Before the Scene can get a word in edgewise, Jessie Ware is politely interrogating us. "Have you always lived in Tennessee?" "How close are you to Dollywood?" "It's still warm there this time of year, right?" Wait a minute, aren't we supposed to be asking the questions?
The 29-year-old R&B singer, whose father was a senior reporter at the BBC for most of her life, is only exercising the inquisitive nature that led her to follow in his footsteps when she chose to put her passion for music on the back burner. She was busy establishing herself as a journalist when opportunity came knocking in the form of Jack Peñate, one of several old friends who have become phenomenally successful musicians — others include Adele and Florence and the Machine's Florence Welch. Following a tour singing harmony in Peñate's band, his guitarist introduced her to London electronic producer Aaron Jerome (aka SBTRKT). Jerome featured Ware on a single and two tracks from his critically lauded eponymous SBTRKT debut, launching her into the limelight.
The following year, Ware's solo debut Devotion broke the Top 5 on the U.K. charts and was shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Prize. The album, released in the U.S. in April, is stunning for a debut, not just because of Ware's technical skill and ability to embody complex emotions with her voice, but for how extraordinarily well the production serves the songs — not the other way around, as often happens when a label tries to break a new artist. Credit is due in part to Dave Okumu, who produced most of the tracks and with whom Ware collaborated from the beginning of the songwriting process. A few tentative conversations proved that Ware and Okumu clicked on a professional level. Then he worked up a demo called "Devotion" that sealed the deal.
"I thought, 'Oh God, this is exactly what I've been trying to do! Thank you!' " says Ware. "[I felt] reassured and excited. I knew it was a new thing for him too, to be producing, and thought, 'Well, sod it. First time for me, first time for you, may as well have fun with it.' "
The team's approach finds grooves in the skittering landscape of contemporary electronic experimentalism and bares the soul of '80s-vintage R&B. Delightfully unpredictable beats and textures glimmer and shift like mirages in the Sahara, while Ware engages grown-up situations with warmth, grace and not too much self-consciousness. It's a recipe for tracks that will haunt our playlists long after the most cliché, soft-neon bits of synth-pop become old news again.
At the same time, Ware has mastered the art of making her most personal experiences strike a nerve with a wide audience. She takes special pride in "Wildest Moments," a brush with real life that made her uncomfortable at first.
"[Fans] come up to me like, 'That's about me and my boyfriend,' and it's [actually] about me and my best friend," Ware explains. "That could have only happened after having the biggest fight with [her], at my manager's wedding, where we ended up by throwing cake in each other's faces and then ignoring each other."
At present, the live show is her main focus. With an eye on keeping things fresh and spontaneous, guitarist and musical director Joe Newman and drummer Dornik Leigh have helped adapt the arrangements, ensuring in the process that everything can be played live, from guitar parts to vocal and drum samples.
"Don't get me wrong, it's a pain in the arse when things go wrong and you think, 'Oh man, it could be so much easier if this were on a track,' " Ware says of live instrumentation. "But it's also very satisfying when it's right."
As she prepares for her cross-country U.S. tour, which takes her out of the festival circuit and into clubs all across the South, the East Coast and the West, Ware plans to rely on her reporter's instinct to learn about the new places she's playing.
"I'm just so interested in these people who are bothering to come and see me, and I really appreciate it," Ware says.
Maybe we'll make it into one of her songs? We'll have to wait and see.