When Jessie Ware broke through with “Wildest Moments,” two things were immediately clear to anyone who followed the song’s muffled, echoing instructions to “Listen listen listen!” First, that volatile couples everywhere had a new anthem. Second, that Jessie Ware had a voice: elegant and intentionally unflashy, but still plainly capable of holding its own alongside her contemporaries. That’s part of why it’s a little shocking to hear the 30-year-old Brit admit she only recently stopped feeling self-conscious about it.
“I was scared about showing more of my voice,” Ware says of her sophomore effort, Tough Love, out now. “I couldn’t have written this album before. I didn’t feel confident enough.” What a difference a few years makes. Nearly everything about Tough Love is bolder than her 2012 debut, Devotion, from the edgier production (courtesy of one of pop’s biggest producers) to her vocals (whose power is no secret this time around) to her collaborators (hungover sessions with “Adore” crooner Miguel and a spontaneous Ed Sheeran collaboration dot the credits). Just listen to the soaring “Say You Love Me,” and it’s clear fans are dealing with a new and improved Jessie Ware. Finally, the singer jokes, she’s “letting it all hang out.”
The turning point, Ware says, occurred while working with “Stay With Me” songwriter James Napier, who co-wrote the album’s blistering torch song, “Pieces,” and begged her not to hold back. “I remember Jimmy being like, ‘I want to hear you Jessie, I want to hear you sing,’” she recalls. “‘You let it rip in shows! Why can’t I hear that?’” Ware worried she was screaming bloody murder until she played the song for the xx’s whisperer-in-chief Romy Madley Croft, who gave her an unlikely confidence boost. “I was like, ‘Oh God, how is this going to go down with the queen of subtlety and understated vocals?’” Ware says. “She was like, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to have a song like this.’ It really reassured me.”
Just like her debut, Tough Love drew some inspiration from a wedding. Ware wrote “Wildest Moments” after she and her best friend got into a fight at one and didn’t speak for weeks. (“I wrote a pretty good song out of it, so I’m glad we had that fight!” she says. “We’re still best friends.”) The slick electro thump of Tough Love‘s “You & I (Forever),” meanwhile, was inspired by how long it took Ware’s high school sweetheart, whom she married in August, to pop the question. (Ware herself walked down the aisle to Sade’s “Your Love Is King”; fans have gotten in touch to say they play her song “Valentine” at their weddings, which Ware notes is actually a terrible choice — the very first line is “So you will never be my lover or my valentine.”)
Part of the album’s electronic heft comes from Katy Perry and Kesha hitmaker Benny Blanco, who co-executive produced Tough Love with Sam Smith producer Two Inch Punch under the name BenZel. Word of their collaboration left fans wondering if Ware was pursuing a more club-friendly sound, which wasn’t totally out of the question, given her early work with electronic act SBTRKT and “Imagine It Was Us,” a dancefloor workout that was tacked on to the U.S. release of Devotion. Though Ware says she was inspired by Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” when recording the Dev Hynes disco jam “Want Your Feeling,” making dance songs was never the plan. Part of the reason Blanco and Two Inch Punch work under the name BenZel — and pretended for a long time that the project was actually a group of Japanese school girls — was to put some distance between the duo’s work and Blanco’s Top 40 success. “Everyone was like, ‘She’s trying to crack America! She’s going to have a big ol’ hit!’” Ware laughs. “Benny was never that for me. He knows what kind of artist I am.”
Still, Ware says she and Blanco fought often in the studio about the direction of the new songs. She balked whenever the material veered too far into pop territory; Blanco told her to “f-ck off” and pushed her to stop hiding in her own songs. Listening to the album, it’s clear Blanco’s influence rubbed off — and that Ware is still adjusting to the change.
“I think what Benny wanted was for more people to hear me, and if that meant having more of a direct chorus, then so bloody be it!” she says. “I don’t feel like a pop star.” With Tough Love, she may not have a choice for much longer.