After Jessie Ware broke through with her 2012 debut, Devotion, everyone wanted a piece of her. For the British singer’s sophomore set, Tough Love (Oct. 21, PMR/Friends Keep Secrets/Interscope), Ed Sheeran came from Saturday Night Live rehearsals to work on the soaring “Say You Love Me”; Miguel took a break from penning his new album to co-write “Kind Of … Sometimes … Maybe” and “You & I (Forever)”; and The xx‘s Romy Madley Croft helped craft minimalist bonus cut “Share It All.” But that’s not all that has changed for Ware, 29, who married childhood sweetheart Sam Burrows on the Greek island of Skopelos in August: This time, she’s finally ready to be herself — even it means criticizing her old look.
“It’s so camp!” she exclaims, eyeing the heavily stylized image of her rocking a double-stacked bun on the cover of a vinyl copy of Devotion in her spacious south London home. “It’s slightly drag queen actually, now that I look at it. It felt like armor; I was transforming into this thing. This time I thought, ‘I don’t need the mask as much.’ “
Letting her hair down suits Tough Love’s velvet-lined R&B anthems, which Ware wraps in her molasses-rich voice (often compared to Sade‘s). Working with executive producers BenZel — London beatmaster Two Inch Punch (Sam Smith) and American pop whiz Benny Blanco (Katy Perry, Kesha) — she steers listeners in unexpected directions, as subtle midtempos evolve into big ballads or beat-driven workouts with stealth potential to fill dancefloors. On Devotion, her sonic palette was smaller, and her exterior slightly steely: Ware only became a diva with practice.
“I didn’t know if anyone was going to like it,” she recalls of her early music. “But after two years of touring under my belt, singing every night, I was like, ‘I’m ready to show more of myself.’ I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that on the first record. Now, I let it rip: It’s like a therapy session.”
In some ways, she’s carrying on the Ware family’s penchant for expression. Her father is former BBC journalist John Ware; her sister, Hannah, is an actress (ABC drama series Betrayal, Starz’ Boss, film Old Boy). As for Jessie, she found her calling by raiding her social worker mother’s record collection to sing along to heartbreak anthems from Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin — not that her tastes were entirely discerning. “I wouldn’t say I was very highbrow or anything,” says Ware. “I gave up on piano lessons because my teacher smelled of tuna.”
Before her music took off, Ware worked as a sports journalist for London’s The Jewish Chronicle, until a collaboration with electronic producer SBTRKT, 2010’s Friday-night-ready “Nervous,” led to a recording deal and backup vocal work for Florence & The Machine. Her solo breakouts “If You’re Never Gonna Move” and “Wildest Moments” made her a critical darling. But on Tough Love, she’s aiming higher, partly because of a much-needed ego boost from one of her collaborators. “Miguel told me, ‘I want people to hear how confident you are as a woman.’ I was like, ‘Really? I don’t want to look too cocky.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah — look at you!’
“I would never have done that myself,” she adds with a laugh. “It would have felt very un-British!”
This article first appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of Billboard.