meet mabel mcvey: british r&b's next big thing
Three incredible songs into her career and it’s clear Mabel McVey was destined to follow in the family footsteps. Watch as she takes over the world, capturing hearts and commanding attention with her very own blend of 90s R&B.
Mabel wears suit jacket Iro. Rollneck Courrèges. Jeans (worn throughout) AG Jeans. Sneakers Nike.
Mabel. The name means "beautiful" and "loveable" in Latin. It's fitting as these are two of the many virtues that strike you when observing Mabel McVey on set at an antiquated townhouse in west London. The three-story home, which once housed David Hockney in the 70s, comes complete with aquamarine walls — straight out of a Hockney painting — and decor that has lost none of its charm with age. Mabel, a Notting Hill native, lives around the corner with her parents, Cameron McVey and Neneh Cherry. Her older sisters Tyson and Naima are scattered in different pockets of the city in what, on paper, appears to be a pretty ordinary young existence. And it is really, except that her mother and father moonlight respectively as the cross-generational superstar who merged the worlds of music and fashion in the 80s, as part of the Buffalo movement, and the seminal producer behind Massive Attack and Portishead. Together, Neneh and Cameron laid the foundations for their youngest daughter to fall in love with the family business — and now 20-year-old Mabel is making waves as British R&B's next big export.
Born in the mountains of Málaga, Spain in 1996, Mabel moved to London with her family when she was two years old but regularly ping-ponged from country to country as her parents toured the world for work. "They brought us wherever they wanted to make music," Mabel says of her cross-country upbringing. "No matter where we were, my parents were always able to make it feel like home. They would make sure that we traveled with family and friends, that hotel rooms had candles and preferably had somewhere where my mom could cook." Music was her parents' "main form of expression," so inevitably their creativity seeped down to their children. "I always had a diary and would write things down. I was very emotionally open and sensitive as a child," Mabel says. "My mom said I used to feel everything. I guess it was a good thing, but it makes you quite vulnerable. I was really into learning and extremely inquisitive. I taught myself to read when I was four. I was reading Harry Potter by the time I was five. I got quite frustrated at times because I had all this shit I wanted to express, but I didn't know how." Burdened by being academically and emotionally advanced, Mabel's sensitivity to her surroundings eventually developed into full-blown anxiety, which would surface intermittently throughout her young life; it was in music that she found solace. "I learned the piano and got really into it at around six years old," she reveals. "I realized that the words I was writing in my diary could go along with what I was playing and that was the most amazing breakthrough to me. The songs were ridiculous; but it was so freeing! It was my eureka moment."
I learned the piano and got really into it at around six years old. I realized that the words I was writing in my diary could go along with what I was playing. The songs were ridiculous; but it was so freeing! It was my eureka moment.
When Mabel was eight, the family moved to Stockholm, Neneh's hometown, for a more peaceful way of life. "I think we just needed a change," Mabel recalls. The clean and calm of the Swedish capital bought her the time and space away from her crippling anxiety to finally indulge her passion. "Going to music school in Stockholm was really amazing," Mabel says. "I became really independent. The Swedish school system is brilliant for the most part; l went to Rytmus Musikgymnasiet, a school that Tove Lo went to. They farm out great people. There are amazing facilities and the teachers are really good. I studied singing-songwriting and learned how to co-write, but it was quite difficult because I never really felt at home musically." While her classmates thrived on indie, Mabel adored the 90s sounds of neo-soul. "I'm talking Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, J. Dilla..." she explains. "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill actually changed me as a person. If anyone has taught me to be strong it's her; she's very much her own woman. Plus she showed me there's nothing weak about showing vulnerability."
At 16, Mabel took a year off school, buoyed by her "super supportive parents" who encouraged her self-discovery to come to terms with her anxiety. "When you're suffering with it, it's like you are the only person in the world who feels the way you do. Yet when you speak to people and get some perspective you realize they feel the same way too." She eventually went back to school, finishing her course, and continuing songwriting purely for pleasure — Mabel didn't play her songs to anyone, enjoying instead the personal outlet they provided. Moving back to London though, she decided to take music more seriously. "I came back and just thought I would give it a go. My dad offered me some great advice but didn't want to be my manager." So Mabel found her own representation, who signed her immediately after she played them a rendition of Beyoncé's "Halo" on the piano. She put out her first single "Know Me Better" on SoundCloud to rapturous reviews from press and fans alike; with Annie Mac naming it her Tune of the Week on her BBC Radio 1 show. The song is as gutsy as it is soul bearing, yet manages to be vulnerable in the way that all good rhythm and blues is. "It's about showing your softer side and that's how you really get to know someone," she says of the Josh Crocker-produced track, which has had over one million plays on Spotify. "If there isn't a moment when something is stripped back, it's hard. It's definitely something I struggle with; I always want to come across as strong, and look great, but then it's hard to be relatable. The song is quite literal too. It was my first song and I wanted people to know me better."
There was this struggle when I first came out where I wasn't sure I wanted people to know I was my mom and dad's daughter. I thought, 'Should I change my name?' Then I decided, I am proud of my parents, I'm just gonna do it.
Since then, she's released the beautifully haunting "My Boy, My Town," which plays on the duality of London as a lover and her home, and her latest offering, "Thinking of You," where she pines for her family, friends, and a special someone in London. She wrote the track when she was away working on music in the States. After the immediate success of her first three singles, it would be easy for Mabel to hit cruise control but she's adamant she's given us only a glimpse of what's she's got to offer. "There was this struggle when I first came out where I wasn't sure I wanted people to know I was my mom and dad's daughter," she confesses. "I thought, 'Should I change my name?' Then I decided, you know what, I am proud of my parents, I'm just gonna do it. Signing a record deal was a different sort of pressure than I was used to but it was good for me. I have to deliver, but I know there's so much more inside me. I have put some stuff out and it's great that people know I am here, my voice is getting stronger everyday and I just want to nail my sound."
As for the aforementioned album, promised early 2017, expect the story of Mabel so far with "honest lyrics and a tougher sound" lifted from the hip-hop she loves. "If I am feeling a trappy vibe or funky hi-hats, why can't they be in a song of mine? I primarily listen to rap and hip-hop so I get frustrated when people tell me I can't exist in that world because of who I am, the music I make and because I am a woman. It's just not true. Look at how rappers view Mary J. Blige; I wanna exist in that rap world the same way she does."
Smart, stunningly beautiful, and softly self-assured, it's clear that Mabel has shaken off the trepidation that has previously held her back and is now ready to stake her claim as one of her generation's brightest talents. "I didn't think I would get signed so early on but I felt strongly that you get these opportunities and you take them," she decides of her rapidly rising success. "I am not ashamed to say I want to sell lots of records; I want to go on world tours. I want to be something." Take our word for it, she will be.
Text Lynette Nylander
Photography Marlene Marino
Styling Max Clark
Hair Kei Terada at Julian Watson Agency using Bumble and bumble. Make-up Ciara O'Shea at LGA Management using YSL Beauté. Nail technician Belles Bellamy. Photography assistance David Gillbey. Styling assistance Bojana Kozarevic. Production Kenny Burns at D+V Management.