In the superb documentary film 20 Feet From Stardom, the Rolling Stones background singer Lisa Fischer says the following about her career: "I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more."
Well put. But there is something more, if not for Fischer then for someone else. Someone like Jessie Ware, the seductive London songstress who has absolutely graduated from the rear of the stage to somewhere near the front. Last Wednesday, the sassy Sade-Chaka revivalist and former backup singer charmed a gleeful audience at Toronto's Phoenix, where her own No to Love was partnered with a
silky snip of a Marvin Gaye tune – "I want you, but I want you to want me, too."
Halfway love affairs are sad things. They happen in pop music all the time, particularly when it comes to the hyping British music industry. A few years ago, we saw a wave of stunned singers thrust into the spotlight before they were ready. I give you the waxen, stage-frightened Susan Boyle, I give you the wooden beauty Leona Lewis and I give you Duffy, the likable Welsh hit-maker who, stressed out by her sudden fame, retired to a life of quiet domesticity.
In the case of Lewis, North American audiences weren't so impressed by her talent-show stardom and big-sales success across the pond. She's got a Christmas album coming out this month. For Boyle, the ascension from a never-kissed singer to an international sensation was too much. She also has a Christmas album out. Duffy, after two albums, has disappeared. They were all pushed out to the front of the stage, whether they wanted to be or whether we were ready to receive them. What can you say? It just didn't work out.
I spoke with Ware on her visit to Toronto this spring when she played the Opera House. "I'm just starting to get comfortable on stage," she said. "The audiences are here to see me, and that's reassuring."
Ware, a light R&B charmer, had played festivals and appeared as an opening act for headliners. Though her debut album Devotion and hit Wildest Moment single came out in 2012, she had no record deal in North America. Her British label put her material on iTunes, but when it gained no traction in North America, they pulled it back before releasing it properly earlier this year.
Now, like Adele did (and fellow Brit Lianne La Havas is doing), Ware is building her audience in a more organic way – a feeling-out process between the artist and her audience. The blooming love affair was in evidence at the Phoenix, where her easygoing manner and sultry vocals captivated convincingly.
On the understated keening of the ballad Devotion, Ware operated smoothly and naturally. "Ready to love, but do you want it enough?" she asked, posing a question to her fans and to herself. The answer appears to be yes, from both sides.