Jessie Ware talks pop, podcasting and her disco-fuelled new era

Jessie Ware talks pop, podcasting and her disco-fuelled new era

Now 10 years into her career, Jessie Ware has excelled in pop, presenting and podcasting. On the eve of her disco-flavoured fourth album, Music Week meets the singer, Universal Music UK chairman & CEO David Joseph, Virgin EMI’s Ted Cockle and Fascination Management to find out why the best is yet to come... 

Oh God! I sound well wanky, sorry...” Jessie Ware is talking Music Week through the reasons her Table Manners podcast has revitalised her music career, and catches herself after explaining that her weekly show – which has just ticked past 13 million total listens, 1m of which came since lockdown started – has enabled her to revel in a new “creative space”.

But we can forgive the singer for slipping into music industry speak, given that, right now, her every waking moment is consumed with promoting her fourth album What’s Your Pleasure?, which lands on June 26 via PMR/Virgin EMI. She delayed it a week, in honour of Juneteenth, which celebrates African-American freedom in the US. Ware is a keen activist and joined the Black Lives Matter protests in London. She has also been supporting the fight to save Nour Cash & Carry in her beloved Brixton. Meanwhile, she has made lockdown music videos from home and performed on Graham Norton and James Corden’s chat shows, using a green screen, disco lights and her husband’s iPhone torch, to conjure the sleek visuals that have become her trademark. “My career is in a really good place, I’ve learned loads and the music is only feeling so good because of the podcast,” she explains. “I don’t take myself too seriously, and the podcast certainly demonstrates that.”

Anyone who’s paid close attention to Ware – who emerged in 2010 singing breathily on bassy club tracks alongside acts like Sbtrkt, Joker and Man Like Me – will be aware that she’s an open, often hilarious character who spins a wicked yarn. But Table Manners, which launched in 2017, has afforded her an altogether different platform. Now, millions of people are getting to know the real Jessie thanks to a show that involves Ware and her mum Lennie feeding and interviewing a range of guests that stretches from her mates and collaborators like Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, to Sadiq Khan and Sandi Toksvig. Her rising profile led to a TV slot co-presenting Later... With Jools Holland last year.

“Initially, the podcast made me think, ‘Isn’t this what work should feel like?’ I don’t want to sound all woe is me and get the old violins out, but I realised I’d lost a sense of joy and enthusiasm for music and the promotion aspect,” says Ware, who’s at home in London on the same sofa she’ll chat to Corden from hours after our interview. “And when I thought that people potentially weren’t that interested in me, the podcast was an escape.”

Ware hit something of a wobble in 2017, after seven years in music. Her Mercury-nominated Top 5 debut Devotion (132,618 sales, OCC) established her as a soul singer fresh from the clubs, and two more Top 10 records – Tough Love in 2014 (93,718 sales) and 2017’s Glasshouse (43,412) – cemented her as an original, modern pop voice. But a nagging feeling of disillusion lingered after Glasshouse, which candidly explored Ware’s journey through music and motherhood. As her podcast took shape, what would become of her artist career?

With her enthusiasm waning rapidly, Ware and her young family endured a gruelling US tour that saw her lose money. She’s talked often about a sparsely attended slot at Coachella, and wants to set the record straight about a show and its associated hearsay that have assumed more importance than they deserved.

“I’m so fucking bored of talking about it,” she says. Honestly, it was a shit gig but it’s fine, everyone is just hanging onto that. My mum keeps on saying, ‘I never told you to quit music, your tour manager did’ [laughs]. She’s really annoyed about it!”

When I thought that people potentially weren’t that interested in me, the podcast was an escape

Jessie Ware

The unmanaged Ware returned home from California to two weeks of pre-booked studio time with James Ford in East London. Her podcast was just beginning to take flight and she had visions of recording an album that would draw inspiration from ’70s disco, Studio 54 and the hedonistic undercurrent that made her early releases so vibrant. She had a word with Universal Music UK chairman and CEO David Joseph about her plans, and engineered a move from Island to Virgin EMI, to reunite with Ted Cockle, who’s long been a Jessie Ware cheerleader.

“I went into the studio in total limbo, and I asked David Joseph to move labels,” she says. “I was desperate to work with Ted Cockle again, he was at Island when I was there on my first record and had been a champion of mine even from the sidelines, he’d come to shows and keep in contact. David has always had a lot of time for me, which I really appreciate, and he made it happen. I’ll be forever grateful.”

It turns out a beaming Joseph is just as happy with the move. “We adore Jessie,” he tells Music Week. “She is hugely engaging, immensely talented and genuinely hilarious – we all want her to win. Her natural talent and fearless curiosity have allowed her to consistently reimagine her art while never being afraid to reinvent, and the new record is testament to that.”

Cockle is on hand to elaborate further on Universal’s Jessie Ware love-in.

“If things hadn’t worked out for me running a record company, I probably wouldn’t be a bad person to run the Jessie Ware fan club,” he says

“I’m probably a soft touch because I’m such a fan. We share the same references, I want to listen to what’s important to her and I share an enthusiasm for the things she gets excited about. I like the subtlety and understated nature of her music and she happens to be very beautiful, very stylish and funny as fuck at the same time. What’s not to like?”

Cockle’s enthusiasm is matched by Peter Loraine and Sarah Jackson of Fascination Management, who, after several calls from different people across the industry (including Ware’s agent David Levy at WME) met with the singer just after her first session for What’s Your Pleasure?.

“Sometimes, you can immediately conjure up a vision of what the performances, videos and everything else will be like, and straight away I could imagine the whole year of promoting the album,” says Loraine, admitting it was love at first sight when Ware arrived at Fascination HQ. “We had lots of chats about Studio 54 and disco, and the other main strand to the conversation was the podcast. It was being talked about and people were really liking it, her skill in making a great podcast was there, but she didn’t know how to turn it into any kind of business. One of the first things we did was put together a proper business plan.”

Loraine’s team had never worked on a podcast before, and Jackson says it’s proved just as exciting – and time consuming – as the album.

“It was exciting to get our heads around something we’d not done before that felt like it had legs. It felt like it could really go somewhere, as if a huge opportunity was around the corner. Now, she’s given herself a platform to be able to say to listeners, ‘I’ve just announced my tour,’ which is phenomenal, really.”

We adore Jessie, she is hugely engaging, immensely talented and genuinely hilarious

David Joseph, Universal Music UK

The podcast helped solve the problem of portraying an artist’s true personality: nectar for music execs, in other words.

“This is the perfect, uncontrived way to do it,” says Loraine. “There she is each week and people are tuning in of their own accord, we aren’t having to find other ways of doing that, it’s a dream. One of the targets on this record is to grow Jessie and that is definitely possible. We have real high hopes and a great record to work with.”

And what of the artist at the centre of all this executive excitement?

Jessie Ware is happier than she has been in years, and if one listen to What’s Your Pleasure? makes that clear, then an hour’s conversation sets it in stone. She frequently references her renewed confidence, and cracks up laughing more than once, particularly when we suggest she might reap the benefits of being ahead of the music podcasting curve.

“It makes me chuckle, I’ve had many a music exec approach me – in a really wonderful way, don’t get me wrong – to congratulate me on the podcast, and in my head everyone thought maybe I’d stop making music,” she says. “It was quite delicious because I knew I had this good record. It’s quite fun surprising people.”

Ware says she could have done with some of this positivity back when Devotion first thrust her into the limelight.

“I thought it was undeserved because I was new and I’d just started, so I was constantly feeling apologetic,” she says. “I wish I’d owned it a bit more. Self-deprecation becomes slightly exhausting. Now I look back and think it was total imposter syndrome and I wonder if that was almost detrimental to me. I felt I was undeserving of being in this industry, it seemed like such a bizarre job title, it always felt like a dream, however naff that sounds. Then, you get a bit battered down, you keep working... Now I’m trying to really enjoy it.”

Confidence has been key to Ware’s newfound perspective, reinforced by her rejigged team, which still includes Ben and Daniel Parmar, whose PMR Records joined up with Virgin EMI in 2019. She says the podcast has become her “biggest PR tool by total accident”, but you get the impression that this drive has always been there, and now the stars have aligned in such a way that’s allowing her to take full advantage.

“I felt like I could make any record I wanted. I’ve always been known as this ‘underground’ or ‘underrated artist’, which I actually disagree with, I’m on my fourth record and lots of people don’t get to this point,” she says.

“But there’s always been this sense that people haven’t discovered me fully and what the podcast did was show a complete other side to me that you don’t get to see when you hear an album, and a personality that I wasn’t able to present in my music because I didn’t particularly want to. People like David and Ted fully celebrated and encouraged that. They don’t get involved in it, but they understand it as a really powerful tool. I didn’t know how powerful it could be.”

For Ted Cockle, Jessie Ware is “many things to many different people”.

“The horizons are broad, often it becomes an ever-diminishing set of opportunities for artists and they struggle, as careers go on, to tell a bigger story,” he says.

“With each year, Jessie adds more to her story. You feel the need to represent her; I love what she stands for in contemporary culture. It’s important to back a multi-faceted artist who makes you laugh with a twisted deviant sense of humour. She’ll go, ‘Oh, fuck off!’ but with a great deal of charm. She’s supremely entertaining.”

As release day looms, more and more people are cottoning onto Cockle’s way of thinking. He’s hoping for another Top 10 finish, but this campaign transcends just one album and feels like a watershed moment for Ware’s career.

“I do feel like I’ve survived a little bit,” she says, before heading off to fire up Zoom for James Corden. “I feel like I’m getting better, my confidence is there now. I’ve always felt that I’ve never been able to be defined by one genre and now I can’t be defined by one job. It feels limitless...”

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