though the lyrics were altered to the slightly less graphic "Coming on a mission like a warhead" for the U.S., Ware still performed the original version at her Box showcase, where she reserved even more choice words onstage for the later rapper ("Fuck Big Pun!" she impishly whispered at one point.) After all, she had only titled the song "110%" to begin with as a reference to Pun's song "100%" -- "I thought I could top it," she said with a playful shrug.
Title changes aside, "Devotion" will be virtually untouched when it reappears in the States later this year (it was digitally released by Universal on iTunes and Spotify in August at the same time as its UK debut, but disappeared recently in anticipation of Cherrytree's domestic push.) "Unless I write a really amazing song between now and then, I expect it to stay the same. I don't really want to step too far away from it."
And it's already earned her celebrity fans like Katy Perry, who tweeted a link to Ware's single "Wildest Moments" this fall and also enthused about her fandom in her Woman of the Year interview with Billboard last month. Ware got to meet the pop star by chance at a concert for The Weeknd in London earlier this year. "It was a really exciting night -- it was The Weekend's first headlining gig in London and he hadn't been signed yet, and there were so, so many record labels there like, 'Who's gonna get him?' And Katy Perry was there and my mate introduced me to her and she said she'd been working out to my music. I was like, 'This is bizarre.'"
Ware even watched "Katy Perry: Part of Me 3D" on her plane ride to New York over the weekend, and came away with it with an even deeper appreciation of the singer's work ethic. "It was really interesting how it showed you 100 days, 200 days, 320 days on this tour and I'm complaining about being tired. I'm so interested by her and the whole story, going through gospel and all that -- she's such an interesting woman. So yeah, I've got a lot of time for Katy Perry."
And with 2013 around the corner, Ware is looking forward to spending a lot more time in America, where she already has a schedule that will keep her largely Stateside until at least May. "I'd like to do some American festivals -- that'd be cool," she said from her room in midtown's Hudson Hotel. "I just want to enjoy it was much as possible because it could just all be taken away from me. I got in last night and I sat in here -- it's pretty nice isn't it?-- and I turned on the TV and thought, 'This is work and it doesn't feel like work. I'm gonna be playing pretty much in a burlesque club tonight. I've got so many people helping this work, I just want to enjoy it as much as possible. So next year is really about me appreciating what's happening."