Jessie Ware: Love, Tough and Otherwise

Music Features Jessie Ware

No doubt about it: British personal trainer Sam Burrows is easily the most secure, self-confident man on the planet at the moment. Or at least, he would theoretically have to be, after one soul-crushing spin through his wife Jessie Ware’s new album, Tough Love, which doesn’t simply touch on the subjects of heartache, infidelity and unrequited love—it positively wallows in them.

Most newlyweds would be shivering like a timid chihuahua to hear their missus croon pointedly pain-wracked plaints like the R&B-based “Cruel,” a fluttery, synth-clanking “Desire,” a marshmallowy “Keep on Lying,” the skip-roping melody “Want Your Feeling,” and the soul-steeped “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe,” in which she coldly cautions “I don’t cry.” Even the sultry, suggestive “Say You Love Me”—a song Ware penned with Ed Sheeran in roughly 30 minutes—sounds more like a gun-to-the-head demand, and features the somber, regretful line “We’re running out of words to say.” And when your gorgeous wife has—thanks to her slow-burning debut disc Devotion—become the toast of your native England, after having been nominated for a 2012 Mercury Prize and two 2013 Brit Awards? Even the coolest cucumber might get a little hot under the collar.

Mention the aura of doubt and uncertainty hanging hazily over Tough Love, and at first she’s dumbfounded that her words and delivery would frighten a paramour. Then she cackles with gleeful delight at the perception of her own budding stardom. Her hubby, she swears, “is so not fussed about any of that. He loves coming to see me, he’s so proud of me, and he knows when he likes the songs. But he’s just not that self-involved that he’d be like ‘Wait—is this one about me?’ He doesn’t care. And he is very, very, very content. And confident. And he has no reason to worry. I mean, it’s just a bit of storytelling at the end of the day!”

Ware begins the interview from the back of a London taxi, barking directions to her addled driver. She could have walked, she reckons. Then again, chuckles the daughter of BBC TV reporter John Ware—who did a bit of newspaper work herself before switching to music—“I’m a Jewish princess. I was a Jewish princess before the first album, and I’m still one.” The chat continues as she arrives at the flat she and Burrows share. The two make a good team, she says. And they’re comfortable with each other’s faults. “I leave teabags in the mugs,” she confesses. “I leave them in the mugs, and then I just put them in the basin to wash out—I’m terrible with that. And then he never puts a wash on. So we pick and choose, who’s good at what. I mean, I’m kind of tired now, and he’s making dinner, which is lovely.”

And Ware insists that there are no subliminal messages coloring Tough Love. She merely wanted to get every last breakup theme out of her songwriting system before tying the knot, which she did on the Greek island Skopelos this August, sporting heels that read “Wifey” and “For Lifey” (later, the couple relaxed poolside, he in “Mr. Ware”-embossed trunks, she in a “Mrs. Burrows” swimsuit; photographs that circulated were taken by her actress sis, Hannah Ware). “I think it was time to be retrospective and to enjoy this moment of being so excited about committing to somebody forever,” she explains. “So I was looking outside my relationship, and looking to other people’s relationships, and looking at their different feelings. So it’s semi-autobiographical. But there are definitely some, uh, embellished moments.”

One track, however, is exactly what it appears—the slinky, suggestive ballad with whispered lyrics “You & I Forever.” “It’s a song celebrating the fact that he put a ring on it,” the singer sighs. “And, well, it’s not his favorite song. Much like ‘Night Light’ [an ode penned expressly for him] wasn’t his favorite song on the last one. But he’s cool with it and totally laid-back.” Ware shudders recalling that proposal night, which also took place on Skopelos, where her mother owns a vacation retreat. “It was me nearly ruining it by being impatient and bossy,” she admits. After hiking up a steep hillside overlooking town for dinner, she wanted to take a quick way back down, but he wanted to take the more romantic stairs. “I thought ‘Uh-oh—something’s up,’ so I agreed,” she remembers. “Then he stopped me on the stairs and got on his knee, but before he even asked me, I snatched that ring out of that box and put it on my finger! He didn’t even have to ask—he was like ‘Well?’ And I said ‘Yeah!’ Hey—I’m impatient. What can I say?”

Ware, 30, hasn’t always been certain of what she wanted. Although she’d known Burrows since grade school, when they were on the same swim team—the wedding invitation boasted a shot of them together as 11-year-olds—they went their separate ways, but bumped into each other again as adults at drum-and-bass club nights in London. She was working at a TV production when her old chum Jack Penate—who recalled her vocal ability from school— invited her to sing backup on a quick studio session. He then invited her to join his entourage, where she caught the performance bug and went on to add her rich-textured voice to tracks by SBTRKT, DJ Joker and even Florence and the Machine’s sophomore Ceremonials set. With her friend Dave Okumu, she went on to craft the sleek, soulful sound of her solo bow Devotion, which spawned hits like the rubber-band-elastic “Running” and a stomping, orchestral processional “Wildest Moments” (Okumu co-wrote and produced three Tough Love tunes, as well, alongside other top names like BenZel, James Ford and Julio Bashmore).

Ware penned much of Tough Love on a sabbatical in L.A., where she enjoyed playing tourist and frequented hot spots like the Chateau Marmont, where she hung out with fellow dream-pop diva Lana Del Rey. She wrote “Say You Love Me” with Sheeran in New York, the evening of his Saturday Night Live appearance—and yes, she says, she met Taylor Swift, who was palling around with him at the time. And the deluxe edition will feature another collaboration she’s proud of, “Share it All,” which she composed with The xx’s Romy Madley-Croft. “That came about because we’re friends, and I work with her girlfriend Hannah Marshall on a lot of my stage clothes,” she says. “She wanted to get into writing with other people, and I love her so much, I said ‘Would you write with me? I feel like we’d work well together.’ She was well up for it, so it was the most perfect thing.”

What constitutes a good concert outfit for Ware? “For me, it has to be simple,” she says. “It has to feel good, not too fussy, and have a good outline. So it’s got to have a good shoulder pad, and it’s usually black.” Sure enough, when she recently took the stage to “Running” with her four-piece male backing band (all clad in matching suits and ties), she was wearing a billowy ebony pantsuit with her long hair tied back over its ‘40s-film-star-elaborate shoulders. It’s basic, straightforward, like her stripped-down new arrangement approach. “I wanted to let the music do the talking on Tough Love,” she says. And her keen reporter’s eye influenced her lyrics. “I like to get the message across quite succinctly, shall we say? In the first paragraph.”

But how does Ware go about sculpting an honest, soul-searching sonnet with a man underfoot? She snorts. “Well, I don’t usually write here—I write on a plane, I write when I’m on my own, I…” Her attention is suddenly diverted to what Burrows is doing across the room. “He’s trying to put paprika on the bloody chicken! Oh shit! We’ve gone and spilled the bloody paprika now! Hold on a minute…He’s whispering something at me, and I’m like ‘Wot? Shuddup! I’m on a fucking interview!’ Well, apart from him interfering on that, I think he’s very understanding about my writing.”

So home is a work-free zone, then? Ware guffaws. “Ah, he would say no, it isn’t, I’m on my phone way too much,” she says. On cue, her husband offers his muffled opinion on the matter as he sets the table for dinner. “Okay—he just told me ‘It is not a work-free zone—you’re fucking crazy!’ So there you go. There’s your answer!”

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