There’s a delicious feeling of freedom to be found throughout Jessie Ware’s new album That! Feels Good! It’s the sound of a person letting loose and letting go and encouraging everyone else to do the same. This blissfully joyful record, underscored by a frankly sensational vocal from Ware, radiates self-determination, boundless energy, supremely good vibes and a generosity of spirit. And groove. So. Much. Groove. Yet That! Feels Good! also resounds with an ebullient ease; an unforced and unhurried spirit runs throughout each and every one of the 10 tracks.
It is, says Jessie, a piece of work that she has made with one person in mind. “This is for me. Well, it’s for as many people as possible, hopefully,” she beams. “But more than anything, I knew the album I wanted to make, and who I wanted to make it with. I’ve put aside years of anxiety, imposter syndrome and all that fretting and feeling like I’m not good enough. That’s not to take anything away from what’s come before because I’m incredibly proud of it all, but I’m in a place, today, where I feel fully happy and relaxed in who I am and the music I’m making.”
Mercury Prize and 6-time BRIT nominated singer and songwriter Jessie Ware returns with a phenomenal new album that establishes why Ware is one of the most revered, admired and loved voices at the forefront of British Pop music. That! Feels Good! is the follow-up to Ware’s fourth studio album, 2020’s What’s Your Pleasure. Entering the UK Album Charts at number three, What’s Your Pleasure is Jessie’s most successful record to date, bringing her total album sales to 2.2 million worldwide alongside 2.4 billion global streams. A popular podcaster too, Jessie and her mum Lennie host the number one, NME-award winning podcast “Table Manners”, which has been streamed over 50 million times to date. Accompanied by a bestselling book and sold out UK tour, guests have included Dolly Parton, Sir Paul McCartney, Dua Lipa, Baz Luhrmann, David Schwimmer, amongst many more.
The success of What’s Your Pleasure and its subsequent live shows have been a key influence on the creation and curation of That! Feels Good!, Ware’s forthcoming fifth album. Seeing reactions to tracks like “Ohh La La” and “Spotlight” whilst playing storming sets at Primavera, Glastonbury and two sold out headliners at Brixton Academy during 2022 made Jessie reassess her sound, her live set and the songs she wanted to make. Opening for Harry Styles at the United Center in Chicago in October reaffirmed those ambitions. “I looked at that massive stage and I made up my mind. I was here to warm up for someone who is a master of performing. I had to fill not just that stage, but that arena. I couldn’t shuffle on, apologetically, and quietly sing my songs. It was time to put on a show. I’ve realised that I’m no longer just a singer – I’m a performer.” This can clearly be seen during Ware’s December 2022 hi-gloss performance of “Free Yourself” at The British Fashion Awards (dressed, fittingly, in Halpern Studio).
Ware’s live lessons have clearly impacted the percussive patterns and instrument-driven textures which glitter as gloriously as the disco ball that inhabits its spirit. It can be felt in the rich, sonic expansion and through the vocal that Jessie continues to push to new heights. “It’s not necessarily bigger or better than the last album, it’s more about turning the volume up and embodying that real, deep, sexy, bloody gorgeous groove.”
The genesis of That! Feels Good! can be traced back to April 2021 during the heart of what was then the creative killjoy of lockdown. The early sketches were initially created bicoastally via the magic of voicenote as Ware and London based contributors including James Ford, Clarence Coffee and Stuart Price and LA residents Shungudzo and Danny Parker and worked around time differences, travel restrictions, isolation periods, pregnancy and illness. Undeterred by it all – in fact if anything, inspired by the cosmic challenges – an unwavering spirit of optimism and autonomy pervades throughout this rather perfect piece of music.
The ridiculously insistent bassline sets the tone on opener and title track “That! Feels Good!” Produced by James Ford [Arctic Monkeys, Haim] and written with Zimbabwean American writer Shungudzo [Kylie, Little Mix] and Danny Parker [Shawn Mendes] – all of whom worked with Ware on What’s Your Pleasure – it’s clear that we are here for one thing and one thing only: it’s time to dance. “It’s an invite to a party that’s pleasurable and naughty and delectable,” says Jessie of a song that leans towards the undeniable funk of Prince, the rapturous flare of Lizzo and the statuesque poise plus sardonic wink of Grace Jones. We could be at Studio 54’s final party in February 1980 watching Diana Ross dive on the decks as Bianca Jagger jumps on a horse. It’s disco but make it funky.
Jessie is also joined by friends and family who deliver spoken word versions of “that”, “feels” and “good”. It’s quite a stellar cast, Jessie says of enlisting everyone from pop royalty Kylie to comedy genius Aisling Bea, producer Benny Blanco and the lovely Lennie. “I went through my phonebook and voicenoted everyone,” Jessie admits. “Róisín Murphy was like ‘Feck’s sake, I’m in the loo at an airport. This will have do!”
Released in summer 2022, “Free Yourself”, produced by pop powerhouse Stuart Price [Madonna, Kylie] and written with Pleasure collaborator Clarence Coffee, Jr. [Dua Lipa, Beyoncé] casts off expectations and inhibitions – self-imposed or otherwise. It was a song that stormed Jessie’s headline Park Stage Glastonbury set, with the crowd immediately singing the chorus back to her. “That was pretty wonderful,” she remembers. The single, which saw the highest first-week streams for a Ware release, also received stellar remixes from Melanie C, Paul Woolford, The Alias, and Eats Everything.
Second single, the completely captivating (and some might say quite camp) “Pearls” turns up the drama – and the disco – as Ware really lets go. Paired with her exquisite vocal (“that might have to come down a tone when I perform it live”, she grins), “Pearls” playfully examines the dichotomies that exist within us all: ‘I’m so 9 to 5, I’m a lady, lover, freak, and a mother’. Another collaboration between Ware, Price, and Coffee alongside writer Sarah Hudson [Dua Lipa, Katy Perry], “Pearls” inhabits a slightly more soulful groove than its predecessors, as Jessie acknowledges vocal giants Teena Marie, Chaka Khan and Evelyn “Champagne” King.
Just before the halfway point, Ware takes a breath for the swooning romance of “Hello Love”. Primed to potentially replace “Say You Love Me” as a Ware wedding classic, this sumptuously soulful standout was one of the last songs to be written with Ware, Shungudzo, Parker and Ford, finally, in one room together. Beautifully bolstered by some striking trumpets courtesy of London-based eight-piece Kokoroko, this celebratory slice of gorgeousness glances towards the Rotary Connection, Minnie Riperton and Earth, Wind & Fire. The track’s final note, says Jessie, was an unconscious nod to Amy Winehouse’s “Back To Black”. “I think, I hope, she would have liked this one.”
The first song to be written for the record, “Begin Again”, is honestly quite sensational. Unrelenting in its utter lovability thanks to the layering of a multitude of ensemble choral vocals, “Begin Again” builds on the foundations of What’s Your Pleasure’s stunning closer, “Remember Where You Are”, one of Barack Obama’s favourite tracks of 2020. “I think you can feel the need for release that I felt – that we all felt – during lockdown.” Having spent time in South America, Jessie also wanted the track to encompass the heat, the sweat, the sensuality of Brazil with the essence of Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star” folded in. There’s also hints of Miriam Makeba, Tony Allen and Fela Kuti, once again thanks to Kokoroko. “I’d say it was the boldest and most ambitious track on there”.
“Beautiful People” flings the doors open to an invite-only party where the dancefloor is on fire and the discoball aglow. Watch out for the sweat dripping down those walls too. After the organic, very much live language of preceding songs, this bubbler of a tune, with its whispers of Talking Heads and Marvin Gaye, is a throwback to Ware’s electronic beginnings, of singing in clubs and the sheer delight of raving for the first time. It’s a moment to bring us, and the music, together.
The electronica continues on Stuart Price’s “Freak Me Now” which heads South to soak up the sounds of French House. “It’s my Mousse T. “Horny ‘98” moment,” laughs Jessie of the groove-led house bop that shares the instructional nature of Beyonce’s “Break My Soul”, which serendipitously came out shortly after Jessie and Stuart had finished theirs.
The recently retired B-52s lend their new wave influence on the fantastically irreverent “Shake the Bottle” from Ford, Shungudzo and Parker. Almost poetic in its delivery (and no, those aren’t actual previous conquests), this marvellously melodramatic number is pure theatre, delivering another sonic nuance, while tying back to previous work – it’s the naughty sibling, if you will, to What’s Your Pleasure’s “Ohh La La”.
A quieter moment is found on “Lightning” is an R&B sizzler for the after after party, when it’s just you and your significant (or not so significant) other. It’s Jessie’s certified ‘Lover Girl’ moment. “This album needed light and shade, otherwise we’d all be exhausted!”
That! Feels Good! closes out with the uplifting “These Lips” which is complimented by a cinematic sensibility and a celebratory Candi Staton energy. As well as being imbued with a strong sense of euphoric classic club closer, it also delivers a full circle moment, nodding back to the beginning of the album with an acapella style intro. The record doesn’t exactly finish, it’s more of an ellipsis, leaving you with the sense that the party is carrying on elsewhere, just within reach. We might not be able to hear the music, but it’s there.
Ultimately, Ware’s fifth album is a bit of a triumph. This hugely accomplished work manages to attain a magnitude of musicality without sounding for a second forced. Jessie has let go of her own inhibitions, her anxieties, and the expectations she had placed on herself. With the experience and the confidence and the vocal – the vocal excellence on display here cannot and will not be overstated – Jessie is not only a person in control, but someone at the peak of their game. She had a vision and the confidence to create it.
“I am feeling good and I want everyone else to as well.”
The last album did brilliantly, how might Jessie hope to top that? “Honestly, as long as I can still be touring in 10, 20 year’s time I’ll be happy.” Well, it’s a lucrative gig, right. Actually, is it? “If you’re at the very top, maybe, but we’ve all read the stories from otherwise successful artists who can’t make a living because of all the economic issues in the world right now,” she insists. “But it’s not about that. Live is what it all comes back to, for me, it’s what it’s all about. As long as I can be on that stage, performing, not just singing, I’m good. I’m really, really good with that
by Hattie Collins