Thursday 14 November 2019

Jessie Ware: Seductive songs of love and devotion

Soulful singing: Jessie Ware has been lauded for her spellbinding brand of R‘n’B-steeped electro-pop
Soulful singing: Jessie Ware has been lauded for her spellbinding brand of R‘n’B-steeped electro-pop
John Meagher

John Meagher

There is a small band of ex-journalists who managed to make it to the upper reaches of the charts. Neil Tennant famously traded Smash Hits for the Pet Shop Boys and Bob Geldof first got to vent his spleen as a music critic on a Canadian magazine before unleashing the Boomtown Rats on the world.

Jessie Ware also looked set for a career in print, having started out as a rookie reporter on the Jewish Chronicle (an organ not known as a bastion of youth culture), but this Londoner is making headlines of her own now thanks to her spellbinding brand of R'n'B-steeped electro-pop.

With two albums to her name - 2012's universally lauded Devotion and last autumn's absorbing follow-up Tough Love - Ware's searching and soulful songs are far removed from the homogeneous pop hits that stem from the pens of a small coterie of in-demand writers.

That she released her debut album at the comparatively mature age of 28 is likely to have helped imbue her music with such confidence and sense of self. Not for her, the vacuousness in the glossy pop of some younger peers; there is little disposable about Ware's songs of unrequited love, heartache and isolation.

There is undoubtedly a melancholic strain to many of her compositions - which, she insists, are often inspired by being a "voyeur" into other lives rather than plumbing the depths of her own experience. We'll have to take her word for it. The clubby '110pc' from Devotion delivers pop gold from beginning to end but it's shot through with self-doubt. "I'll keep the dance-floor warm," she sings, before adding dejectedly, "but I'm still dancing on my own."

Tough Love offers more light amid the shade than its predecessor. 'You & I (Forever)' is a punch-drunk love song about the moment she and her husband got engaged, which, doesn't sound nearly as saccharine as that corny title suggests, while the Ed Sheeran-assisted 'Say You Love Me' finds Ware as comfortable in big ballad territory as she is with the more spectral, nocturnal offerings. Sheeran is someone who appears to be as much loathed as loved, yet it would take a dedicated curmudgeon to deny that the carrot-topped troubadour brings a certain charm to the duet.

Ware has often talked of her admiration of 80s soul icon, Sade, and that influence can be strongly detected on both albums. Like Sade, she makes music that is best appreciated in the wee small hours and as with the Nigerian-English singer, Ware, too, imbues comparatively commercial songs with a myriad of idiosyncratic touches.

On Wednesday, she plays Dublin's Academy (tickets €23.90) and, with her star in the ascendant here, it could be the last time she will headline such a comparatively intimate venue. Jessie Ware is no stranger to Ireland of late, having performed at the Other Voices festival last month (RTE will screen her performance in Dingle in the coming weeks although her short, but exceptional set can be watched on now).

Her first break in music came when she landed the role of backing singer in the band of old school mate Jack Penate in 2009. Once tipped for big things, Penate seems to have disappeared without trace, but the live experience stood Ware in good stead.

Incidentally, she had left the Jewish Chronicle by the time Penate came calling and was working for a television production company alongside EL James who had just started to write her steamy 50 Shades trilogy. "She used to ask me to read some of her chapters," she told an interviewer some years later. "It was really racy, it made me quite flushed."

After being on the road with Penate, Ware got a lucky break when she was chosen to lend breathy vocals to a pair of tracks on the self-titled debut album from dubstep musician SBTRKT (aka Londoner Aaron Jerome). Later, she went on to release the quietly arresting single 'Valentine' with electronic musician Sampha, who had also appeared on the SBTRKT album.

The following year, she reached a much larger audience when she sung backing vocals on Ceremonials, the second Florence and The Machine album (nothing if not well connected, she is a friend of many year's standing with that band's lynch-pin Florence Welch) but few could have imagined just how fully formed she would be when delivering Devotion in 2012. It went on to be nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and ranked third in the Guardian's best albums of 2012 list.

Ware is one of a disproportionately high number of successful female singers who have emerged from south London over the past 10 years. It's an impressive roll call: Adele, Florence Welch, Lianne La Havas, Katy B, La Roux and, now, Ware herself. "If you're from south London, you feel like you're always trying to win people over," she once said, "so perhaps that underdog passion comes through. It's like being AFC Wimbledon or something."

She's not the only member of the Ware family in the public eye. Father John was an investigative reporter with BBC's Panorama for many years, and sister Hannah, an actress, has starred in big-budget American TV series Boss and Betrayal.

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