Jessie Ware: "If This Hadn't Gone Well I Probably Would Have Been Dropped"

·11-min read
Photo credit: COURTESY
Photo credit: COURTESY
Photo credit: -
Photo credit: -

Have you ever found yourself in a situation wondering how exactly you ended up there? This is what was going through Jessie Ware's mind the evening before our interview, as she watched her mother attempt to throw Ed Miliband out of the house so they could watch the Europa League Final in peace.

“He said, ‘Well, can’t I watch it with you?’” Ware recalls. “She said, ‘No, I need to focus’. Thank god he’d had a few glasses and was very understanding, but we do find ourselves in very unusual situations.”

The night that ended with United losing on penalties to Villarreal, and with the former Labour leader being unceremoniously turfed out onto the streets, was for the latest episode of the wildly popular Table Manners podcast, which the Ware matriarchs host together. You might know Jessie from her debut 2012 album, Devotion, and the ensuing music career that has spawned two subsequent albums and a number of award wins, but in recent years many have become fans of her culinary conversations only to discover with surprise that she’s also an established musician.

The podcast was born out of a love of food and the Ware penchant for having a chat. Jessie and Lennie could “talk to a lamp post”, though presumably only if said lamp had an opinion on why burrata is actually wildly overrated. “Food is definitely disarming,” she says. “It’s not meant to be an interview so I don’t prepare the questions for them, it’s just where the night takes us.” Ware is talking to me over Zoom from her home in South London, calmly orchestrating the gentle chaos of DPD deliveries arriving and children bouncing in and out of the room from atop an exercise ball, because in addition to the podcast, and the imminent releases of a deluxe version of her album and a food memoir, she is also eight months pregnant with her third child. Table Manners’ remarkable success (25 million listeners and counting) can largely be attributed to the warmth and charm of its hosts; Jessie Ware is like the girl you meet in the smoking area and become determined to make your friend, only without the ensuing mortification the following morning. She is self-deprecating without overdoing it, loathe to take herself too seriously, and a consummate professional at deploying a perfectly timed expletive.

In 2020 Ware found herself having the best year of her career during what was largely agreed to be one of the worst on record. Last June she released What’s Your Pleasure?, a shimmering ode to the dance-floor with nods to disco, funk, pop and house. On the hazy album cover Ware stares out the camera defiantly, the coral tendrils of a gold chain wrapped around her neck and a cloud of dark hair framing her face. In the artwork, as in the music, Ware is close-up and yet slightly obscured, more playful and mysterious than in her earlier, more introspective, records. It's not autobiographical but more about universal sensations, and this is perhaps why it struck such a chord in a year where our senses felt both heightened and deprived.

The making of it was a watershed moment in Ware's career, with the reaction to her previous albums Tough Love and Glasshouse leaving her feeling low. She went into What’s Your Pleasure? determined to do something different, changing management and label and working alongside English musician James Ford. She wasn't jetting off to Los Angeles, and as a result she was no longer torn between her family and her career. With past records she had resented the time away from her young children and started to feel as though music was work. Then she felt guilty for resenting a job she knew she was lucky to have. At a painful Coachella performance in 2018, where, thoughts and prayers, she clashed with Cardi B, Ware ended up performing to a thin crowd and felt her resolve crumble. Her mother, now famously, told her to quit. “It’s funny, because my mum is like, ‘I never said that!’” she laughs. “But I was definitely very prepared to quit. I think I needed to try one more time to see whether it was going to work or not. If this hadn’t gone well I probably would have been dropped.”

But it did go well, so well that What’s Your Pleasure? was one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the year, landing her on numerous end of year lists – including our own – and earning her two Brit Award nominations. One afternoon in December, her phone started lighting up with friends texting to ask: ‘Have you seen this?’. Ware’s song ‘Remember Where You Are’ had just made President Barack Obama’s carefully selected and suspiciously hip list of his favourite music of the year. Ware has since played it down, claiming that Sasha Obama was in fact probably behind it, but her inclusion on the list was another sign that the album had resonated and come to define the year in some way. “You know,” she says slowly, chewing the idea over in her head. “It was a very interesting reaction to be made to feel like you’re a new artist again.”

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

The confidence and freedom to make a record she believed in and start over again is in large part due to the success of Table Manners, which has turned the Ware women into household names. There is food chat, like Robbie Williams waxing lyrical about Coke Zero and Andrew Lloyd-Webber slagging off kale, but there are also intimate personal revelations too, like Foals’ frontman Yannis Philippakis discussing about being stabbed by his cousin, or Sadiq Khan revealing he would be running for a second term as London Mayor. In one memorable episode they ended up ordering takeaway for George Ezra after a short-rib disaster left them without anything to eat.

Cooking for chefs can be especially intimidating, but after Nigella's visit – when Ware’s brother made two custard tarts because he feared he’d messed up the first – she followed up with a handwritten thank you card full of praise. When Paul McCartney and his daughter Mary were guests on the show, Lennie and Jessie had a huge bust up which they kept in the final edit. “That wasn’t chic,” she sighs. “But listen whether I like it or not it’s fucking gold, and the listeners will love it so it has to stay in.”

In 2020, both Table Manners and What’s Your Pleasure? gave listeners what they were being deprived of: the shuddering sensation of a night club and a meal with your family around the table. Often Ware is approached by “beautiful millennials” in Brockwell Park who gush about listening to the podcast with their mum while they were kept apart over lockdown. It is nice, she says, for people to feel they know her well enough to come and say hello, though often people are “very British about it” and blurt out her name to their friend as she walks past.

During a year in which celebrities posted about their glamorous holidays with a paltry disclaimer that everyone in attendance was fully tested, hearing people talk about meals gone wrong or feeling exhausted by their own kitchen was a welcome relief. On one episode of Table Manners, Florence Pugh talked about why she uses her Instagram to share videos of herself making crunchy salads and chickpea stews, not photographs of perfectly arranged limbs or opines about skincare routines, There is something messy and real about cooking, and there are no wrong answers when discussing it. Everyone remembers the meals of their childhood or the ones shared on a first date, and there is an intimacy to getting to know someone’s unfiltered culinary quirks and tastes. My own mother and sister have never been more interested in who I am interviewing than when I told them I was speaking to Ware. They didn’t need to ask what she was really like, they already knew. As she says, “If you do know me you know what I ate last week, so there’s no mystique.”

Photo credit: Xavi Torrent - Getty Images
Photo credit: Xavi Torrent - Getty Images

The fame which the podcast brings is a less glaring spotlight than music, which sits much better with Ware, as having the focus solely on her can feel “so gross”. The day that we speak she has been signing a mountain of polaroid photographs of her own face which, even at this stage in her career, feels a bit weird. “I was like, ‘Which bugger wants this?’ and I’m doing like 2000 of them,” she says. “I’m a really open person but I do find sometimes that I’m slightly exhausted by myself.”

This unease at having the limelight can be traced back to Ware’s childhood, where, as a ten-year-old, she didn’t feel she could really call herself a singer and had other people pushing her to use her voice. “I wasn’t in my bedroom writing love songs, I was listening to Lauryn Hill and Amy Winehouse,” she says. After leaving Alleyn's School in Dulwich she interned as a journalist then thought about family law, inspired by her mother’s career as a social worker. In the end she deferred her training contract to go on tour with childhood friend and musician Jack Peñate, and then she got signed.

In her new memoir, Omelette, Ware threads these formative years together through the dishes that made her; a buffet of memories including the delicious nostalgia of buttered white toast, and how a toffee apple was responsible for a replacement tooth being knocked out on the dance-floor of Fabric. The book chronicles the nights where Ware would sneak into drum-and-bass clubs like Movement, and the feeling at that age that the world is unfolding in front of you. “Being given space to find yourself and also realising what defines you and shapes you and bonds you with people, that’s what I find clubbing was really important for me,” she says.

The giddy rush of a room full of people dancing is what Ware wanted to go back to both in What’s Your Pleasure? and the Deluxe follow-up, and both feel saturated with physical sensations. On ‘Hot N Heavy’, Ware’s voice bobs above and below a roiling bass-line, breathless and then blooming at the chorus, while on the soaring ‘Impossible’ she moans over reverberating synths that make your head swim. “It feels like a naughty sister,” Ware says of the album. “Slightly more after-hours and dirty, but if you’ve enjoyed What’s Your Pleasure? I feel like you’ll understand this one.”

In the coming weeks she is looking forward to a slowing of pace as the rest of the world – at the time of writing – leaves behind social restrictions on 21 June. Instead Ware’s world will shrink down again with the birth of her third child. “I’m really looking forward to giving birth, as sadistic as that sounds,” she laughs. “But I feel like this is probably my last time doing it and I’ve had really positive experiences.”

Photo credit: Table Manners
Photo credit: Table Manners

That she gets to spend so much time with her mother and a roster of dream dinner party guests she knows is something of a fantasy job, and her good fortune is never too far from her mind. Not just being happy and healthy during a year in which so many people have suffered, but, whether her mother did or didn’t tell her to quit, that at the moment she was considering giving everything up she gave it another shot. There is a sense, she still feels, that nobody could call a job which is this much fun work, even if, and especially when eight months pregnant, a lot of it really is hard work.

Last night, before Ed was kicked out, he asked Lennie whether she enjoys the podcast and the revolving door of fascinating people who sit down or Zoom into their kitchen to enjoy lamb shanks and crème brulee. “My mum kind of went ‘Meh’,” Ware says. “I said, ‘Mum, you’ve got Ed Miliband in your kitchen, you’re cooking for him and he’s having thirds and asking for the recipe. He’s talking about going cold water swimming with you, and you’re going, ‘Meh’. Mum, you’re loving it.”

'Omelette: Food, Love, Chaos and Other Conversations’ is out on 10 June. The deluxe version of 'What's Your Pleasure?' is out 11 June

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