She may have an impeccable musical pedigree, but Mabel McVey has worked hard to get her unique blend of R&B noticed. Moya Lothian-McLean meets an artist poised for the big time.
Mabel McVey is the ultimate millennial. “I’m so sorry,” says the 21-year-old singer when we meet, head bent over her iPhone. “I’ll be with you in one minute.” Holographic nails (“They’re like my mood ring”) wink in the sun as she taps out a furious stream of messages. She’s made a last-minute decision to go to Coachella and is frantically prepping. Couple this with her adoration of Nineties culture that influences everything from her style (today, a beige velour Adidas top) to her smoky, seductive R&B sound, and she’s the living, breathing, coconut cappuccino-sipping epitome of Generation Y. Oh, and she’s the daughter of Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey. You’ve got her pigeonholed, right?
Like most things, it’s not that simple. In person, McVey maintains eye contact, speaks with refreshing self-awareness and is honest about the extent of work that’s gone into positioning her as a breakout star of 2017. For a start, she doesn’t party. The Coachella jaunt – bookended by a New York press tour – is a rare break from a gruelling schedule, which has been non-stop since her 2015 debut single, Know Me Better, cemented her in the coterie of young British artists, including Ray BLK and Nao, billed as the great shining hope for the UK music industry.
Her sold-out London show in June, summer festival circuit and forthcoming EP Bedroom (out 30 June) are set to catapult her into mainstream consciousness, led by lush, dancehall-inflected single Finders Keepers. The song’s already accumulated over a million YouTube views and been chosen as Radio One DJ Clara Amfo’s Tune of the Week. Behind the scenes though, it’s been an unrelenting cycle of studios, touring and writing. Before attending music school in Sweden – home until she was 15 – she refused to entertain the notion of becoming a musician for fear she’d be categorised as one of ‘those’ celebrity children. So what changed her mind?
Stylist shares a bowl of quinoa with summer’s new star, Mabel McVey...
Your music is so open and visceral, is the writing process painful?
All my songs are things that have happened to me. I really did smash my boyfriend’s guitar against his TV [as witnessed in song Bedroom ‘Broke your guitar up against your television/ Smashed every glass that you had in your kitchen], not my proudest moment... I put myself in situations because I want to write songs. It drove my ex mad. We’d be arguing and I’d say “Wait, I have to write this down!” I’ve been in two long-term relationships and – this sounds awful – they were really helpful for writing heartbreak. It makes good songs. Amy Winehouse, she’s an excellent example – her heartbreak made her.
The Nineties is a massive influence on your music. Why is it such a cultural touchstone for people of our age?
I’m the youngest of four kids so I was trying to keep up with what my siblings listened to. I think early-Nineties music was so strong for women, with people like Brandy, Destiny’s Child, there was a real mainstream, independent woman thing going on and it’s come back now. In the Noughties, R&B didn’t have as many strong women, apart from Beyoncé and Rihanna. Now artists like Kehlani are playing with gender expectations, asking why women can’t express themselves the same way men can.
What sort of impact have your parents had on your career?
When you’re a kid you don’t question your lifestyle. I’ve been making music since age five. I wouldn’t be who I am if my parents hadn’t been musicians. I have had a lot of anxiety since I was a kid – insomnia, various things. My parents said, “You need to find a way to express yourself”, because they’re very against medication. I was worried people were going to think my parents were helping me but in the end I thought, ‘There’s nothing I feel as much for, this is what I want to do. What does it matter who your parents are?’
How do you maintain autonomy as a young woman in the industry?
Going into record deals as a woman, you have to know what you want so you don’t get moulded into anything else. I’ve had people being like, “[Her look] is not sexy enough”. I’ve been reaching out to other female writers and producers like RAYE – our voices are stronger together.
What was it like growing up in Sweden with a multi-racial background?
I always felt like the ugly duckling because a lot of my friends were blonde and tall, so I thought everything about me was wrong. Sometimes people there have a hard time wrapping their heads around difference. Now the second biggest political party in Sweden is far right, and they’re awful. There’s not a Swedish word for ‘mixed race’, they just say ‘mulatto’. I remember telling Mum the kids at school called me that and she was like, “Oh my god, that literally means mule”. Now I feel lucky because I have different places to draw inspiration from – on Finders Keepers I explored my Sierra Leonean side. I’ve never been able to visit because it’s so turbulent, but my granddad made sure we’re really in touch with that side of ourselves.
Are you and your friends tuned into politics?
Of course. You can’t not be now. It’s important to raise your voice – we go on as many marches as we can. People say, “What does that actually do?” But standing together makes me feel better. Sometimes I read the news and feel so lonely.
How did the terror attack in Sweden earlier this month affect you?
I have a lot of friends and family there so it was scary. But more than that I hung out on that street growing up, one of my friends had just been there with her baby, minutes before, she saw the lorry drive... Things like that don’t happen in Sweden. It’s something I have to get used to; the world’s just different.
You mentioned earlier you’d struggled with anxiety, how do you manage it now?
My anxiety started when I was five and got really bad in my teens – I had to be homeschooled. When I moved to London the music helped. There was no way I was going to miss an opportunity to work so I had to motivate myself to get on the tube. There’s so much stigma surrounding mental health issues but now I’m older I know it’s OK. On bad days I’m like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with it. Just feel it’. A big problem before was that I would pretend everything was fine – we shouldn’t keep it locked in.
You work a lot, are you able to find time to do things ‘typical’ 21-year-olds do?
I miss out a lot. I’m not like, “Boohoo, poor me”, because I love it, but I don’t have time to just go for lunch with my friends. When you’re trying to break through you have to work incredibly hard. I give my friends keys to my house so when I come home from the studio, they’ll be there. It makes me so happy to have people around.
Have you got a strategy for success?
Totally. I don’t want to be famous overnight because you can disappear tomorrow. I want a slow build. I write every day and have got hundreds of songs on file. Social media used to make me compare myself – like seeing [singer] Jorja Smith appear on Drake’s album. But you know what? Sick for Jorja. Women in the industry are always pitted against each other, which is such a male construct. We’re all so unique, there’s no way we’re competing. The most important thing for me is to keep writing and keep releasing.
Finders Keepers is out 28 April
Photography: Rex Features