In the video for 'Running', the velveteen R&B single released by Jessie Ware earlier this year, the slinkily attired singer throws diva shapes from under a monument of lustrous black hair, framed by a red stage curtain and gold leather upholstery. It's preposterously opulent, and coupled with an invitation to interview her at a chichi Clapham restaurant, your correspondent was half-expecting the full Diva Experience – two hours late, no eye contact, untouched salads, PR bod present to oversee proceedings, the whole drill.
But at precisely the allotted time, Jessie Ware bursts into the premises with the biggest grin, firmest handshake and shiniest hair you could hope to encounter in a nascent pop star. She's just come from a video interview around Brixton Market, which took a turn for the strange when a tramp wandered into the frame and “put his cap on my head,” she says wide-eyed.
“So I said to him, I'm really sorry, but I'm not having you put some nit cap on my head. I hate to be a diva but I need to wash my hair now.” In the next 40 minutes that's the only sign of anything approaching diva behaviour from this Clapham-born girl, whose self-deprecating humour, silly faces and quickfire chatter are instantly endearing and sadly impossible to replicate on the page.
After making her name through vocal spots for UK producers like SBTRKT and Joker, as well as the gorgeous 'Valentine' duet with the husky-voiced Sampha, Ware is now on the cusp of breaking through in a big way, with two singles under her belt and a debut album primed for release this August. But despite an education at Alleyn's in south London, alma mater of pop peers including Florence Welch, Jack Peñate and a Maccabee or two, the young Jessie was no spotlight-seeker.
“Of the people at my school, Jack Peñate was the first person to do it,” she says of her friend. “He was at UCL doing Ancient History and he was like, 'I’m gonna quit, I wanna be a musician.' And I was like, 'Jack. You can’t do that, you need to have a job.' I think I bet him a hundred quid that he wouldn’t be signed by the end of the year. I’m so boring, I was like, 'This is not sensible' – and he got signed! And I still owe him. He’s called it in loads of times and I’m like, 'No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.'”
She professes to have had no burning desire for the stage as a kid. “I didn't think I was going to be a singer. I thought I was going to be a football journalist. I did work experience on the Mirror Sport and it was the best work experience, with this guy Darren Williams. He took me to Borehamwood v Arsenal.” The Clapham girl is understandably embarrassed about her own team. “I support Manchester United,” she says sheepishly. “My family's from Manchester!”
Her roundabout route to becoming a singer began when she helped Peñate out with backing vocals. “It was one thing, kind of a favour,” she says. “I took the day off work, my paid holiday day, to go and do a Maida Vale session. You can get away with loads if you say you’re a part-time singer – I worked at Selfridges and they used to let me have the most lax timetable...”
Ware ended up on tour with Peñate, where a chance encounter then provided her first break. “My friend who works for XL was playing guitar for Jack. He’s really into electronic music and he had loads of white labels and new SBTRKT stuff that he was giving to people in America when we were on tour. So I was just listening to this music and, you know, I used to go raving when I was younger, drum and bass raves, and then I was hearing tracks like SBTRKT and Sampha and I was like, 'This is so cool.' And my friend was like, 'Look, if you like him so much why don’t you do a session with him?' And I said, 'Okay,' and that was my first session. So it really was fortuitous – it was a lot of luck, I swear to god, nepotism and luck.”
The experience galvanised her to make the leap towards solo stardom. “I know it sounds kind of unappreciative, but it was a bit of a shock. I got to go into the studio with SBTRKT, who hadn’t been signed yet, and he really taught me how to use my voice. I’d never done any recording,” she explains. “And I never thought I was going to be a frontperson.”
Last year Jessie was introduced to Dave Okumu, frontman of Mercury-nominated experimental pop band The Invisible. “Dave was the person who opened it all up for me,” she says. “I'd been doing these sessions with a few pop writers and it wasn't right, it didn't work. They are amazing at what they do, but at that time I didn't know what sound I wanted and I didn't want to do a totally dance sound.” Were they pushing her to be the next Katy B, perhaps?
“Maybe, or they were just learning about Katy B and they were trying to tap into that. But the thing about Katy B is it's so real, it's from a real place and it's with real producers. So I was just exhausted from these bad sessions where I wasn't writing what I wanted to write. And Dave opened it all up and said, 'Is this what you want?' 'Yes!'”
The album they've put together, titled 'Devotion', also features writing and production from singer-songwriter Kid Harpoon and Bristol house producer Julio Bashmore, affectionately known as Bashy. “With Dave he had really great solid ideas and then I'd write the lyrics to the melodies. With Kid Harpoon it's starting from scratch, like 'Right, what are we gonna write about?' And with Bashmore it's like, he'll start playing a synth thing and I'll start singing over it.”
Recent single '110%' is easily identifiable as a Bashmore production, with its innocent vocal underlined by a chunky bassline and a hint of rudeboy swagger. “That was the first thing we did and it wasn't even going to be on the album, it was kind of forgotten about, and then it was like, this could work for the summer and it's cute. It's just got a great beat and melody and it's celebrating dancing on your own.” The video is bucolic and lovely, ending with Ware driving a vintage motor down a country track with Bashmore riding shotgun.
“That's my hunk! They used to do that in R&B videos where there'd be, like, Timbaland in the corner, so that was Bashy's way to be Timbaland. And Bashy was under 25 so he couldn't get insured on the car, that's why I had to drive it! And then the guy [who owned the car] was there watching, like, 'Please don't ruin my car,' and then we ran out of petrol, seriously! We went round the corner and it just ran out of petrol 'cos I kept on stalling it,” she laughs.
Previous single 'Running' is another Bashmore production but it's got a relaxed grooviness in the drums that recalls The Invisible's new album, 'Rispah'. “That's 'cos I got Leo from The Invisible to drum on it,” Jessie explains. “Dave got Leo in to do all the live drums, so I'm the luckiest person in the world cos he's the best drummer ever.”
With Okumu's influence, Ware's sound has matured into a modern-day reflection on the sensual R&B of the 80s, with Sade the most obvious reference, while her adaptable voice can reach for both the diva acrobatics of Whitney and the cool innocence of 90s voices like Aaliyah or TLC. “[Dave's] all about subtlety, the way he records his voice – I mean, listening to his voice is like a cuddle. I've learned so much from him, he's the best person I think I've ever met in my life,” she says with sincerity.
The ultra-glam video for 'Running' also sees Jessie really becoming the face of her music, complete with a soon-to-be-trademark hairdo inspired by 80s icons. “I'm gonna sound like a wanker, but I'd been to the 'Postmodernism' exhibition at the V&A and it really made me think. There was this great music section with Talking Heads and Grace Jones, and my friend was like, 'You should have iconic hair.' So he came up with this double bun and I was like, 'Ooh, I really like it, it's a bit weird...' And it's going to feature hopefully on my album cover. I wanted to just make a bit of a statement, a bit of an effort.”
The video also captures Jessie striking a pose with some vogueish slow-mo dance moves. “I didn't even realise I was going to do that, I was really surprised at myself, and I think the director Kate [Moross] was like, 'Really?!' But I was like, 'Fuck it, I'm in a really great dress, I've got a double bun...' But then I fell down the stairs in the first shot! Blood everywhere, and it was that awkward thing where the crew don't know you well enough and I just wanted someone to laugh. It was really awkward.”
Coming from London's dance music scene but citing Whitney, Sade and Grace Jones as influences, Jessie is now at a crossroads. “I'd love to be able to do more albums. I definitely don't want to be a flash in the pan. I am ambitious, I'd love to be as successful as possible, but the album isn't overtly pop. I want it to stand the test of time, I want it to be classic.”
But this diva's fiery ambition is thankfully coupled with a sense of the ridiculous – like her love for Barbra Streisand, a chanteuse who looms large in Jessie's pantheon of heroes. “I'm Jewish, and I love her,” she gushes. “I watched Funny Girl the other day, have you seen it? She takes the piss out of herself so much. She's so charismatic and she's got an amazing voice. I guess she's the ultimate Jew. Her and Bette Midler,” she laughs.
Jessie Ware's debut album Devotion is out 20th August 2012