Grammys 2021: Jessie Ware on 'What's Your Pleasure?', Dance Music - Rolling Stone
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Jessie Ware on Dance Music in the Age of Quarantine

“Disco has that sense of joy that people need when things are really going to shit,” the British singer says ahead of 2021 Grammys

fyc grammy jessie warefyc grammy jessie ware

“There is nothing better than walking into a club," Jessie Ware says in our 2021 Grammy Preview. "So much can happen in a room full of good music.”

Carlijn Jacobs*

First-round Grammy voting gets underway on September 30th and runs through October 12th. For our 2021 Grammy preview issue, we asked a series of likely contenders for next year’s awards to reflect on their past experiences at the ceremony, look ahead to the future, and discuss the albums and singles that could earn them a statue come January.

Sign up to receive your free exclusive Grammy Preview magazine for next year

After 2017’s Glasshouse, a deeply personal album on which she wrote about new motherhood, Jessie Ware was ready to reinvent herself. “I was at a place with music where I had to fall back in love with it,” says the London singer, 35. On What’s Your Pleasure?, released in June, she dove back into the club music that launched her career in the early 2010s, with a new dash of Studio 54 glamour. Working with a team of friends that included James Ford (of Simian Mobile Disco), Danny Parker, and Shungudzo as co-writers, Ware made one of the year’s most purely enjoyable dance-pop releases.

Heading into Grammy season, Ware has her eye on nominations in the dance and pop categories, with eligible singles including “Save a Kiss,” “What’s Your Pleasure?,” and “Ooh La La (Honey Dijon Remix).” In the meantime, she’s sheltering at home with her husband and two young children, living the life of a working mom even as she plays a dance-floor diva on record. “I don’t want to moan,” she says, “but I’m quite exhausted!”

This is such a fun album to listen to. Was it fun to make?
Totally. It was very much about a magic between people — me and James work incredibly well together, and Shungudzo is an amazing artist in her own right, and Danny Parker is brilliant. There was some kind of chemistry that made everything feel slightly daring. It was an exciting, joyful experience, which is exactly what I needed. I always thought I couldn’t make happy music; I didn’t think it suited me.

Why was that?
I’d heard what people liked about my voice, and it was always something melancholy. They called me a quiet storm, and I was like, “Fine, I’ll take that because it makes me sound mysterious.” But I’m at a stage in my life where I feel really confident as a woman, and I didn’t feel like I needed to pour my heart out for people to hear. There’s a generosity to disco and dance music — if you’re going to make it, it has to be for other people to dance. That was very freeing, as a songwriter.

Is there an irony in releasing an album about going out and dancing at a time when no one can do that?
Honest to God. Look, I didn’t want to delay the record. If anything, I felt like people could have a bit of escapism with this record during lockdown. But, yeah, the frigging irony that I make this banging record and I’m supposed to be raving with everybody — I was supposed to be getting those nights off from middle-of-the-night teething duty to go and dance with my fabulous fans! And that is not happening for a while. My son will have all his teeth by the time I get to those bloody parties.

It’ll be fun when it happens, whenever that is.
It will. I wonder if there will be that sense of built-up anticipation for those first few gigs of anybody seeing any act. Maybe there will be a tentativeness. If you’re coming to my show, you know that we’re all going to have to get sweaty and up close and personal.

Were you drawing on your own memories of club life when you wrote and sang these songs?
What, did I go out raving myself? Oh, my God, absolutely. There is nothing better than walking into a club. That’s one of my most nostalgic feelings, the anticipation of where the night’s going to go — meeting and connecting with somebody, having that incredible dance, and then . . . There’s so much that can happen in a room full of good music. But it’s funny, I just [worked on] a documentary for Radio Four about Donna Summer. As I was doing research on her, I didn’t realize that on “Love to Love You Baby” she was pretending to be Marilyn Monroe. That really resonated with me, the idea of going into different characters and having fun with that melodrama.

What made you want to tap into that sound now, yourself? It’s a big leap from your last record.
I needed a pick-me-up and I needed a reset. I had said everything that I felt I needed to say on the last record. There was nothing left to say, personally, for me. You know, I had another child, and I felt similar in some of those respects. But I didn’t want to write about it again. [This album] was about pure fantasy, and also a return. The dance world embraced me before anyone. That’s where I started, singing with SBTRKT, Sampha, Joker. I was becoming a dance vocalist; people like Katy B paved the way for me to be able to do that, and it was where I fit in. I don’t really know what happened, but I kind of stepped away from that when I did my [first] solo record.

So for me, it was a return to somewhere that had been so generous to me and that I had felt really comfortable with, but I hadn’t explored fully. That’s the kind of music that I want to go out to, and it was definitely something that I was thinking about with the live shows. I had enough of certain tempos. I needed to pick the energy up. My fans really wanted that, too. However loyal and incredible they are, they needed that, too, from the show.

Disco, in particular, is having a moment in pop music lately. Why do you think that sound is appealing to people this year?
It’s me, Dua, and Gaga, and I’ve just seen that Kylie’s announced an album called Disco. We’re all having a go! For me, there are definitely disco elements, but I was quite greedy with the genres of boogie, funk, soul, and groove. It’s a bit of everything. But disco has that sense of joy that people need when things are really going to shit at the moment. It’s a genre that will never die. It will always return, because people are always going to want to feel good with music.

Are your kids old enough to have opinions about your music?
Children are the best A&Rs — if you get them dancing, you know you’ve hit the jackpot. This record, I have loads of vinyl around, so there’s mum’s face right by the record player. My son points to it and he’s like, “Mama!” And we put it on, and they dance. My daughter knows the words.

Do the more grown-up innuendoes on some of these songs go over their heads, I hope?
Thankfully they do. I mean, when my daughter’s singing “Ooh la la, open up the door, I like it,” I hope she’s just thinking about opening up the plastic door on the car that we’ve got in the garden.

You also have a successful podcast about food with your mom, and you released a cookbook this spring. Read or watched anything good lately?
I just finished the Donna Summer autobiography, because of the research I was doing for this Radio 4 program. What else? I’ve been reading quite a lot of M.F.K. Fisher, the food writer. And there was a really interesting book called Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday. Program-wise, I May Destroy You is one of the most important pieces of TV in a very long time. Michaela Coel is a genius, and I’m so proud that she’s a Londoner. Her storytelling is just beautiful.

Have you ever been to the Grammys?
No. I’ve been in L.A. with my friend Benny Blanco around Grammy season, and I’ve been to a few parties where there’s a real buzz and energy. I don’t think I enjoyed it enough when I was up for a Mercury Prize or the BRIT Awards. I was like a rabbit in a headlight. But [awards are] a lovely recognition, and it can be quite transformative. If I get nominated, I’ll go. Hey, wherever the Grammys want me.


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