You can tell a true-born foodie by their urgency around a menu, and when the musician Jessie Ware meets me for lunch it is at a Middle Eastern restaurant with kitchen smells so good that she visibly quivers with impatience to order. “I’ve always been this way,” says Ware, who was Mercury-nominated for her debut album ‘Devotion’ back in 2012, and has an as-yet-untitled fourth on the way. “I’ve always been controlling in food situations,” she says. “Basically a greedy cow.”
Ware, 35, has strict instructions from her management to talk up the new music instead banging on about her life-long love eating, but she is a gastronome to her core and can’t help herself. “OK!” she tells a waiter (imagine the following spoken at rapid pace): “We’ll get the aubergine. And the hummus? Some salad-y things. Which is your favourite out the feta and the wedge… ? We’ll get grilled halloumi. Ooh, and cauliflower. Is this still working for you? Is this working for me?”
She carries on: “Crudités. Let’s get some crudités. Ooh, fuck, hold on, those lamb fritters looked great until I saw the mention fal, then I kind checked out. What else? I. Am. Thinking. Bits. We need plates bits. What’s the deal with the clay oven? I love pickles. Can we get some pickles, please? Have I over-ordered? We’ll get one more thing. You choose the last thing. You sign us out. Oh, falafel, lovely.”
The waiter asks if there’s anything else. Ware says no. “But I may want to look in on the puds later.”
She has dark hair to her shoulders, a gold ring in one nostril and hoops in each ear. People tend to describe her, in the first instance, as a Mercury-nominated musician. In the early years her career, this was shorthand that made sense. More recently, her job description has become more complicated – as Ware discovered for herself when she appeared before a judge during jury service recently, and was asked to explain what she did for a living.
“So,” she told the judge, “I’ve got an album due. I also record a podcast with my mum Table Manners, launched in 2017]. We’ve got a recipe book coming out Table Manners: The Cookbook, due early March] and we’re about to go on tour together Table Manners Live, from late March].” The judge, Ware says, “looked at me as if I was about to claim I was a teapot in my spare time”.
We talk over her life, her work and how she got here. She grew up the middle child three in a busy, noisy, secular Jewish household in south London. “So Jewish, we put up our tree in November,” Ware said, recently. The household was dominated by her mother Lennie, a social worker, home cook and general mensch who gave as good as she got in boisterous conversations at the family dinner table.
Her father, John Ware, is a reporter for BBC Panorama. (Last summer he presented an episode about antisemitism in the Labour Party that made a lot news.) “This is not to say my dad was a bad person,” Ware begins, carefully, “he just wasn’t the most present parent because he was working a lot. My mum made up for it in leaps and bounds.”
Her parents separated when she was 10, and there was a period when she and her father were estranged. “That lasted a long time. We do have a relationship now. It’s getting better and better. It’s that feeling , life’s too short. And when he’s not being annoying he can actually be quite funny and informative.”
She went to Alleyn’s, a private school in south London, where she became friends with an Oasis-obsessed crowd that included Felix White and Jack Peñate, both whom would become prominent musicians. Florence Welch was in the year below – the only one, in Ware’s memory, who looked destined for some sort stardom. For herself, Ware could pick her way through a jazz standard. She was a good bet for the third- or fourth-best part in school musicals. Beyond that, she didn’t have much in the way industry ambitions. “I was a scaredy cat. I didn’t write songs. Four albums in, it still seems odd that I make music like them.”
The foodie streak, the ravenous appetite, was always there, first evident publicly in the 1990s when Ware appeared with some school pals on a short-lived ITV children’s quiz show called Eat Your Words. As her friend White has recalled, the rules were such that if a contestant answered a question incorrectly, they could still get a consolation point by forcing down a plate horrid food. (Boiled carrots and custard was one.) As White remembered it, Ware made a series elementary mistakes, fluffing her counting and her alphabet… but ate her way out trouble and won. It wouldn’t be the last time.
After graduation, White became part a band, the Maccabees, while Peñate forged his way as a solo artist and Welch found the stardom they had all predicted. Meanwhile, Ware interned at the Jewish Chronicle. She had a degree in English literature and thought about training as a lawyer. Around 2010, Peñate asked her to join him on tour as a backing singer. Then a series providential encounters led to Ware singing guest vocals for rising producers such as SBTRKT and Disclosure. She had been accepted on to a law conversion course when PMR Records, Disclosure’s label, fered her a deal. Devotion came out in summer 2012 and – impossibly, it seemed to her – was nominated for the Mercury within a month. “Everything was magical and romantic around that record. I guess I thought, this is just what it’s like!”
Lyrics-wise, Ware wasn’t a very prominent presence on Devotion, which she describes now as “an ambiguous, metaphor-laden record. I guess I was seen at the time as a slightly-alternative-pop-soul-girl, hiding behind the music, without much personality to dig your teeth into.”
It’s a lingering orthodoxy pop that for an artist to be considered credible they are better f staying unknowable. It was a trick that worked for Ware, “back when I was so petrified in photoshoots that I looked miserable”. The trouble was, it wasn’t especially true to who she was in real life. Ware is blunt, funny; a gossip and a chatterbox. She’s also a reality-TV obsessive with a knack for making interesting friends. (She’s part a semi-legendary WhatsApp group in which droll celebs such as Aisling Bea, Katherine Ryan and Lena Dunham commentate on episodes Love Island.)
She made a decision when she was making her second and third albums, Tough Love (2014) and Glasshouse (2017), to experiment with a more confessional style songwriting. Ware has been with her partner, Sam Burrows, a personal trainer, since they were both 17-year-old ravers in south London. On autobiographical tracks such as Night Light and Sam, she wrote about them meeting, marrying and having their first child in 2016. But neither Tough Love nor Glasshouse did as well as her debut, and Ware says she lost quite a bit money on a US tour in 2018.
“On the first album, lots wonderful things happened to me. Then, with album two, album three, I saw a different side. It was a bit more a struggle. Fine. Nobody owed me anything. It was music, not saving lives. I always thought I’d be quite matter–fact about it, if the music didn’t work out. But people around me – people I trust – would say: ‘You’re miserable.’
“And I was – I was angry, slightly bitter, resentful. Which is not what I wanted, or expected, to be.”
She felt especially guilty about her daughter, whom she had dragged around America for work, and then had to leave at home for part the 2018 tour. As Ware tells it, the economics were such that they could not afford the extra zeroes it would take to bring husband and baby along, too. “I couldn’t have my daughter on the tour bus. And I couldn’t cancel the tour. She was 18 months old. I was away for three weeks, and it nearly tore me apart. I did the shows. I appreciated everybody who came. But I would look out at the crowd and think, ‘I’m not enjoying myself. I’m away from my family. I’m losing loads money. So, y’know, this is shit.’”
In 2013, following the success Devotion, Ware had been invited to play Coachella. The Californian music festival is staged over two consecutive weekends, so every performer plays twice. If your first weekend show is a hot one – as Ware’s was in 2013 – you get to spend Monday to Friday basking in your own buzz before singing again. But if your first show turns out to be “an absolute Jesus Christ a shocker”? Ware drops her head at the memory Coachella 2018.
Groaning, slowly, she forces herself to tell the story. “I clashed with Cardi B, a phenomenon that year, who was playing on another stage. Our equipment didn’t work. You know how the audience at Coachella is, uh, pretty young? I’m up there, 33 years old, singing about motherhood. It was just… tumbleweed. My mum was there with me.”
And what was Lennie’s take? “Oh, she was honest. She said, ‘Darling. Quit.’”
By now, mother and daughter had taken their brand fond-but-brutal family banter public. They were making a weekly podcast together: “No agenda behind it, no business, we did it because it felt easy to do.”
The original idea was to gather a group Ware’s interesting mates for dinner, and record them all chatting, eating and gossiping. Lennie would cook; Ware would steer the conversation. By the time Table Manners went online, in late 2017, it had evolved into a one-guest-per-show format with Ware and her mother sharing hosting duties. Both cooked, both interrogated their guests with blasts candid curiosity.
Most the guests on Table Manners have a drink while they are on, and their hosts certainly do. This means that episodes play out a bit like a Parkinson chat show, only recorded by the catering table with many glasses red, no scripted questions, no pre-prepared anecdotes and endless conversational tangents. The comedian Alan Carr spilled the beans about his wedding (chief celebrant, Adele), while singer Sam Smith admitted he had always thought Mexico was in central Europe. Sadiq Khan broke the Ramadan fast with the Wares. Yannis Philippakis from the band Foals spoke about getting stabbed by his uncle at a party.
Listeners loved all this, and about 80m episodes Table Manners have been downloaded since 2017. Ware, who has not yet had a top-10 single, got to experience a smash. The publisher Ebury signed the two Wares to a book deal. A live tour was arranged. Since Table Manners started turning a prit, Ware says, it has relieved some the money-making imperatives on the music. “Music was my bread and butter. Now it isn’t, not entirely – which has made it more enjoyable. Less do or die.”
She changed managers and switched labels. To make the new album, she booked time with a producer whose studio was walkable from her home. This meant that when Ware and her husband had a second child (a boy in spring 2019) the music carried on around the edges their life, not the other way round. She says the new album will be about “joyful escapism…sexy, seductive, late-night music that you can get lost in”.
Ware managed to cause a bit family upset on the last record, when she wrote a line in a song addressed to her mum that seemed to criticise her dad. (“I hope she knows / I found a man far from my father.”) Ware had somehow convinced herself, she says, that if she didn’t let her father come to any shows he would never find out: “That was silly me. Someone sent him the song. He was really hurt.” Her idea for the new album was that it would be confession-free, but without chasing any the old mystique.
“Oh, I’ve fucked the mystique by now,” says Ware. “The podcast has seen to my mystique. People know what I’ve eaten. What I’ve argued with my mum about this week. The mystique is not there. I’m absolutely never going to be FKA Twigs. And that’s OK.”
She looks aside, as if struck by a thought, and says: “Ooh, Twigs. We should try and get her on as a guest, shouldn’t we?”
It’s time to leave the restaurant. Plates pickles and veg have been picked clean, leaving no room to look in on puds after all. On her way out, Ware is stopped by a group entertainment execs, who want to suggest some their up-and-coming clients as guests for Table Manners. It’s an unlikely course for a slightly-alternative-pop-soul-girl’s career to have taken, but Ware seems chuffed with how it has panned out, as music, podcast, recipe-writing, daughterhood and parenthood come together in a big enjoyable mess. “I feel like I’ve got five different jobs now,” she says. “But like I told you, I’ve always been greedy.”
• Spotlight, Jessie Ware’s new single, is out on 28 February.
Top picture: shirt, £175, by Chloe, from harveynichols.com. Trousers, £290, by Theory, from selfridges.com. Earrings, £775, by Sophie Bille Brahe. All other jewellery, Ware’s own. Styling: Hope Lawrie. Hair: Liz Taw. Makeup: Francesca Brazzo, both at the Wall Group
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