Q&A: Jessie Ware on ‘Tough Love,’ Passing Up Hits, Passover, and Pork Buns

Brian Gove/WireImage

Two years ago, London kid Jessie Ware broke through with Devotion, an assured, wise-beyond-its-years debut full of nuanced heartbreak ballads — grown-person pop music, if you will. In October, she returned with Tough Love. Produced by BenZel — the low-key duo of Two Inch Punch and the prolific hit machine Benny Blanco — it’s an equally gorgeous collection that, thrillingly, pushes Ware’s vocals to the forefront. Here’s an exercise: Listen to “Say You Love Me,” and just try, by the end, to not be clenching one fist to your heart and the other to the skies.

Last week, Grantland sat down with Ware in the lobby of Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel. She showed up early, drank decaf, had a little Star of David chain hanging over a blue knit sweater, and was so unfailingly polite that at one point she actually apologized for possibly speaking too softly. God bless the Brits.

What have you been up to in New York?

This time around it’s been quite, like, leisurely. I did a MoMA gig, which was so cool. It was a gala dinner for Alfonso Cuarón, the director of Gravity, Y Tu Mamá También. [Guillermo] del Toro was there, and all these incredible Mexican characters and directors. I asked Dev Hynes to play with me because I know he adores MoMA, and I thought it’d be really special to do that. It was really, really lovely.

How do you two know each other?

I know Dev from London. I knew him when he was Lightspeed Champion. And when I just got signed, my A&R was like, “I know Dev, why don’t you try and write with him?” And we wrote together, nothing came out of it … well, a really great song came out of it, but it never got put on the record. I just love him.

How did you get signed?

I’d guested on SBTRKT’s “Nervous,” and that’s what got me signed. I was on tour with my mate Jack Peñate, and our friend was the guitarist in the band. He had all these white labels [from] American independent record labels. And [of SBTRKT], he was like, “He’s really good, he used to be a neo-jazz person, and he’s kind of reinvented himself and he does all this amazing electronic music.” And so we met up in South London and worked on a track together and it became a release.

You figured out fairly early on that the way you work best is with other people?

I didn’t figure it out — I have to do it. I love it. It’s the only way that I work. I need other people in the room. I need to know whether my idea is good or if it’s crap.

With all these creative people around, do egos ever get in the way?

I think it so depends on who you’re working with, and I’d like to think that I work with people that are pretty much my mates before I go into the studio with them. And if they’re not my mates before, then hopefully they’re gonna be my mates after. Otherwise, it’s not worth it. This is too much of a special situation to be in. It should be romantic.

What’s your preferred schedule in the studio?

I like nine to five. I already interfere with my husband’s life, I dictate what we do quite a lot through my schedule. So the idea [is] that I could go in the morning, get up, write a song, and hopefully go home and have some dinner with my husband — be like, “What did you do today?” “Well, I did a song …” I stay late if I need to, of course.

Everyone works differently. Benny Blanco, he works in really amazing short bursts. I’d be like this militant [person] — “we should be really in the studio because it’s twelve o’clock?!!” He’d be like, “Chiiiiilll, let’s go to the shop.” I was getting frustrated, and then I realize this is the way he worked, and it made him work much more brilliantly.

How’d you two end up working together?

We were friends. I met him through Two Inch Punch, who is the other half of BenZel. They started doing their thing and Two Inch Punch was like, “You need to come over here, we’re making some really crazy music.” So on a whim I booked myself over here.

My album hadn’t come out yet, my first album. And I just hung out with them, wrote a song with them, which no one’s heard yet. It was about three years ago. And it was the beginning of our friendship. But really quickly, we worked well together, so when it got around to me doing my new record, I thought, Well, I wanna have fun with them in New York. Why don’t we try a couple of weeks and see if it works? And it did. And it makes sense that we work together. [Even though] it’s not the kind of music that Benny is known for.

Absolutely. So are your approaches to writing pretty different?

Definitely, he’s pushed me with directness. We fought a lot on that. But there’s a mutual respect, and what we did was something that felt representative of both of us. But especially me, because, well, it’s my record.

Have you ever thought about being like “Hey, uh, Benny, how about you give me one of those …”

Hits?! We wrote some, like, big songs. And I didn’t use them for the record because they didn’t feel right. They didn’t feel me. It was really nice to learn how to do that, solidly. Maybe I’m stupid, but I turned down a few [big] songs.

So you think we might end up hearing some of those songs on other artists’ albums?

Definitely. Definitely. But you know, it’s gotta feel right in your gut. And maybe I made a wrong decision here and there, but I feel like, if it didn’t sit well, then it’s right. He will, no doubt, move it [elsewhere]. He can find a better home for it probably than reluctant me.

Makes sense. Plus, you can always turn in that direction later on, if you feel like it.

Yeah, man. I feel like — it’s not a race, man. It’s my second record. I’m just figuring shit out.

It also would go against what you do, which is make these really cohesive albums. Everything feels of the same piece.

Thank you. I tried to. Thank you. I have this amazing opportunity to be allowed to make albums, and I know what The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill did for me as an album. And I think Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange did it so well as an album. And I think it’s a piece of work that over a short piece of time is supposed to represent a mood. Hopefully it should sound cohesive. I tried to. I tried to.

Just by listening to your music, one might assume you’re a much more tortured person than you actually are.

For me, I feel more comfortable singing those songs. I feel it more. I believe it more. My voice lends itself better to those blue tones. I’ve tried to write some happy songs, and it sounds saccharine. I ain’t no Pharrell Williams, and that’s the best happy song ever. But never say never. I think there’s definitely some lighter, happier moments on this record. So maybe I’m gonna make some fucking happy, clappy shit next time?

You did the Today show. Over here that’s a big deal, but since you didn’t grow up watching it, was it easier to knock out?

Oh, I was petrified. First of all, you get up at silly o’clock. And then “Say You Love Me” isn’t an easy song to sing at the best of times. And then, in the morning, you gotta warm that shit up — I had to do a vocal lesson in my dressing room, Skyping with my singing teacher. I was like, I can’t fluff this up, man … somebody stupidly told me [the audience number] a few days before. I was like, “Oh, I’m doing the Today show,” and they were like, “Oh, that’s like 10 million people. I was like [dramatic pause] “Shit.” That freaked me out.

Ha, oh wow. That’s the biggest TV audience you’ve ever played to?

Yeah, I guess. I mean, who knows? They could have switched off after one note, do you know what I mean?

I doubt it! So you have a vocal teacher?

I’ve started using her more. People forget that [performing] has an impact on your vocals. And I don’t wanna sound precious, but I’ve had to really try and understand how to deliver this album as best as I can without ruining my voice. It’s a much more testing album for my voice than the first one. I think that was quite a shock for me, because I like to give 100 percent. I wanna give the best performance every, every time. And it’s very different doing it in the studio and doing it on tour, whilst also doing interviews, whilst also having late nights, whilst also having early mornings. Plus, I’m a neurotic Jew, so …

I think I speak on behalf of the neurotic Jewish people when I say, we’re glad you’re on the team. So you grew up doing the holidays and all that?

Yeah, I did. I did Passover here, actually. We’d just finished the record and I went with Benny to his family friends’ in Long Island. It was brilliant. That’s why I love working with him and [Two Inch Punch]. They’re family. It’s not business. But, yeah, Judaism is more of a cultural thing for me. I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, I bloody wish I had, you get really good presents. It’s a cultural thing for me. I am very proud of being Jewish.

It’s great to have you and Drake and some others being all hip and representing us out in the world. I’m definitely keeping a mental list of “Jews in pop culture.”

I know! I know. Why are we like this? It’s very bizarre.

Is there a big difference between U.K. and U.S. fans?

They’re a bit more forthright here. Brits are more reserved. At an in-store in London, everyone’s very polite and sweet: They’ll be like, “Is it OK to get a picture?” Here they’re like, “Right, I want you to do this pose, and here’s your pork buns we bought you because we know that inspired the album, and, oh, I made you a Barbie.”

What were you very first early experiences with performing live?

I did plays. I sung in like, the Christmas carol concert. That was probably my first. I was Santa Claus. I guess we couldn’t be Joseph or Mary. I guess we could have been Jesus, he’s only a baby. I was either a villager, or a horse, or Santa Claus.

So you immediately liked being onstage?

No, I didn’t wanna be onstage. I didn’t like the stage bit. I just liked the singing bit. And the bit after, when you were like [gasps] “My God, that felt really nice.” If it went well. I got started quite late on … I got signed when I was like 25, 26?

You were working a day job?

Yep. I’d had loads of jobs, but then I’d taken a year off doing jobs. I had a place at law conversion school. But I decided to do one year of singing to see if it worked. So I was being a backing singer and I was ready to be a session singer. And making, like, really shit money. Like 60 dollars for a show. It was fine, though, I didn’t care. I was working in a department store just cause it was mindless. Selfridges. It was so boring. And I was like, well, I got my place at law school if it all goes wrong. And in that year, I got signed.

Wow. That’s dramatic.

It was bizarre because [Ben Parmar, of PMR Records] was the first person I met. And it wasn’t meant to be a meeting about getting signed — it was a meeting about me vocalin’ on one of his other artists’ things. And I must have just given him my gift of the gab, and he was like, “I think I wanna sign you.” Like, OK! There were no other options.

Now that you’ve achieved this dream of having an audience and being a world-touring musician and all that, does it mean you have to expand the vision? Start dreaming of bigger, crazier things?

I had a real kind of moment, where I was doing these really intimate shows. We did it with a ballot where people had to enter to win the chance to buy tickets. It was in San Francisco, really lovely, and I thought, If this is what I get to do the rest of my life, these small gigs full of amazingly brilliant fans, I’d be happy. I am ambitious. I am. But it needs to sit right with me.

Right. I presume that sometimes there’s a certain forward momentum that’s just kind of automatic.

It’s very much like, when you’re promoting a record, it feels quite business-y. You’re hearing about how many singles you sold or whatever. I don’t actually give a shit. Of course I care about my career, I care that people like the stuff. But sometimes it can be really destructive, that stuff — distracting. And I think my husband always makes me readdress that, actually, this is great. Life is amazing. You get preoccupied with these stats and shit like that.

You just wanna do your gigs. I like doing my interviews, I enjoy a photo shoot sometimes, but most of all I love the gigs and meeting people. As corny as that sounds.

Filed Under: Music, Jessie Ware, Tough Love, Interviews, Grantland Q&A

Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad