On her new album, Mabel’s inviting you on the best night out you’ve never been on. The type of night where you spend hours and hours on the sweaty dance floor, the music giving you a newfound confidence. The kind of evening where anything is possible – particularly because the new best friend you met in the toilet queue (and that you’ll never see again) has told you so. An all-night sesh that ends as the sun rises and you stumble home, half-eaten burger in hand and mascara smudged down your cheek. The type of night that, really, doesn’t exist, but is fun to pretend it could.
“I was like: ‘Let me tell this story of the last couple of years of my life as if it were this crazy, fantasy house party that everyone’s invited to,” Mabel tells NME of her second album ‘About Last Night…’. Wearing a Clockwork Orange shirt and curled up in a pink armchair, she’s speaking over Zoom from her home in west London a week before the stellar second album is released. Imani, her Italian Greyhound, is curled up in her lap, occasionally demanding attention and clambering over their owner.
The singer-songwriter pictured ‘About Last Night…’ as a cavernous warehouse, much like soon-to-be-closed south London venue Printworks. Each track is a different room: the heaving dancefloor; the bathroom where you have a heart to heart with a stranger; the chaotic secret spots you stumble into and are never able to find again.
These new euphoric sounds fuse her signature R&B-pop with clubbier influences of disco, house and beyond; the sound appears self-assured and effortless, but in reality creating ‘About Last Night…’ was anything but. Looking back on the past few years, the 26-year-old artist assesses the whirlwind she’d been living in: “It had been the most successful time in my career, but definitely not the best time in my personal life.”
The youngest daughter of trailblazing artist Neneh Cherry and producer Cameron McVey (known for his work with Massive Attack and Sugababes), it’s unsurprising Mabel grew up in a musical house. Although there are no debauched stories of family trips to the club, she explains that they were always throwing parties in her childhood home.
“It was always a very vibrant, colourful household,” she says. “There were always 12, 15 people living in our house all at one time.” Reluctant to miss out on a moment of the action, Mabel had a bed tucked away in the nook in the kitchen, so she could fall asleep hearing people talking about music or having “very heated discussions” about politics.
Her dad had a recording studio in the house, meaning there was a revolving door of musicians coming through their home. “Sugababes were around a lot, the original trio,” says Mabel, referring to the trio’s iconic original line-up of Keisha Buchanan, Mutya Buena and Siobhán Donaghy. “My dad always says I was their A&R. They would play things [to me, and] I’d be like”, here Mabel stops to jokingly adopt a voice of her child-self: “‘No, I prefer the other one’.”
“They were a massive inspiration to me, as I remember thinking – and I still do – they were doing something really important and making a real stamp in music.”
“I was so scared of what people would say about me online – I completely lost my sense of self.”
Another regular guest was television presenter Miquita Oliver, whose mum, chef and broadcaster Andi Oliver, is Mabel’s godmother. “We shared a bedroom for many years while she was doing Popworld and everything, which was so fun,” Mabel says. “She was like my big sister. She was the first person that ever straightened my hair, and took me to buy [Nike] Dunks. I still think she’s the coolest thing ever.”
Attending music school as a teenager, Mabel released her first track ‘Know Me Better’ in 2015 when she was 19, making her mainstream breakthrough a few years later with the slick Afroswing-infused ‘Finders Keepers’. Things only snowballed from there: there was a slot supporting Harry Styles on tour in 2018, and her debut album ‘High Expectations’ dropped the following year, which NME said featured some extraordinarily good pop songs”. The record’s lead single – the sleek earworm ‘Don’t Call Me Up’ – went triple platinum in the UK and reaching Number Three in the charts. The cherry on top should have been when she picked up the trophy Best British Female at the BRIT Awards in February 2020.
It was the culmination of years of grafting – countless charting singles, a sold-out tour, high-profile collaborations with dance-whizzes like Jax Jones and Tiësto, and even a performance on US TV show The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. But while on the surface it looked like Mabel was living the dream, behind the scenes she was crumbling.
Mentally and physically knackered after living several exhausting years in the spotlight, Mabel’s anxiety – which she’s managed her entire life – was made worse by reading hurtful comments on social media. “It was a lot,” she says, explaining that these feelings also came with guilt. “The promo and the performing, you think ‘this is what you signed up to do’, but still, the magnitude and the pressure of all of it, it was a lot.”
It’s a problem that is monumentally worse for female and non-binary artists, particular when they’re making pop music. “The pressures of being an artist and being a female in the business, and the scrutiny that you go through with comments and with all those sort of things definitely had me a few times thinking: ‘gosh I don’t whether I can actually handle it, whether it’s for me’”, Mabel says.
“I didn’t really feel like I deserved a lot of it,” she adds. “I was grateful and these were the things I’d always wanted to happen. I don’t think I was really ready; nobody can really prepare you.”
The stress of these negative comments fed into her work. Despite wanting to go out there and give it her all, she found the fear completely crushing her. “It’s crazy what fear does to your body and your voice and your face and all the things that are really important when you’re performing,” she says. “I would go out there anticipating what people were going to say about me, and people would say it and I’d have to get up and perform again.”
Trapped in this vicious cycle this mindset only got worse, to the point where Mabel believed she didn’t deserve to be on that stage and that she was supremely untalented. “I wasn’t going up there performing to the best of my ability as I was so scared all the time of what people were going to say and what people were going to think. And I completely lost my sense of self.”
“Little Mix’s Leigh-Anne Pinnock has been an amazing sister to me”
“It got to the beginning of 2020 and I was like, ‘I’m not having fun, the biggest things are happening in my career right now and I’m not going out there representing myself fairly, because I’m so crushed,’” she says, taking a deep breath to steady her words.
Lockdown came at a crossroads moment for Mabel. She had been planning to take some time off anyway but then the whole world stopped, giving her the space to look back on the wild ride she’d been on. “I definitely got time to reflect on… if I wasn’t going to carry on anymore, it probably would have been then,” she says.
Moving back in with her parents, Mabel gave herself time to breathe; time to fall in love with making music. She got back into dancing, spending time in the studio practising, and generally used these months to regain “the confidence back that had just been completely squeezed out of me.”
A few months into lockdown, Mabel considered making music again. Stuck at home and craving a night out, she decided to tell the story of the last couple of years of her life through the medium of a wild house party. She reached out to trusted songwriters and producers MNEK (Beyoncé, Zara Larsson) and Tre Jean-Marie (Little Mix, Craig David), and the trio began trading ideas.
“The nights out that we really remember, they have the drama, but they also have the euphoria and those moments that are so exciting and fun,” she says. She doesn’t shy away from the havoc a party can bring, like when you spy an ex with a new partner on the dancefloor and the outside world breaks into your clubby utopia. “You also have to have the moments when you’re really low and that feel really dramatic and sad at the time.”
While Mabel’s debut record ‘High Expectations’ may have spawned a host of heavy-rotation tracks, at times it felt like it played into what a mainstream pop record should be with radio-friendly hooks and on-trend, if somewhat, generic production. In comparison, its follow-up is razor-sharp, splicing different genres and sewing them together with neon-bright beats.
Album opener ‘Animal’ is about “owning your sexuality” and being proud of the wilder side of yourself that appears on a night out; the Ariana Grande-reminiscent ‘Take Your Name’ is a track written about “going out because you want to forget something or somebody, but that sadness will hit at any point”.
Knowing she wanted to create a killer house party, Mabel went back and listened to Whitney Houston and CeCe Peniston records, appreciating a time where “R&B and soul music really met dance”. She thought of her godfather Judy Blame, the British fashion stylist who passed away in 2018. “I started thinking about the things he had taught me. Voguing culture and club culture was so important to our family growing up, I was so immersed in it, it was just normal to me.”
“It was important to me to create this house party and to be unapologetic”
Ballroom – an underground LGBTQIA+ subculture that originated in New York – particularly inspired the first half of ‘About Last Night…’. A huge part of Mabel’s childhood, she wanted to nod to this culture and pay homage to it, but quick to point out it’s not an influence she’s pinched as it’s hot at the moment. “Obviously it’s not my culture to take, and it’s not mine to – all of a sudden because it’s cool and people are watching Drag Race – be like ‘oh I’m going to do this now’,” she says.
“I think where I’ve struggled so much with my identity in a different way, it felt really important to me to create this house party that was about being who you are and being unapologetic about it and for anybody who’s ever struggled with this identity and their confidence.”
These influences are particularly apparent on ‘Let Them Know’. Working with pals on the record in Oxford, Mabel was taking a break when collaborators Raye and SG Lewis started the song’s initial Ru Paul-evoking beat. “Raye came upstairs wearing these sunglasses she found and was like, ‘OK, the song’s arrived!”. Mabel was at a place writing it when she had made “so much progress in my confidence and how I felt in myself”, leading to the track’s powerhouse chorus: “No, they can’t beat you down/’Cause, baby, you’re that bitch“. Damn right.
Mabel’s now preparing to bring the club to her fans IRL, having already played a triumphant show at London’s Somerset House a few days after its release. That show turned the London landmark into a wild party where Mabel was the chief rabble-rouser, taking the audience by the hand and pulling them onto the dancefloor. Flanked by a live band and six dancers, she blitzed her way through a slick career-spanning set, the joy she took in the performance apparent for all to bear witness.
Over the past few months Mabel’s also had some nights out herself, although not ones as debauched as the inspiration for ‘About Last Night…’. Earlier this year Mabel presented her mum Neneh Cherry with the Icon Award at the BandLab NME Awards 2022. “I’m so blessed to have you as a mum,” Mabel said before handing over the trophy, adding: “You’ll always probably be that tiny bit cooler than me! You’re a role model to so many, and my biggest inspiration.”
There was no all-hours afterparty though: “Mum was like ‘I’m done, I’m going home, come with me’. So I gave her her award, took some pictures and then she said ’I’m ready to go to bed’. I was like ‘OK icon, you decide!’”
“Young people in the music industry are not supported as they should be”
After years of feeling overwhelmed on-stage, Mabel’s confident in her live show, but acknowledges the industry as a whole should be more supportive of young artists overcoming the challenges. “I’m still undoing the damage of what I did to myself by looking at people’s comments,” she says. “I don’t think we’re protected as young people in the way we should be [by the industry] to be completely honest with you.”
The highs are stratospheric, but the lows equally radical: “You’re the one who has to stand up there and you’re the one who gets judged for it; and you’re the one who’s carrying the weight for it,” she says, adding: “I just think it’s a lot of responsibility to be putting on a young person.”
Now Mabel has a group of allies in the industry she can message. “Leigh-Anne Pinnock from Little Mix has been an amazing sister to me,” she says. “I can just message her and be like, ‘Hey I’m feeling really lonely, or did you ever feel this, or what do you do when you get comments like this?’ And obviously she’s had it on a completely different level to me, but she just understands the experience of being a woman in the business.”
And with this support system she’s now got her confidence back. Where live performances were previously a serious source of anxiety, she now thrives within them. “Now I can say with my chest I’m definitely a strong performer, I go out there and enjoy every second of it.”
She’s not wrong. From her electric Somerset House show to her megawatt new album, Mabel has come out swinging. “With the way the industry is right now, as quickly as your success comes it can go, so I enjoy every performance and give 110 per cent,” she says confidently. “And every day – now that I’m personally in a better place – that I get to go up there and do it, I’m so happy.”
Mabel’s new album ‘About Last Night…’ is out now via Polydor