Mabel was our January Guide to Dublin City cover story. Read Tara Stewart's interview with one of the fastest rising artists in modern R&B.
“London is so beautiful because it’s like a melting pot of all of these different cultures and musically different sounds. Everyone comes together, it’s this one really fucking crazy place.”
The first time I met Mabel (over the phone) was early 2016. She had just a few tracks out, one in particular was called ‘Talk About Forever’.
It became the soundtrack to my daily commute on Dublin Bus. The problem with that song was it wasn’t on Spotify or iTunes, it was only on YouTube so I was super bold and converted the video to an mp3 and downloaded to my phone illegally.
Man, that feels good to get off my chest.
I actually told Mabel back then too; I was unapologetic and basically told her it was her own fault for making such a banger.
Mabel McVey is a 21-year-old Sierra Leone, Swedish and English singer songwriter born in Malaga, Spain to a musical dynasty of legendary singer Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack’s Cameron McVey. It’s now late 2017 and I’m just off the phone with Mabel for the second time this month, because I forgot to press record on my phone (literally the most important part of my job) a week earlier. But Mabel is super accommodating and doesn’t care that she has to talk to the same journalist again.
She’s just back from a quick working trip to Johannesburg, but tells me that even though she didn’t get to see much of it, she felt so connected to that land and found it hard coming back to cold, wet London. Her single, ‘Finders Keepers’, features Kojo Funds and is described as her ‘breakout single’ which is true in many ways, but for the fans that have been around for a while, it’s just another great song to add to the Mabel playlist. However, this one can be played in the club, not just your bedroom.
I asked Mabel to tell me about the track ‘Finders Keepers’, because it’s a song that has really changed her life this year…
“I basically just wanted to write a song that me and my friends could dance and have fun to. I just felt like I never really touched on that before that point. I’m really good at the slow jams but, I just wanted to write something that me and my friends could enjoy when we’re out and would come on in the club.
“I’d never had that before and I was frustrated by it. I was never going to do straight power-house or a four to the floor track. In terms of up-tempo, I’d try it, and I’d get really lost. I think being mixed race has a massive part in how that tune came about. I was like, wait a second I’ve got three places, Sierra Leone, Sweden and of course England I can draw inspiration from and I felt like I’d never done that before with my West African heritage. And I was like, you know what? I should have that moment. I should try it, not make an African song, but give a nod to that, for me, for my granddad, for the moment that afrobeat is having in mainstream music right now.
“Jordan D Reid, who’s an incredible producer, just completely understood the vision and made the beat and I was like ‘that’s it!’. It’s pop but a nod to my heritage, to who I am, and I’d say that song has changed my life. It’s changed 2017 that’s for sure… And the direction of the album.
“With lyrics, I wanted to write a really fun song. Speaking from personal experience and other women that I know, I’ve been in so many situations where I’ll tell a guy, let’s chill. Why do we have to think about and analyse this? Why can’t it just be what it is? It is a sexy song, but I don’t think people would say ‘Oh my god, this is so sexual’ if a man was singing it. I just wanted to flip that concept, because it happens all the fucking time as a woman, but I feel like nobody really talks about it.
“You know it’s funny, I got this acoustic version that I did for the Brit Awards, and I heard it in a different way for the first time ever. I know it sounds cheesy, but I heard it in a ‘self-love’ kind of way. I’ve always been in relationships since I was like 14 or 15, and this is the first time I’ve been single. I heard the acoustic version of the song back and heard it on a ‘self love’ vibe. It made me think, you know what? I am enough. I’m all I need, and sometimes I put pressure on myself, but I’m doing ok as I am, so now when I hear the song I just big up myself!”
Mabel has talked openly about coping with anxiety as a teenager and found ways to overcome that…
“Self-love at a difficult age takes a minute and I think we’re constantly relying on other people to tell us that we are enough. I think I’ve always been in relationships and felt like I had to have somebody tell me that they loved me. But I think my music has really helped me build the confidence, being passionate about something. I proved to myself over the last couple of years that I did that on my own so I can do anything. I always say that, especially to younger girls. Find something that you really love and believe in, when you follow that, everything else will fall into place.”
“Why do we have to think about and analyse this? Why can’t it just be what it is? It is a sexy song, but I don’t think people would say ‘Oh my god, this is so sexual’ if a man was singing it.”
When myself and Mabel spoke a few years ago she told me she was keeping her head down to record in the studio, but now going out and living life is important to her…
“It’s been difficult ‘cause I work so fucking hard, so relationships are really hard too, whether that be romantic relationships or friendships or fan relationships or whatever. I feel like I spend most of my time working, and then you get to a point where you’re like, shit I’ve got nothing to write about. Because all I’ve been doing is working. So you have to find that balance, and I make sure that I see my friends and we go out or we go on a trip cause I need shit to write about.”
In her Swedish High School, Mabel found it hard to be herself. She felt embarrassed to admit what music she liked, Lauryn Hill and Destiny’s Child for example. Which seems strange seeing as these were and are some of the biggest artists on the planet. That changed when she moved to London…
“London is so beautiful because it’s like a melting pot of all of these different cultures and musically different sounds. Everyone comes together, it’s this one really fucking crazy place. Sweden is amazing, I learnt a lot about my creativity there, and obviously I studied production (Rytmus Musikergymnasiet music school… But when it came to my creativity I felt quite trapped. It’s quite a conforming, thinking inside the box kind of place. Which is also what makes it amazing, because it’s so controlled, safe and organised.
“When it comes to my creativity though, London has played a massive part in that. Expect it to influence what you’re creating. I’m mixed race and if you want to know where you want to go, you need to know where you come from. And moving back to London changed so much about my personal style, all these things that didn’t make sense to Swedish people. I used to feel bad about what I wanted to wear and my love for simple Air Force 1’s for example, but that’s England, that’s British and that’s amazing and beautiful.
“I’ve also moved back to London at a really exciting time, especially for hip hop and R&B. The world is looking at the UK now, rightly so ‘cause we’re smashing it! “I was in America and you heard Stormzy’s ‘Big For Your Boots’ on the radio, or I went to a Skepta show in LA and everyone was chanting ‘BBK’, I was thinking ‘wow that’s what I grew up loving and listening to’ and it feels so good that the world wants to be a part of that. I respect everyone that goes to LA to write and I respect everyone that lives out there. But when I got asked to go over there I was just like, you know what, I don’t need to, the most exciting stuff is happening in my hometown right here, right now. I’m so fucking proud to be able to stay here, like I can literally get to the sickest studio 15 minutes from my house with the sickest people. They’re just English kids like me.”
Mabel was born having her future judged by people off her parent’s success. Her music was kept private for a long time, and it wasn’t until she moved to London that she decided to go out and get a record deal and a manager by herself.
She considered changing her name so people wouldn’t assume she got to where she is because of her lineage, but then she decided against it, because she’s too proud of her parent’s accomplishments, and one day people won’t care who her they are. Mabel is the ultimate example of the young, hard working, talented artists coming out of the UK and Ireland right now. It’s that sense of team work and family amongst these diverse musicians across pop, R&B, rap and grime that is carving a new wave in terms of music and style. If 2017 changed Mabel’s path, 2018 will transform her life.