Jessie Ware talks 'naughty' new album, Harry Styles and turning down Prince: 'I'm an idiot'

NEW YORK – When you press play on Jessie Ware's new album, you might think you've stumbled on an X-rated site. That's entirely by design.

The British pop singer's fifth album, "That! Feels Good!" (out now), begins with a chorus of breathy voices moaning those titillating words, before catapulting into a James Brown-style funk fantasia.

Talking to producer James Ford, "I was like, 'Look, I think we should make it quite cinematic and slightly unnerving, so people are like, 'What am I listening to? Have I just entered the wrong room of the party?'" Ware says. "I just thought it'd be funny to ask all my mates to do different versions of, 'That feels good!'"

Fellow disco queens Kylie Minogue and Róisín Murphy are among the bawdy multitude, as is Ware's own mother. "It was hysterical to hear how different people interpreted that (line)," Ware says. "Some people fully rose to the occasion. Some failed miserably."

The album aesthetic is 'classy but naughty'

The album cover of Jessie Ware's "That! Feels Good!"

"That! Feels Good!" is Ware's first album since 2020's "What's Your Pleasure?", which found the artist pivoting from lovelorn torch songs to euphoric dance music. She was adamant to try something different this go-around, meaning more instruments, bigger vocals and an even deeper pool of influences: channeling Marvin Gaye and Blondie on the sultry "Beautiful People," and nodding to Gil Scott-Heron and Earth, Wind & Fire on lush album closer "These Lips."

The record's retro feel is reflected in the high-camp visuals, which – as they say – are giving the gays everything they want. Ware is dripping in pearls, with hair teased to the heavens, on the topless album cover. She looks similarly glamorous donning feathers and lace in the music video for "Pearls," which also soundtracks the trailer for HBO Max's "And Just Like That..." Season 2.

"They're always in my mind," Ware says of her LGBTQ fans. "(The cover) is a nod to '60s and '70s pinup stuff. I wanted it to feel almost like – I don't know if I should say this – an arthouse porn poster. It's classy but naughty."

Jessie Ware says she found 'an escape' in dance music

Ware teased the album last summer with triumphant single "Free Yourself," a thumping, disco-house anthem about no longer hiding one's true self. The song reflects Ware's own liberation, after the critical and commercial disappointment of 2017 album "Glasshouse."

Jessie Ware has collaborated with the likes of Ed Sheeran and Nicki Minaj throughout her career.

"I wanted to escape into dance music," she says. "It was just the greatest remedy for me, because it meant that I wasn't so serious and I wasn't so scared."

Although she didn't write "Free Yourself" as a conscious reflection on her career, "I can now interpret it to feel like a message to myself that I needed. But it's just a good sentiment to anybody. It's probably something I could have done with a few years ago."

Since the release of "What's Your Pleasure?," Ware's fan base has seemingly exploded stateside. Her headlining shows in New York and Los Angeles sold out within seconds last fall, as did dates on her upcoming "That! Feels Good!" tour. Still, the singer feels like a best-kept secret among pop-music fans.

"The secret's probably a bit less kept," Ware says. "I have a really strong fan base here, but it may not be the biggest fan base. I believe they will always want to come and watch me for years, and that satisfies me."

The singer wowed with 'risky' Cher cover, opening for Harry Styles

Ware's star has risen this past year thanks in part to her viral cover of Cher's "Believe," which she performed with a live orchestra and hopes to include on a deluxe version of the new album. "I like a sad banger," Ware says. "It was slightly risky because you're doing an icon. Not many people can emulate Cher, but I didn't try to."

The singer also nabbed a high-profile slot opening for Harry Styles during a half dozen concerts in Chicago last fall, and even joined him to perform his hit "Cinema." 

"He's a great guy," says Ware, who has known Styles for years. "He's very thoughtful with whom he selects as support, and he's very generous as well, in the sense of how he speaks about you every night (onstage)."

Ware says she enjoyed narrowing down her usual set list to roughly seven songs, "like, 'Let's try and grab their attention. Let's entertain them before they see Harry.' It was a challenge, like, 'How are we gonna do it? We did it. We tackled it. Got some new fans.' "

She still regrets turning down Prince to tour wedding venues

Ware, 38, has three young children with husband Sam Burrows. Two of them, ages 4 and 6, came to her shows in LA after she wrapped her run with Styles.

"They were barely staying awake, but I think it was important for them to see because I'd just been away for two weeks," Ware says. "I wanted to show them that I work hard, but I also have this mad job where I get to entertain lots of people, and for them to realize that you can have real job satisfaction."

The singer has long put family first, even turning down the opportunity in 2014 to open for Prince, who frequently included her song "Wildest Moments" in DJ sets.

"It's mad he even knew who I was," Ware says. His manager "asked if I wanted to open for him, and I was doing a (venue) recce of my wedding in Greece. And I was like, 'I can't do it. Love has to prioritize over Prince.' I really regret it still. I don't regret marrying my husband, but I feel like, if only I could've pushed the recce? I'm an idiot."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jessie Ware on new album 'That! Feels Good!', opening for Harry Styles