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Jessie Ware gets nostalgic with an old-school U.K. garage playlist

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In I Made You A Mixtapewe ask our favorite musicians, actors, writers, directors, or whatevers to strut their musical savvy: We pick a theme, they make us a mix.

The mixer: British singer-songwriter Jessie Ware invited a bunch of genre comparisons and reference points with her buzzy 2012 debut, Devotion, which slinks and sighs its way through the place where R&B, dance, soul, and easy listening overlap. But before that, she made her name providing vocals on tracks for producers like SBTRKT and Joker, which allowed her to deploy the diva-like vocals she keeps more restrained on Devotion. With that in mind, The A.V. Club asked Ware to make a mix of the genre that inspired and motivated her as she moved into making music of her own: the ’90s house-music offshoot known as U.K. garage.


Boris Dlugosch Presents Booom!, “Hold Your Head Up High (Julian Jonah’s Bad Boy Remix)” (1997)
Jessie Ware: This has got such a killer diva vocal in it. Some of these songs I’ve learned about, they’re newer U.K. garage songs, and I didn’t know about them at the time. This one has the killer vocal in it, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a singer. I love dance music and female vocals and soulful female vocals and tracks.


The A.V. Club: You were pretty young at the height of U.K. garage. How did you get into it?

JW: I knew all the DJs and stuff, and there was KISS FM. It was a very London thing; it felt very London. And when we went to parties from 14 [years old] and onward, it was exciting. People would go mad when they’d hear the songs. I’m still not the most skilled at U.K. garage at all. But I do know it brings back such nostalgia.

Kim English, “Nite Life (Armand Van Helden Retail Mix)” (1996)
JW: I love the sample. [Imitates the song sample.] It becomes kind of a melody and an instrument in itself, and I love that stuff. It’s one that makes me interested by the production on these kinds of tracks, where you can really have fun sampling a vocal. And that’s where I learned about people sampling vocals and things like that. That was my first experience of it. Whether it be ridiculous delays or warping the vocal or making it a hook in itself where you can’t hear what they are saying.

AVC: You’ve made some really interesting choices in producers to work with in your career. What is it you’re drawn to in production in terms of your own work?

JW: I’m just excited by fresh production, but it still has to have some kind of soul. And that’s why I think I loved working with SBTRKT, because it felt modern yet it harked back to so many things. And Dave Okumu [guitarist for The Invisible] had never produced before, and that was a first for him and a first for me doing [Devotion]. I loved his references, kind of older references, the ones I couldn’t really express myself properly. Because I don’t know everything there is to know about music at all, I’m still learning about music, and I’ve worked with some really great people that have been generous about showing me about new music. So production for me means I can feel like I’m doing something new. I’m not a producer, but I appreciate great producers and new sounds, and that’s why I loved Disclosure and Julio Bashmore. So for me, it’s a way to make my songs feel more current, but not too current, because they still kind of reference old tunes and old sounds.

Amira, “My Desire (Dreem Teem Remix)” (1997)
JW: [Starts singing.] Sorry, I lost my voice. [Tries to sing the song again.] I don’t know. This is the best thing about garage, I think. It’s just got the best hooks and everyone sings it. Not just girls sing it, but guys sing it. My boyfriend sings it at the top of his lungs. It’s so simple, they’re so straightforward. And this one is just [Sings] “my desiiiiire.” It’s so simple, and I think the simplicity is key.


AVC: On a basic level, are you more drawn to the vocals or the production?

JW: It’s both. It’s the way they play together, you know what I mean? That’s the best thing, and that’s what I love. It makes me happy to see there’s a relationship with the vocal, whether it’s being used as an instrument or if they’re saying something that you’re listening to. But I do like how the vocals are used in a way that they become more of an instrument rather than total storytelling or classic songwriting.

Y-Tribe, “Enough Is Enough” (1999)
JW: I think this is quite R&B. Take the beat away and it feels like Destiny’s Child could sing it or something. It’s that [sings part of the song], the repetition in the chorus. “Enough Is. Enough Is. Enough already.” You can just feel the frustration in this song, that she’s like, “Enough is enough,” but, yet, round and round we go. It’s quite hypnotic, this chorus, but it’s more of a full song vocally. But that chorus goes on and on. You can feel like they’ve been there before, and I love that.

Robin S., “Show Me Love” (1993)
AVC: This is probably the song on this list most familiar to our U.S. readers. It was a pretty big hit over here.


JW: “Show Me Love.” Like the most killer vocal ever. Just how it starts, the confidence.

AVC: In this case, she is definitely the star of the track.

JW: She is the star. Exactly. It’s such a strong vocal, sassy and confident, and the woman is killing it. I don’t know, it’s just that opening. [Imitates opening note.] It’s got such attitude. You can’t ignore that vocal.


AVC: U.K. garage tends to favor female vocals over male ones. Is that something that appeals to you?

JW: Yeah. Some of the songs on this playlist have male vocals, but it’s far rarer. This is what made me excited about singing, the idea of singing over a beat. And that’s why I’m so happy I got to do that my first time off, working with SBTRKT and Joker. I was content to be just that, a dance vocalist, because I’d hear songs like Robin S. and you’d hear these amazing vocals and they stood up and it’d be like, “Yeah, cool. That’s your time.” But there wasn’t all that focus on you. It was time to just let rip, and that’s what I tried to do with the Joker song I did called “The Vision,” where I did a big vocal. It’s divas, innit? It’s good voices, and I can never, ever ignore a good voice. And it’s soulful.

Somore Featuring Damon Trueitt, “I Refuse (What You Want) (Industry Standard Mix)” (1997)
JW: This is a male vocal, but it’s just beautiful. And it has that really catchy [sings chorus] “What you want / What you need / Why won’t you tell me?” that’s been sampled by other people. But the version I’ve chosen is the more house-y version, and it feels more funky. Actually, I think I’m listening to the more slowed-down one while the other one is a bit more fast. But yeah, it’s soulful, and, again, these hooks bring me back to listening to it at parties, and this is an example of a wicked male vocal. But it still has that soulful vibe.

Sunship & Anita Kelsey, “Try Me Out (Let Me Lick It)” (1999)
JW: Oh God, this so flirty! Did you know this song before?


AVC: I definitely recognized the hook.

JW: It’s cute. It’s really cute and fun. It’s a bit more flirtatious than the others; the others are more diva-like. Letting them rip, like, “What have you done for me?” This song is just cute and one of those you’d love to be listening to if you’re trying to flirt with a guy. I like the sentiment. The “try me out” sentiment. I think it’s cute.


AVC: Anita Kelsey has done vocals on a ton of tracks, she’s got quite the discography.

JW: Oh, I didn’t know that.

AVC: She’s a pretty successful backup vocalist, too, which made me wonder if you had an affinity for her, given that you started out as a backup vocalist.


JW: Oh, shit! I did not know that. Now I’m glad I chose her. I didn’t know that, though. Thanks for the education!

F.U.N., “It’s The Way (99 Remix)” (2000)
JW: Oh man. I think this is one of the most famous garage songs. When it goes off in a club, it’s so big in a club. It’s a bit more aggressive. People like Jackmaster and Oneman, two of my favorite DJs, I’ve heard them drop this before. I think this one gets everyone all riled up. It’s quite dirty. It’s a bit gritty.


MJ Cole, “Crazy Love” (2000)
JW: This is more slowed down. It’s MJ Cole, so. And it has that [imitates plucking of violin strings]. It’s a bit more chilled.


AVC: Have you seen the string-quartet version of this song?

JW: No! Is it live?!

AVC: It’s a live performance with a DJ and a string quartet.

JW: Are you serious? Sick! I remember my first track I did with SBTRKT, it was called “Nervous,” and he dropped strings in this weird section. We changed up the tempo halfway through. And even though it’s not a garage song, it’s upbeat. Strings just get me every time. I fucking love them.


AVC: It’s interesting in this context. There aren’t a lot of strings in these songs, especially not deployed this way.

JW: Exactly! Exactly. And I think MJ Cole is one of those where there’s more thoughts on the instruments and stuff, which I love. It’s not overbearing. Again, it has a beautiful vocal, and it feels very British to me. It doesn’t feel too American, and that’s one thing that I think is great about British garage. It feels like it’s got its identity. This is a more chilled-out one, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful sound.


AVC: You mentioned that garage is a pretty U.K.-centric genre. This is a difficult question, but how would you describe U.K. garage to someone who doesn’t know what it is?

JW: Hmm. It’s sped-up house, I guess, but I’m the wrong person to ask. It’s faster house, it’s got a funky feel to it, and it always has a sick vocal that has been sampled, that’s soulful, that someone can hopefully sing along with. Or even if it’s an instrumental hook. But mostly I think it’s kind of sped-up house. It’s more skippy, you know?


AVC: Well done. That was a hard question.

JW: Everyone is going to listen to this and say, “God, Jessie, you don’t know anything!”


AVC: Genre classifications are so mangled, especially with dance music.

JW: I hate genre fucking descriptions. It’s so hard, innit? Everything meshes into one. For a while, I was being called “post-dubstep,” and I didn’t think I was even part of dubstep, really. Descriptions of genres are difficult, aren’t they?


AVC: I’ve seen the “future garage” tag applied to you a lot.

JW: I don’t get it! I mean, thank you! But I don’t get it! What do you think “future garage” means?


AVC: I have no idea.

JW: Exactly! Fuck no! My favorite is the one on Wikipedia called “quiet storm.” They call me “quiet storm,” like we’re fucking X-Men characters. It’s fucking wicked!

TJ Cases feat. Kat Blu, “Do It Again” (1999)
JW: This one sounds like British Salt-N-Pepa or something.


AVC: It has that long spoken intro…

JW: Oh my God! That long spoken bit where you’re like, “This is either really cringe-y or really amazing, and I wish I could get away with it.” Like, Alicia Keyes kills it in “You Don’t Know My Name” when she does it. But this is so confident. I love it. And it’s like, she’s so melancholy but she’s not melancholy, and she sounds like she’s having the best time. She’s like [sings] “do it again,” and then you have those wicked [sings] “do its.” I don’t know. This feels naughty, this one.

N’n’G, “I Keep” (1998)
JW: This is one I’ve learned about more recently. Sometimes the best time to listen to garage music is when you’re driving in your car in South London. Whether it be Rinse FM playing it, or Reprezent Radio or Flava. This one is a bit more of an instrumental. I think my boyfriend told me about this one, because he used to mix it in, he used to mix garage. This would be a really perfect one to mix.

Danny J Lewis, “Spend The Night” (1998)
JW: Yeah, man! I heard about this one later on. Just nice, isn’t it? I liked the repetition and the confidence in the repetition. All these titles taught me, in a way, how I wanted to write my kind of music. I think they’re all kind of feminine, and they’re all quite sensual and romantic, and that’s what I love. It’s quite honest. “I wanna spend the night with you.” “Do it again.” It’s very straightforward. Again, I’m being so boring, but it’s the hooks again. Everyone can get involved, and that’s what I like about garage music. You can hear it once, and then everyone’s like, “I’m fucking in it. Done.” There’s something very euphoric about it.


AVC: It sounds like it’s a very social listening experience for you.

JW: Yeah! Absolutely. Whether it be a “woooo” or just whatever, it’s so simple, and the simplicity is so brilliant.


AVC: This one also has more organic instrumentation in it, especially the horns at the end.

JW: Absolutely, and they have some really beautiful chords they play, like some jazzy chords that they play. It’s that grounding that makes it romantic and smooth.

Roy Davis Jr., “Gabriel” (1997)
AVC: This follows “Spend The Night” really well.

JW: Yeah. The horns in this, my mate almost made me hate this song, because she had it as her ringtone at university. But it’s one of those end-of-night songs. And the vocals on it, the storytelling on it about the archangel of love, is really beautiful. That vocal is so untouchable. Those horns with the [sings chorus] “Gabriel” [imitates horns] “Doo doo doo,” they go together, the vocal with the horn, and it’s such a great relationship between the two. But I also love the songwriting on this one.


AVC: There’s a spiritual component to this one.

JW: Yeah. Absolutely. The other ones are kind of direct and simple, and this one is—


AVC: Almost gospel-y.

JW: Yeah, man! It’s absolutely gospel-y. And the vocal is understated. And I’ve been rambling on about divas and shit, but that hits you just as hard. Understated singing is one of my favorite things to do.

Myron, “We Can Get Down (Groove Chronicles remix)” (1998)
JW: End-of-night song! So beautiful, the chords in this. I’ve sent it to my manager and said I want to make a song like this on the next album. The vocal feels kind of like American R&B doesn’t it? But yeah, it’s end of the night. And I just love how long [these songs] are, too. [Laughs.] You can’t get away with that anymore being a pop star. You have to do a fucking three-and-a-half minute edit.


AVC: Well, Justin Timberlake just released an album full of seven-minute-long songs.

JW: Yeah, because he’s a bad man and he can do that! I can’t do that, yet. But this is just a vibe, and I love those. My music isn’t U.K. garage, but the idea that you can play this in the background at home after a night out and people can put it on and it can still remind them of the night that they had. That’s how I wanted to make music. I wanted to make music for my friends to listen to when they came back from nights out.