With radio hits and a support slot on Harry Styles’ huge European tour, R&B star Mabel is on the up. While she has the pedigree for it – her mum is Neneh Cherry and her godfather is REM’s Michael Stipe – she also has the talent and attitude, finds Thomas Smith
Here are some things that tend to happen at Harry Styles’ live shows; fans scream their hearts out, he pays his dues to influences like Fleetwood Mac by covering their songs, and fans, occasionally, throw fruit at him (he has a song called ‘Kiwi’, you see). But rising British star Mabel likely wouldn’t have seen any of this when she was a teen during the One Direction years – she was in too deep with ‘90s R&B at this point. “My best friend was, like, the biggest One Direction fan… not that I wasn’t a fan, I just wasn’t one of those crazy ones. I didn’t wear a 1D T-shirt everyday, basically.”
Mabel, aged 22, has bagged a support slot on what may well be the biggest pop tour of the year, warming fans up for Hazza across Europe, including his upcoming UK dates. Speaking to NME from the backstage of Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome, Mabel McVey assures us that she’s treating it like anything other than a support slot. No, she’s plotting. “There not a lot of pressure on me but to just see it as a rehearsal, in a way, which is what I’ve been doing.” A rehearsal for a Mabel Arena Tour in the coming years? “For sure! I want to be playing those places one day. I’m figuring out how to gas 20,000 people when they’re not there for you. It makes me think, ‘One day when they are here for you, it’ll be a hell of a lot easier!’”
Judging by the Londoner’s recent ascendance, it’s not such a far-fetched idea. Her latest single, the self-assured pop-tinged banger ‘Fine Lines’ featuring British rapper Not3s, is now hurtling towards the Top 10 of the UK Singles Chart. Her previous single, ‘Finders Keepers’, peaked at Number 8 after months lingering in the charts, and her feature on Not3s’ own track ‘My Lover’ propelled itself into the Top 15 late last year. “Having a Top 10 record changed my life a lot, you know?” she says.
Mabel’s recent ‘Ivy To Roses’ mixtape is very much The Sound Of Now; Afrobeat rhythms clash with her silky smooth vocals, meaning it feels at home on your chillout playlists your own and while you’re necking Jagerbombs in your local club. “Being mainstream is fun” she insists. “With the records I’m putting out now, I’m not tailoring myself to the mainstream, the mainstream has become what my tracks are.”
Mabel’s mainstream mindset is not a complete fluke, mind – she’s the latest in the line of music royalty in her family. Her father, Cameron McVey produced records for Massive Attack, Portishead and Sugababes, her godfather is REM frontman Michael Stipe and her mother is ‘90s attitude-pop legend Neneh Cherry. However she’s keen to pay both respect to their legacies and carve her own space. “I’m not embarrassed to say I’m their daughter. I’m proud of the things I’ve accomplished,” she says. “I feel like people always assume things, but that’s just life. I work hard and I’m very separate from what my parents do.”
Mabel’s musical journey properly began in 2015 with the gooey ballad ‘Know Me Better’ and a string of singles in the following year. At the time, she was still finding her feet. “At first I thought being an artist was being this ‘perfect’ thing, which I actually know isn’t true,” she says. “Now, I can definitely cope with being one better, but it was a tricky combination of being young and struggling with figuring out who I am as a person.”
It was 2017’s ‘Finders Keepers’ and the ensuing ‘Ivy To Roses’ mixtape where she found her voice and groove with Lauryn Hill-inspired vocals but with a decidedly individual brand of self-confidence. It landed her a BRITs Critics Choice nomination earlier this year alongside Jorja Smith and Stefflon Don (Smith won), and quickly catapulted her into the public eye in ways she hadn’t experienced before. A few days before we chat, British tabloids published stories about Twilight actor Robert Pattinson being “smitten” with the singer after the pair seen together on the showbiz awards circuit. This kind of attention is just noise, she says. “Yes, some stupid stuff gets said, nothing that I’d actually pull anybody up on. I think I’ve worked hard enough and putting out enough good music for all those other things to not matter” she says. “It’s just a part of what I do.”
Having rubbed shoulders with Jorja Smith and Stefflon Don in that list, Mabel thinks 2018 belongs to young British artists. “It’s such an interesting time for British music – the whole world is looking at us, which is so satisfying,” she says. “I feel like there’s a massive change in the industry. I don’t feel competitive with any of my peers at all.” That much is obvious considering her ongoing pairing with Not3s, and her recent appearance on squad-anthem ‘Cigarette’, alongside rising pop star Raye and Britain’s most exciting new rapper Stefflon Don. “We’re fully in control of ourselves. If I want Not3s to jump on my track, I just holla Not3s, or call up Stormzy or if Stormzy wants me to do something he just reaches out to me. It’s all about being in control of your own operations.”
Not3s in particular is someone she has struck up a fruitful working collaboration with, so much so that the pair recently appeared together on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch to perform his song ‘My Lover’. Though Not3s started cooking up a friendship with fellow guest political guru Alistair Campbell, Mabel is hoping that that he doesn’t take up too much of his time – she’s planning to create a dynasty with her collaborators. “The ‘90s were amazing for ongoing collaborations, like Timbaland and Aaliyah or J-Lo and LL Cool J. I think that’s a lost art in a way,” she says. “But we’ve hit a really amazing spark.” Speaking to Capital Xtra in January, Not3s showed that the feeling is mutual. “‘My Lover’ just needed that sprinkle – it needed a girl’s response and she was definitely the girl for it,” he said.
Teaming up with your contemporaries is one way to shift some of the pitfalls that come with being a solo artist, she says. “Being a solo artist in general can be incredibly lonely. It’s funny how often the bigger you get sometimes, the lonelier you feel. A lot of people have an idea of who you are, but at the same time it’s like ‘I’m just me! I have the same doubts as and fear as you! But people look at you differently.” However she’s looking forward and learning to embrace some of the curveballs life throws. “It isn’t about hitting all the notes or having a perfect stage show, it’s about letting go and enjoying it. Fans love the human things like when I fuck up and forget lyrics and there’s something beautiful in that. It’s not about being perfect, it’s not about not making mistakes, it’s about enjoying everything.”
One thing she’s enjoying is her upcoming debut album, which she says she “can’t even talk about yet” – mainly, because she’s very precious about holding onto these songs and themes for as long as possible. “No one can fully understand the feeling or the emotion that I had when I wrote these songs,” she said. “I like that the album right now is still my baby. I’m not ready to let it go yet.”
So few details on what’s actually on the album, however we’re getting a decent picture of how Mabel is hoping it’ll pan out. “I’m not embarrassed to say that I want to be really successful and I want to sell loads of records,” she exclaims. That arena tour is looking like a sure thing.