True tales of trial and error
IT’S TIME for another “featured” artist to come out of the shadows. Over the past 18 months, you will have probably come across Jessie Ware, but usually with “featuring” before her name on the track in question. Collaborations with SBTRKT, Sampha and Joker made Ware the go-to girl when a producer wanted some vocal oomph to accompany spine-tingling electronic textures.
As a result of all this, Ware’s debut album, Devotion, may surprise many who thought they had the one-time journalist boxed off. Given the gist of her releases to date, many will be expecting an album that showboats the sounds of the underground, but that’s just part of what Ware has to offer.
Devotion is a big city pop album with r’n’b, hip-hop, jazz and soul also in the mix.
Ware says Devotion is perfectly in tune with her own musical parade. “I like older mainstream stuff like Prince, Sade, Whitney Houston and Annie Lennox,” she says. “But I live in London and when I go out, I go clubbing and I listen to underground music. Both have their place on the album because both have played a big part in my musical make-up. There are definitely moments of pure pop because there’s intricate details in the production which we worked hard on as well.”
She’s aware that many will be expecting Devotion to sound a little like last year’s SBTRKT album. “I hope the last few singles have prepared people for the album not being a bassy, underground record. It was my chance to do an album and do my own thing so I didn’t want to sound like I was trying to emulate the producers I had worked with before. That would have been an impossible task because I’m a singer, not a producer.”
Her dalliance with dubstep producers such as Sampha and SBTRKT happened completely by chance. While she wanted a career in music, she didn’t think singing would be an option. “It just seemed impossible as I wasn’t writing my own music and hadn’t pushed myself that way,” she says.
Ware did journalism in college, worked briefly for the Jewish Chronicle and a TV production company and kept her hand in the music game by doing backing vocals for Jack Peñate and a London group called Man Like Me.
Then, a friend of hers who worked at the Young Turks label introduced her to SBTRKT. “He was just starting out, really. He was DJ-ing a lot and he had some white labels which were due to come out. It was a very natural thing because SBTKRT needed a vocalist and I came in. Then Sampha came in and started working with SBTRKT and we got on and we decided to do a track together. There wasn’t much to work with at the start but I really loved the tracks I heard and wanted to work with them.”
Ware’s work on those tracks promptly led to a record deal of her own. She found herself initially working with pop writers for hire to see if sparks would fly and produce a hit. “It was pretty petrifying,” she says.
“Socially, I’m very confident and I know I have the gift of the gab, but put me in a writing studio with a stranger and it’s a different matter.
“They weren’t the biggest names, but they had written hits. At the start when you’re an unknown artist with no chart success that they don’t really care about, it was all about friends-of-friends and getting people around me to ask for favours. Lots of those writers won’t work with you unless you’ve already had a hit. It didn’t last that long and I didn’t do many.”
Ware remembers this process of hatching hits as being very stressful. “You’re really under pressure. You’re working in an office or a studio with someone you’ve just met, you’ve got to get to know them, they’ve got to get to know you, you’ve got to talk about yourself which is always boring and you’ve got to write a song about how madly in love you arewith someone or how your heart has been broken by someone. And you might not even click with the other person. It’s quite mad.
“I freaked out because I didn’t know what I was doing or was supposed to do. I felt out of my depth. It took a while to get over the nerves because it didn’t come easy at all. It was mostly me having a fight with myself. I was so nervous about getting it wrong that I didn’t give myself a chance to try.”
It took a chance encounter with David Okumu from The Invisible for Ware to find her ideal collaborative foil for the album. “My manager met him at a barbecue and thought he was a really nice guy. I had heard of The Invisible and liked them, and Dave had heard the songs I’d done with SBTRKT, and thought they sounded cool. We met up and he just calmed me down. He said it was OK to get things wrong, which immediately had me warming to him.
“It felt right because he got it. I was so het up about what had happened that I felt I had to apologise to him after every session. But Dave kept saying that songwriting was like purple bananas, in that it didn’t make sense.” Another name included on the album’s credits is Bristol house producer Julio Bashmore.
“I knew about Julio through looking up stuff on the internet and thought I’d love to work with him. After I got signed to PMR, the guy who runs the label also manages Julio and asked me if I’d like to work with him. It was fun because I wasn’t doing the straight house tracks he’s known for and we were writing songs instead. I think it was fun for Julio to escape the house world and go into my romantic, over-the-top world to write with me.”
Ware is as pleased as punch with how Devotion has turned out. Suffice to say she won’t be going back to doing football reports for the Jewish Chronicle anytime soon.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from it when we started working on it. After a few weeks, though, I knew what sound I wanted to have and I knew it was going to be very different to the tunes I had done with other people.
“It all became clear when I wrote Devotion with David. He came to me with this melody and idea and everything fell into place from that point on. It was really about trying things out and getting things wrong and then knowing what I preferred to sound like and going with that. It was trial and error.”
* Devotion is released today on PMR. Jessie Ware plays Dublin’s Sugar Club on November 5