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British Songstress Jessie Ware Is Headed For Pop Stardom in the U.S.

Jesse1.jpgCape from WilliamVintage, dress by Roksanda Ilincic and jewelry by Wright & Teague.

"Don't look at me," whispers Jessie Ware. The 28-year-old singer is standing in the center of the East London studio where she's having her photo taken for the cover of Paper's Beautiful People issue. Chin up, shoulders back, thick black hair cascading over one shoulder, she looks every bit the image of elegant cool that has come to define both her style and her sound. As the camera looms an inch away from her face, the photographer and her assistants stop and stare, as if to ask, "Is she for real?"

Before they can say anything, however, Ware breaks her cool and bursts out laughing. "Like in Mean Girls!" she says with a cackle. "I'm not being serious!" Ware composes herself to explain that she was just repeating the opening line of Christina Aguilera's song "Beautiful," which the character Damian dramatically sings in the film.

"Actually, I feel a bit guilty about being on the cover of this issue," Ware says later as she sips a hot toddy in a cozy corner of a pub just down the road. "I hope I look all right. I'm worried I'm going to look really butters," she says, dropping her T's in her chummy South London accent -- an amusing contrast to the silky, subtle Sade tones of her singing voice -- which hints at her urban upbringing and its influence on her music.

There's no contesting: Ware's a beauty -- but her worry offers a telling moment of self-doubt that underscores her typically British self-deprecating sense of humor. "It's always nice getting transformed from feeling like shit in the morning to feeling glamorous and gorgeous," she says. "I'm terrible in heels though. I feel like I move so much better when I'm not wearing heels. I always revert to dancing like I'm at a drum-and-bass rave."

Ware is the latest in an ever-growing line of British female singers who, having found success in their native Blighty, set their sights on conquering America as well. Each with their own unique pop sound, singers like Adele, Florence Welch and Ellie Goulding have won scores of fans at home and around the world. The secret to their success is as much about their indisputable talent as it is their authenticity. In an industry dominated by carefully calculated female pop stars -- dressed in latex and licking lollipops as they mime pre-recorded tunes turned out every five seconds by a team of Swedish songwriters -- it's no wonder that audiences have embraced this new wave of singers from across the pond. Here is a collection of women with true talent who remain relatable in spite of their fame. They are pop stars with personality who feel as if they could also be your closest friends.

Ware's sound is a grown-up mix of slick, soulful R&B backed by down-tempo electronic beats that work together to create something wholly modern and mesmerizing. Her first album, Devotion, has already been both a commercial and critical success in the U.K. -- debuting at number five on the charts, making most of 2012's best-of lists and earning Ware a prestigious Mercury Prize nomination last year. She's hoping for the same success this month when her album is released Stateside.

Although Devotion never aims to fill dance floors, the album's songs are undeniably influenced by club tracks of eras past, employing a flurry of drum machines, hip-hop samples and '90s girl group vocals in every song. And although Ware may quote Aguilera's hits off stage, her own singing style is refreshingly restrained, a lesson in how to emote without overdoing it. The result is a sophisticated, sensual record that manages to hypnotize its listeners without ever showing off.

jessieware1.jpgRaised in a Jewish family in Brixton, South London, Ware never planned on a career as a professional singer like her former schoolmate Florence Welch (they starred in a high school production of Guys and Dolls together) or old friend Adele. And although her older sister Hannah became a successful model and actress, Ware assumed she'd stay out of the spotlight, instead aiming to follow in the footsteps of her father, BBC reporter John Ware. "I wanted to be a journalist," says Ware. "My dad is very 'current affairs' -- but I'm just interested in people's stories. I wanted to make documentaries, study somebody, find stories. I wasn't very good at it, though. I felt like I was taking the piss doing it."

Her self-deprecation is charming, but again, easily dismissed -- Ware definitely has a journalist's inquisitive nature. For every question she's asked, she's got one of her own, locked and loaded and ready to fire back. At times it was difficult to determine which one of us was being interviewed.

After earning a degree in journalism from the University of Sussex, she worked at the Jewish Chronicle in London writing the music listings. The experience of forging a separate career before singing is one that she says has been beneficial to her newfound life as a pop star. "I think it helps that I had this other life before music. It's definitely taught me that you've got to be careful with your words. I usually swear so much," she laughs. "But I'm being quite well behaved today."

"The shit that comes out of my mouth on stage is just awful...I have to get the drummer to start playing just to shut me up."

Ware was working at a media production company when her old friend, singer Jack Peñate, asked her to sing backup during a BBC radio session. Peñate is another former classmate of Ware's who was also instrumental in launching the career of Adele before her. Impressed, he asked her to accompany him on his tour during the U.K. festival season and in America.

"It got to the point where I had to quit my job because I had no holiday left to take," she says of touring with Peñate. "I only did it, really, because I was so unsure about not doing it. I wanted to have memories with my best friends and I wanted to be able to say, 'I tried to be a singer on the road in America' -- I'm so happy I did that. It was the best decision ever."

Peñate's guitarist introduced Ware to the up-and-coming producer SBTRKT, with whom she recorded her first song, "Nervous," a dance track released on U.K. indie label Numbers in 2009. After a few more standout spots doing guest vocals with other producers, a record deal soon followed. But before she could put anything out as a solo artist, Ware needed to find her own sound, conscious as she was not to get labeled exclusively as a dance vocalist. "I had to learn how to write songs," she says. "And I wrote a lot of crap songs. It's like poking around in the dark. I had ideas but nothing solid. Trial and error, really."

It wasn't until being introduced to producer David Okumu that the sound on her debut album started taking shape. "My manager met David at a barbecue. He said, 'I think you'd really get on with Jessica,' and we started emailing each other. It was kind of like going on a blind date. We traded songs that we both liked, what I was listening to, then he came to the session. He was like, 'I hope you don't mind I've started something for us.' It was this song called 'Devotion.' He played it to me and everything just clicked. It all made sense."

jessieware2.jpgAfter more than a year of promo and touring the record on her home turf, heading to America with the album seems a daunting task. "It's like I'm starting again," she says. "The majority of people in the States definitely don't know who I am yet." It may seem like starting over to her, but Ware has been steadily building an American fanbase via music sites that have championed the singer since the early days of her career. "The power of the Internet and music blogs -- The FADER and Pitchfork -- that's been so beneficial," she admits.

Now, Ware is about to embark on her second solo tour of the States. She completed her first mini-tour in January to promote her EP If You're Never Gonna Move Out, during which she made her American TV debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, performing the EP's cinematic standout single, "Wildest Moments," with Fallon's house band, the Roots. "I was scared I was going to mess up. I feel like I messed up my performance on [U.K. late show] Jools Holland. I was so nervous, I cared about it so much, that I forgot to enjoy it. [On Late Night], I was like, 'I'm not going to not enjoy this. This is playing with the Roots, this is an amazing moment.' When it was finished, I felt like Baby in Dirty Dancing. At the end, when she looks like such a geek."

Touring has also helped her get over her nerves and develop her onstage persona. "I used to be all apologetic for being on stage," she says. "I'm still nervous, but I've changed my act so I just chat. The shit that comes out of my mouth is just awful. It's kind of gone the other way. I have to get the drummer to start playing just to shut me up," she laughs. The crowds who pack her sold-out shows, however, seem to want more. She's also noticed that she attracts a particular fanbase Stateside: "There were so many gay men! They all sang along to my songs and it was gorgeous."

As her international profile rises, the reasons to celebrate seem never-ending. "It's wicked that people are interested, you know? I'm just so happy it's working out," she beams, a look of genuine disbelief on her face. "I mean, I started at 23 or 24 as a backing singer and thought that that was quite old. To be my age and have a chance to do this is... I feel like I've had a stroke of luck."

Just then, the waitress reappears and, despite a live performance on BBC Radio One tomorrow, Ware orders another round. "Fuck it," she says brightly. "We're drinking tonight. Let's have some wine."

Styled by Avigail Collins at Silver Spoon Styling / Hair by Halley Brisker at Jed Root /
Makeup by Maxine Leonard at Jed Root using B. Makeup / Manicure: WAH Nails / Stylist's
assistant: India Trusselle at Silver Spoon Styling / Photographer's assistant: Simon Wellington
Photographed at Complete Studios in London

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