Jessie Ware
Photos by Jack Grange

Jessie Ware’s Pleasure Principle 

The down-to-earth pop diva on why it can be complicated for women to be sexual on stage, gaining confidence from her LGBTQ+ fans, and her frisky fifth album, That! Feels Good!.

As Jessie Ware and I breeze down a bougie street in central London on our way to a fancy wine bar, we take an impromptu tour through her history. Here, on Lambs Conduit Street, is where a pre-pop Ware once worked as an assistant to a TV producer alongside future Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James, who was then merely writing Twilight fanfic across the desk. Ware jokes that James executive produced her new record, That! Feels Good!, which lands very much on the dominant side of the S&M dynamic explored in the erotic romance novelist’s bestselling bottom-slapper.

The album explodes the anticipatory frisson of Ware’s 2020 disco opus What’s Your Pleasure? into mountaintop diva demands to own your desires and, in a matter of words, make that fucking cork pop! It starts with a rush of Ware’s friends purring the title (including fellow pop divas Kylie Minogue and Róisín Murphy, who recorded hers in an airport loo), the curtain raiser to a record in which the 38-year-old mother of three asserts that “pleasure is a right,” finds revelations between the sheets, and channels Grace Jones at her most strident. Its energy was fed by her recent, rapturous live shows, in which she brandished a whip on stage.

Ware describes That! Feels Good! as feeling like “a conversation between me and my fans,” the first of many times she hymns her mutually affirming relationship with her LGBTQ+ audience this afternoon. “They wanted me to be this kind of dominatrix commander to them. They relished it, and they willed it on. So I was like, OK, I’ll give you a bit more of that!

We settle in the bar, Ware removing her trench coat to reveal a black sweater vest over a pinstripe blue shirt. It’s Monday afternoon, so neither of us is actually drinking, but Ware is an expansively great date and precisely the sort of person you want to be left in charge of a menu. Cheesy beignets and lustrous focaccia quickly start piling up. That! Feels Good! is similarly abundant. Brazen and brassy, it was produced by her old collaborator James Ford and new one Stuart Price, who’s primed the dancefloor for everyone from Madonna to Dua Lipa, with horn arrangements by Sheila Maurice-Grey of the London Afrobeat band KOKOROKO. Ware trips further into psychedelic soul and harder into the club than she ever has before. “Freedom is a sound,” she sings on the title track, though it’s been hard won.

previously interviewed Ware on tour in Berlin in 2017, as she tried to balance the release of her introspective third album, Glasshouse, with new motherhood—her childhood-sweetheart husband and firstborn infant daughter in tow. She brings the moment up as soon as we meet. “That was me trying to prove to you and myself that the juggle was juggleable, and it really wasn’t,” she says now. “I was terrified, stressed, really blue. Me and my husband were really struggling with being parents.” 

Glasshouse, which sidelined Ware’s club DNA for MOR pop—including a candid closing ballad about her burgeoning family co-written with Ed Sheeran—was her least successful record. While that album foundered, Ware found surprise success co-hosting a podcast with her mum, Lennie. Taking inspiration from the Jewish family’s Friday night dinners, Table Manners invites a celebrity over for a home-cooked meal while the pair probe their guests and bicker unabashedly—including in front of Paul McCartney, who couldn’t get enough: “I’m sorry but these women are completely out of control,” he deadpanned.

At the end of the Glasshouse cycle, eight months pregnant with her second kid, Ware fired her music managers and hired new ones who encouraged her to see the positives in her career. Nevertheless, she made What’s Your Pleasure? as if it would be her last record, purposefully crafting it for smaller, sweatier clubs rather than the theaters she had once sold out. The vibe harked back to her origins as a dance vocalist, swooping between beats on early singles made alongside the producer SBTRKT. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna go out on a high and I’m gonna do it my way,’” she says. “And that was really fun.”

Arriving into lockdown, What’s Your Pleasure? was initially denied the dancefloors it deserved, though it became a kitchen-dancing staple. A year later, it finally got its moment live: The shows were delirious, grinding, poppers-o’-clock bacchanals. I show her my sweaty photos from a gig last summer. “That’s how I want it,” she says, zooming in on a lot of blurry flesh. “That’s the dream.” 

Those experiences fed That! Feels Good!. “It was about creating a record that felt loose but soulful and also had groove,” she says, citing Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense and shows by D’Angelo and Prince as influences. 

The response to Glasshouse had put Ware off writing explicitly autobiographical lyrics. “I felt like I’d exhausted that, and nobody really wanted to hear about a mum struggling, and that’s fair enough,” she says. But writing about her interior life on That! Feels Good! has taken a different shape: Gleeful sexual authority has become both Ware’s métier and her vocabulary for expressing the confidence that’s come to characterize this phase of her career. “I think I know what I’m doing now, maybe,” she says. “Sex and pleasure always seem to be my way of communicating that, which is wild because it’s not what I’m busy doing all the time. It’s really odd to have that become my thing.”

The cheesy pastries come in an outrageously good dip that tastes like posh Worcester sauce. “Oh come on!” says Ware in approval, before charming our waiter into finding out the recipe. He knows exactly who she is and seems coyly delighted to oblige, but makes sure she won’t give it away on Table Manners without crediting the bar. 

Ware has a real magnetism to her, a sort of compassionate authority; at one point she gives me such fevered romantic advice that I feel like I’d be letting her down not to act on it. Ware’s pleasure principle isn’t just about getting off, but a fully integrated vision of life, where fulfilling one desire inspires the next one. “As I’ve got older, I understand what pleasure means to me in all its different forms,” she says. “It’s not meant to be smug—it’s just being content with what you’ve got, enjoying it, and actually feeling like you can then push yourself a bit more.” The goal now is to stay present, as she says, and a bite of squid snaps her into the moment. “Mmm, that is really good too!”

Pitchfork: Last year you opened for Harry Styles, who is pure sex live—he can elevate an average song because of how he uses his body. You had the whip, but is it more complicated for women to be sexual on stage?

Jessie Ware: You’re so right. And the whip wasn’t my idea either. That was my choreographers, who are very chic and French. It felt so ludicrous to be lassoing a whip while singing, but I was like, “Fuck it, let’s try it.” I whipped myself a few too many times. 

It was still quite contained. I wasn’t writhing around. I’m not judging anybody who takes her clothes off onstage, but I just wasn’t gonna do that. The words and music were used as tools to accentuate moments. I became a better performer when I had choreography because I wasn’t thinking about singing so much. I can sing quite easily, but when it was all eyes on me and I had a completely different band, I felt such pressure to be everything. Whereas now I feel so supported. There’s a precision with it. I’ve got really brilliant, ambitious people working with me that totally understand it. I’ve always relied on people that believe in me because maybe I haven’t believed in myself enough. But now, actually, I do, which is really wonderful. 

Around Glasshouse, you said you were seeking approval from people whose opinions you didn’t value. Who was that?

[groans] Can I just say… men—I don’t want to go on a witch hunt. And it was so nice when I took the power back. The problem was that they weren’t talented enough to help me to flourish, or to support or protect me, being somebody who is hardworking and wanted to deliver on a certain level. I felt like I was starting to blame people a lot. I didn’t like the person I was becoming. I felt bitter. It’s gross. So I was like, “No thanks, I’m not this person. I’m gonna do the record that I want.”

The song “Impossible,” from the deluxe edition of What’s Your Pleasure?, is about this dynamic, with lyrics like, “All in my head to make a fool of me.” What made you write it?

That was a mild comment about being a woman that struggles because they feel like they’re either too loud or they’re not doing enough. It was about internalizing things, becoming paranoid, insecure. For a point, I was under immense pressure to feel like I needed to be the next Adele, which was not the lane that I needed to be in.

Did people say that to you?

Yeah, of course. I remember one comment, it was so disrespectful: “Do you want to be like Adele or do you want to be like Bat for Lashes?” I like Bat for Lashes! Adele’s doing really great work, but Bat for Lashes is really great too. It’s pitting women against each other, which is really dangerous and horrible.

When Stuart Price offered to work with you on That! Feels Good!, you originally said no because you were worried about “big egos.” Was that because of those bad experiences?

I know about the politics of working with big producers and certain songwriters. I like no-nonsense James Ford. It reminds me of how I made Devotion in a room in Lewisham with David Okumu, and with [Kid] Harpoon in the back of his flat with his girlfriend, and Julio Bashmore in his mum’s house in Bristol. That’s how I love working. It feels manageable for me, nostalgic. 

So when Stuart was put to me, I was like, “Argh, he’s got all these credentials—I don’t think I need it.” But that’s actually really disrespectful, because I don’t think I really understood Stuart fully. So I said, “Yes, I’ll do a day,” and we got on really well. I brought in somebody that I knew had worked with him. I’ve got this need for a level of protection in the room, and that’s probably from years of feeling like you’re on these mad blind dates with people, which is just so awkward sometimes. But it worked beautifully with Stuart. It’s more about my insecurities, feeling like I need to protect myself still, but now I probably could go into a room with lots of people knowing I could contribute something.

I get angry that young women artists are rarely given the conditions to express themselves freely. The industry makes them feel insecure, like they have this burden to reinvent, but it should give women the chance to hone an area of expertise. That’s really what it feels like you’re doing with these last two albums.

I didn’t think of [What’s Your Pleasure?] as a reinvention, I felt like it was a return to something for me, and a comfort for me to be able to go into dance music. And then everyone’s like: Oh! I even said it was like resurrecting my career. It’s really bad but I feel like I have to feel lucky to be doing pop as I age. I feel I’ve got better, wiser, more confident. I don’t need to hide. It’s about getting older and giving less of a shit, and, weirdly, that resonating.

Lana Del Rey and Caroline Polachek are 37, Beyoncé is 41, Robyn is 43, Róisín Murphy is almost 50, and I think everybody’s making their best work. I would count you in that too. Pop made by young women is built on selling you the sort of self confidence that you don’t actually develop until you’re older, but so few artists are given permission to get there.

How I’m doing it, how I’m making music, how I get to be a parent and go on school trips with the kids—my level of fame seems manageable. Young girls in music, the focus on them to be everything—I was feeling that at some point. I don’t feel the need to be everything now, and that’s a real release.

It’s interesting that you express confidence through sexual language. Is it just a metaphor or are you also thinking about the shagging?

I’m thinking about the shagging! But I don’t think it’s about me necessarily shagging. It’s weird. It’s kind of voyeuristic, almost like I’m living through other people.

Which you have to do when you’re in a long-term relationship.

Exactly. On the next record, I probably won’t be able to get away with it. Everyone will be like, “All right, you one-trick sex pony.” It’s been quite brilliant for me. If you listen to my podcast, it’s warts and all. I’m quite brash sometimes and slightly inappropriate a lot of the time. And when you apply that to music, but you do it in this slightly sophisticated way, it just makes me laugh. It’s been really empowering. Maybe because I’ve never been the most overtly sexualized person, I find it quite good fun. 

Robyn once said she was so sexualized in the early part of her career that it just made her reject sexuality. It wasn’t until her mid-30s that she realized that she had denied herself something by doing that, and she had to figure out what it actually looked like for her.

It’s funny, because I was never sexualized at all really.

You’ve always been quite covered up—has that been your choice?

Yeah. It’s always been the way that I feel the most confident. Of course how you look plays a part of being a pop star, particularly now that you have to be on every platform looking fabulous. But as I’m getting older, my eyelids are getting slightly more droopy—and it’s OK! I wish I didn’t have to look at it all the time in photos, but I have gained more confidence in my body, and my sense of self, and my sexuality. I used to think I was really overweight, and it’s really sad to look at myself now and think, Oh my God, you’re actually really thin and you were thinking that you had to do these mad diets. I just feel far more at ease with myself. It’s growing up with my childhood sweetheart and definitely my queer fanbase encouraging me. There’s lots of “mother,” which is wonderful and the highest honor, but it’s also given me a really brilliant sense of self. 

We grew up during the heroin chic era, then the Paris Hilton era, and that doesn’t leave you feeling that valued—or like you can be sexy—if you don’t look like that.

No, and at the beginning I was very much celebrated for my voice. And that was great, because that’s what it’s about, right? Potentially why I covered up was because I didn’t want [my looks] to be a focus. Maybe it was a way of being like, “take me seriously.” Is that bad?

It’s the sort of messaging that we’re given, that you then reproduce.

Yeah, exactly. I don’t know if much has changed. I still love a suit and good tailoring. But there’s a bit more glamour on this one. I always felt like I was gonna feel more comfortable as I got older; I fantasize about being really old in my living room with my husband and the fire. I go to that a lot.

How old are you in the fantasy?

I’m like 65.

This is a very different kind of fantasy. 

Maybe we’ll tap into a new market!