With all the due praise for Jessie Ware’s honeyed debut, “Devotion,” including a Mercury Prize nomination, no one’s complaining that the Londoner dropped journalism for music. Least of all Ware herself.
As she heads stateside, the charming “Wildest Moments” singer chatted about changing careers, first recognizing a gay fan base while touring America and the Whitney Houston album that inspired her debut.
Do you think you would’ve pursued a solo career if your mom hadn’t convinced you to?
No. Probably not. It was a joint thing – my mom and my friends put me in a session with some tracks. I felt like I was very lucky to have people who really had faith in me.
Were you a good journalist?
No, I was rubbish! That’s why I didn’t do it for that long. I found it really, really competitive and it just didn’t feel completely right for me. My father is a journalist and I was under the impression that it’s very glamorous and that I’d be a hard-hitting journalist, but no. I just wasn’t very good.
Isn’t music competitive, too?
Yeah, but I feel like I was extremely lucky with how I came into music, because I had people really rooting for me and so I didn’t feel quite guilty about it. I didn’t really have that struggle. I went from backing singer to solo singer, but I was so content being a backing singer. It was really my mates pushing me to get in a session on my own, which I was petrified about.
Look, I put my time in as a backing singer and I was a dance vocalist, but it felt sometimes too good to be true with how generous people were with me, giving me these opportunities.
Your Twitter wallpaper is Barbra Streisand. What kind of influence has she had on you and your career?
She’s brilliant and just so charismatic. I just think she’s a great, great singer and a great performer, and you can just learn a lot from watching any performance of hers – that you must never forget to try your hardest all the time.
Were you an obsessive fan as a kid?
No, not at all. My grandma made me watch concerts of hers when I was younger and she was just obsessed. My mom took my grandma to a concert and I remember it very vividly. But no, it was more a later love and find when I started watching “Yentl” and “Funny Girl” and things like that, and actually getting so madly into the stuff that she did with Robin Gibb.
Are there other gay-loved singers you idolize that we do as well? Bette Midler?
Uh, hello! I’m partly calling my unborn child – my daughter that I hopefully will have – C.C. because of C.C. Bloom from “Beaches,” and also because my grandma is called Cecilia, so I’m calling her that. Yeah, there’s a definite Bette Midler love in there. I just love strong Jewish women.
Mariah or Whitney?
Whitney was my one, my love. In fact, I had Whitney and Barbra Streisand vinyls in the recording booth when I made my album just so if ever I wasn’t trying hard enough, I’d just look at them and be like, “Oh no, try harder. Babs wouldn’t do that. Whitney wouldn’t do that.”
Which Whitney album?
I had the “Whitney Houston” one – the orange vinyl where she looks very elegant.
Why do you think gay men gravitate toward big female voices like those and yours so much?
Look, I don’t know, but maybe it’s the drama. There’s always a huge passion. I don’t know if it stems from musical theater and the kind of fabulousness of it. I don’t know. You tell me. You’re gay!
I like to say we have good taste.
(Laughs) It’s good taste, but also I feel like you’re always the ones who have your finger on the pulse. You’re always the first to know about people. You’re breaking me! You know what, when I came in January and I saw how many gay people were at my gigs, I breathed a sigh of relief, I’m not gonna lie. I thought, “OK, yes, they’re on my side. Wicked. Let’s go.”
Were you doing a club tour?
No, I didn’t, actually. The only club that I played was in San Francisco, which I think had quite a renowned gay club night and that was amazing. It was the second sellout of the tour. It was just amazing. I loved it. But I have really catered to the gays in the new video (for “Imagine It Was Us”). It’s got voguing and lots of beautiful men with no tops on and choreographed dancing and a disco feel to it.
Thank you so much!
When were you aware that you had a gay following?
I only really realized when I came to America. You know what, I’m still working out who’s coming to see me anyway, but when I saw all these beautiful black men at the front (at one of the shows) I was like, “Oh, heyyy,” and they’d be like, “Gurrrrlfriend!” It was definitely America that made me realize you were on my side.
What song on “Devotion” speaks most to your gay fans?
I feel like quite a lot of them like “Taking in Water,” and I don’t know if that’s because it’s about my brother and they know that. It was written when he was having a really tough time, which could’ve been partly to do with sexuality and the struggle of that.
Did you write it about him and his struggle with his sexuality?
It’s not just about that. It’s kind of the aftermath of coming out. I don’t know. It’s about a few things. I was very protective of him but I wasn’t very good at expressing it, and then I kind of wrote this song. I’m not saying the song made us closer at all, but we definitely are much tighter now. I make sure everyone knows he’s in the audience when he is and I make sure everyone knows it’s about my little brother.
How has having a gay brother influenced the way you feel about gay rights?
I’ve always felt really protective of my brother. I think we all kind of knew he was gay from quite a young age, and I felt like he was picked on at school because of maybe him being more effeminate and not being able to come out and it became an issue. He was having to defend himself and he wasn’t even sure if he was gay yet. You can still see it happening, and people are still so casually homophobic without even knowing it, whether it be, “Oh, that’s so gay.” Things like that. It really annoys me. I feel very protective of him and I’d like to do more supporting gay rights, absolutely, because it’s close to home for me. I don’t think he’s had an easy time being gay, to be honest. It’s been harder for him, I think.
You really demonstrate a lot of self-control on this album, and the album is better because of that. Were you conscious of keeping your voice in check?
Absolutely. I wanted to tell stories and draw people in and not inundate them with a big powerhouse vocal. It would’ve been a bit exhausting on the ears. Don’t get me wrong, live I go for it a bit more because I think it’s more necessary. But I definitely wanted to be able to exist in people’s homes, cars and just in the background, and I didn’t want people to want to turn me down.
Were there times while recording where you just wanted to let your voice rip? I feel like you could’ve gone there with “Running.”
For “Running,” it’s just enough, I think. I keep that really long note, and you should see how long I keep it in the live show. It’s ridiculous. I try to test myself and see how long I can hold that note, but no, I think it’s not about me showing off on a vocal; it’s more about what’s necessary for the song.
What’s been your wildest moment so far?
Probably getting the A$AP Rocky verse in the inbox (for the “Wildest Moments” remix). That was pretty amazing and nobody really thought it was going to happen. We were just about to deliver the album, and then he popped up in everyone’s inbox with the verse.
With artists like you, Adele and Florence Welch, and several other emerging female performers who actually wear clothes, I’m reminded of the early ’90s when Mariah, Whitney and Celine didn’t have to look like floozies to sell records. What do you think of this new wave of women who are bringing a more sophisticated – and clothed – look back?
Oh, I love it. Whenever I dress up, it’s always gotta be something that my mother would be happy with me wearing, so I always have that in the back of my mind. But yeah, I think it’s brilliant. What’s better than a classy woman who can sing? I mean, I show my tummy a lot. But I think I can get away with a little bit of midriff.
What’re you wearing now, then?
A knitted pink crop top with a really big roll-neck and a lovely silk jacket with high-waisted trousers and slippers.
So you’re completely covered.
There is a tiny bit of midriff. I’m so sorry.