British singer James Blake (Martin van Dijl, AFP / Getty…)
Even before the release of her debut album, the English singer Jessie Ware was attracting next-big-thing buzz with appearances on tracks by cutting-edge dance-music artists such as SBTRKT and Joker. But she wasn't born hip.
"Growing up, I was the person told about things by other mates — the tastemakers," Ware admitted recently, adding that she also discovered music the way many teenagers did in the pre-YouTube era: through pop radio and MTV. "I copied every move from Jennifer Lopez's videos and studied every breakdown in Montell Jordan's songs," she said, referring to the R&B singer who hit No. 1 in 1995 with "This Is How We Do It." "I wasn't at the forefront of new, new music."
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She is now. On "Devotion," set to arrive in U.S. stores April 16 after its debut last year in the U.K., Ware's sultry soul vocals glide over sleek, undulating club beats that pull from any number of up-to-the-minute styles. Songs like "Running" and the subliminally funky title track glisten with the sound of today, conjuring an age of humanity in constant conversation with technology.
Ware has company at the frontier: This weekend, the 28-year-old hits Coachella alongside several other forward-looking British acts, including Julio Bashmore, who worked as a producer on "Devotion," James Blake and Disclosure. Plenty separates them, from wardrobe to instrumentation. But taken together these adventurous young musicians suggest that England's retro-soul craze — the '60s-inspired fad propelled by Adele, Duffy and Amy Winehouse — is giving way to something fresher and more modern.
"Music is always reacting to itself, and I think right now people want to hear stuff they can dance to — stuff that has a bit of space to it," said Zane Lowe, an influential BBC Radio DJ who's also to appear at Coachella. "This is a different type of soul, with a real push toward the future."
Like Ware, Blake began building a reputation early, in his case with a series of EPs in 2010 that presented dubstep as a kind of interstellar R&B. His self-titled 2011 debut, nominated for Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize, showcased his delicate falsetto, but on "Overgrown," due Tuesday, he's roughing up his music a bit: "Voyeur" rides a clattering house groove; "Retrograde" climaxes in a shriek of digital noise; and "Take a Fall for Me" even features an unexpected guest verse by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.
"I've never been attracted to the idea of revamping old things," said the 24-year-old, speaking by phone from a tour stop in Barcelona. "I tend to take the line that if something's been done, it's probably been done better than you can do it. So even when I make a beat that sounds like an old R&B record or revive some '80s synth sound, it's not because I want to make a revivalist tune — I've just been inspired by something." With a chuckle, Blake added that "trying to do something new" makes strategic sense, because it means less competition. "Seems like a no-brainer, really."
Which isn't to say this music doesn't contain traces of the past. On his early EPs, Blake sampled late-'90s R&B hits by Aaliyah and Kelis. Ware's slower material can recall the sumptuous melancholy of Sade. And Disclosure — two brothers, one in his late teens, the other in his early 20s — looks fondly to two-step garage from the turn of the last century, as in its vivacious single "Latch."
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But along with American rising star Frank Ocean and the L.A. electro-soul outfit Rhye, these artists borrow textures to shape a sound that floats freely through time and genre. "All those lines are being blurred now" thanks to the Internet's promise of infinite access to music, said Jessica Robertson, a director of content at MTV, which on Friday night was scheduled to webcast Ware's concert at New York's Webster Hall as part of its "Artists to Watch" program. "Jessie has that underground London credibility, but it's also a very pop vocal with mainstream appeal."
Whether Ware and her peers connect with mainstream listeners in the U.S. remains to be seen. Ben Parmar, who co-owns Ware's and Disclosure's U.K. label, PMR Records, said his artists "offer a refreshing alternative to a lot of the more generic pop music that exists at present" and added that he hopes "that they can reach as many people as possible." A new remix of Ware's song "Wildest Moments" featuring the voguish Harlem rapper ASAP Rocky may help in that regard.
True to her upbringing, though, Ware said she's not looking to chase any trends over here. "There's loads of producers I'd love to collaborate with if I get the chance," she said. "But I still want to make music with the people from my first album. That worked."