Jessie Ware is loud but subtle, and spot on

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Jessie Ware's voice is a marvelous instrument, but it doesn't overpower. Instead, it slips inside the consciousness, barely noticed, and then becomes a constant companion. That's the way Ware's best-selling debut album, "Devotion" (Cherrytree/Interscope), works, and it's also how the singer herself suddenly found herself with a career.

"I was quite adamant I was going to be a sports journalist, or do documentary films," the singer says in a call from her home in London. "I had in my head I should get a good (college) degree, work hard. Singing was not an option."

She grew up with a mother who played plenty of old soul records and Whitney Houston. Ware was a regular at drum 'n' bass club nights in London with her girlfriends, and became enamored with TLC, Destiny's Child and Brit singers such as Sade and Annie Lennox.

"I sang at university in the musicals — you do two shows and you're done," she says. "I was never the main part; I was always the back lady. Then my mate (singer-songwriter Jack Penate) says, 'Can you do some backup for this (recording) session.' I took off work to do it. I loved it, and something clicked. When he asked me to tour with him, I quit my job. Three of us toured America; there was no tour bus, so we were cramming together in a motel bed every night. We ate McDonalds every day. It was disgusting! We got addicted to the 'Third Pounder.' There was a lot of Chicago pizza and beef sandwiches too. We were disgusting, spotty fatties by the end, but it was so much fun."

When she got back home, she learned through a friend that producer-DJ SBTRKT, aka Aaron Jerome, was looking for a singer and just happened to live "down the road" from her in London. "I am normally a confident person — I can talk to anyone — but when I went there I was so petrified I couldn't speak," she says of her first meeting with the producer. "It was because I was really shy as a singer, really cautious, and I sing softly. I remember him saying, 'You sing a bit like Aaliyah' and 'Nobody's singing that soft.' He took it as a strength, and built the track 'Nervous' around it – which was a very apt title. The song really suited me, and it taught me about the value of singing softly. I felt I could get my story across better."

When "Nervous" became a hit in 2010, Ware was thrilled if only because "it felt so fresh and new with that hard beat, and I knew that my girls would want to dance to it at the club." But then the calls started coming in from other producers and artists (including a collaboration with her friend Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine) and the next year she signed a record deal.

"Devotion," released last year in the U.K. and reconfigured with bonus tracks a few months ago for the U.S., affirmed the promise of "Nervous." It's primarily a collaboration between Ware and producer Dave Okumu, with pop hooks emerging from its subtle blend of colors, exotic rhythms and shadowy electronics. For Ware, restraint is a choice, not a limitation, and as the album opens up, so does her voice. On the final track, "Something Inside," her voice floats over an acoustic guitar, and it's one of the most beautiful moments on a pop record you'll hear this year.

"I knew it had to be subtle, and Dave helped make it possible," she says. "I wanted the music to be as important to the record as the vocals, and I wanted the vocals to feel like part of the music — like another instrument in the mix. There was this headphone thing, where Dave would put certain things in one ear and more in another, so that sounds were traveling between your ears, creating space. It's a soul thing, our nod to soul records that we loved."

She favors a similarly understated but ingratiating approach in concert, where she's less about overpowering an audience than inviting fans into the intimate space she creates. As her popularity has increased, she's beginning to learn how to command larger spaces; she just played the Glastonbury festival in the U.K., and will perform next week at Lollapalooza in Grant Park.

"I'm learning this year about how I want to change things, and I'm learning it through the stages I'm on," she says. "For one thing, I'm learning I can't wear high heels. I do too much running from side to side. I kick off my shoes after the first song. Big production has never been what I'm about. You have to earn that. Ridiculous, over-the-top production can be gross. I'm a new artist, and if I do that sort of thing now, there's nothing left, is there? For me, it's about making the audience comfortable with you, having fun. You can take yourself too seriously sometimes. You need to remind yourself that you're there to perform and to make someone's weekend special."

Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM 91.5).

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

When: 3:15 p.m. Aug. 2

Where: Lollapalooza, Grant Park, Columbus and Jackson Drives

Tickets: $95 (sold out); lollapalooza.com

When: 11 p.m. Aug. 2

Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.

Tickets: $20; lincolnhallchicago.com

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The Grammys 2011