“If you’re going to sit with me, you have to be a big girl,” Jessie Ware says patiently as her young daughter crashes our Zoom interview just moments after it began. Ware, beamed in from her light-filled home in London, takes a moment to park her toddler in front of the television before returning to the camera and curling up in her seat: “This is the weirdest promotion of a record.”
Collisions of work and family aren’t so weird for the British singer-songwriter. On her 2017 album, Glasshouse, she dug deep about new motherhood with achingly vulnerable ballads like “Thinking About You” and “Sam.” Later that year, she and her mother, Lennie, started the podcast Table Manners, in which they invite famous guests (from Sam Smith to Haim) over for a home-cooked meal and a chat about life and leftovers. The charmingly rough-around-the edges podcast precisely captures the joy and intimacy of a dinner party with good friends — and it’s since won awards, spawned a cookbook and amassed more than 12 million downloads.
What started as a side project has now become a second career, one Ware says gives her the freedom to take risks in her musician job. Her fourth album, What’s Your Pleasure?, is certainly Ware at her boldest: Out this Friday, the LP takes the cool soul sounds of her past albums and blasts them off to Funkytown with heavy doses of lush disco and simmering synth-pop.
It’s the record Ware says she needed to make after Glasshouse underperformed commercially, and a taxing tour (both financially and emotionally) left her in a “hard patch.” But with seductive tunes like “Ooh La La” and “Mirage (Don’t Stop),” it’s also the record she thinks her fans could use, too, as they cope with the world-stopping events of 2020.
“I was really adamant about not moving the record,” Ware says, referring to the current pandemic, in early May. “I think people need distraction at the moment, and that’s the beauty of dance and disco — it can provide euphoria.” (Weeks later, after protests against police brutality took place across the U.S., Ware pushed the record back a week to avoid releasing it on Juneteenth: “It’s an incredibly important day for Black voices, and I don’t want to distract from those voices or those experiences or stories in any way,” she said in an Instagram video.)
Below, Ware tells Billboard about switching up her sound, promoting an album during lockdown and why she wants her live show to feel like a Britney Spears video.
When you first told us about the album in 2018, you said it was all about “fantasy and escapism.” What does that mean to you now in 2020?
It’s funny, songs have taken on a new meaning. We wrote “Save a Kiss” more than a year ago, but it feels quite poignant. Save a kiss for me tonight, save the thought for me tonight — we want to be with our loved ones, but we’re in lockdown. My mum isn’t able to touch my children, they want to give her cuddles.
Weirdly, we wrote the last song on the record, “Remember Where You Are,” when Boris had just gotten back into power and Trump, I think, was in London at the time. It’s supposed to be about, like, everything’s gone to shit, but remember what’s important — that feels really poignant now, too.
How did you change the rollout strategy for this album amid the pandemic?
I spoke to the label and said, “Let’s make everything as visual as possible.” I probably would have never done a lyric video, but that was what we did “Ooh La La.” I really wanted to elevate it and make it a feast, so I gave [filmmaker and animator] Gemma Yin all these references — Harold Pinter plays, suburbia, kinkiness, and she took all that. “Save a Kiss” I shot in my home on my phone in selfie mode with a few pro lights.
We’re trying to get the fans involved, and I know loads of people are going to get fans dancing, but we’re just trying to make it feel as artistic as possible. If we can get a visual for every song, that would be amazing.
As someone who’s talked about the occasional challenges of juggling music obligations with parenting, do you find this new approach easier or harder?
The fact that I can perform on The Graham Norton Show in my daughter’s bedroom is a real treat. And it’s a big old faff, don’t get me wrong, but I’m done after two hours, whereas [in normal times] you’d be there the whole bloody day. It’s the most relaxed I’ve ever been promoting an album. But look: I’ve got a house, I’m with my children and husband. I get to spend loads of time with my family. I’ve not got it hard.
That Graham Norton performance was funny — there you are trying to serve disco diva vibes, and then you point the camera toward your husband, who’s trying to keep your kids from running into the frame.
Yeah, and that’s the thing: As much as I want everything to be slick, you can’t take yourself too seriously. This record has got so many innuendos and winks. I’ve got all these fabulous pictures of me looking like I’m trying to be one of Andy Warhol’s girls, but there’s got to be some real life in there, too. I probably sang better in my daughter’s bedroom than I would have in a studio. The pressure was off.
How did you figure out what your version of a dance record sounds like?
At the beginning, it was completely about not thinking about it and just enjoying it. I had just come off this tour in the states. I was low. I wanted to go and make music and not think about agendas. I started my career in dance music, but I needed it to feel like it was a Jessie Ware record and not like I was a feature on a load of shit-hot producers’ songs. I didn’t want it to feel like a big ol’ wank job of beats and tech. So I needed those orchestral moments, the melodrama, the sophistication. That’s what I needed to bring into it.
You recorded a lot of this album while you were pregnant with your son. How was it getting into the disco mindset in the studio?
It was complete fantasy, and that was what was great about it. I didn’t feel like I had to play the biggest role in the storytelling. It was really emancipating and empowering for me as a songwriter. I’d said everything in bloody Glasshouse that I needed to say. I got rid of all my demons haunting me, of feeling like I was inadequate or faking it. Nothing’s really changed. I just have another kid — what am I going to write about, wet nappies? I needed to tell other people’s stories.
I had incredible chemistry with [co-writers and producers] Shun and Danny Parker and James Ford. They felt like they were on holiday in London and kept thanking me, and I was like, “No no no, thank you, you’ve made me feel so confident.” We had nearly a whole record in two weeks. It was so much fun. We were imagining where we were and pushing it as far and as kooky and as wild and as weird as possible.
What were those songwriting prompts?
It was like: “You’re waiting for a train, it’s the end of the night, you’re wistful.” Or: “You’ve just saw that person across the room, and it’s sex, you just want to have sex.” Or even with “Remember Where You Are,” I wanted it to feel almost like musical theater. You know that brilliant freeway scene at the beginning of La La Land? Ours wasn’t like that, but in my head, I know exactly where the camera was going, it was going to zoom out of the window — it was like we were trying to make films as we wrote these songs.
How has the this album changed your approach to your live shows?
This is what I’ve learned from the last tour: I want to be as versatile as possible. If someone wants me to go to Art Basel in Miami and sing a couple of tunes, I don’t have to shlep the whole band out there, I can just do it with a DJ. While moving into my house, I found so many photos of me jumping up at a Disclosure set after I’d done a gig. That’s the shit I love, so why can’t I do that? I feel less precious about it being fully live now because I made a dance record.
Have you felt restricted in the past by what a Jessie Ware show was “supposed” to look or sound like?
Everything became so heavy with the last tour. The amount of crew you have to have for the band you have — I don’t necessarily regret any of it, but when it feels like you can’t say yes to performing somewhere because you can’t afford to do it, because your overhead is too expensive, that’s ludicrous. It stopped me from being able to go places and sing to people. And that’s my job! That’s what I’m supposed to do.
It feels much more free now. I’ll probably be able to tour this for longer than any of the other records. I just want [the live show] to be like the Britney Spears “I’m a Slave 4 U” video — dripping off the walls, everyone’s sweating, everyone’s in the mix.
There aren’t many artists who talk about overhead costs or losing money on tours. Does being frank about money come easy?
I hope it never sounds crass. I just think there’s a reality that maybe people don’t realize. And this is not me getting my tiny violins out at all. But yeah, I guess I am frank. It does come easy. And maybe it’s because on the podcast, nothing’s hidden. It feels very odd for me to not be honest as a music artist as well. I can’t separate Jessie Ware, the Table Manners podcast host, from real life, the majority of which has to do do with my music career.
I don’t ever want to sound unappreciative of the situation I’m in: I get to write music, and people dance to it — life’s okay for me. But I don’t find it hard to be honest because I think it’s served me quite well.