The first thing you’re likely to notice about British singer Jessie Ware’s debut record is what’s missing from it. “Devotion,” released last year to critical acclaim that quietly rippled among fans in this country, is one of the more subtle contemporary R&B records in recent memory.
Its focus is so soft, it’s nearly vaporous, never pushing too hard, but just enough to lull you into some serious late-night seduction. You get the impression that Ware sings only as much as she needs to, letting her luxuriant timbre and sensuality tell most of the story.
“That was definitely intentional. Weirdly, I’ve always been quite a big singer,” says Ware, who headlines The Sinclair on Monday. “I wanted to be able to exist in people’s cars and people’s living rooms whilst they’re having a conversation and not have to be turned down because I’m getting on everyone’s nerves. I wanted it to be intimate and vulnerable and romantic. I wanted to tell stories, really, and I think it’s sometimes easier to do that when you have more light and shade.”
Ware, 28, first surfaced a few years ago as a guest vocalist on songs by electronic musicians such as SBTRKT, Joker, and Sampha, and each one left you wondering what Ware would do on her own.
“I started with the collaborations, and that was wicked. That was a great way for me to ease my way into it,” she says. “Then I had to work my way out with my solo stuff. It was trial and error, really. It was quite frustrating working with people and trying to explain what you liked but having no real way of backing it up with your own music. I created that music with Dave.”
That would be Dave Okumu, who produced “Devotion” and wrote several of its songs with Ware. Okumu met Ware’s manager through mutual friends, and he was on board to work with her right away.
“He sent me a track she had done with SBTRKT called ‘Nervous,’ ” Okumu says. “I was immediately taken with her voice. It’s undeniable that she’s a great singer in the sense that not only does she have a great voice, but she’s capable of conveying a lot through that instrument.”
“I’m a great believer that you don’t always have to do everything you’re capable of in one go,” Okumu adds. “The idea of economy really appeals to me, when people are selective about how they use their skills and gifts, and we sort of talked about all of that on our first meeting.”
Ware played Okumu some stuff she was working on at the time, and as much as he liked it, he suspected she wasn’t revealing herself completely.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be the person to bring that out of her, but I was really drawn to the idea of who she was and what she wanted to say if left to her own devices.”
Ware and Okumu both admit that the title track was the turning point for the record. With its mellow, bass-heavy melody and Ware’s voice kept in check but high in the mix, “Devotion” became a blueprint for the songs that followed.
“Because she has such a strong voice, it felt like a very bold choice to sing with more restraint. You can draw people in by doing that, not bashing them over the head. And it can make for a more intense journey, because when you do go to these bigger moments, they can have a greater impact,” Okumu says.
Ware still seems incredulous that someone would want just half of what she has to offer as a singer.
“I really worked that out with SBTRKT,” she says. “He really liked my soft voice. I was ready to belt it out for a session, and he was like, ‘It’s really nice what you just did there.’ And I said, ‘Oh, really? Well, that’s easy! OK, let’s go!’ ”
That restraint also extended to the airy production. Ware thinks it references Grace Jones (sure) and Peter Gabriel (really?), but the comparison made most often was to Sade. Ware can see that, admitting that she fell in love with the quintessential R&B siren after hearing “By Your Side” from 2000’s “Lovers Rock.” (“You knew ‘Smooth Operator’ already because it was just there,” she says, “but ‘By Your Side’ made me realize how beautiful she way.”)
Ware was also enamored with some of last year’s prominent records in American R&B. It’s not a stretch to include “Devotion” in the same less-is-more aesthetic espoused by people like Frank Ocean and Miguel.
“Are you kidding? I was mad about the Weeknd, and that was one of my first reference points when Dave and I started to make my record,” she says. “I had written the album, and then I heard Miguel and was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is phenomenal,’ and Frank Ocean’s album blew me away. I think R&B is having a good moment.”