What do you do if you’re accepted to law school and then get an opportunity to tour as a backup singer for a former high school classmate? If you’re Jessie Ware, you put school on hold for a year, hit the road, land your own record deal, and never look back. The 29-year-old British singer/songwriter, who’s best known for her single “Wildest Moments”—a haunting, bittersweet, bassline-anchored track that’s a universally relatable reflection of a tumultuous romance—got her start as a supporting vocalist for friend and classmate Jack Peñate. (Florence Welch and members of the Maccabees were also classmates—something in the water maybe?) Peñate then connected her with electronic outfit SBTRKT, and their resulting track, 2010’s “Nervous,” snagged Ware a record deal. She’s admitted she wasn’t sure at first what she wanted her album to convey, but her first effort, Devotion, is as self-assured as it is eclectic, spanning sounds from dancey pop to butter-smooth, ’80s-influenced R&B, with some hip-hop thrown in for good measure—“If You’re Never Gonna Move” samples Big Pun, and a “Wildest Moments” remix features a verse from ASAP Rocky.
Despite her quick rise to success, Ware is charmingly humble and frank about the fickleness of fame. She’s currently touring the US, including a stop at Fillmore Silver Spring on Halloween. Before the tour began we chatted with her from London about finding her voice as a songwriter and the real story behind “Wildest Moments”—and broke the news that Drake is performing on the same night as her.
Where am I catching you today?
In my mum’s kitchen. I’m just making dinner for my family, so I’m frying some aubergines.
Your tour kicks off soon—anywhere you’re especially excited to play?
My first show is on the 17th in Dallas. I’m really excited about going to Texas. I’m excited about going to New Orleans, and … where else? Oh, Miami, just ’cause I want a bit of sun. I’m quite excited ’cause in Washington we’re playing on Halloween. Now, this could be a terrible idea because people could just be too busy going to their Halloween parties, but I’m hoping we can be, like, the pre-party for them, and I want everyone to dress up at the Silver Spring gig.
Are you going to be wearing a costume?
Yeah, standard! I’ve gotta find it first, but yeah, man. My makeup artist is amazing at fancy face paint, so we’re all gonna dress up.
Any ideas what you’ll be?
Whatever’s left in, like, CVS or something.
I know you’re a Drake fan—he’s actually playing the same night as you, at the Verizon Center.
Shut up! Shut up! Is he? Oh, my god, can you put a call out now and say Jessie would LOVE to meet Drake. Is he playing the same night as me? This is so annoying! I’ve got Drake in bloody Washington and I’ve got Kanye in Chicago. I know who I’d like to see.
You played at Coachella this year—what was the experience like?
It was wicked, man. I had, like, loads of people there; my album wasn’t out yet, and it was packed, and then you get to do it again the week after, which is kinda crazy. It was lovely; I loved it. It’s a funny one, ’cause Coachella was kind of at the beginning of festivals—it’s kind of the first one you do, because it’s the summer, isn’t it—so at that time you’re like, “Yes, oh, my god, loving it, feels really good.” I love festivals anyway; I’ve always been one that goes to them, and me and my friends have always been festival-goers. By September all you want is an intimate gig, but it’s like you always want the one thing when you’re doing the other thing. I definitely am ready to do my own tour now, but as soon as the festivals come around they’re really exciting.
Do you get nervous before shows?
I still get nervous, but I also feel like if people have bothered to come and see me, we’re gonna have a nice time. You’re playing host for the night, so I want them to go and say, “Oh, I had a lovely evening with Jessie Ware.” I really love doing my own shows in America because I’m still meeting lots of the fans; it’s been getting bigger and bigger every time I go, so there’s more people to meet. But you also see familiar faces who’ve been supporting you and travel to different places, and you’re like, “Hold on, didn’t I just see you in Philadelphia?” So it’s lovely.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I mean, really boring ones where I warm up. I’m so scared [about] my voice, especially on something like a five-week tour; you can’t afford to mess about with your voice, so I make sure I warm up. And then I got into the habit, which I probably shouldn’t have, of having, like, a whiskey just before I go onstage as a bit of Dutch courage, to kind of settle my nerves.
I read in a few interviews that you weren’t sure when you started your first album what you wanted to say with it. How did you develop the narrative?
I think I just worked with the right people, who respect and understand me. They know the style of music I’m into, they know I’m gonna say things about kissing people and having unrequited love, and they’ve just been very respectful of that. At the beginning I was very nervous about saying anything because I just thought it wasn’t worthwhile and interesting, and then I just realized . . . I accepted I was no Bob Dylan but I was just going to write about what I liked, and it became just fun and about not overthinking it. Dave Okumu, my producer, helped me write some of the songs. I remember he came to me with “Devotion” and he said, ‘Everyone can say, ‘I love you,’ and it can be equally important in every song if you really mean it and if you really believe in it.
So what’s your writing process like?
I freak out, get a lump in my throat, cry a bit, and hope the musical gods are on my side that day. No, but it’s become a bit funner—a bit more fun, I can’t even speak properly!—anyway, I know who I like working with, and I have my particular people I feel comfortable with getting it wrong or saying something stupid. I think it’s just I definitely do songs from experience, so if something’s going on I like to treat it therapeutically and deal with it—maybe in a song, metaphorically and hidden with secrets and stuff that only I’ll understand but hopefully people can still enjoy. It’s very different. Sometimes it’s kind of fantasy; at the moment I’ve been writing a lot from experience and situations, but I think I’ll get bored of that after a bit. I dunno how much I’ll write on tour. I’m gonna try, but I also think everyone would be really bored if I wrote an on-the-road album.
What was the inspiration for “Wildest Moments”?
It’s about my best friend, Sarah. We’d had a fight at my manager’s wedding, and we ended it up in a food fight where it got just, like, out of hand, and then we ended up ignoring each other. I was going into the studio, and my friend Kid Harpoon had been at the wedding and was like, “What the fuck went on with you and Sarah?” And I was like, “I know, it just kind of went out of control—one minute we were having a good time and the next we were hating on each other.” Me and her have quite a tempestuous relationship where it’s either love or hate, much like other people’s relationships; it just happens to be with my best friend who’s not my boyfriend, but sometimes I feel like she’s my boyfriend. So it was just about saying, “I love you, but fuck, we can really piss each other off. But we can also be so great together.” I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and be like, “Oh, it’s about me and my ex,” or, “It’s about me and my boyfriend,” and the boyfriend’s standing right there. I feel like it’s probably one of my most relatable songs, and I’m so proud of that because it was a love song to my friend, and I adore her. It was supposed to be a song that was showing how much I thought she was great but sometimes we get it wrong.
What was her reaction when you told her the song was about her?
I think she was really . . . she’s also my biggest critic, the person I play all my stuff to first—she gets all my demos because I trust her opinion. So when I’d written a song about her and it was probably my most popular song, I think she was pretty pleased.
You were considering going to law school at one point—when did you decide to go all in with your music career?
It was kind of decided for me because I got offered a record deal so I kind of was like, “Now I guess I can’t go to law school.” I had a place at law school whilst I was being a backup singer ’cause I was like, “Well, I’ll try the backing singing for a year and see how it goes, and if it doesn’t work out it doesn’t work out, no worries.” Then I got signed within that year, so it meant I didn’t go to law school.
So is music your permanent career now?
I hope it is! It’s such a hard one, because as fun and amazing and intense and wonderful as it is, people can really hate the next stuff I put out—or hopefully like it, and I hope they do, but you never know. So I’m a constant pessimist about it and waiting for everyone to go off me and go, “Yeah, no thanks, go and take up that law degree now.”
Are there plans for a new album soon?
Yeah, I’m writing it—I haven’t had that much time, but I am writing. Obviously I can’t do that much writing when I’m on tour; it’s quite hard. I’m hoping my next album will be out next year because I don’t want to wait that long.
Anything else I can pass on to fans?
Just tell Silver Spring to dress up, and hopefully we can have fun. I realize it’s the biggest night in America, Halloween, so I hope people want to come and have a little dance after they finish trick-or-treating.
Jessie Ware plays the Fillmore Silver Spring Thursday, October 31, at 7 PM. Tickets ($30.50) are available online.