The Music Week Interview: Jessie Ware

The Music Week Interview: Jessie Ware

Before releasing What’s Your Pleasure? in 2020, Jessie Ware wanted to quit music altogether, but a new team and a pivot towards disco bangers changed everything for the singer, resulting in her most successful album yet. This month, she follows it up with That! Feels Good!, which is set to take her reinvention to another level. Here, joined by EMI and Fascination Management, the star opens up about her industry journey and talks pop, empowerment, podcasts and freedom…


Jessie Ware is in her kitchen, rifling through a selection of herbal teas. Settling on a soothing blend called Throat Coat, she fills two mugs with boiling water and drops the bags in.

“I’ve got a cough and you’ve lost your voice – ha, great!” she says, following our somewhat croaky introduction. “Let’s go in the front room, it’s nicer in there. You’re alright with cats aren’t you?”

Bob, the Ware family cat, allows himself a momentary purr as we take a seat, before returning his focus to reclining in silence. Settling on the sofa opposite Music Week in a jumper, jeans and slippers, the singer radiates relaxation and it feels more like we’ve come round to read the papers or watch Bargain Hunt than dissect her music industry story for the afternoon. 

Over the course of our interview, the doorbell rings and Ware’s cleaner arrives, it goes again for a delivery and, at one point, her phone buzzes with a call from manager Peter Loraine, whose ears may or may not be burning (in a good way). Later, Ware interrupts herself mid-sentence to say, “My baby’s up,” her ears auto-tuned to hear her youngest son waking from a nap.

She has always been open, entertaining company and our conversation is replete with the usual mix of laughter and judicious use of the F-word. Today, though, something feels different. There is barely a hint of nervousness, not a trace of the “imposter syndrome” Ware has referenced so often in her career.

“It’s funny, I finally understand the artist side of myself and it’s taken me five albums, I feel lucky,” she says, lingering on the last word. “I’m really comfortable in myself being an older woman in music, I feel very at ease and that’s a nice feeling.”

We’re speaking ahead of the release of Ware’s fifth album That! Feels Good!. Steeped in disco, soul, R&B and pop, the 10-track record is due on April 28 via EMI, where the singer has just signed for a further two albums. She moved across from Island before the release of her 2020 album What’s Your Pleasure?, which has 66,426 sales to date according to the Official Charts Company and charted at No.3, a career peak for Ware. 

Upbeat, extrovert and disco-heavy, it marked a sharp turn away from the serene ballads that had been her calling card. The new album underlines that shift, cementing both Ware’s new era and her relationships with EMI and Fascination Management.

The major’s co-president Rebecca Allen took over in June 2020, the month Ware’s last album came out, and the singer has emerged as a poster act for EMI’s new era.

“She’s found her best voice, she feels free and happy and you can hear that,” Allen tells Music Week. “We’re creating an environment where she can be the best version of herself and I feel proud of that.”

Peter Loraine, meanwhile, confides that he knew Ware was ready for her golden era from the moment they first met five years ago.

“I really do think Jessie’s a proper superstar,” says the manager, who has helped mastermind Ware’s new aesthetic, adding dancers and upping the ante of her performances. “From the minute I met her I was like, ‘You really are amazing.’ I feel like we’re just getting started. It’s not that hard to map out the next 10 years, when we’ll tour, when another record will fall, what other projects we’ll do…”

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For now, though, Ware is focused on That! Feels Good!

“My last album is not a cold record, but when I started it I was quite frustrated and lost and needed dance music to pull me out of a fear of being in music,” says Ware, who was jaded to the point of considering quitting altogether. “The new record is a dance album in another way, it’s groovier, warmer, more colourful and even more confident. There’s an authenticity that feels really reassuring to me as an artist, I’m really making steps. I’ve earned my stripes now.”

Loraine, who gifted Ware Ian Schrager’s Studio 54 coffee table book after their first meeting, has played a key role in enabling the singer to feel the highs. So too has day-to-day manager Sarah Jackson.

“It’s changed my life, my mindset is completely different,” she says. “Peter is thoughtful, engaged and supportive but he’s a realist and he’s got huge experience. He’s a good person, and that’s the thing, there are good people in music. There’s also a stereotype of the type of person that’s in music and there’s plenty of them still there, don’t get me wrong, but once I’d had pure kindness and intelligence… There’s just optimism with him and Sarah, they made me feel excited about being me again.”

In tandem, EMI have restored Ware’s faith in labels.

“I’ve sometimes thought of the label as an enemy and I don’t think that’s fair and it doesn’t give credit to the people that work tirelessly for you,” she says. “I’ve never been in at a label more and felt more connected as I have with EMI, and this is my fifth record. I was always kept at arm’s length away from them, but EMI respect that we go and get it done. I did the A&R on the record and I appreciate that they let me do that.”

Now, aged 38, the London-born artist, English literature graduate and one-time aspiring journalist is in full renaissance mode, buoyed by the sense of freedom What’s Your Pleasure? has given her. Since its release she supported Harry Styles (“I love him, but he’s yet to come round for a Friday night dinner, my mum is on standby!”), headlined Glastonbury’s Park Stage and played to tens of thousands in Chile and Brazil. Finally feeling yourself is a big admission to make after five records, but Ware is philosophical about her path to this point.

“My past records are like ex-boyfriends, well, they’re not all exes,” she smiles. “It’s taken a long time, but I feel like I deserve to be here. We’ve managed to hide the rocky bits and ride the storm, now I’m just going to enjoy it.”

Ware had been something of a hipster’s choice ever since emerging as a vocalist on bassy electronic tracks by the likes of Man Like Me, Joker and SBTRKT. She signed to Island-affiliated, club-focused label PMR and her 2012 Mercury-nominated Top 5 debut Devotion (140,486 sales) was shaped by Sade and The Weeknd’s House Of Balloons. She went on to work on Disclosure’s Settle, before her glossy second album Tough Love (108,839 sales) arrived in 2014, reaching for the mainstream via tracks such as Ed Sheeran co-write Say You Love Me (179,740,761 Spotify streams). Glasshouse, released in 2017, was sleeker still but Ware, who had her first child in 2016, looks back upon its release with mixed feelings and emerged from the campaign at a low ebb.

“I did it for the wrong reasons, I was trying to bang on the doors of these male suits and prove that you can have it all, do it all and still remain relevant, but actually it felt really impossible,” she says. “I was also reaching, and kind of failing, because people didn’t want to hear it and I was really blue and struggling. That was quite hard.”

When the Glasshouse tour finished, Ware parted ways with her previous management and thought seriously about pursuing other ventures. In 2017, she had launched the Table Manners podcast with her mother Lennie, where her friend Sam Smith was the first guest, and it was building momentum that would snowball. 

In the end, it was a frank conversation with David Joseph, chairman & CEO of Universal Music UK, that convinced her to make another album.

“David Joseph has always been incredible to me and I’ll never forget that he let me move labels when I was really desperate,” Ware says, a hint of trepidation in her voice. “I was so unhappy and he could see it and he listened to me and supported me. He was kind when I didn’t think there was much kindness left. I respect him so much.”

And so Jessie Ware moved from Island to EMI, with Joseph’s words of encouragement ringing in her ears.

“He’d given me a lifeline and I had to do the other bit,” she says. “The big top dog at Universal was essentially looking out for me, he knew I was not happy, I hadn’t had a successful last record and he was still willing to let me try and pursue this. But he was like, ‘Jessie, you know, this needs to work,’ and I knew it needed to work too! Weirdly, it stayed with me, but it wasn’t driving the sessions, I wasn’t like, ‘Well, what’s DJ gonna [think]?’ I felt supported and like I could do my work and that was a really great feeling.”

When Music Week spoke to Ware and her team in 2020, Joseph was unequivocal in his praise. “We adore Jessie and we all want her to win,” he said, adding that her “natural talent and fearless curiosity” have allowed her to “consistently reimagine her art while never being afraid to reinvent”.

Those comments are underlined by That! Feels Good!, which bends Ware’s sound in new directions. Alongside previous collaborators James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Florence + The Machine), Danny Parker (Shawn Mendes, Nick Jonas) and Shungudzo Kuyimba (Little Mix), Ware added Stuart Price (Madonna, Dua Lipa) and Sarah Hudson (Dua Lipa, Katy Perry) to the mix, resulting in a sharp record, focused squarely on the dancefloor. 

Lead track Free Yourself (debuted at Glastonbury last summer) and second single Pearls (equal parts I’m Every Woman and Can’t Get You Out Of My Head) thrill and pulsate, while the likes of Hello Love and Lightning show that even Ware’s dreamier side now has a harder edge.

“I was in a much happier place going into this record, so I wanted it to feel triumphant, colourful and positive, without sounding saccharine,” she says. “It was really fun to throw everything at it and not think that anything was too much, to have different moments and personalities.”

The opener begins with breathy repetitions of, ‘That feels good,’ sent in via WhatsApp from a cast of friends including producer Benny Blanco and Roísín Murphy. Exaggerated spoken word sections crop up often, hamming things up deliberately. Ware wanted the album to feel glitzy, slathered with sparkle.

“Lyrically, it’s storytelling, but not necessarily all my stories,” she says. “It’s about sensuality, sexuality, confidence, empowerment, freedom, pleasure… It’s really nice to be making music with ease that hopefully can be enjoyed with ease. I’ve definitely leant into – and this is probably the most uncool thing to say – melodrama, musical theatre and the art of performing a song.”

It is pop with capital P, a concept Ware hasn’t aligned herself with until now.

“I don’t feel like I’m the most straightforward pop star, I was reluctant to enter into it,” she says. “It’s so weird that it took for me to be in my mid-30s to feel I can make the bangers. God, I’m making myself sound like a bloody old biddy! I’m an unconventional pop star, which means I can sit in different worlds quite comfortably.”

It’s true, Ware’s music is multi-generational. Free Yourself was first played as Clara Amfo’s Hottest Record on BBC Radio 1, Pearls is on the Radio 2 A List when we speak and Begin Again, her next single, is prime 6 Music material. 

But Ware also straddles audiences beyond her songs. Table Manners has attracted 50 million listeners across 15 series and, after our interview, she is off to her mum’s in Clapham to host Alastair Campbell on the latest episode. Ware, who runs her own production company, launched pregnancy podcast Is It Normal?, hosted a Donna Summer documentary on Radio 4 in 2020 and has just completed a stint filling in for Jo Whiley on Radio 2. She also has a TV show and a musical in the works. Then there’s the Table Manners cookbook and Omelette, her book of food writing and memoir.

Ware couldn’t imagine a life without her outside interests. So, we ask, would you say you have good business acumen?

“Apparently not when I signed my first deal!” she hoots. “But the podcast has made it easier to be able to take more risks with music. It’s very satisfying when you see something that doesn’t feel like work become a really successful product. It scratches an itch that I had before I was a singer.”

While she admits that her other ventures mean she can now say she’s a success in business, not everything she’s tried has worked.

“Baby clothes, that was a failure,” she says, referring to the Anyware range she launched in 2019. “That was not being a good businesswoman. But I tried it, it’s not the end of the world. I’m lucky that I get to have these opportunities and I want to keep trying things. Right now, it feels limitless…”

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Those words, you’d imagine, would be music to the ears of any music executive, and judging by the beaming smile on Rebecca Allen’s face, they certainly are.

We’re on EMI’s floor of Universal’s London offices the week after our visit to Ware’s house. The singer is here for her photo shoot and her presence has the place buzzing. Head of marketing David Balls is a blur of energy, creative director Rory Dewar is studying proofs of Ware’s new album artwork and Peter Loraine is zipping around, the picture of a proud manager. 

“Can I just say, I have this love affair with Jessie,” says Allen, thrusting her phone at us with Ware’s Spotify page open. “I’m just showing you because I listen to it all the time. I discovered Jessie through Say You Love Me, that track is on what I would call my forever playlist. When I got the job here, Jessie, along with Annie Mac, were the first two people to reach out and go, ‘Wow, this is incredible, a female president…’ and all of that. I remember Jessie saying, ‘I’m so proud to be on a label where there’s a female president,’ she really leant in at a daunting moment. From that first text, she has supported me and I’ve supported her.”

In fact, it was David Joseph who texted Allen’s number to Ware, and the co-president is quick to underline Ware’s importance to Universal. As well as her extension with EMI, Ware has signed a deal with Mercury Studios and Universal Globe, covering film and TV.

“It’s Universal that are in the Jessie business, we happen to be her record label,” Allen smiles, pointing to our dictaphone and adding, “We just love her and it’s a genuine love, not just for your recorder.”

Allen says their relationship has a family feel and she and Ware frequently swap stories about what their children are up to. The singer also reveals that Allen has shared tips on making the most of games of hide and seek to quickly attend to emails.

Of course, there’s substance behind the good vibes. Indeed, Allen says that Ware exemplifies EMI’s artist development ethos.

“We believe artist development is not just about the beginning,” she says. “For Jessie this is album five, and what we do well is look after our artists no matter what point of their career they’re at. Artist development is about evolution, reaching new audiences, growing our artists, their propositions, their music. And Jessie is all of that.”

Allen cites recent successes for EMI’s Sir Elton John, Loyle Carner and Shania Twain to back up her point. 

“A lot of labels focus on a youth culture, whereas we concentrate on all audiences and [working with] music and artists that can speak to somebody no matter their age, background or where they come from, and that’s really important,” she says.

That thinking feeds into EMI’s plans for Ware’s new album, which David Balls is hoping will be the latest in his 15-strong line of No.1 campaigns. 

“We’ve got a list of all the activations you can do but you just never know,” he says. “The last one went to No.3 and we want to go higher. When it comes out people can make their own judgments, but it is such a strong album, there’s a song for everybody on there.”

Ware is due to front Spotify’s Equal playlist, while there’s activity planned with Apple Music and Amazon Music, too. She took part in Radio 2’s Piano Room earlier this year, belting out Pearls and covering Cher’s Believe (“Before, I would’ve been terrified, but I was like, ‘No, I’m gonna grab it by the horns, let’s go Ken Bruce!’ And it was really successful,” she says).

Balls explains that EMI is leaning heavily on the lockdown success of What’s Your Pleasure? to grow Ware’s impact.

“Her fanbase has evolved quite a lot,” he says. “She’s got a really huge LGBTQIA+ audience and she feels really supported and empowered by that, so that is definitely one of the areas we cater to. But her biggest is still 28-34 year old women, so we’re making sure we’ve got a broad range of content to roll out.”

Led by Allen and Jo Charrington, EMI is working with emerging stars Mae Muller, Caity Baser, Mae Stephens and Bellah Mae, and Allen says Ware can be an example for them. What’s more, she hopes EMI’s work with Ware can show the industry a way forward.

“To see more women running companies, more women in A&R, more young female artists coming through that see people like Jessie trailblazing… that’s got to be our hope,” she says. “The fact we’re having this conversation is really important, it’s when these conversations didn’t happen that was the biggest issue. Now they’re happening, change will come, because people give a shit.”

Allen and Charrington will continue to lead the charge.

“You know people are calling us ShEMI?” Allen smiles. “We love that, but it’s important to say, Jessie’s a mum, she’s got three kids and that’s aspirational. We’re talking about pairing her with some of our younger acts, she’s got her finger on the pulse musically too, and that’s exciting.”

Allen refutes the notion that it’s more difficult for a pop star five albums in to cut through.

“There’s so much opportunity for Jessie and she’s just an important artist, so it shouldn’t come down to how old she is,” Allen says. “Is the music good? Do you feel a connection with that artist? That’s what matters. If the music makes you feel something, then fucking great. End of.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s a hard agree from Peter Loraine.

“People really like Jessie, a lot of younger female artists in particular really look up to her,” he says. “And I would like to say that it’s different than it was years ago, [when it was] like, ‘Are you too old to be in this magazine or on this TV show?’ I don’t think it matters and there aren’t the same kind of outlets anyway.”

Loraine praises Ware’s will to cast her net as widely as she can.

“Jessie once said to me she didn’t mind who listened to her music as long as it was listened to and I loved that,” he says. “So if we’re on a DSP playlist or a radio station that might seem a bit odd she’s like, ‘Great, someone else will hear it!’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, good for you, smart answer.’”

The revelations from her team all point to one thing: the real ace up their sleeve is not just the pop power or podcasts, but Jessie Ware herself.

“This is all a result of Jessie being Jessie,” Loraine says. “She is who you hear and who you see, it’s not like you can make that stuff up. She does appeal to a lot of people and that’s obviously great for us, but it’s not something that you can manufacture, that’s who she is...”

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There’s no mistaking Jessie Ware in the throng of people filling Granary Square in Kings Cross. 

Wrapped up in a coat with her hair in curlers, she emanates pop star energy, flanked by her team as the entire Universal office filters out into the drizzle after a fire alarm test. Our shoot is on hold and there’s only one thing for it.

“Have you had breakfast?” she asks us. “Yes? Well let’s have another one.”

We take shelter in a restaurant and, before we can take our seat, there’s a moment’s pause while a stylist attends to a fallen curl. Then, we go on a deep dive into the menu, Ware orders an omelette and approves our choice of scrambled eggs.

“Elevenses,” she says. “Perfect.”

Conversation flits from the next steps of her album campaign to various family engagements, the trip out she and her kids enjoyed at the weekend, her plans to cook for friends later in the week.

This is who Jessie Ware is – lots of things, all at once.

“There are many different hats that I wear in my career and I also have a voice that can do lots of different things and I’m no longer hiding that,” she says. “I’m having the best time ever, I think the new record represents where I’m at in my career and my life. My job as a musician and an artist is to entertain and let people escape. That’s the intention of this record, it’s not to prove anything to anybody.”

Ware is done with all that. In making That! Feels Good! she has found a way to release the pressure associated with being a pop star.

“I’ve got more in the tank for sure, but I feel content,” she says. “It’s not meant to sound egotistical, but I really believe that [making music] can become so self-involved, it’s all about you and you can become so self-conscious and it’s icky and a bit gross.”

Parenthood has helped Ware gain new perspective, so too has the runaway success of Table Manners.

“It’s a lot of spinning plates, but it works better for me that way,” she says. “It means there’s not this mad onus on the music to be this thing that is everything.”

Now into her second decade as an artist, the joy of such freedom is not lost on Ware, who was so nervous the first time she played Later… With Jools Holland that she sought the services of a hypnotherapist. 

“I used to keep worrying about what was happening next and I was so fearful of it all I didn’t actually enjoy the moments, like being up for a Mercury and having a Top 5,” she says. “This is such a weird job that can feel really taxing and stressful, I almost felt like time was running out. I wish I’d just enjoyed it more.”

While Ware says that’s been her biggest lesson so far, she suggests there are plenty more and says her door is open if any aspiring artists need advice about navigating the music industry.

“I think it’s really hard to be a young pop star, I feel very lucky that I was not pigeonholed into it,” she says. “Then, when the label was surprised by the success of Devotion, you feel this sudden pressure, like, ‘Okay what have you got next?’ It’s incredibly difficult, and I was older as well, I got signed at 27. Imagine being in your early twenties or even a teenager and having to make executive decisions about your career and life when you’re learning how to live.”

Our time with Ware comes after the fall-out from the BRITs’ all-male Artist Of The Year shortlist and the revelation of a Glastonbury bill with no women headliners on the Pyramid Stage. And while Ware has the utmost respect for Emily Eavis and values the BRITs, she’s proud to be a voice for change.

“The people I’m inspired by are majority women or queer artists,” she says. “Roísín Murphy, Rina Sawayama, Charli XCX, Haim, Taylor Swift, Florence Welch, Lady Gaga… My world is governed by really strong female artists. When it comes to awards, is it the be-all and end-all? No. I expect this album to get nominated at the BRITs because I think it’s my best record, but does that work out? No, it doesn’t always fucking work out, Rina and Charli should’ve been up for Best Artist.”

Ware has six BRIT nominations to her name, but is yet to win one. She’ll likely be a strong contender at the 2024 edition, but she’s looking far beyond that. Despite Covid delaying her previous tour (“Financially, it bruised me horrendously”) live has been a cornerstone of Fascination’s strategy and Ware will soon announce her biggest UK dates yet. The plan is to be here for decades to come.

“I’m really into my ’80s music and I go and see artists that I liked when I was younger,” says Loraine. “I said to Jessie, ‘If you’re Belinda Carlisle you can go and play in dozens of different countries because you’ve got a setlist of so many songs that everybody knows and you’ve got a career for the rest of your life.’ I want Jessie to have songs like that, where she can still be performing them in 10, 20 years and even further if she wants.”

Rebecca Allen says that EMI will do all they can to help ensure Ware can put out the music that will make it happen.

“Success with artists on albums four and five is such a great business to be in because it’s the forever business,” she says. “You want to have artists on your label forever and have that beautiful relationship. We were thrilled when Jessie wanted to re-sign with us because we know there’s so much more to come.”

Decades-long pop careers have been in Ware’s thoughts of late. She’s cultivating a new friendship with Kylie Minogue after they worked together on Kiss Of Life from the Australian’s 2021 reissue of Disco, while Table Manners recently welcomed Pink, who Ware says is “fucking great!”

“There’s constant focus on longevity for me,” she says. “I’m not very celeb-y and I’m certainly not a TikTok sensation, although it’d be great if one of my old tunes gets a fucking resurrection on there! But I’ve always been regarded as a catalogue artist, which I think is the highest compliment, that people believe in me to be able to have a catalogue that hopefully has a timelessness to it and can travel.”

With our time in Jessie Ware’s pre-album whirlwind at an end, it seems unthinkable now that she almost quit music. Perhaps that’s what it took for her to unlock her reinvention as a singer, performer, broadcaster and the driving force behind a growing pop empire.

“As soon as I opened myself up to other things, it made music so much easier,” she offers before we say goodbye. “That won’t work for everyone and it doesn’t need to, but it’s been my secret power.”

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