daydreams and nightmares with future star mabel

Seeing this one perform in Brighton last weekend was a definite highlight of The Great Escape Festival. With her mom proudly watching from the back of the room, Mabel showed off her growing confidence and stole hearts before ending on a powerful cover...

by Francesca Dunn and Frankie Dunn
27 May 2016, 2:10pm

"I'm a pisces so I'm super emotional. I feel everything a lot, as my mother likes to put it." Mabel McVey laughs, her warmth radiating down the phone as she takes a break from the studio where she's working on her first album. Born in Malaga and raised between London and Stockholm, she returned to our capital a year and a half ago after graduating from music school in Sweden. More than just a music grad, Mabel's career was written in the stars; when your parents are Neneh Cherry and producer Cameron McVey, you're guaranteed to inherit your fair share of talent. Now a total pro at channelling her numerous feelings into music, the world has begun to take notice of 20-year-old Mabel. When last year she invited listeners into her world with debut single "Know Me Better," embracing the early stages of a relationship, the R&B earworm proved an instant hit. "My Boy My Town" soon followed along with Twitter support from Adele and tour support for Years & Years that culminated in a show at Wembley Arena last month. Aside from pure emotion, she's keen to bring just as much attitude as her male counterparts and aims to provide a strong and sassy role model for young women.

You must still be on a bit of a high from playing Wembley with Years & Years?
Yeah, it was incredible. I still can't actually believe it; it was my fifth gig ever, so yeah, it was quite exciting to perform in a place that big.

How were you feeling on stage?
I was quite nervous before because we had such an awful soundcheck; nothing was working and we were so pressed for time that they literally started letting people into the arena! I was so nervous but halfway through the first song, I was like, 'this is amazing!' There were thousands of people, my friends were there and it was just so much fun.

When you're performing in such a big venue, where do you look? Into the crowd? The back of the room?
Well you can see people at the front, which is really nice and kind of crazy because Years & Years fans are the most amazing, serious, die-hard fans, and they had obviously been following them on tour and had seen me play with them before, because they were singing along to songs that I haven't even released yet.

And how was it touring and hanging out with the boys?
I've had such a good time. Until then I'd just been working on my album, which is lovely, but you get quite exhausted talking about your feelings all the time. You're giving and giving and the way to get something back, I think, is through releasing music and playing live. And I hadn't being doing either so I've felt really drained, but this gave me so much energy!

From your experience, would you recommend that young people who want to get into music get a formal music education rather than just figure it out for themselves?
I think that it just gives you a different understanding of things. I can read music, which isn't necessary or useful at all. Today I'm in the studio and there's no way at any point that I'm going to be using sheet music; but I know chords and it's nice to be able to communicate with people in a musical language. I think it's really beautiful to have the ability to do that. I studied production too and truly believe that more women should. It's so important to have an understanding of it so that when you're in the studio you're not just like, 'ooh, what's he doing now?' you know what I mean? But then, my boyfriend's an amazing musician and he didn't go to music school at all.

What do you know now that you wish you'd known a year and a half ago when you first moved to London?
That no matter which way I went, it would've been okay. I was so stressed out about controlling everything that as soon as I let go, everything just happened. I think that for controlling people that's such a hard thing to do but if you try sometimes that's usually when things work out.

From your Instagram it looks like you've been out in LA recently.
Yeah, I basically went there to work with Kid Harpoon; he's really lovely and we've done quite a few tracks on my album now. I have family out there too. LA's funny.

A lot of people seem to move out there for music — could you see yourself making the move?
I don't think I would wanna live there but I like going and getting really involved in LA life. I was going to hip-hop yoga and eating smoothie bowls but after two weeks I was ready to go home. It's just quite detached. My music is so affected by the place I'm in and all the music I write over there is very easy breezy pop because everything's chill, everything's cool! Life there is so sunny and nice that if my whole album was like that i don't think people would be impressed. I think it's fine to have a few tracks like that but you need some emotionally dark shit too.

So what else can we expect from your future material if it's not all shiny happy LA vibes?
Storytelling. I just wanna be real about stuff and I wanna find a balance between strength and vulnerability. I think with me making R&B, I'm trying to get more confident and be a bit more sassy and have attitude in my lyrics because I feel like if I was a male rapper, nobody would question that. Why should I alter the way I say things? I listen to a lot of rap so… wait, I don't mean I'm gonna rap!

That's disappointing.
I know, I wanna be Lauryn Hill! Maybe album two? But that's something I've been thinking about a lot. I just wanna be strong for young women. But you can't just have loads of attitude and be really sassy. I do have a lot of sad and serious emotions too.

Which track do you most associate with your childhood?
It's gotta be "That Thing" or "Zion" by Lauryn Hill. The whole family shared that album and we still listen do it.

You must've grown up around a lot of "famous people." Were you ever so starstruck that you asked for an autograph?
I met Kanye West actually when I was about ten. My mom was playing a festival in France and he was playing too and we saw him later on in a restaurant in Nice. He was sitting at a different table and he came over to say hi to my mom. They were chatting for a while and I'm pretty sure I took a picture with him or got his autograph because I was obsessed with him. I think it was around the time "All Falls Down" came out. "Flashing Lights" is one of my favorite songs of all time.

You've said before that everything is easier in Stockholm. What did you mean by that?
It's just smaller and more manageable; it takes half an hour to get anywhere and you know, it's just an easier way of life. I think that young people are more driven in London because there are so many of us that everybody wants to stand out from the crowd and in order to do that you have to work incredibly hard. And I think that — and I love my Swedish friends — but I think that there are young people doing more interesting things in London because it's easier to have a nice life in Stockholm.

What was your experience like growing up as a mixed-raced child in predominantly white Sweden?
I struggled with it, definitely. In general there isn't a work for mixed race in Swedish. They use a term which basically means 'mule' and people would actually say that to me — it was weird because I obviously wasn't the only mixed race person growing up there, but you do start to feel a bit weird because people love to label things and put things into boxes. I'm super proud of my heritage now, being from different places. It was interesting because I'd be like, "I'm English" and people would be like, "...but you don't really look English." So I'd try, "okay, well I'm Swedish" and they'd be like, "well you definitely don't look Swedish." And it was like, well what do you want me to say then?! That I'm West African? And they'd say I'm not black enough to be West African. People should just accept the answer that you give. I used to literally just tell people that I was Latina because it was easier for them to comprehend. Now though, I'm super proud and I want young mixed race women to be proud of their backgrounds because it's such an amazing thing; I speak two languages and I have family all over the world and it's such a beautiful thing. I used to see it as a negative and I hate that.

Do you go back to Sweden often?
I've been back once for a few days since I moved to London a year and a half ago. I actually found it really difficult — it's a lovely, beautiful place but it was weird; I didn't have an apartment there anymore and it just didn't feel like home. And I never really fitted in there to be honest with you. You know, I bumped into people I went to school with and I think they just think I'm a bit mad! I dunno if it was just the ambition but I always felt a bit trapped. It was such a lovely place to grow up though because it's so safe.

I think it's hard when you leave a place and so much happens, so much changes, and then you go back to the place where you were a different person almost.
Exactly. And I think people can be so unforgiving with change. I think change is really good and essentially you're always the same person but you do change and people shouldn't be afraid of that. What I realized in moving back to London is that cities have personalities like people. They change as well and you can be in sync with them or you can very much be out of sync with them and when I moved to London it felt like we were completely out of sync. I thought it would feel like home but it had changed so much in ten years and I almost felt that with Stockholm when I went back. It's like a friend that you once knew that you've drifted apart from and don't really know anymore.

How do you think your music would sound if you'd have stayed there?
I was so weird and insecure with my music there. I think that accepting the English side of me and discovering new things about myself sort of opened my music up. I felt like I was trapped in a box and in music school, even though they let us write what we wanted, there was a definite trend at the time to lean towards the sort of Bon Iver, Daughter type of thing, with everyone on their guitars — and I'm so shit at the guitar! I was trying to write indie music even though all I wanted to do was to write R&B and it didn't really merge nicely with what everybody else was doing. So I think when was making music there, I felt quite trapped and I was a bit shit. But when I moved to London, I just opened myself up to do whatever and decided I'd write fun R&B and just accept that. So I think it probably would've been more poppy. But then I love that too — Swedes are so good at pop, that's definitely a part of me too. I'm obsessed with synths too, and that's very electronic and Scandi.

What else are you obsessed with right now?
Right now, my whole outfit is Christopher Shannon. I literally can't stop. And a new addiction: poetry books. For someone who really likes words, it's kind of crazy that I've never been into them until now but it's just so good for lyrics. I got one the other day that's like, Arabic poems from a translation center and it's so amazing.

What's the last dream you remember having?
I actually have a terrifying reoccurring nightmare where I'm in this pipe and it fills with water and I'm super claustrophobic The pipe's big enough for me to move but I can't stand up or anything. It's really quite terrifying.

What do you think it means?
I don't know. I'm too scared to find out. But dreams never mean what you think they mean — I bet you it's something quite nice. Let's hope!

What're you looking forward to about summer?
I'm so excited to play some festivals and tour with my band; we're so tight and have such a good time together so being on stage is the best thing! And hopefully wrapping up the album. Basically, I'm like, it's done when it's done. I'd love for it to come out at the beginning of next year, but I have to be completely happy with it and that will take as long as it needs to. I want it to have interludes and shit.


Text Francesca Dunn
Photography Olivia Rose

neneh cherry
The Great Escape
years and years
music interviews