“You just missed the Queen,” says Jessie Ware as she stands to greet me in the bar of the Soho Hotel. She means her mum, Lennie, who is becoming almost as well known as the singer since they started co-hosting a podcast, Table Manners, which has been so successful that next month it becomes a live tour and a cookbook.
Lennie’s exit must have been deliberately timed. I had asked to interview them both but am under orders to talk to Jessie about her music instead. The 35-year-old south Londoner has a disco-tinted new song, Spotlight, out today, the first single from an upbeat fourth album coming in the summer. Even so, as the podcast is now such a major element of her career, and as they’re living together again while Jessie and her husband Sam renovate a new house, mother looms large.
As does food, the main subject of the series of conversations the pair have been conducting since Sam Smith was the first guest in November 2017, mostly over a home-cooked meal in Lennie’s kitchen. They’re now on episode 75, having fed big names ranging from Ed Sheeran to Sadiq Khan, Nigella Lawson to Kiefer Sutherland. She’s in raptures over a chocolate biscuit that comes with our drinks, which she breaks in half to allow me to share the experience: “It looks like not much, but wait. This is gonna blow your mind. You’ll think it’s gonna be crumbly, but just bite into it. No, you didn’t go deep enough!”
However, she doesn’t offer me any of the hunk of banana loaf that sits between us, wrapped in tin foil, emanating bad vibes. Her younger brother Alex, a doctor with a bit part in the podcast, baked it. She just offered it to the Friends actor David Schwimmer, who she and her mother have been interviewing upstairs in the hotel as part of his promotional efforts for his new Sky TV series. He declared it a bit dry.
Table Manners launched just a few weeks after the release of Ware’s third album, Glasshouse. Despite having a song co-written with Sheeran and earning her third nomination for British Female at the Brit Awards, it didn’t sell as much as its predecessors and it sounds as though the accompanying tour was hard going. Her first child, a girl, was still a baby and had to be left at home.
“I was adamant that I was going to be a working mother, put that record out and do it all. I think I was slightly hanging on by a thread,” she admits. “The touring became so expensive, and I was losing so much money, that it felt like a luxury to have my family with me, which seems mad. And I was having so much fun with the podcast, so it was weird that my main job, music, was not fun. It was feeling so heavy.”
Ironically, taking on more work with the podcast (and Lennie works full-time too, as a social worker and counsellor) has eased the strain, she says. “It has really served the music and made me so much more sure of myself. It’s made me realise – and I’ve always kind of known this – I can make money in other ways than music. I am pretty well equipped to try anything.”
Now there’s a second child, a baby boy, who needs a great deal of her time, but still she says that making the as-yet-untitled fourth album felt easier. She changed her management team and her record label, and worked mostly with the people who helped her on her second album, Tough Love, as well as James Ford, who has produced big albums for Arctic Monkeys and Florence + the Machine. “James is a wonderful person. We both have young children. I love his wife. It was this lovely set-up where I’d pop over to his attic in Clapton from my house in Dalston and make music. The pressure was off, which is what I needed.”
I’ve heard four of the new songs and they’re all full of energy and bright melodies, a definite change in gear from the dinner party-friendly digital soul of her past work. They reminded me of Chic, Donna Summer, Kylie and the fun side of Goldfrapp. “I am not thinking about hits in the slightest this time,” she claims, in which case she may yet be pleasantly surprised. “I needed to work out how to enjoy myself. I needed to dance, and I want the people who hear these songs to dance.”
She’s fairly confident her loyal fanbase will warm to the new sound. If they can cope with listening to her and comedian Aisling Bea explaining to Lennie the difference between “doggy-style” and “dogging” over a pescatarian dinner, this is definitely less of a sonic diversion. “My fans are incredibly devoted. People want me to do well – they really do. I get so many tweets saying: ‘Jessie Ware is really underrated.’ Now the podcast is this whole different world, but there’s a similar feeling towards my mum and I. People feel part of this cult.”
It was New Year’s Eve 2015 when a friend suggested to her that she’d be good at podcasting, luckily a bit before everyone in the world started making one. At that point she’d heard Serial and This American Life and not much else. They said: “You need to do a podcast. You’re the nosiest person I know. You’d get great interviews.” I remember from meeting her before that she was a rare example of an interviewee who doesn’t simply dispense wisdom without paying much attention to who’s asking. She seemed genuinely interested in my unstarry life too.
I ask her for some tips on how to be a better interviewer. “Oh fuck off!” she replies. “I just swear too much and ask questions about food. That’s about it.” She was briefly a journalist, working at the Jewish Chronicle and the Daily Mirror before she began to sing guest vocals with SBTRKT and her schoolfriend Jack Peñate. Her father, who separated from the family when she was nine, is the investigative reporter John Ware, so she has the genes for it too. “I like to think people feel safe when we talk to them, because I understand what it’s like to be the person at the other end of it. They feel relaxed when they come to our home. And because it’s essentially about food and family, it’s always going to be a different conversation from them talking about their latest release. It’s a bit of an escape for them.”
It’s proved an unlikely escape route for Ware too, who probably has been underrated as a musician and is now being told half-jokingly by friends that she could be the new Cilla Black. “When I started out in music I was slightly older – my first album came out when I was 27 – and I always felt like I was playing catch-up,” she says. “Now I’m bedding in. I love my jobs and feel like I’m just starting to excel at them.”
Music may be the food of love, but it turns out being a musician with a love of food can be pretty good too.
Jessie Ware’s new single Spotlight is released today on Virgin EMI/PMR.