Watch this face: Jessie Ware is the new queen of the Brits

 

Last night, the singer was drinking with friends and family at Sunset Boulevard's most old-school and most rock'n'roll-meets-Hollywood hotel, the Chateau Marmont. On exiting, Ware's sister approached the paparazzi forever on duty outside the famous establishment. Didn't they recognise that raven-haired Englishwoman? She's only one of the UK's hottest musical talents, with a slot on last year's Mercury Music Prize shortlist to her name, plus two Brit Award nominations, all within a scant six months of the release of her well-reviewed debut album Devotion.

No matter that Ware's sister was gently taking the mick out of her younger sibling, who was midway through her first ever US tour. Or that, in LA right now at least, the soul singer's sister is the famous one. Hannah Ware is a model-turned-actress. The 30-year-old recently relocated to LA after a period living in New York, and having completed a spell filming in Chicago. The elder of the London-born sisters stars in Boss, a critically acclaimed drama in which Kelsey Grammer shows serious dramatic chops playing a corrupt Windy City mayor. The series – for which Grammer last year won the Lead Actor (TV Drama) Golden Globe – comes to Channel 4 this spring.

Now, courtesy of her sister, the guest list for Jessie Ware's gig tonight at LA's El Rey Theatre has a touch of the A-list: Grammer is due, as is Jonathan Groff (Glee), who appears in season two of Boss. "It feels like it's proper star-studded!" Ware Jr, 28, will squeal in her strident south-London tones. But she's not just popular by proxy. The woman who was at school with Florence Welch and half of the Maccabees, and who is old friends with Adele, has seen critical acclaim for Devotion ripple across the pond.

"Katy Perry is coming too!" she laughs as she sucks on a steaming teapot (good for her vocal cords, apparently) in her dressing-room a couple of hours before showtime. Ware was introduced to Perry at a concert last year, "and she told me she works out to my music!" – which is an interesting factoid, not least because Ware's music is hardly pumping; it's mostly rich, mellifluous, vintage soul of a kind not heard since the early 1990s or even the 1980s.

Speaking reductively, she is, if you like, the missing link between Sade and Adele. Given that Sade's 2011 US tour made her the sixth-highest-earning star in the country that year, and considering Adele remains queen of the world, you can see why Americans are falling hard for this new Brit export we might henceforth call, ah, Sadele.

"She asked ages ago if she could come – she's been so safe to me," urban-slang-friendly Ware continues of Perry. "She put up a video of [third single] 'Wildest Moments' on her Twitter, and got me shedloads of millions of views from all her followers. So she's been really sweet, telling people they should watch out for me. That's support!" she says with a thrilled shake of her head.

"And oh!" she gasps. "Ryan Gosling is on the guest list tonight!"

Ah, only the handsomest actor in the world.

"Don't! Everyone loves him!" Ware hoots of the Drive and Gangster Squad star. What's weird, she notes, is that earlier today she performed inside LA record-store institution Amoeba and, "Actually some people turned up and it was really cool, and I did a signing for fucking ages, an hour-and-a-half," she rattles on, "and it was really lovely, people making an effort to do that – I was never that person that went to in-stores. I don't know what that says about me – that I'm not a very devoted person?" she ponders.

"So I was doing all that, and then afterwards, Hannah says, 'Oh, there's Ryan Gosling.' She was joking, but I looked back, and it actually was Ryan Gosling! He looks at us, and we both screamed in his face! He wasn't there for me, he was just buying records." Ware leans forward in her chair, eyes wide, mouth open, thinking back. "But I could have had him in the palm of my hand an hour ago! Ryan would have had to watch me cos I was there, singing! But now I'm just the screaming girl! An English tourist, screaming in his face!"

Or, maybe not. Because later, Ware's manager divulged that, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Gosling was on the guest list for the El Rey.

No pressure, then.

This, then, is Jessie Ware: well-connected face about (London) town. Raved-about singer with in-demand vocal skills (she cut her teeth as a vocalist-for-hire on dance tunes). Well raised but gor-blimey English graduate (Sussex University) who went to a nice school (Alleyn's in Dulwich) and whose dad is Panorama journalist John Ware and whose mum is a social worker.

Keen reader: she's finally finished Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, barely managed to complete Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth ("He writes quite coldly, and I didn't like the female character, and I feel like I always want to like the female character – or least understand them slightly"), and proclaims Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia to be "my favourite London book. I couldn't finish [Monica Ali's] Brick Lane, and I've not read any Zadie Smith."

And this, too, is Ware: totally approachable, cheerfully excitable, loudly sweary and utterly down-to-earth, even as her music is giving her gentle lift-off – Devotion has now gone silver in the UK, which means it's sold 60,000 copies. Not a staggering amount, by any means. But enough to make it feel like a natural and manageable progression.

"This is the beginning of the end of my socialising," she smiles as she reflects on the uptick in her fortunes since she was announced a double Brits nominee in early January. "Last year I thought I worked hard. Then I did this last week in America, and I realised I didn't know what hard work was. Having to put eyedrops in before performing on Jimmy Fallon['s talkshow] because my eyes were so bloodshot from lack of sleep, from having to drive through the night to get to somewhere midway so you can get up in the morning and complete the trip…

"I'm not complaining," she adds hastily, "it's been amazing. I can't be a princess about it," she grins. "But last week, it made me think, fuck – I was worried about last year being hard work, but it was only the beginning."

I first met Ware last summer. Her song "110%" was gaining good word-of-mouth and social-media buzz – Tinie Tempah and Daisy Lowe tweeted about the tune, and having opened Radio One's Hackney Weekend, she was one of the stars of the urban festival. Speaking then, a month before the release of Devotion, her focus was simply on getting out her debut album. Having been around the music-industry block, and having tried and/or considered a variety of careers post-university (journalism, documentary film-making, law), she simply wanted the songs she'd co-written and sung to be heard.

"I wasn't worried about it," she thinks. "I was literally like, 'I've had the chance to do this, wicked.' Then people were really nice about it." A Mercury nomination came the following month, and even though she lost out to Alt-J, "it was crazy, just so wonderful. It meant so much to me – also because my best mate was on the next table." (Ware was a schoolmate of Felix White, singer with the Maccabees, who were also nominated.) "I was like, 'Done all right, Fee, haven't we? This is cool!' Then it just keeps on coming – I keep getting all these nice surprises, like the Brits."

At this week's Brit Awards, to be held at London's O2 and broadcast on ITV, Ware is nominated for British Female Solo Artist and British Breakthrough Act. Her progress has been sensibly incremental thus far, but she recognises what even being considered for an award is doing for her. "It's amazing. I'm very appreciative of the nominations – cos Best British Female, right?" she boggles. "People have voted me in for that. And obviously I'm not the Best Female of this year. But just for them to believe in me enough to even put my name forward, that's so amazing, and very generous. I do feel like people are on my side, which is really nice."

She's not wrong. Florence Welch, who was two years below Ware at Alleyn's, remembers the older girl as the star of the school theatrical productions. "She had an amazing voice," Welch told me. "Like really, really amazing." When the school put on Guys and Dolls, Ware snagged the lead role of Adelaide, while Welch was reduced to playing a member of the Salvation Army, dressing in sackcloth brown, and delivering a tea tray. "You know when you have girls at school where people whisper, 'She can really sing'? That was Jessie."

Recalling the show, Ware cackles that, "I remember singing 'A person can develop a cold' with a fucking cold! Cos every time I had a performance, the nerves of actually having to perform in front of people made me develop a cold. And I remember having to be in a leotard for 'A Bushel and a Peck'. And having to really work those fishnets and that leotard. I was like, 'Do I have to wear that?' Cos all the other girls were so leggy and gorgeous. And I was just there trying to style it out.

"But I think we can safely say, who's laughing now?" demurs Ware when she considers Welch's praise. "Florence got out of that brown Sally Army outfit very, very quickly! She's a sweet girl, and she's been really lovely to me."

Adele also pays huge credit to Ware. In the DVD of the former's 2011 performance at London's Royal Albert Hall, she can be seen singling out a couple of girls in the audience. She thanks one of them for playing peace-maker between herself and the other, a girl called Laura Dockrill, from whom Adele had drifted apart. That peacemaker, too, was Jessie.

"Adele and I were at a New Year's Eve party together," Ware told me last year. "I'd been writing with Laura – she's a poet, and her husband is my manager – and she was really sweet at the beginning of me doing music; she really helped me try to be creative. Cos I was such a nervous wreck when I started writing my own songs… And I said to Adele at this party, 'I'm spending so much time with Laura and she really misses you.' Adele was like, 'Oh, I miss her too.' And I said, 'You really should [get in touch],' and that was it. She went and saw Laura, and they became best friends again.

"I was so embarrassed," she admits of the concert. "You can see it in the video, I kinda slide down in my seat. It's just been really good watching Adele's success. I remember watching her play a small tent at Glastonbury. She hates festivals, so she literally must have gone in and out. And she was so captivating always, her and her guitar. I just think I've been surrounded by really amazing people, who have inspired me."

It could all have been so different. Before she went off to study English at university in Brighton, Ware considered following her dad and pursuing a career in journalism. But not current affairs – sports journalism. Ware is a huge football fan (like many a non-Mancunian, she's a Manchester United supporter). One of her early employment highlights was a close-season friendly game between Arsenal and Borehamwood, at which she helped file a match report for the Daily Mirror during a work-experience break from school. (When I told Welch that, as well as possessing a great set of pipes, her former schoolmate knew her way around a 4-4-2 formation, she gasped: "Jessie literally is the dream girl!")

Anyway, before graduating in 2007, Ware had already realised that journalism might not be the soundest career move. "Everyone was like, 'You should be a gossip k journalist.' I was like, 'I'm not gonna be a 3am Girl! How dare you!' Then after uni I wanted to be a documentary-maker, and I worked at a production company and tried to make films about the London Lite newspaper sellers."

While working as a PA at TV company Love Productions, she sat opposite a fortysomething executive named Erika Leonard. Ware began to notice that the producer was losing lots of weight. When Ware asked if she was OK, Leonard replied that she was in love – with Twilight star Robert Pattinson – and was so consumed with passion that she was writing fan fiction. Fan fiction turned to a novel, which turned into three novels, and Leonard turned into EL James, author of the Fifty Shades erotic trilogy. "She used to ask me to read some of her chapters. It was really racy! It made me quite flushed!"

It was all part of the long learning curve that fed into where Jessie Ware has now arrived. But music was where her heart lay. She cites Jack Peñate as a key influence. Another schoolfriend, the singer-songwriter and labelmate of Adele "was really inspiring because he was the first person I knew who had the balls to say, 'I'm dropping out of university cos I just want to do music.' We didn't know anyone who was signed to a record label – but then Jack got signed. And he showed me that anything's possible, however clichéd that sounds. And I really think he inspired Florence as well, because she was a few years younger."

Her friend kept up his encouragement. In fact, prior to this US tour, the last time Ware performed in America was as a backing singer on a tour with Peñate – "Having to share a bed cos there was no room for me cos I wasn't actually supposed to go on the tour!"

What a difference a few years and a critically acclaimed album make. She's thrilled to report that US audiences in the 800-capactiy venues into which she's been booked have been lapping her up. "You know the best thing? They've been quite gay audiences. And having these gay black men voguing at the front, banging the stage, handing me roses – I've had two bunches! I haven't had any in the UK! I've had two rings given to me as well!"

Sure enough, at that night's show, Ware's beautiful voice and languorous tunes captivate the audience, eliciting much adoring whooping and hollering. But back home her teacher-boyfriend Sam – with whom she lives in Brixton – needn't be worried. Like she said, much of her audience are gay. In any case, Ware's post-Brits nomination fame has made him the coolest teacher in school. Even if she walks away empty-handed on Wednesday, she's already triumphed. Right now she's just looking forward to a fun, glitzy, celebratory night out.

"I always said that I would never go to an awards show if I wasn't up for one – I'm not gonna be that person that turns up when you're not nominated. But I'm gonna be the least important thing there. There's gonna be stars there. And I'm up for Best British Female – there's five others in there, including Emeli Sandé! I'm gonna just people-watch in my lovely dress, and have fun."

Said dress, she beams, is being designed for her by a certain Italian fashion label (she asks me to keep it secret), with the titular head of the house customising it herself. "They've been fucking amazing to me," smiles this brilliantly plain-spoken diva-next-door.

Does she get to keep it? "I don't think any other bugger's going to get into it, so I guess! It's going to be bizarre. And I just want to be with the people I know and we'll all have a great laugh." She's even up for DJing at one of the record- company after-parties, should the call come – she and a non-Jewish friend DJ as a team called Yentl and the Gentile, wearing Barbra Streisand T-shirts. "We love Babs!"

And does she think she'll win a Brit? "You know what? It's just nice to be up for a couple," Ware beams. "That's already way more than what I hoped would happen this year. And if I was gonna go and win everything – which is not gonna happen! – what could I do next year?

"I think it's wonderful, the position I'm in, but I just think I need to be able to develop. I need to have things to do next – hopefully! So if don't win them," she shrugs happily, "I'm all right."

The Brits (brits.co.uk) will be broadcast live on ITV1 from 8pm on Wednesday

WHAT TO EXPECT AT THE BRITS

By Hugh Montgomery

BEST BRITISH SOLO MALE

Who will win?

Totally and utterly ubiquitous Scots DJ-producer Calvin Harris (above), given his successfully advancing mission to colonise minds with honking, Topman-top-off, Euro-house hooks.

Who deserves to win?

Plan B, thrice over, because he's a great rapper, doesn't sign off on awful puns of his name – ahem, Olly (good Christ) Murs – and might just say some interesting words if he wins.

Who's missing?

Bright Light Bright Light. If we were in the business of bad wordplay, we'd wonder why the judges hadn't caught the rays of this joyous disco-popper. But instead we'll just say: fools.

BEST BRITISH SOLO FEMALE

Who will win?

The one whose name shall not be mentioned (above), lest it encourage any ideas-poor bookers to sign her for another public event. (Clue: her name rhymes with Blemeli Blondé.)

Who deserves to win?

Bat for Lashes, for her single "Laura" alone, a heart-rending lament for lost youth that's particularly poignant when contemplating why you now go to festivals in a motorhome.

Who's missing?

Fab trip-hop singer Delilah, though she can console herself with the fact that she's usurped Liberty X for the revered title of "Best sampler of Chaka Khan's 'Ain't Nobody' of all time".

BEST BRITISH GROUP

Who will win?

It gets a bit "Zero Dark Thirty" here, as we'd say One Direction, but for the furore over Zayn's alleged endorsement of Aussie waitresses tainting their artistry. So Mumford & Sons.

Who deserves to win?

Oh, go on then Muse. Stadium-rocking wannabe-ubermenschs that you are, you really do trample over the wispy-cum-waistcoated-cum-wickle-ickle competition.

Who's missing?

2 Bears, the duo comprising Hot Chip's Joe Goddard and Raf Rundell, yet to be recognised for their services to house music for those who typically dance only in their house these days.

BEST BRITISH ALBUM

Who will win?

She shall not be mentioned. So instead can we say that we've keenly followed the trajectory of fellow nominees Alt-J and are down with the backlash to the backlash going on right now.

Who deserves to win?

Another dreamed victory for Plan B, or as his mum might call him, Benji-Wenji-pudding-and-pie. Another point in this LP's favour: it will never be piped through Whole Foods.

Who's missing?

Beth Orton's Sugaring Season. Don't blame her for the term "folktronica" or Ellie Goulding: she didn't invent them, we did. And this one was folktronica without the tronica and a beaut.

BEST BRITISH BREAKTHROUGH ARTIST

Who will win?

Rita Ora, who has been guided by fans to three No 1s and by MC Hammer to dress in Hammer pants. If she wins, we're pretty sure it's the latter she should be thanking.

Who deserves to win?

Jessie Ware. Which might seem like a convenient choice, given the hulking great feature above, but actually derives from the sad fact of us vainly wanting to be her friend.

Who's missing?

Django Django, the new band of last year, by virtue of being art-rockers with tangible tunes – and they evoked a Quentin Tarantino film that hadn't even been released yet to boot.

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