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Hopelessly Devoted
Hopelessly Devoted

Hopelessly Devoted

From backup singer for hire to Mercury Prize-nominated artist, Jessie Ware braces herself for the big time. By William Goodman. Photographed by Brooke Nipar

Jessie Ware is peeved: The 28-year-old London soul-pop singer, who critics and music insiders are pegging as the next big British import, hasn’t had a decent meal in days. “And I love New York City for its food!” she complains, finishing off a cocktail in a cozy corner of the Hudson Hotel bar, in Manhattan… “We had some fondue and drinks earlier, but I just haven’t had time for anything really good.” She glances at the recorder. “I’m not too drunk.” She shakes her head, giggling. A question mark lingers in the air.

Ware is amid a (semi-) accidental whirlwind toward pop stardom: Last night, at her New York City solo debut, she had a visibly thrilled Sia Furler fist pumping—“and I was worried there’d be a lot of crossed arms!” Ware admits, her hoop earrings swaying as she adjusts her long, black slip dress. Tonight she’s on the VIP guest list to see Solange Knowles perform at the Bowery Ballroom (“Love her,” Ware gushes), and then tomorrow morning she’s off to Los Angeles for another showcase.

Just three years ago Ware was an aspiring documentarian, much like her father, a BBC journalist with a full-time job as a P.A. to a TV company director. Then fate stepped in: Her old pal, singer-songwriter Jack Peñate, invited her to sing backup on a BBC Session “as a favour,” then later on his U.S. tour. “ It was a lot better than being at my job!” she says. “And even if singing didn’t work out, I’d get to see America.” It worked out: “[The tour] gave me courage,” Ware says, and she went on to sing with London’s genre-mashing, joke-genius troupe Man Like Me, and soon with masked DJ-production duo SBTRKT. “I was completely nervous and freaking out.” She and SBTRKT released the track “Nervous” in 2010 on Numbers Records, scoring some radio play. A development deal followed. “I managed to give the gift of gab to an A&R guy,” she says. “He offered me money to be a singer, and you don’t say no to that.”

In 2011 she started working on her debut album, Devotion, with Dave Okumo of British art rockers The Invisible, Bristol electro genius Julio Bashmore, and singer-songwriter/Florence + the Machine collaborator Kid Harpoon. “Wildest Moments,” her atmospheric, dub-soul single about love-hate relationships co-written with Kid Harpoon, arrived in June and took off online (its “official” YouTube video currently has over six million views). When the album—art-directed with “classy and timeless” blacks and whites and a David Lynchian air of mystery—dropped in the U.K. in August, it debuted at No. 5. She rightly earned comparisons to soul-pop icons like Sade and Aaliyah, and nabbed a nomination for the prestigious Mercury Prize. “And I was told today it’s No. 2 on the Guardian’s readers’ poll,” Ware says in awe, positioning her elbows on the table and shaking her head in disbelief. “It’s been a magnificent year, but sooooo bizarre. It feels too good to be true.”

Ware—and certainly her U.S. label Cherrytree Records, home of pop imports like Robyn, Ellie Goulding, and La Roux—hopes the streak translates stateside with the release of her ‘If You’re Never Gonna Move’ EP in January, followed by Devotion in April. “In America I feel like I’m starting from scratch,” she admits. A Twitter plug from Katy Perry (“I think this lil’ lady is going to be massive”) certainly helps, and Ware—who considers the U.S. a home away from home; her actress sister lives in L.A.—returns in January for a run of pre-release gigs, then a full-court press and world tour. “I’m scared,” she says of the impending year on the road. “I live with my boyfriend and I want a relationship,” she says, sighing. “At least we managed to Skype today….”

But first she’s going on vacation to Thailand over the Christmas holiday: “My only prerequisite: flower petals on my bed,” she says, brightening. “And I’m not bringing a phone. I’ll finally be forced to think, What the fuck just happened? And what the fuck is about to happen?”