Jessie Ware Talks Breakthrough 'Devotion' Debut & 'Wildest Moments' Single
Jessie Ware's debut album "Devotion" had been available for free via live-stream on The Guardian's web site for no less than three hours before she got a fan tweet guaranteed to disturb any new artist.
"I love the album! I just downloaded it for free off the stream!" the fan wrote.
"Okay, just try and calm down. That's gonna happen," the 27-year-old soul singer said on the phone from London last Thursday, fresh from a triumphant gig in her home neighborhood of Brixton.
But with the official release of "Devotion" Monday in the UK and Tuesday in the States, more and more people are proclaiming their love of Ware's music -- no matter where they're hearing it. On Friday, Pitchfork declared "Devotion" worthy of Best New Music status, giving it an 8.5, while other outlets ranging from Glamour ("Commit Yourself to Jessie Ware's Devotion!) to Stereogum have been contributing to the hyperbolic levels of excitement around the singer.
Why all the fuss? For starters, it's because "Devotion" positions Ware as a soul singer in the classic sense by post-1980s standards -- her first UK single "Running" and its accompanying video elicited many comparisons to Sade, while the album's emphasis on live guitar, heavy drums and lush electronics conjure references to everyone from Annie Lennox to Alicia Keys to early 90s cult faves Soul II Soul. Her life-long love of hip-hop materializes in occasionally unexpected ways, too. "No To Love" is a hard-hitting series of melodic vocal loops that nods to J. Dilla, while shimmery love song "110%" samples a memorably crude line from Big Punisher's "The Dream Shatterer" ("Carvin' my initials on your forehead") and warps it into something else entirely. "There was something quite obscene about that line that I kind of wanted to see if I could get away sampling one of the biggest, most beloved rappers on top of this very sweet vocal," Ware recalls with a laugh. "It just cuts through and sounds really good with the song."
"Wildest Moments," the first official single in the U.S., is a particular highlight -- an anthem of sorts written for her best friend with a soaring chorus and a striking, single-take video in the vein of Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U." "It's kind of a message of love for her," Ware says of penning the song for her friend. "It was me explaining our relationship to her in this very honest way. I think she appreciates that it's a very sentimental, sweet song even though it shows the different sides to our frienship."
Having cut her teeth as a touring backup singer for fellow Brit Jack Penate (whose friend Adele would swing by gigs whenever their schedules synched up), Ware first earned a following as a vocalist in 2011 for a pair of appearances on the debut album from dubstep act SBTRKT, "Sanctuary" and "The Right Thing To Do." Subsequent collaborations with SBTRKT vocalist Sampha, including glitch-pop duet "Valentine," led to a cover of Bobby Caldwell's 80s hit "What You Won't Do For Love," which appears on the deluxe edition of "Devotion" and also summarizes Ware's mission as a singer.
"I love that Common sampled Bobby Caldwell on "The Light," and I loved that Aailyah sampled this song [on "Age Ain't Nothin' But A Number'] and so did Tatayana Ali [on "Boy You Knock Me Out."] So I wanted to make something that combined every reference because I think he's just a really great songwriter."
"Devotion" was helmed by Dave Okumu, the lead singer/guitarist for UK alt-rock act The Invisible who also handles guitar duties on Ware's record. In fact, it was when Okumu played a rough demo of what would become the album's title track that established the direction for the project -- as well as Ware's confidence as a budding vocalist and songwriter. "We were gonna just write together and he had this idea for a song called 'Devotion' and had the first verse and the chorus. It was just the most beautiful thing to me, and I went, 'Oh my God. This is exactly the kind of music I wanted to make,'" she says. "It just established this trust thing with David. I don't feel like this is my album, I feel like this is Dave's album and I've just been very, very lucky with all the people I've worked with on this. All the songs that are on the album I've written with people, but I feel like they're totally my stories and I own them, you know what I mean? It really helped me come through this fear stage where I didn't trust my ideas."
With her first headlining tour of the UK set for November and what she hopes will be her first proper U.S. gig in New York before year's end, Ware has come a long way from her initial career goal: journalism.
"I thought i wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. I was working as P.A. in a production company, trying to work my way up when the Jack Peñate tour came about," Ware recalls. "It was the best excuse to quit a job -- 'I'm really sorry. I'm gonna try to make it in the music business.' 'Oh yeah, that's cool. Wicked. Best of luck then.'"