Jessie Ware on Pleasure, Purpose and Poppers
Story by Bradley Stern / Photography and video by Danielle Aphrodite / Styling by Ashley Abtahie / Hair by Izumi Sato / Makeup by Grace YenMay 10, 2023
Jessie Ware is thinking long and hard about pleasure. Her own, specifically.
The British singer-songwriter just spent the past year on the road, cracking a whip across stages worldwide in support of her album, What’s Your Pleasure?. So it only feels fair to flip the question: what’s your pleasure, Jessie Ware?
“Boob tape,” she declares.
“My boobs are so sad after painfully breastfeeding three kids,” she continues, doubling down on her answer: “Boob tape.”
As it turns out, between being a globally renowned recording artist and live performer, award-winning podcaster, author and mother of three, pleasure comes in the form of brief respites, like a glass of Chardonnay. And long-haul flights. And boob tape.
Three years ago, amid an onslaught of Instagram Live notifications and Animal Crossing island-hopping sessions, Ware kept the dwindling hope of someday reuniting on a dance floor alive with her critically acclaimed 2020 studio album. The pristine, studied disco opus provoked distant memories of pool parties and fog-filled dance floors with soaring anthems like “Spotlight,” “Save a Kiss” and “Ooh La La,” proving unexpectedly essential at a time when the majority of the world was sitting at home alone.
“What’s Your Pleasure? was a record for myself to escape and find this world of fantasy,” she recalls. “And then it took on a life of its own during the pandemic.”
She’d further feel the fantasy with the Platinum Pleasure deluxe edition a year later, teaming up with Kylie Minogue for a giddy dream collaboration (“Kiss of Life”) before diving headfirst into virtual sessions amid the lockdowns with her What’s Your Pleasure? collaborators to carve out an equally uplifting, largely uptempo follow-up.
One thing that is decidedly not her pleasure? Recording sessions over Zoom, an awkward piece of information to glean during, well... our Zoom interview.
“I never wanna make music on Zoom ever again,” she declares.
Ware also worked with some pop heavy-hitters, including Clarence Coffee Jr. and Sarah Hudson (who’s behind Dua Lipa’s “Physical” and “Levitating”), as well as almighty producer Stuart Price, of Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor fame. And yes, she can say she’s now shared microphones with the Queen of Pop.
“I love the idea that me and Madonna have held the same mic,” she says.
Ware wasn’t always belting out across four-to-the-floor beats, though. She first forged her path in the music industry well over a decade ago in the form of her Mercury Prize-nominated 2012 debut Devotion, stretching her soulful voice across warm R&B and electronic textures onwards through 2014 follow-up Tough Love and 2017’s Glasshouse.
“I do think it was a natural evolution,” she says of her current sound, as she started digging through the disco vinyl crates for inspiration — Grace Jones, Earth Wind & Fire, Evelyn “Champagne” King, among many others — to craft the kind of music that felt, well... good.
From the rallying, self-empowering cry of “Free Yourself,” to the cheeky camp of cuts like “Pearls” and “Shake the Bottle,” to “Begin Again,” a stunning anthem inspired by both the frustration of lockdown and memories of hot Brazilian beaches, That! Feels Good! is a continuation of the nostalgic groove she’s been riding for the past few years.
“I am at the service of my fans. There’s nothing more satisfying than when you make music for yourself, but it resonates,” she adds of her dance floor calling.
There are also a few soulful slow dance moments that ought to delight fans of her older records, including “Lightning” and “Hello Love.” (“That last note feels like Amy [Winehouse] would've had that on the end of her record or something,” she notes.)
That! Feels Good! is a liberating and deeply flirty escape, full of sultry oohs and ahhs (and the occasional existential crisis), bringing the singer one step closer towards cementing her status as a veritable disco diva.
PAPER spoke with Jessie Ware about diving deeper into disco, drag and purpose, below.
Jacket: Gaultier, Shirt: Gucci, Denim: Jessie's own, Earrings: Laura Lombardi (Courtesy of James Veloria Archive)
What's Your Pleasure? was one of the incredible albums that helped us through lockdowns in 2020. It was crafted before everyone started making music through Zoom. Can you talk about the difference between making these two albums?
What’s Your Pleasure? was for myself to escape and find this world of fantasy. And then it took on a life of its own during the pandemic. It was so well received, it was insane. Then the pandemic carries on. I'm completely driven to make more music because I'm seeing the reaction to What’s Your Pleasure? and it's filling me with huge confidence and ambition. At the end of 2020, James Ford and I got in the studio again. I was like, “Let's write the record.”
But we couldn't have Shungudzo [Kuyimbia] and Danny [Parker] over from the States. We wrote music on the internet. It was fucking annoying. Maybe that's why “Begin Again” has this joyful escape. I needed it at that point because we were trapped in these boxes. I never wanna make music on Zoom ever again, but I respect that there was beautiful creativity that happened during that time.
There does seem to be a tension or annoyance in the song, but you wouldn't know it because the music is so joyous and uplifting.
Yeah. I came up with “I work all night...” because we were going into the night doing this session and I was tired. I was in the early stages of being pregnant with my son, who's now nearly two. I was like, I don't know what else I can talk about. I work all night, killing time, and I need a friend. I wanted to touch somebody. Is this our life? Is this how life is gonna be? There was frustration, but a great song came out of it.
When I saw you at Brooklyn Steel, you said something about after touring 2017’s Glasshouse, you wanted to up the BPM, because you were feeling a bit shit.
I feel like I need to change the script on how Glasshouse is perceived, because Glasshouse received really well... in the States, particularly. My fans really enjoyed it. I personally was struggling with being able to try and do both motherhood and touring. I was trying to show that I could do it all.
I did look at my crowd and I thought, Yeah, I wanna do some tempo. I think that's just the evolution of an artist. That's why What's Your Pleasure? happened. There’s this pull with America — I mean, you've been at my shows. Maybe you do this for everybody, but I never feel more special than I'm when I'm in a New York show... or a Chicago show, to be fair. Or a San Francisco show. America has my heart for performance. They have been the ones that are screaming at me to sing higher and harder. They love those big moments. The Brooklyn Steel What's Your Pleasure? show was a party. There were new kids there that probably didn't even know about bloody Glasshouse and Devotion, and that's okay. Everyone's welcome.
I have this deep love and obsession with America. I think the Glasshouse Tour I did around America, I wasn't ready to do. The venues were slightly too big for me. That's just how it is, but I never give up on America, even though it's hard to get there. I feel like I'm in a fairytale when I'm there. It’s thrilling for me.
Then I have to ask: are we getting a proper tour with this album?
We have a tour that we are finalizing. Yeah, I'm gonna be there.
People will go crazy once again. When you were going on the road, you posed a question about merch, asking if we had any ideas with a caveat: “Poppers aren’t happening.”
Oh my God, do you know what? That just came up as a memory on my phone. Do you remember what all the things were? Shall I remind you? [Pulls out phone] The most popular suggestions for merch: Jock straps, condoms, massage oil candles, scented tea lights. Oh, dildos! Earrings, totes, Lennie-related items. Poppers were also on there, we know that.
What prompted the mass demand of poppers from your fanbase, would you say?
What do you think?
[Laughs] The LGBTs have been out in full force for you. Can you chalk that up to a specific moment in your career? Was it What's Your Pleasure? specifically?
It was What’s Your Pleasure? specifically, but then you've been there from the start. Do you know what I mean? I always had a strong LGBTQ+ following, and they were there to cuddle and kiss and cry and support me. But when I gave them a beat, well... then shit popped off.
That's the thing: it's gone much bigger, but I've always had this beautiful following from the LGBTQ+ community, and I've loved and appreciated it from the beginning. What’s Your Pleasure? made it go to another level. I'm headlining West Hollywood Pride, for goodness sake. With Idina Menzel! [Laughs]
Do you feel like there's a distinct pre- and post-What’s Your Pleasure? division in your career? We’re on the second uptempo album.
I do think it was a natural evolution. I'm so glad I scratched the itch and returned to dance music. I found my place, my confidence, my feet. I've found a strength in performance. What's Your Pleasure? was unlike any of my other shows. I was doing far more, and I felt the most confident and free doing it. It's tapped into all my loves:Mmusical theater, dance, pop. It's satisfying being able to get to that stage, working with a choreographer and a brilliant [music director], who both understand and support me and have this brilliant focus. I have such great people around me that want the same thing as me. That's why it's working.
On “Beautiful People,” you sing: “I wake up in the morning and ask myself, What am I doing on this planet?” Do you feel that question of purpose for yourself has been answered?
[Long pause] I definitely feel like I've got more purpose, but that only continues as long as people encourage that. I think I'd know when to step off the purpose path of making dance music if it started being like, “Babes, what are you doing?” I like to provide — oh God, I'm gonna sound like Tom from Succession — I am at the service of my fans. There’s nothing more satisfying than when you make music for yourself, but it resonates. I respect them, I listen to them, I want to carry on our relationship. I want to make this relationship work with my fans because I love them, because they're the best. We have so much fun together. It’s an evolution. It’s growing, it's listening, it's enjoying. I do respect the role of my audience.
You have different audiences, including a very successful podcast. Does that creatively fulfill something in you that music doesn't?
Totally. My inquisitiveness. It’s not a normal job — don't get me wrong — but it feels slightly more normal than getting on stage with a whip and singing. I feel like I've satisfied the person on my shoulder being like, “Get a proper job.” I'm really proud of myself that I managed to completely create something that is like all my favorite things: My mom, chatting to strangers and eating.
Were there any guests that have proven to be surprising?
There was a guy that was an absolute prick that we aren't putting on.
It's just a completely lost episode?
Yeah, a waste of all our fucking time. We want the people that come on to feel trusted and respected. I'm not gonna ambush somebody even though they were an absolute prick. We're never gonna put it out. It would be brilliant awkward listening, but nah. Let's think about a positive one.
I was surprised by Dolly Parton. I was surprised by my mom asking Dolly Parton questions with such ease. I was really starstruck. She was treating it like, “Oh, Dolly, yeah, the Dolly that I just met at a party.” That’s kinda brilliant and why it works. [Laughs] Infamously, people don't really know about Dolly's husband that much and my mom was straight in being like, “So your husband...” It wasn't like it was off-limits, but I'd done my research and seen that he stays out of the limelight. There's my mom being like, “So, what'd you get for your husband?” [Laughs] She was such a great sport as you'd expect her to be, but even better. Just brilliant.
Was the Kylie Minogue episode the seedling that made your collaboration happen?
Yeah, she came in and played me her new music. We danced in the kitchen. I asked her out on a songwriting date when she was getting her coat on. I kind of went, “We should maybe write something together.” She was like, “Yeah, great.” I got on the phone to James Ford. I was like, “We need to write something.” We went in and wrote something, and then left it open for her. She wrote something back and then we made the song. She was so cool.
Did you take anything from her, professionally. Anything you observed?
Kylie knows what she wants. She does it very politely. There's a reason why she's been doing this for four decades. She's phenomenal, and she's incredibly professional and lovely. It was interesting to see somebody be decisive, whilst totally respectful. I liked the way that she worked. I found that amazing. I also was so impressed by how she picks up dance steps in like one second. She’s a proper dancer. There was me being like, “One, two, cha cha cha,” and she walks in like, “Right, so what are the steps?” She got them in a second. It's taken me half a day.
And she’s on this album. The opening of “That! Feels Good!” peppers in the voices of friends and family, including Kylie. What prompted that decision?
I wanted to make “That! Feels Good!” start off the record. I felt like it was quite brilliantly abrupt. I wanted to create more of a theatrical, cinematic element to launching into this world of pleasure and confidence and empowerment. I'm a British singer, we're usually quite awkward. You've got all these voices. It's like, Has somebody just stumbled upon the wrong room? What are we about to embark on? I love the idea of people walking into a room of an orgy, or being peeping Toms at the beginning of the record. It felt like the right taste for this record.
There’s so much talk of pleasure on this record, and certainly the previous one. What's your pleasure?
[Long pause] Boob tape.
I love it. My boobs are so sad after painfully breastfeeding three kids. Boob tape. Love it in the summer, with a little white vest.
So, that's your pleasure.
[Laughs] It’s my miracle. My pleasure is... food. It's always food. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, but my pleasure is Chardonnay at the moment. I haven't got that much time to have that much pleasure. My pleasure is sleep and lie-ins, which is just never gonna happen. Then that gets boring and I miss my kids. My pleasure is a long-haul flight. There's nothing more relaxing. I'm gonna eat shitloads, I'm gonna drink shitloads. I'm gonna watch about four films. I'm gonna cry a bit watching one of the films, then I'm gonna have a little sleep. I'm gonna put a face mask on. It's like my spa time. There's nothing better than the long-haul to LA. I can really get a lot of fucking TV watching done.
Trenchcoat: DKNY, Earrings: Lombardi (Courtesy of James Veloria Archive)
You worked with Stuart Price. Confessions on a Dance Floor. Did you ask about…
Yes, so much so that I... Stuart records in a different way. I really appreciated it. He would make me take my headphones off because he knew that he was gonna get a better performance out of me. We were just getting to know each other. It was fantastic. I said, “This mic is so good. What the fuck are you doing to my voice? I'm sounding pretty decent.” He was like, “That's the same mic that Madonna did Confessions on Dance Floor with.” I was like, “Right. Game on.” It’s the fucking magic mic, bloody Madonna's sprinkled some magic on it.
Really legendary. I love the idea that me and Madonna have held the same mic.
You’re doing some fun things with your voice on this album. We all know you can belt, but there's a lot of speak-talking too. It almost reminds me — this is a compliment! — of Geri Halliwell’s–
”Mi Chico Latino”?
No, “Bag It Up,” where she’s like, “I like chocolate and controversy.”
I think we're all probably referencing Madonna, “Vogue.” Do you know what I mean?
I'm glad that that was your fucking reference. Geri Halliwell. I was gonna go Grace Jones, Lady Gaga, Madonna.
[Laughing] I was going to ask about your deeper disco references, but I heard something that made me think of “Bag It Up.”
[Laughs] Okay, okay. Good... good to know.
What’s Your Pleasure? was such a studied album. One big takeaway was that this was the work of somebody who did the homework. Once again, that is the case on That! Feels Good!. Who were you digging into this time?
Earth, Wind & Fire, the Rotary Connection, Teena Marie, Evelyn King, Donna Summer, Talking Heads. B-52s, Blondie, Tom Tom Club... quite a lot of New York post-punk. Stevie Wonder, The Gap Band, a lot of groove-led stuff. Donny Hathaway, Amy Winehouse. On “Hello Love,” that last note feels like Amy would've had that on the end of her record or something. So soul, but groove.
You opened for Harry Styles last year. How was his crowd’s reception?
Oh, fantastic. They're a very generous, lovely crowd. I couldn't have asked for a more warm place to sing in an arena. I think I rose to the occasion, in the sense that we really considered how we were gonna work the show in the round. We were also lucky that it came at the end of a long run of touring, so we were quite a well-oiled machine. It meant that I didn't have to freak out about missing a move. I really tried to take it all in and appreciate what was going on. It was a wonderful experience.
I loved the choreographed moments on the tour and, of course, the outfits.
With the outfits, it's really tricky. When you're performing, it’s a whole other kettle of fish. Some outfits are completely off the menu because you can't dance or bend or raise your arms, or it's too ethereal. It takes a lot of time and consideration. People love a costume moment, but that should only be there to enhance the show. It shouldn’t dominate it. I'm not gonna be able to put on a good show if I can't move properly.
Maybe you can ask a few drag friends out on the road this time.
Yeah, I could learn a lot.
A few minutes ago, they announced the All Stars 8 cast.
Who’s in it? [Scrolling through phone] I don't think I know any of these ones. That's really bad. I think I know Jaymes Mansfield. That's bad, isn't it? I can't remember the first season I ever watched. Didn’t Sasha Colby just win the last one? I need to watch it. My hairdresser was saying Sasha is royalty drag and everyone was quite surprised when she did it.
Yes. The day she walked in, everyone said it was over. And it truly was over. How was your experience on Drag Race UK?
It was fantastic. It was a weird time where it was COVID, so I couldn't, like, grope Ru or Michelle or Alan, sadly.
Right, you had those dividers in between the judges.
We had the fucking screens, but they were so wonderful. I've never felt more special than when Ru turned to me and said, “Hey Jessie, you're good.” And I went [gushing], “Thanks, Mama Ru!” I got a really good episode where they'd just done Snatch Game. I have such respect for all the queens that put themselves out there to be critiqued. It’s a hard gig, man.
I would love a lip sync to one of your songs.
I'm bloody waiting for that, to be honest.
Which one do you think would be a great one?
“What’s Your Pleasure?” would be really good. I think “Soul Control” could go absolutely bonkers. “Pearls,” as well. I know that lots of queens are doing “Pearls” already, which is wonderful.
And you yourself had a queen on the remix: Pabllo Vittar!
That was just fab. I haven't met Pabllo yet, I need to meet them.
You had said “Begin Again” was inspired by Brazil and South America. Brazilian fans, I don't know a more passionate fanbase.
Oh my God, they're amazing.
It’s Brazil, then the gays. Then the world.
I'm lucky I've got a bit of both. I went there recently to play at Primavera. I had this insane show in São Paulo. I'd never played there before. I was on the main stage. It was so busy, such love. Brazil is a place that I fell in love with when I was 19. I went with my girlfriends. I always had this nostalgia, this image of being on Ipanema Beach and seeing these beautiful bronze, gorgeous bodies and the sun setting. That was the setting for “Begin Again.” Maybe it's me longing to be 19 again, I don't know. I love the people, I love the heat, I love the passion, I love the music, I love the food. That was my little love letter to them.
The album is very passionate. One part of your story is a long-time romance with childhood friend Sam Burrows. What’s the magic of making it go the distance?
Find yourself a Sam Burrows. He's incredibly patient. He doesn't know what's going on half the time. That probably helps. He’s horizontally laid back, which is the opposite to me. We complement each other. I'm messy. He's tidy, I'm chaotic. I'm early, he's late. We work. We're a team. We know each other very well. We're friends. I can't pull a fast one on him because he'd be like, “What are you doing?” It's incredibly grounding and important for me. But I also really fancy him too. He's handsome.
He is. Respectfully.
[Laughs] He is. I know.
Didn’t you also just get Bat Mitzvahed two years ago?
I did, yeah.
Has your faith become more important to you?
I dunno if it's my faith. I felt something... not missing, but I wanted to understand my heritage and culture more through the texts. It wasn't because I believe in every word that's written down. I find it fascinating, studying it as a piece of literature that you can debate and discuss and interpret. I think it’s an amazing religion in that respect.
But also, I had this podcast that was doing so well, founded off these very unorthodox Friday night dinners. I felt like I needed to walk the walk a bit more. That was my way of doing it. And being able to confidently offer that up to my kids, as well. The Friday night dinner — whether it’s just lighting the candles, breaking some challah bread, saying the bracha, that's okay. As long as that feels positive and loving, and a tradition that they remember and smile upon, that's important for me. I listened to this podcast about a woman taking Shabbat seriously and how she honors Shabbat. I think everyone could do with doing Shabbat on a Friday night, and actually turning off their phone and having a meal and resting. The whole world could bloody do with that right now. I should probably practice more what I preach and do it more often.
Speaking of nostalgia and traditions, are there any of your songs or records from your past that you’ve revisited lately and consider differently today?
Not necessarily. But I did watch Grease on holiday. It was German-dubbed. I looked at the cast and I thought, None of you are fucking teenagers. That’s the only thing I've readdressed. I dunno how old you guys are, but you're definitely not finishing Rydell High at the right age.
[Laughs] Any goals or aspirations?
My intention is to be a live artist that is respected and celebrated, but I need to put the work in. I need to put the shows in. I want to tour and do as many shows as possible. That is my ambition. I want to do something with musical theater in some shape. I want to say that I want to slow down, but I dunno if I really mean it. I don't think I wanna slow down.
As long as it feels good.
Do you feel this is the groove you will continue to go down in the future?
I think so. Let's see what happens with this record. Let's see if people like it. I have big ideas for how it's gonna be performed. I'm just getting started with this new era. I think I feel the most comfortable in it. So why would I stop now?
Suit: Versace, Shirt: Vaquera, Belt: Escada, Earrings: Laura Lombardi (Courtesy of James Veloria Archive)
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