Her sweet soul might be the sound of summer, but there were tears in the studio from the newest south London diva. Click here to listen to [Guardian's] exclusive stream of her debut album.
Adele, west Norwood. Florence, Camberwell. Lianne La Havas, Streatham. Katy B, Peckham. Ellie "La Roux" Jackson, Herne Hill. What is it about south London that breeds so many ballsy female singers? "I don't know, but it's quite cool, isn't it?" beams Jessie Ware, Brixton. "If you're from south London you feel like you're always trying to win people over, so perhaps that underdog passion comes through. It's like being AFC Wimbledon or something."
Jessie says she never intended or even hoped to become a pop singer. She rose to prominence by adding thick, sultry vocals to clubby dubstep tracks, and claims to prefer the camaraderie of the nightclub crowd to the lonely exposure of the stage. Yet now she's here, she says she wants to be a "private pop star, like Sade or Annie Lennox". She's a compelling performer, with the ability to switch between post-Adele belters, atmospheric neo-soul and classy, electronic pop with consummate ease.
In person, she's warm, garrulous and funny, constantly undercutting her every achievement with wicked, self-deprecating humour. Jessie attended a liberal-artsy private school, but on meeting her there's no hint of entitlement. Her feeling that she's somehow "snuck through" into the music world, like a fan who's managed to blag their way into the VIP compound, comes across as sincere.
Becoming a pop star certainly wasn't on the agenda when Jessie graduated in English Literature from Sussex University five years ago. The daughter of former Panorama reporter John Ware, she once harboured dreams of following in her father's footsteps and taking a postgrad journalism training course – incorporating work experience on the Mirror's sports desk – before ending up at the Jewish Chronicle. "I had to find Jewishy things to do for the listings pages, like if Matisyahu was in town," she recounts with a grin. "I thought it might be a good way in, although to be honest, journalism felt more intimidating and competitive than singing does. I'm very nosy, but I wasn't very good at writing."
Everyone knows that music journalists are failed musicians, so it's some consolation to encounter a pop singer who's a failed journalist. However, Jessie's life took a sharp left turn when her old schoolfriend Jack Peñate phoned her out of the blue to ask if she'd do backing vocals for him on a BBC session. After a couple of tours with Peñate and indie-rap duo Man Like Me, Jessie was introduced to Jack's XL labelmate Aaron Jerome, aka SBTRKT, who asked her to collaborate on a track called Nervous, the title accurately reflecting Jessie's trepidation about the whole affair. "It was my first session and I was terrified. The track was so apt."
Nevertheless, her ability to ride SBTRKT's skittering beats earned Jessie a solo deal. And that's when the real panic set in. She describes a series of awkward encounters with label-endorsed songwriters that ended up "like therapy sessions".
"I didn't think anyone would give a shit about what I had to say because everyone had probably said it before, and more eloquently. I'd been getting on OK with this one guy, bonding over our love for Sade and Soul II Soul, and finally he was like, 'Right, well shall we just go the piano and jam?' And I went into the other room and burst into tears."
Jessie was all for retreating to a world of anonymous session singing until her manager met Dave Okumu from the Invisible at a barbecue and persuaded him to help out. "Dave is such a warm presence," enthuses Jessie. "When we first met, he could see I was nervous. He just gave me a big hug and told me, 'Songwriting's like shitting – you've just got to let it all out'."
Dave's liquid guitars provide a shimmering backdrop for Jessie's vocals throughout the record, creating a very modern, British, anxious take on soul music. For the clubbier numbers, Jessie approached Bristol house prodigy Matt Walker AKA Julio Bashmore – although once again, the first session was awkward.
"Writing a pop song was a new thing for both of us, and I started to feel really self-conscious and out of my depth." To break the tension, the pair started flicking through a hip-hop magazine, alighting on a striking image of heavyweight rapper Big Pun in a yellow PVC suit, sitting on a throne. "I decided, 'Right, I'm going to write a song about a girl trying to get him off his throne and dance'." Her gorgeously restrained summer smash 110% was the result, and Jessie was thrilled when Big Pun's estate gave them permission to use a sample of the late rapper reciting the line "carving my initials on your forehead" throughout the track.
Finally, keen not to be pigeonholed as a club diva, Jessie was paired with former new folk-er Kid Harpoon to write a clutch of stirring, Heart FM-friendly ballads to complete the album. "He was the one who was like, 'Forget the minimal electronic stuff, let's make some fucking big pop tunes!' He wanted to bring out the Alicia Keys in me."
Jessie reckons that the proudest moment of her career was hearing current single Wildest Moments – one of those Alicia Keys efforts – accompanying a montage of highlights from Andy Murray's dramatic third-round win at Wimbledon. She's not afraid to admit that that the country's need for a stirring anthem during Britain's Summer Of Sport™ has been on her mind. "Why do you think I wrote a song called Running in Olympic year?" she cackles.
Yet anyone delving for turmoil and trauma behind the lyrics may be disappointed. "I'm not a complicated person," shrugs Jessie. "I feel what I sing, and I hope that's enough. I'm not going to become an alcoholic just for the cause of the music." She scans nervously around the room for any lurking record company spies. "I don't know if I should say this, but I feel more like a singer than an artist."
Jessie compares her faltering onstage schtick unfavourably with that of Florence – "she's so effortless and elegant and star-like, whereas I'm constantly worried I'm going to trip over and show my Spanx" – but brightens when reminded that Florence tends to be equally babbly and neurotic in interviews, and used to spend half of her sets rolling around on the floor. In any case, her performances in the videos to Running and 110% prove that there's a haughty diva in there somewhere.
"Yeah, I don't know what happens! I even shocked myself in the Running video when I started vogueing. It's meant to look fierce. I've had people basically say to me, 'Oh, you're not like you are in your videos – I thought you'd be more of a bitch!'"
Even if Jessie is ambivalent about the trappings of pop stardom, she figures that she may as well give it the full Cleopatra when the opportunity arises. "The way I think about those videos is that I may not get a chance to do another one, so I want to look really good. That way, when I'm fat and gross and working at my local school, I can look back and say, 'Scrubbed up well, Jess'."
Devotion is out on Monday on PMR Records