Jessie Ware’s gradual transformation into a daring, pearl necklace-donning diva has become one of pop music’s most heartwarming stories. The London artist, who broke through in 2012 with her Mercury-nominated debut ‘Devotion’, has spent the past few years responding to her inner desire to make a brazen and personality-fuelled revamp of her early, sophisticated soul sound, and has since turned her gaze towards flashy, 70s-style disco.
‘That! Feels Good!’, Ware’s fifth full-length effort, is a genuine triumph. A renewed sense of urgency – and enjoyment – pulses through this punchy, passionate record as its 10 songs dazzle with sexuality and unabashed confidence. “Freedom is a sound,” Ware sings on the brass-assisted title track, hinting at the winding journey she’s had to take in order to feel liberated as an artist. “I think it’s taken me a good 10 years to really feel comfortable in my skin, and to say that I am an artist,” she tells NME today, sat in her label’s office in north London. “But I am unbelievably proud of where I am now.”
NME sat down with the artist for the latest in our In Conversation series to reflect on the lessons Ware has learned while making her new album, and explore where she hopes to take her sound in the future.
NME: The past few years for you have been defined by a sense of transition. How do you feel you’ve grown as a musician?
Jessie Ware: “I think I finally know the artist I’m meant to be now, however kind of naff that may sound. I used to have this mad thing where I only used to be able to say that I was a ‘singer’. I wear so many different hats now, and I am so proud of all of the varied lives that I lead – they are all fun. I am enjoying myself now, and it is such an amazing job to have. I just wasn’t enjoying myself enough before, I was scared.
“There was a realisation around five years ago that the [Table Manners] podcast was its own entity and people were really enjoying it, which felt like a release [and] encouraged me to feel even more creative in the studio. Reconnecting with [Arctic Monkeys producer] James Ford was really amazing, and I love him so much – it was great to have him on the new album.”
In a recent interview, you discussed how your proudest achievement is “the revival of my musical career”. What does it mean to you to now be experiencing a new type of success?
“It means everything: I feel like I deserve to have a place here. I also don’t discount that I’m still lucky to be here. I was previously figuring myself out and making music I’m proud of, but the newer material feels like I completely have full autonomy. It feels good… perhaps that’s why the album is called that!”
‘That! Feels Good!’ really doubles down on the fun factor of 2020’s ‘What’s Your Pleasure?’. What kind of headspace were you in when you started work on your new record?
“I knew the next record I wanted to make as soon as I finished [the single] ‘Remember Where You Are’. I was like, ‘Right, OK. This feels different to the rest of ‘What’s Your Pleasure?’, and this is the momentum that’s going to drive me forward’. I wanted it to feel loose [and] more joyful than my last album did. There are far more fun moments on it; it’s a different kind of dance record, and maybe more groove-led. It’s going to make you dance, I hope!”
The title track features voice notes from a whole host of your friends. What was it like reaching out to everyone and asking them to contribute?
“After we’d written ‘That! Feels Good!’, I said to James, ‘Look, I want it to feel cinematic from the start of the record; I want people to feel propelled into this world of pleasure’. So I just sent voice notes to lots of people! It was so funny to get their versions back, because a lot of people felt very prudish – but others were fully committed to the cause. It was so much fun putting them all together.
“I can’t believe that Kylie Minogue actually did it. I love her and regard her as a friend – but Kylie is Kylie! Bless her, she did it from Australia. Róisín Murphy was also brilliant – she sent her voice note in from an airport in Finland. I love the idea of someone being in a toilet next to Róisín and overhearing her say, ‘That feels good…’”
Kylie joined you on stage in London last year – was it hard to keep that a secret ahead of the show?
“Yes, because I’ve got a big mouth! There was zero pressure on her to come because it was her birthday that night, but Kylie lives for that shit! It was brilliant. I have never heard Brixton Academy scream so loud.”
‘That! Feels Good!’ was largely inspired by the live shows you put on last year, which culminated in a support slot for Harry Styles. How did it feel to see his fans embracing your music?
“It was wicked. We rose to the challenge, and adapted the live show that we had been playing a lot so we were like a well-oiled machine, which was great. I liked having to win people over and Styles’ fans are very generous, which was wonderful. I loved being in the arena – it was exhilarating.”
Speaking of performing, you recently revealed that you once turned down the opportunity to open for Prince. What happened there?
“I was supposed to be opening for him at a Birmingham gig. I knew he liked me because he used to do these livestreams as a DJ, and he started playing ‘Wildest Moments’. I was like, ‘Wow, Prince knows who I am!’ – it was the greatest compliment in the world. I know everyone has got a Prince story, and mine is that I never got to meet him because I annoyingly had to go to Greece to do a wedding recce! Look, my husband is semi-worth it… [laughs] but honestly, it’s a big regret.”
Looking to the future, what else is on your career bucket list?
“I’m looking forward to playing big festivals and really cementing myself as an artist that people want to see live. Maybe you don’t know about me but have heard that the live show is really good fun – it’s not supposed to be self-indulgent, it’s supposed to be a good time for everyone. That is something I love and cherish about live music, so that’s my true ambition: to be a brilliant live performer.”
Jessie Ware’s new album ‘That! Feels Good!’ is out now