Listening back, it’s a little tricky to tell whether I’ve spent an hour interviewing Jessie Ware about her new album or her new baby. The two are closely interlinked. Her third long-player, which has a due date of October, was conceived while she was pregnant and mostly written after her daughter was born. Much of it was recorded in No. 1 Baltic Place, because the studio was down the road from her Dalston home and she didn’t want to be away for more than a few hours at a time. One of her four comeback concerts next week will take place on the little girl’s first birthday.
“I’m scared I’m gonna cry, or just talk on stage about all my gory birth details that no one needs to hear,” she tells me. “It will feel quite poignant.”
Those who have already seen the 32-year-old from Clapham in concert will know that, like her old friend Adele, she’s a chronic oversharer, which makes her marvellous company. No carefully stage-managed hotel suite press junkets for her. She has me round her house, sits me down in front of a vase of close-to-death flowers and makes me what she describes as “a mediocre cup of coffee”. Husband Sam Burrows, a personal trainer who Ware first met at primary school, is upstairs with the baby, who can be heard squealing throughout and is soon brought down for high-fives all round. We end up swapping birth stories when we ought to be spending more time on her Ed Sheeran collaborations.
I tell her it’s not often I get invited into pop stars’ homes. “I’m not a pop star,” she retorts. She does herself down a fair bit, more than once mentioning the fact that she’s never had a hit single, while ignoring two top 10 albums, three Brit Award nominations and a Mercury Prize nomination for the sultry digital soul of her 2012 debut album, Devotion. This month she’s on the other side of the podium as a Mercury judge. During the meetings she’s been getting tips on how to take a baby on tour from Marcus Mumford.
If you don’t count a brief guest appearance at the O2 last December, singing at Pete Tong’s orchestral Ibiza Classics show, the last time we saw her was at two sellout gigs in Brixton Academy in January 2015. “That felt so important. It was where I grew up watching bands, my mum dropping me off outside.” Next week she’s doing what she calls her first residency: four much smaller shows in Islington, a chance for her most dedicated fans to hear around six brand new songs ahead of release, as well as old favourites such as Wildest Moments and Tough Love, before a proper tour next year.
“It’s a nice, intimate room, and it’ll be good to have a small bunch of people every night and really bed in,” she says. “I haven’t seen these people in a while, so we’ve got a lot to talk about I guess.”
Attendees will get to hear Selfish Love, a summery new song released yesterday, and the first single, Midnight, a dramatic piano-led groove on which Ware’s powerful voice is more to the forefront than ever. “We took the reverb away, which was quite scary, until I realised that people quite liked it,” she says. “There wasn’t so much focus on the production, which was how it was led before. There are still electronics, to make it feel modern, but I really tried to home in on becoming a better songwriter. The songs came first.”
She worked faster this time, which seems to have worked. I mention the old Cyril Connolly quote: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” Ware couldn’t disagree more. “It was the best thing that could have happened for my work,” she says. “I wrote eight of the 12 new songs since she’s been born. She’s made me more focused and more driven. I’m more decisive now.”
While she was pregnant she went on writing trips to both Sweden and LA. She says that she learned a lot about the art of pop songwriting, but those first songs weren’t good enough to make it onto the album. She played them to her regular collaborator Benny Blanco, the American songwriter and producer known for hits such as Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger, Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream and Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself. “He said it sounded like I’d lost myself a bit. I was pregnant and scared about providing for my child so my first thought was, ‘I have to write a hit,’” she admits. “Then I threw all of that out of the window and tried to make music that I enjoyed. That’s when I feel like my personality came back. I don’t know if I wrote a hit but I definitely wrote music that I like more.”
She also worked with her schoolfriends, brothers Felix and Hugo White of now-defunct indie band The Maccabees. She was at their farewell show at Alexandra Palace in June, and felt emotional enough to make a rare foray into the mosh pit. Other collaborators include Florence + the Machine’s co-writer Kid Harpoon, Scottish singer-songwriter Nina Nesbitt, Ordinary Boys frontman Samuel Preston and more US hitmakers, Francis and the Lights and Julia Michaels.
Then there was Ed Sheeran. Ware co-wrote the song New Man on his ÷ album, and if you listen closely, you can hear her singing backing vocals on a few songs. Her presence on the seven-times platinum album should ease those worries about providing for her child. In return, he wrote a song for her new record with her. It’s called Sam, after her husband, and continues the dominant themes of family and motherhood.
“It’s about Sam, it’s about my mother, it’s about waiting to be a mum,” she explains. “He’s so oblivious that I’ve written a lot of songs about him. He doesn’t need this adoration or acknowledgement, he’s pretty secure in our relationship. But I rely on him. He makes it all possible.”
Sam will take a year away from his job in 2018 so that the whole family can go on tour. As Ware’s music career kicks into gear again, three years since her last album, it’s obvious where her priorities lie. “I’ve got no time to indulge in this already indulgent job that I have, where I write songs and sing them for a living,” she says. “There’s no room for being overemotional about the music. This is my job, and these are my songs, and they’re the best songs I’ve made so let’s just get on with it. Time is precious. If I’m going to work, I’m going to work the hardest ever.”
And if the hits aren’t forthcoming? “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but if it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t matter.” Most pressingly, there’s a first birthday party to organise.
Sept 4-8, Islington Assembly Hall, N1 (020 7527 8900, islingtonassemblyhall.co.uk). Midnight and Selfish Love are out now on PMR/Island.