“We shall be dancing, I shall be singing, we shall be flirting; it will be fun, it'll be great.”
The UK pop icon Jessie Ware is back – and in every way. In 2013 she first toured Australia with Laneway, then a post-dubstep soul vocalist and a buzzy new act. Now, having had a disco epiphany, an empowered Ware is enjoying a glorious renascence behind her 2020s albums What's Your Pleasure? and That! Feels Good! – prompting what she artfully refers to as a "redemptive" media narrative. And Ware is finally returning to headline the Summer Camp festival, a celebration of queer community and culture.
Over the past decade, Ware has established a many-sided career as a singer, songwriter, podcaster, culinary author and entrepreneur while raising a young family – her third child born nearly a year after 2020's comeback What's Your Pleasure?
Though a celebutante in Britain, Ware has retained her effervescent, unfiltered charm. Zooming from her London home, she jokes about domestic bedlam. "I'm really, really good," Ware greets. "What am I doing? It's the morning, I'm having a coffee, I've just had a boiled egg. We're all good." Convivial, and digressive, Ware has a lot on her plate. She's rehearsing for a North American tour – most dates sold-out.
At one stage, Ware's cherubic toddler bounds into the camera frame – husband Sam swooping in to help, the scenario recalling 2017's 'BBC Dad' meme. "Sorry, that's my son deciding to get in on the action," Ware sighs patiently, explaining to him sweetly that she's "doing a chat”. Away from the kids, Ware is deliciously sweary. Very mother.
The South Londoner never envisaged herself as a pop star. She grew up in modest middle-class surrounds, living with her Jewish mum Lennie, a social worker – her parents divorced. Ware would study English Literature at uni and follow her father, respected investigative reporter John Ware, into journalism prior to becoming an assistant at a TV production company.
Ware sang in childhood, performing in musicals. Later gigging in a jazz-funk band, she was invited by old schoolmate Jack Peñate to be his live backing vocalist – leading to work with the dubstep act SBTRKT. Signing to the boutique PMR Records, Ware set about making her debut with the likes of The Invisible's David Okumu.
Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter
In 2012 Ware released Devotion, pioneering nightbus – an electronic take on a quiet storm, only as much an aesthetic as a genre. Lionised, the album reached the UK Top 5 and was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. An expanded edition saw Ware covering Bobby Caldwell's '70s evergreen What You Won't Do For Love and she subsequently duetted with the man himself, beloved in Black America, on his Jack Splash collab Break Away.
Ware – a torch singer comparable to the enigmatic Sade – segued into high-street popdom on 2014's sophomore, Tough Love, co-writing the hit Say You Love Me with pal Ed Sheeran. Three years on, she pivoted again, presenting the deeply personal, and balladic, Glasshouse – exploring family, marriage and motherhood. Alas, both projects were slept-on internationally due to poor promotion, Ware losing momentum and confidence.
As a diversion, Ware launched a podcast, Table Manners, alongside Lennie, the duo "nattering" to inclusive guests across the spectrum of music, culture and politics over home-cooked meals – "oversharing guaranteed." It's proven a runaway success, with even Dolly Parton rocking up. The Wares published a recipe book. Above all, Table Manners enabled Ware to show her full personality – and on her own terms.
Table Manners has been especially popular in Australia. "I feel like the podcast almost brought me back into people's ears before the music did," Ware says. "I really appreciate the Australian audience for that – because they get it, they love it; they support me and Lennie."
Ware imagined that What's Your Pleasure? might be her swan song. Reuniting with producer James Ford, a minor contributor to Tough Love, she sonically moodboarded the album – her desire to cut groove-oriented material. On the ensuing What's Your Pleasure? Ware revelled in rapturous disco – the finale Remember Where You Are, sanguine psychedelic soul, a homage to Chicago's Rotary Connection.
Unwittingly, Ware intuited a collective craving for joy, romantic freedom and deliverance as the COVID-19 pandemic descended. What's Your Pleasure? scaled the UK charts at #3, made prestigious 'Best Of The Year' lists and was nominated for the BRIT Awards' Album Of The Year. Besides, Ware found channelling a disco diva liberating – and she solidified her LGBTQIA+ fanbase. Unfortunately, Ware couldn't immediately hit the road. "It took so long for us to get to the point where we actually were allowed to tour it."
Last October Ware opened for Harry Styles' Love On Tour residency in Chicago, accompanying him on a duet version of Cinema off Harry's House, his fervent young fans welcoming. "Obviously, he's a phenomenon," Ware enthuses. "He's very talented. He's a lovely person. But it was so interesting to be a fly-on-the-wall and see that [show] unfold every night and just how he has that [reception] in every continent – it's wild."
This year Ware issued That! Feels Good!, heralding "the beginning of a new era" – the opus encompassing Diana Ross-mode disco, funk, New Wave and more sumptuous soul. In addition to Ford, Ware engaged Stuart Price, despite her initial reservations that, as the super-producer involved in Madonna's Confessions On A Dance Floor, he'd impose. Happily, they clicked – Ware previewing the flirty lead single Free Yourself, nu-disco with stomping piano and a French house sensibility, at 2022's Glastonbury.
In interviews Ware has alluded to struggles with anxiety, imposter syndrome and overthinking. But What's Your Pleasure? renewed her self-belief as an artist in an industry that marginalises women 30-plus – radio programmers routinely accused of gendered ageism. Crucially, Ware has resolved to create instinctively – and to live mindfully.
Ware received a second Mercury Prize nomination for That! Feels Good! – further validation. She attended the ceremony with Lennie, Ford and her American songwriting cohort Coffee Clarence Jr.
"I think the Mercury was a lovely way to celebrate what I already knew was a good album – or what I thought. I mean, look, awards – they're a funny thing, 'cause you always appreciate being up for them, and then you always kind of poo-poo them if you're not up for them, don't you? So to be up for the Mercury 10 years on, that was the thing that I held on to and really celebrated and enjoyed.
"I'm really proud of the record. I think it's hopefully gonna be one that does what Devotion did for me and What's Your Pleasure? and will stand up in years to come."
Ware is friends with Kylie Minogue – the Princess Of Pop among the uncredited vocalists on That! Feels Good!'s title-track. Indeed, after Minogue graced Table Manners, Ware duetted on her 2021 bop Kiss Of Life – and they've since performed it live, most recently at Leicester's Radio 2 In The Park. Ware fancies supporting the Padam Padam star on tour. "I love watching her work," she effuses. "She's like a big sister that you learn from. She's got so much experience. People adore her and respect her and love working for her and with her. I'm so in awe of that woman."
Ware missed the 10th anniversary of Devotion. She tells of a phone conversation with Okumu in which he urged her to hype it. "He was like, 'I feel like you're doing the album a disservice,'" Ware divulges. "I said, 'Look, it's become this kind of arc and a bit of a beast of a kind of narrative for What's Your Pleasure? and the kind of 'redemption of a singer.'"
However, Ware has rosy memories of her breakthrough. "I adored that experience – it's probably my most cherished time in the studio," she says. "Even if I wasn't the artist that I am now – and I doubted myself so much – I knew that that was a special record. But I do feel like I need to start being able to celebrate it and talk about it and not in this [negative way] – like opposite to the success of this [phase] – because it was such a beautiful time and nurturing time. I do love that record."
The restive Ware is already contemplating her sixth album – fulfilling a dance music trilogy. She's hinted at a clubbier foray, possibly going techno. In 2018 Ware dropped the standalone Overtime with Belfast combo Bicep's input and lately she's commissioned upfront club remixes – Joe Goddard transforming the gospeldelia Begin Again into an acid house banger.
"I wanna go a bit harder in the final chapter to these records," she affirms. "I really wanna feel like it's that bit when you are deep in the dance – and it's not about the flirting… Yeah, I feel like I'm gonna do a dance record next. It's gonna be harder, maybe a bit of techno…
"I don't really know that much techno. My brother goes to this [underground] club called FOLD in London and he's like, 'It's the greatest experience!' So maybe I should go clubbing with him a bit and see whether it moves me. But I definitely wanna go hard – and then I probably will go back to an album like Devotion. I feel like it's kind of cyclical. I'm doing my dance thing. [But] I don't wanna stray away always from the R&B and soul element.”
A tastemaker herself, Ware's own listening habits could provide clues as to her future direction – and curation. She raves about Romy Madley Croft's debut Mid Air, the pair previously songwriting together. "I'm so proud of her. I think the record's brilliant. I remember she played it to me probably over a year ago. I was really excited. She's completely doing what she wants. It's completely her passion. She has The xx, and they're amazing, and then she has this obsession with Eurodance pop – and I love that she's just completely embraced it."
Ware rates, too, British jazzers Ezra Collective, whose Where I'm Meant To Be won the Mercury. "I was really thrilled for them."
Latterly, she's discovered the late Sinéad O'Connor's early LP The Lion And The Cobra. "I knew Nothing Compares 2 U, I knew a couple of songs, but I'd never really delved into Sinéad O'Connor properly. So I was just listening to that the other day – and that was really beautiful."
In the UK, Ware will be a judge on ITV's reality show MAMMA MIA! I Have A Dream and she's "been listening to a lot of bloody ABBA," adding, "their melodies and the wildness of where they go, I just find it fascinating and brilliant."
Still, Ware's offspring often choose the music. "My kids are obsessed with this song called Astronaut In The Ocean by Masked Wolf and so we listen to that a lot." She's surprised to hear that the rapper is Australian. "Wow, I wonder if he'll be at Summer Camp – what do you think?" Ware laughs. "That's so funny. Oh my God, that's brilliant. Yeah, my kids are obsessed with [Astronaut]. All kids are obsessed with this song… It's a tune! It's very good."
Evidently, Ware isn't easing off extra-curricular activity. Amid the pandemic she wrote Omelette: Food, Love, Chaos And Other Conversations – a "foodoir". Michelle Zauner, aka Japanese Breakfast, similarly published the moving Crying In H Mart – her memoir to be adapted into a film with British polymath Will Sharpe directing ("I should get her on the podcast, man!"). Yet Ware is unconvinced that Omelette has screen potential. "Who will play the egg?" she quips.
Seriously? "I don't think Omelette's gonna be made into a movie. I don't think my life is interesting enough. But I'm very happy and satisfied doing the podcast and being able to have these wonderful conversations. It wasn't even an itch that I needed to scratch. Somebody fucking told me that they wanted me to write a book and I was like, 'Okay, fine, it's the lockdown, sure, let's try it – I haven't tried that before.’ But I'd love to work within television or movies… I'd love to try that, just because it fascinates me and I'd like to learn. I think that I'm very lucky that I get to try all these different things."
Ware regrets that, because of a tight schedule, she won't have any opportunity to tape a Table Manners Down Under series. Ironically, it was an English guest, that "domestic goddess" Nigella Lawson, who converted her to Vegemite. "I really poo-pooed it for a very long time," Ware admits. "But now I get it. It's very delicious – dare I say potentially even more versatile than Marmite." She'll be stockpiling in Oz. "You know what? I've run out. Marmite and Vegemite are so expensive now. Good ol' Brexit… Well, I dunno why they're bloody expensive. It's just our shitty country."
Auspiciously, Ware will be joined at Summer Camp by two other cross-generational trailblazing women in Sydney and Melbourne, respectively – Belinda Carlisle, whose dramatic '80s Cali anthems presaged Lana Del Rey, and Ultra Naté, famed for her garage classic Free yet airing high-concept albums equal to Grace Jones'. (Pre-fest, the eternal foodie will also play a super-intimate show at Melbourne restaurant Victoria By Farmer's Daughter, likewise part of the ALWAYS LIVE programme – tickets predictably exhausted.)
Ware's live extravaganza, with costumes and choreography, primarily draws on her recent repertoire – and is at once sensuous and sensorial. "The festival [set] will be high-energy – we shall be dancing, I shall be singing, we shall be flirting; it will be fun, it'll be great," she promises. "It will be you entering into the world of the Pearl Nightclub. It will be amazing."
Ware breaks off, laughing again. "Oh my God – I'm trying to learn the piano; to be able to play in the show. I'm not a pianist. But, in my mind, I wanna be like [Lady] Gaga when she did Shallow [for A Star Is Born]. But we're not there…
"So maybe you'll see me play on the piano. It depends whether I get my shit together. I played it to my husband yesterday and he was like, 'Yeah, babe, that needs a bit of practice.'" Challenge accepted?
Jessie Ware is headlining Summer Camp Festival in Melbourne (December 2) and Sydney (December 3), plus ‘An Intimate Audience with Jessie Ware’ on November 30 at Victoria by Farmer's Daughter Fed Square (presented by Summer Camp Festival & Victorian Always Live!).