Sometimes you need to make your voice heard to get what you want. Other times it’s just a case of being in the right place at the right time. So it goes with Brixton-based Jessie Ware: a backing singer turned journalist, her pop-star dreams crippled by a lack of confidence. Her first recorded vocal piece (for bass producer SBTRKT) was titled Nervous for that very reason, yet it was exactly those self-conscious vocals that found her on 2011’s underground radar.
A year later, Devotion sees Ware finding her voice, bravely choosing not to tailor it to her dubstep beginnings. It’s a wise decision, for hers is not one to be associated with trends or fads; there is a timelessness and vulnerability to Ware’s voice and backstory that is refreshing at a time where Emeli Sandé awkwardly performs not once but three times during the Olympic ceremonies.
In interviews Ware shared some words of wisdom given to her by former collaborator SBTRKT: “less is more”. Indeed, for a modern pop record, Devotion is poised, refined, and all the more welcoming for it.
Credit undeniably goes to the understated production work of Dave Okumu, who forgoes the overblown sounds of modern pop for something much more complementary to Ware’s classy croon. He sprinkles his production tricks sparingly: a gentle guitar pluck here, a percussive backbeat there – credits are even given to fingersnaps – which grant the record with a breathing space that positions Ware’s vocals justifiably at the forefront. Take the album opener and title track: a sultry number where her velvet tones are treated with sharp percussive stabs and delicate guitar grooves. It’s the perfect indicator of what’s to come: sexy, sophisticated, but most importantly, strong.
The fact that Ware expresses a desire “to be a pop star in the classic sense” is telling. A seductive chanteuse she may be, but what makes Ware so dynamic is her chameleon-like quality that only comes from an understanding and mastery of classic musical reference points. From the newjack leanings of Sweet Talk to the Sade-esque neo-soul of No To Love, Ware constantly adapts with maturity and finesse. Even when channelling golden-age Whitney Houston on highlight Running, she refuses to fall back on bombast and instead exercises an uncompromising restraint too often neglected by her contemporaries.
Yet to say Ware merely emulates is to discredit the raw emotion with which she delivers the 11 tracks. Granted, Devotion never displays any outstanding examples of wordsmithery, but that’s not the point, as closing track Something Inside attests. By multi-tracking her vocals, Ware is able to harmonise with herself. This proves to be the most compelling moment of the record – as vocals weave in and out amongst a gorgeous string backdrop, Ware succeeds in conveying genuine sentiment in a way that is nothing short of effortless. Make no mistake, Devotion is a record all about that voice, and what a voice it is.
In a positive irony, this ex-backing singer fulfils her diva ambitions by presenting herself as anything but: a self-described “normal, down-to-earth person”. Indeed, for a debut record, Devotion never competes for attention; it proudly exists on its own terms, and that makes Jessie Ware a diva in her own right – perhaps without her even realising it.
Listen: Wildest Moments – Jessie Ware