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Jessie Ware Is All About Tough Love

We talked to the artist about her new album, her engagement, and what it's like to write sex songs with Miguel.

Photo by Tim Zaragoza

Jessie Ware is a master at juxtapositions. Her sound is both classic and modern, her vocals strike somewhere between sultry and sweet, and her lyrics—especially on her new album Tough Love—explore love and pain. She's the rare total package in pop music, especially when it comes to writing about love, a subject that's frequently navigated through clichés. Despite being engaged while working on her followup to 2012's Devotion, Ware looked at love once again through a critical lens, this time with help from Miguel, Blood Orange's Dev Hynes, the xx's Romy Madley Croft, and Ed Sheeran.

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In person, Jessie is just as balanced as her music. She's a force on stage but in conversation she's beyond humble, almost to the point of being self-deprecating, treating herself with the same "Tough Love" she sings about. "I’m not a very interesting person, I don’t think," she says over the phone from her London apartment. But our conversation suggests otherwise. We talked about the slow rise of Devotion, how her engagement affected her songwriting, and what it's like to write sex songs with Miguel.

What have you been up to over the past year since Devotion came out?
I’ve been touring loads and making loads of really nice new friends, writing the album, and getting engaged.

You’ve talked about how you stumbled through the success of Devotion, when you were working on the new album, did you have an a-ha moment like, ‘Oh, this is real now?’
I definitely felt more comfortable with it all this time around around. It was easier for me.

The shelf life of Devotion is pretty spectacular. You ended up having a full year of people discovering it.
I feel like people are still discovering it to be honest. It’s not like a worldwide smash. It still feels like it’s people’s little secret, which is really nice.

What was the waiting period like?
It felt good once the album was out because then people could sing along to songs. Before it was out, I was touring and it was like, ‘Oh shit, no one knows these song and these poor people are having to sit through this singer that they don’t know.’ I was like, ‘This is a new one, you haven’t heard yet. Oh yeah, this is another new one you haven’t heard.’

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It’s interesting hearing you say that you liked how Devotion felt like people’s little secret. Are you hoping that this album will have a wider reach?
I would love my music to be in as many people’s ears as possible because then I’m doing my job right. I’m making music for people—it’s not just for myself. That would be amazing and it’d be a great way for me to start my career. I feel very comfortable that I didn’t shoot for fame and that worked for me better, I think, because I was scared and I wouldn’t have been ready for it. I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily ready for it now but I’ve grown in confidence and I think the new album shows that.

What are you doing for the music at your wedding? Does anyone expect you to perform?
If anyone expects me to perform then they shouldn’t be invited because that would be my idea of hell. If I played my own songs at my wedding, that’d be the tackiest thing ever. My friends are DJing so I trust that it will be good.

Do you feel like there’s any songs on the album that would work for someone else’s wedding?
I wished “Say You Love Me” could work but it’s almost too sad—and that makes me sad. “Desire” could work. “Champagne Kisses” could work because everyone’s drinking champagne, so why not? “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe” if they’re a flirtatious couple. “You and I Forever” could work. That’s about my boyfriend popping the question to me so I don’t see why other people couldn’t relate.

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A lot of the times there’s conflict in the love that you sing about. Did being engaged have any effect on your songwriting? Was it harder to harness pain for some of the sadder songs on the album?
To be honest, no. Writing a song is storytelling. If I feel like I can tell the story beautifully, honestly, or romantically, then it’s probably not happening to me at the time. There’s songs I haven’t written that I totally relate to and I feel like that’s just as valid as your personal experience. I do draw on my experiences but not solely throughout the album because that would probably make a boring record.

Were all of the songs written over the past year?
Yeah, “Tough Love” and “Want Your Feeling” and “Champagne Kisses” were the first songs written in last May.

You mentioned “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe.” When I first heard that song, even without looking at the track listing, I could sense he was involved.
You can sense Miguel’s presence. He says things like “I just want to talk,” “let me come over” and it was pretty racy to hear him doing a take of all that stuff. Rather him than me, because I would have cringed at myself.

Was there any awkwardness in getting that personal with him?
No because he’s the king of that sexy chat. He did his bit and I didn’t think I would have to do it and then [producers] BenZel were like, “Come on.” One of my favorite songs is Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name” and they were like, “It’s your time. Do Alicia.” I was like, “I can’t. I’m gonna die.” I saw how good Miguel was at it and I was like, “Stop it, this is the time to do it.” Mine was very half-assed compared to his. You should have seen how painful it was for me to get on the mic. I sounded excruciating. I’m not as sexy as Miguel.

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How did you get through it?
They had to cut and paste a lot of tape. They cut out me being like, “I can’t do it! I can’t do it!” and kept the bits that sounded relatively okay. You can hear me giggling in it and that was me cringing at myself.

I couldn’t tell at all that you struggled with it. You sound like a pro.
The thing is now it’s really fun to do live and I’m really happy I got it. At the time, I was like, “Fuck this. This is really painful.”

When you and BenZel were working in the studio, what kind of mood did you aim for on the production?
We wanted it to be a certain form of soul, combined with their forward production. I think Benny and Ben wanted me to sing soulfully but with more directness. We were talking about people like Maxwell and Sade—I don’t think I necessarily sound like either of them but they were references. We wanted to make something that was classic and could feed into years to come.

Sade has been the main point of comparison to your music. What was your reaction when that started happening?
I think I encouraged it because I go on about how much I adore her. It’s a massive compliment because I adore her and she’s my favorite artist.

Have you had contact with her?
No, I’ve met Andrew [Hale] and Stuart [Matthewman] from the band but not her. I think I’d freak out. She’s amazing.

Marissa G. Muller would also freak out if she ever met Sade. She's on Twitter.