Jessie Ware: ‘I self-loathed and apologised for myself for far too long’

The singer-songwriter has followed up her career-revitalising fourth album with ‘That! Feels Good!’, a feast of camp reverie inspired by Teena Marie and Minnie Riperton. She speaks to Adam White about insecurities, allyship and no longer being self-critical

Wednesday 26 April 2023 10:02 BST
‘Oh God, I’m gonna sound really happy-clappy in this piece, aren’t I?’
‘Oh God, I’m gonna sound really happy-clappy in this piece, aren’t I?’ (Supplied)

The rhythm came for Jessie Ware. Once the queen of elegant mid-tempos and Ed Sheeran co-writes, she’s now the shiny glitterball of the disco revival that coincided with Covid, a singer-songwriter who seems to exist in declarative statements. That! Feels Good! exclaims the title of her new album. Her live shows! Now have choreo! Her mic stand! Is also a whip! In the kitchen of her label’s Central London office, the 38-year-old is bright and loud and maternal. “You must! Have a warm drink!”

Ware emanates positivity. Between the club bops and the carefree ease of Table Manners, the hit celebs-eating-round-her-kitchen-island podcast she hosts with her mum, she’s arguably the modern pop star most happy to be there. But didn’t Ware used to be, well, a bit of a misery guts? “You probably thought, ‘Oh, that poor woman…’,” she says, before erupting into a cackle. “What I was doing was not giving enough of myself in my music. But that’s only because I was scared.”

The London-born singer’s early interviews make for deflating reading. When she emerged just over a decade ago in a cluster of bright, young, privately educated Brits making music (Florence Welch and Jack Peñate are mates), she was the chronically insecure enigma of the pack, someone who’d spot a journalist’s dictaphone and then instantly put herself down. “I didn’t think I was very good,” she says, with a grimace. “And I’m sad about that now. I didn’t think I was deserving of attention and acclaim. It really irked me. I’d seen people around me have their careers taken away in an instant and I felt like I’d [experienced] quite smooth-sailing.” She regrets it now. “I self-loathed and apologised for myself for far too long.”

Devotion, Ware’s 2012 debut, was the kind of album that nascent stars dream of – its minimalist production and honeyed vocals seemed to mark her as a millennial Sade, and she picked up a Mercury Prize nod for her efforts. But her two follow-ups – 2014’s Tough Love and 2017’s Glasshouse – were less certain of themselves, Ware seemingly caught between commercial pressure and heart-on-sleeve authenticity. Then in 2020, amid a label switch and a change in management, she broke bad: her fourth album What’s Your Pleasure? was an orgiastic platter of luxe disco, which has now given way to the camp reverie of That! Feels Good!. But it feels wrong to call all this a reinvention. Think of it more as a realignment, or a puzzle piece slotting correctly into place.

“I’ve never been a struggling artist,” she says. “I’ve never wanted people to think I’ve had a tough time in the industry. I’m making celebratory music that’s meant to be enjoyed. And that’s not that complicated. I’m not that complicated.”

When Ware says she’s an uncomplicated person, though, she’s not putting herself down. Rather, there’s an unmistakable lightness to her. I first glimpse her at the centre of a huddle of enthralled publicists hanging on every word of her very gossipy tale of school-gate drama (she has three children between the ages of one and six with her teenage sweetheart, a personal trainer named Sam). Then, once we’re sitting in a private office nearby, she peppers me with questions. Somehow Jessie Ware knows about my background, career history and a handful of my past relationships before her coffee has finished steaming. Despite once interning at The Jewish Chronicle and being the daughter of veteran BBC journalist John Ware, she says she never had dreams of writing for newspapers or magazines – but there is something of the journalist about her. She’s probing. Thoughtful. Interested. She seems to edit in real-time, repeatedly summoning the idea of the piece I’ll end up writing about her.

That! Feels Good! is a record built upon sonic indulgence, and what I assume to be a vast catalogue of influences. I tell Ware I hear Earth, Wind & Fire, Evelyn “Champagne” King, Countess Luann… “Countess Luann?” Ware looks puzzled. There is a track on the album that – to my ears at least – echoes the mercilessly camp 2010 single “Money Can’t Buy You Class” by former Real Housewives of New York star Luann de Lesseps, in which the socialite and reality TV staple speak-sings a tribute to luxury grandeur. Ware has, in fact, never heard the song and promptly pulls up her Spotify in search of it. “Oh my God, she’s verified!” Ware taps play, a tinny, chintzy bassline erupting out of her iPhone speakers. She looks mortified. “Hmm. I was going for ‘Vogue’, Grace Jones… I was thinking more B-52s, babe.”

Whenever I’m being self-deprecating or a Negative Nancy, my team stops me

Ware goes long on her actual influences: the cosmic melodies of Minnie Riperton, Teena Marie’s funk-pop bombast, the psychedelic soul of the Rotary Connection. “I wanted it to feel sensual and sexy,” she says. And it does – plus exuberant, playful, and very, very gay. Think of this record and What’s Your Pleasure? as the Bert and Ernie of modern Studio 54 revivalism, or a pair of queer-coded dopamine hits you can’t really imagine existing separately.

Ware has always had a queer fanbase, but it’s been boosted exponentially in the last few years. It’s something she tells me she takes seriously. I ask her whether politics is part of her allyship, particularly at a time of rising homophobia and transphobia, and whether she thinks about how she uses her platform. “I’m still learning how to use my allyship,” she says. “I mean, yes, I create music and it’s enjoyed and I feel protective of the LGBTQ+ community, but I’m sure there’s more I could be doing. It’s kind of a beautiful new relationship.”

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She says that she’s attended London protests against the far right and their targeting of trans people and drag queen story hours, but struggles to articulate her activism publicly. “I don’t ever want it to feel performative,” she says. “I’m trying to do my bit, but first and foremost it’s music that I’m giving, then learning and listening. But I’m sure there’s a lot more that I’ll do. I know my responsibility.”

‘The next tour is gonna be great. I’m gonna make it be great. I’m throwing that out into the universe. Do I sound slightly cray-cray?’ (Supplied)

You get the sense that Ware is trying to find that sweet spot between the feather-light bliss of her music and the seriousness of the world it’s being released into. That same hesitancy extends to her own career and some of the wider industry machinery she’s criticised in the past: the tours that lost her money, the albums that didn’t meet creative expectations, an infamous set-time clash with Cardi B at Coachella in 2018 that saw her play to literally tens of people. “I try not to talk about all of that anymore, because I don’t want to sound like a f***ing broken record,” she says. “I talked about it then, and now I’m changing my outlook on it. The next tour is gonna be great. I’m gonna make it be great. I’m throwing that out into the universe. Do I sound slightly cray-cray?” I tell her she doesn’t – just positive.

She credits her new outlook to her management. “This is really boring for readers, but [my team] are the most optimistic people, and whenever I’m being self-deprecating or a Negative Nancy, they stop me. It’s so easy to catastrophise, or spiral out of control. I remember saying that if this all went to s*** after album one, I’d become a teacher, and that’d be fine – but I don’t need to think like that anymore. I’ve created a career.”

Suddenly, she enters self-edit mode. “Oh God, I’m gonna sound really happy-clappy in this piece, aren’t I? I promise that deep down I’m still a dark, pessimistic person. I’m just trying to bring out the glass-half-full side now.”

So: the same Jessie Ware. Only brighter. Bouncier. And with exclamation marks.

‘That! Feels Good!’ is released on 28 April, while Ware tours the UK in November. Tickets go on sale this Friday at

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