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Free Yourself! How Jessie Ware became our artist of the year

Jessie Ware accepts the Artist Award (Picture: Aaron Parsons)
Jessie Ware accepts the Artist Award (Picture: Aaron Parsons)

After the superlative club-ready sounds of What’s Your Pleasure? won her a legion of new fans when the record was released during the first Covid lockdown in 2020, Jessie Ware returned three years later with its decadent progeny, the soul-infused That! Feels Good!.

The top-three charting record gave Ware the best reviews of her career while scoring a solid Metacritic rating of 89 out of 100, deservedly earning the artist her second Mercury Music Prize nomination.

Looking to the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, Grace Jones, Prince, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, Rotary Connection and Tina Marie to infuse this new direction, Ware’s fifth album is a seamless body of work that glides effortlessly from blissful, 70s-inspired grooves to sassy, contemporised disco beats. Each track is gloriously distinct from the next, yet the body of work maintains an elegant cohesiveness that concept albums often fall short of.

“I feel the most confident I’ve ever felt, stepping into making music,” says Ware of bringing That! Feels Good! to life. “I really wanted to celebrate the beauty of an album, and what an album can represent. I really appreciate the traction I get off streaming sites, and all of that. It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong. But the romantic in me wanted that person to put this album on their vinyl and just listen to it. And that’s it. I want to be able to cherish that experience and savour that.”

Artist Award winner Jessie Ware (Picture: Kit Oates)
Artist Award winner Jessie Ware (Picture: Kit Oates)

The remarkable production that runs across the album’s ten tracks is set aflame by the chic seductiveness of Ware’s incomparable vocals, pushed to new heights throughout the record — most notably on the Stuart Price-produced second single, ‘Pearls’. “I was like, ‘Fuck, I really hope that I can do it live,’” Ware told Rolling Stone UK of her first live performance of the song for BBC Radio 2’s Piano Room sessions. “Of course, I sing live, but it’s that new thing of… you sing it once in the studio, maybe twice, if you’re kind of redoing it. But being able to have that muscle memory, being able to practise it, that’s something else.” Ware needn’t have worried — she effortlessly nailed the high notes during the recording session with the BBC Orchestra at its Maida Vale studios.

Ware produced the faultless record with just two teams: working for the first time with the brilliant Stuart Price alongside Clarence Coffee Jr on four of the tracks; and long-standing collaborators James Ford, Shungudzo Kuyimba and Daniel Parker on production duties across the other six. “We have such a kind of open, beautiful relationship. I trust them implicitly. I love our conversations. I love the worlds that we create,” Ware told Rolling Stone UK of their creative synergy. “Shun is a master with words and poetry. Our chemistry together, it just works. It’s like the Holy Trinity when it comes to making my best music. I think we’ll work together for my whole career,” Ware adds of her writing partners Kuyimba and Parker.

The renewed confidence on the singer-songwriter’s record was amplified on her sold-out US and UK tours and festival appearances. That! Feels Good! is a reminder of why Ware has won universal praise over the past ten or more years of her career, from those more hedonistic early days working with Disclosure, Julio Bashmore and Sampha to recent collaborations with another queen of dance and pop, Kylie Minogue.

Ahead of releasing her fifth album, Ware put her voice to radio when she presented BBC Radio 2’s evening show during Jo Whiley’s absence, while away from music she also served a tenth season of hit podcast Table Manners, recorded alongside her mother Lennie. Boasting more than 50 million listens, the latest run features another eclectic guest list: Miriam Margolyes and Noel Gallagher swung by her kitchen to share their food favourites, as did Keir Starmer. Her growing profile saw her close the year as a judge alongside Amber Riley on ITV talent show Mamma Mia! I Have a Dream, which marks the musical’s 25th anniversary with a search for its next star.

It all makes Ware a worthy recipient of The Artist Award, in collaboration with Rémy Martin. From clubland to concert hall stages, via podcasts to TV and radio presenting, wherever the road takes Jessie Ware next, there’s no doubt that this multi-disciplinary artist has only just begun to hit her stride.