On Jessie Ware’s new album “What’s Your Pleasure?,” the British singer imagined herself in circumstances far from her own.Credit...Ana Cuba for The New York Times
In late April, Jessie Ware sang “Spotlight,” a sensual, disco-inflected single that showcases the velvety tone of her voice, on “The Graham Norton Show.” Her face was bathed in swirling, jewel-toned light, and she sometimes grinned and closed her eyes, as if momentarily lost in a dance-floor reverie.
Then, all at once, the song was over — the camera zoomed out, and viewers were reminded that Ware, 35, was not in a moodily lit nightclub but a bare corner of her 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s bedroom, illuminated by a disco ball she’d borrowed from a friend. Ware’s husband, Sam Burrows, was watching from a corner of the room with their daughter and 1-year-old son, “bribing them with Disney,” as Ware recalled, and “enough snacks so they wouldn’t sing or speak or ask for something.”
Set-designing a makeshift discothèque in a toddler’s bedroom is, for Ware, just another day at the office: The past few years have been a crash course in going with the flow. In the time between her last album, the understated “Glasshouse” from 2017, and the upbeat and self-assured “What’s Your Pleasure?,” due on Friday, she’s become the author of a best-selling cookbook and the co-host of a popular podcast, “Table Manners,” with her hilarious mother, Lennie.
“It’s so wonderful to watch Jessie’s incredible personality and presence capture all of our hearts,” said Sam Smith, a longtime friend of Ware’s and the inaugural “Table Manners” guest, via email. “She’s honestly one of the kindest and most authentic people out there.”
Since that first episode in November 2017 — Lennie made Parmesan-stuffed turkey meatballs; Smith got loose enough to admit to packing insufficiently for a flight, mistakenly thinking Mexico was in Europe — “Table Manners” has produced nine seasons, clocked millions of listens and been nominated for a British Podcast Award.
During a Zoom interview in mid-May from her London home, Ware was as down-to-earth and bluntly funny as she is on her podcast. She’d just put her children to bed and poured herself a glass of wine; she wore a black mock-neck top, gold hoops and a slash of red lip tint she admitted she put on just for our chat. At times, she affected a goofy, self-deprecating, exaggeratedly American-accented voice to say phrases including “celebrity cookbook,” “baby number two,” and “ssshowbizzz.” As I was telling her that her new album has turned the quarantined confines of my apartment into a one-person dance floor, she cut me off before those last two words and instead suggested, “ … sex dungeon?”
That effusive personality did not exactly come across in Ware’s early music, which was minimalistic and icy-smooth. Her voice — at once muscular and vaporous, soulful and cool — first started drifting through the ether about a decade ago, as a featured guest on tracks by British electronic acts like Disclosure and SBTRKT. An excellent debut solo album, “Devotion,” followed in 2012; it went to No. 5 on the British album chart and was nominated for the esteemed Mercury Prize. Smith, a fellow breakout guest vocalist from Disclosure’s 2013 album “Settle,” described Ware’s music as “the soundtrack of my 20s.”
Ware’s 2014 album, “Tough Love,” wasn’t as successful as its predecessor, but it spawned her best-known song, “Say You Love Me,” a belt-it-out power ballad Ed Sheeran helped write that’s become a popular selection on British singing competitions like “The X-Factor” and “The Voice.”
That her most famous song has become famous without her is the sort of irony she has accepted — maybe in some sense even expected. Music was never consciously part of Ware’s long-term plan (she studied journalism in college and clerked for solicitors during the summers, figuring she’d become a family lawyer), so suddenly finding herself on the main stages of Glastonbury and Coachella “was very unusual and didn’t feel real.”
“I’ve always appreciated it, and I’ve also appreciated that it can be taken away from me at any time,” she said, explaining that she limited her hopes to prevent future disappointment. “But then it kept working out. And so I kind of felt like I was getting away with it.”
Until she didn’t. After “Tough Love,” Ware experienced what she now refers to as her “weird ol’ time in the industry.” Her third album, the sleek, ruminative and highly personal “Glasshouse,” also hadn’t sold as well as her debut; the phrase “adult-contemporary” cropped up (though not necessarily derisively) in several reviews. An ensuing U.S. tour that she admits “hadn’t been planned well” put her an ocean away from her young daughter for nearly a month and left a dent in her own finances. Her fan base — which skews hip and indie-adjacent, especially in the U.S. — was geographically lopsided.
“I’d sell out two shows in Brooklyn,” she said, “and then I’d be in, where was I? Was it Kansas? And you had, like 25 people. Wicked, amazingly funny people, but it was very weird and varied and confusing.”
“This is not me getting my tiny violins out at all,” she added, “but I was losing a lot of money. It’s really expensive to tour. It was just a bit of a mess. I was like, Why am I doing this? It was a big old soul-searching moment.”
Even for an artist like Ware with a decent-sized fan base, the economics of making a full-time living as a musician in the streaming era are precarious. The pandemic has only made things worse, with tours canceled or postponed. Luckily, around the same time as that ill-fated tour, another professional endeavor that Ware initially thought a lark was beginning to take off: “Table Manners.”
Ware’s parents split when she was 10, leaving Lennie to hold down the fort. (Ware has an older sister and a younger brother; her father is an investigative journalist and broadcaster for the BBC.) Big Friday dinners — featuring, among other things, Lennie’s famous chicken and matzo ball soup — became a weekly tradition for family and friends.
Sometime in 2017, the Wares figured the dinners’ homey, loquacious vibe might translate well to a podcast. Lennie would cook, Jessie would chat, and one of the many celebrity acquaintances Jessie had made along the way would eat a meal specially prepared for them, all while giving the sort of candid, unguarded interview that comfort food and optional wine tends to facilitate.
“The thing about this podcast is that it was a complete accident,” Ware said. “I mean, I like talking about food, and I thought people would always have a story about their upbringing and whatnot, but it’s become limitless!”
Jessie and Lennie (who is still a social worker) have evolved into a comedic double-act, with the brand of loving sparring that only a mother-daughter duo can provide. They’ve hosted the chef Nigella Lawson, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and Sheeran (who, over several helpings of Lennie’s sausages, revealed an old nickname: “Two Dinners Teddy”).
“Everyone that knows my mom knows she’s a bit of a star,” Ware said. “She definitely doesn’t hold back now. She’s hilarious and people like her and she doesn’t care what anyone thinks.” In a Season 9 episode, Lennie effused about her crush on Bill Pullman while Jessie muttered in affectionate embarrassment. Listeners frequently tell them that their banter reminds them of their relationships with their own mothers.
Ware is now more frequently recognized on the street for her podcast than her songs, which she finds “so funny.” Still, “Table Manners” has an indirect but beneficial impact on Ware’s music. “I needed to feel creative again, because I felt like it was all turning far too business,” she said. “And that’s ugly — as soon as that happens, you don’t make the right music. So thank God I had the podcast, which was actually becoming a business. It meant I could take more liberties creatively with the music. It’s amazing how it unleashed me.”
After her music-biz slump, Ware immediately went back into the studio with the intention of doing something completely different: “I just want to escape all this and me, and I want to write about other people, and imagine I’m a man and that I’m dancing and meeting strangers and wanting to have sex with them immediately.”
Ware made the entirety of “What’s Your Pleasure?” with James Ford, a member of the British electronic duo Simian Mobile Disco and an acclaimed producer for acts like Arctic Monkeys and Florence + the Machine.
“I definitely got the feeling that she wanted to make a record for herself, rather than trying to please other people,” Ford said over FaceTime, after providing a tour of his cozy, synth-filled attic studio where most of “Pleasure” was made. At the time, Ware lived within walking distance of Ford’s house, which gave their sessions a casual ease. Because Ford and Ware both have small children (Ware got pregnant shortly after starting work on the record), they recorded mostly during the day. Family life didn’t impede on the process so much as put it in perspective.
“I don’t need to jam until four o’clock in the morning,” Ware said. “Either the song’s coming that day or it’s not, and that’s cool if it doesn’t. Try again tomorrow.”
“What’s Your Pleasure?” is a sparkling highlight in a year that has found pop artists from Lady Gaga to Dua Lipa (a recent “Table Manners” guest) reimagining disco for the 21st century. Ford and Ware wanted to pay homage to what they lovingly call “wedding jams,” along with Minnie Riperton soul and “weirdo New York boogie/underground disco.” But “Pleasure” pulls from a varied palette: “Soul Control” has the kinetic energy of Minneapolis funk; “Ooh La La” struts like a long-lost ESG B-side.
“I wanted the sophistication that disco offers, and the melodrama,” Ware said. “It just felt like a bit of a fantasia, and a step away from my real life. Not because I was miserable in my real life — I love my life and my family. But I’d already said all that on my last record. I wanted instead to be a storyteller of these imagined, heightened moments that maybe I wasn’t being able to take part in, in that very moment.” (She and Burrows have been together since they were 18, which she admits does not always make for the most exciting autobiographical songwriting: “Not much salacious hardship. It’s pretty dull. I love it.”)
“It’s a time where people should be able to listen to music that can help them fantasize and move away from reality,” she added. “And that’s the record I made.”
Maybe it’s the podcast, maybe it’s the record, maybe it’s her Impostor Syndrome hitting its expiration date, but after years of feeling like she was just “getting away with it,” Ware finally feels steady on her feet. “I don’t know what shifted that for me,” she said. “I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t feel like I’m just surviving anymore. I feel like I’ve totally earned my place.”