One thing to know about Mabel McVey is that she has a hard time making up her mind. When we sit down in Manhattan's Souen Soho, the 21-year-old looks slightly overwhelmed as she flips through the pages of the healthy menu with her long, blue nails. "I'm so indecisive," she says with a smile. "But my mom is worse than me, she always changes her order. After everyone else is done ordering she'll be like 'Actually, I changed my mind...'"
This mother that she speaks of is Swedish music legend Neneh Cherry, and her father is producer Cameron McVey. (No big deal, right?) Mabel was fortunate enough to get a lot of good genes passed down from both of her parents, including her natural music abilities.
Raised as a strict vegetarian, Mabel grew up in what she describes as a "hippie" household in London. Starting at a young age, she was always drawn to the sounds of R&B; Mabel cites '90s and '00s icons like Lauryn Hill and Destiny's Child as the biggest influences on her as a singer and songwriter.
Mabel never took singing lessons as a child, preferring to spend her time mimicking artists that she loved, like Mariah Carey, and learning the basics, like harmonies, melodies, and... whistling. "I think that that's what I did for the first 10 years of my musical relationship," she laughs.
It wasn't until Mabel moved back to Stockholm as a teenager that she attended a real music school. She recalls how "it was such a wake-up call going to music school and being one among so many that are really good at singing." Mabel adds, "It taught me so much about how to sing properly. You have to be so careful with your voice, especially when you're using it every day."
Instead of playing guitar like most of her indie-entranced classmates at Rytmus, Mabel was deeply attached to the piano. Her approach to music has never been what is considered mainstream, but that's exactly what makes Mabel stand out amongst her peers. She's strategic about every move she makes and sees the benefit of fine-tuning the little details to fill out the bigger picture.
Being an authentic version of herself is something else that is extremely important to Mabel; she refers to Rihanna as one of the best examples of defining yourself as an artist. "Whatever she does, she just owns it," says Mabel. "I think it takes time, to get that confidence."
Even though Mabel is in the early stages of her career, she is already thinking about building a lasting musical legacy. (As if you could ever forget that powerful, soulful voice of hers.) This is why she isn't doing too many things at once, especially in other commercial fields. Even though she loves fashion, Mabel is very particular about what clothing brands she chooses to partner with despite what this means in terms of gaining exposure.
"I want to be an artist that grows slowly. If you appear overnight there's a chance that you will also just disappear overnight," she says before biting into a piece of tofu teriyaki. "I think people do want to see the natural evolutions. I don't want to be all over the place with my style and my music, but I am experimenting... People are more forgiving with that than we think, you don't have to pick one thing."
And maybe that's why Mabel feels so indecisive—she knows the only thing limiting her is how far she wants to go.
Mabel's debut Bedroom EP is out now. Learn more about Mabel in the interview, below.
You obviously come from a musical family, but can you recall your earliest memory of music?
It would probably be falling asleep in the studio. I can remember my eyes closing, and it was in my dad's studio, which was in Primrose Hill, not far from where our house was. He was working with The Sugababes at the time, and it was super dark in there, and I remember the bass feeling really nice and being like, "Ahhh, this is great." I loved, really heavy bass; sometimes in the studio, I'm like, "Wow, this makes me sleepy."
Was everyone in your family expecting you to pursue music or did they just let you figure it out for yourself?
I was a super-sensitive kid; I was quite anxious and had a lot of questions. Not that I'm like that necessarily now, but I was quite intelligent. Often when you're a kid and your brain is working faster, your emotional capacity can't really understand things... The best way [my parents] knew how to deal with emotions was through music. My dad was like, "Emotions are an instrument, have something positive as a creative outlet." I learned piano, and then my mom always kept journals... I must have been like five or six when I realized that I could connect the two—my journals could become lyrics.
What's your rollout plan for all of your music?
I have an EP coming and then an album next year. I want to put out as much as possible before the album. It's so hard to actually build a proper fan base, and I want to have true fans. It's been so hard to actually break anywhere these days 'cause there are so many options. There are so many people that want to do what I do. But at the same time, I know that when you do gain fans, they are so loyal and so true. I guess 'cause people have so much to choose from, when they choose a person, they're very, very loyal which is amazing. There are people who have been following me since I started, and I want to make that group bigger, expand, and definitely do more out here [in the U.S.] 'cause I've never really done anything here. I've just worked in the U.K. for the last two years.
When you look at where you want to be as an artist, how do you feel about the term "pop star"?
I believe very strongly you have to be open and honest about what your goals and intentions are—never be embarrassed about what it is that you want. [You have to be] very open about the fact that "I want to be really successful, and I want to sell loads of records, and I'd love to do world tours, and I don't want to be a secret." That's not what I'm trying to do. In terms of [being a] pop star, that would be great if I could do it on my own terms and do it with music that I feel comfortable in owning and calling mine. There are ways to make what you do mainstream rather than tailoring yourself to mainstream. Even though people are afraid to take risks, everybody does want something that's new and unique; it just takes time to finesse that. But yeah, I'd like to be successful in that way.
Can you tell me about your Bedroom EP?
I wanted to have a small body of work out, something that tells a story. Now it's very much like "single, single, single, single," but I think it's nice to just put work out that's cohesive. I wrote them all, so one track leads to another which is a way that I've never really worked before. I wrote "Finders Keepers" first, and then "Bedroom," and then "Ride Or Die" and "Talk About Forever." It's about taking control, the whole EP. All the songs in a different way were about me. They're all kind of relationship songs—I've been in two long-term relationships since I was 15 and I think it was about me finding who I was in those relationships. It's very hard when you're young to grow individually without growing apart and especially as a woman, it's important that you don't lose yourself in what somebody else is or the person that you're with, what they are. When I got out of my last relationship, it all just poured out of me.
I wanted [the EP] to be fun, too. I wanted to write a song that my friends and I can dance to. It's funny because now that ["Finders Keepers"] is out in the U.K. and it plays in clubs, it's amazing that that's actually become a reality. We do actually go out and dance to it now. "Bedroom" is a bit darker but it has a nice aptitude. As a female, I think, Why can't we speak in the same way as a man can? Even in other things, but on the album—I'm not a rapper, but why can't I sing and say things that rappers do? It's funny how people react, they're like, "Oh my god." I play it to my friends sometimes, and they're like, "That was a bit harsh," and I'm like, "Yeah, but that's just because it's me." I think the EP is a mixture between private, serious relationship stuff and fun. The EP was fun, it was a quick process writing it. I think breakups are the best and the worst, but they're the best essentially.
Outside of writing music, what is your go-to breakup routine?
I always clean out my whole room. I say "always," but the two times I've been through big breakups, I cleaned out everything. Not even his stuff necessarily, it's just I like to be focused. I think it's important that the space you spend a lot of time in be cleansed. I love burning my sage... Mainly writing music, it's my favorite time to spend in the studio. Sometimes I'm like, "Do I put myself in crazy situations to have something to write about?"
I've been trying to find the balance over the last couple of years. I spend most of my time working, but it's not really work. I feel so lucky, not many 21-year-olds get to wake up and do what they want to do every day. A lot of my friends either go to uni or have jobs that they don't necessarily like. I feel incredibly lucky. Finding a balance between work and living, because if I don't live, then I don't have stuff to write about. It's happened a few times where I've just been working, working, traveling, and I'm like, "How much do people really want to hear a song about me working?" Then I have to take a week off or something to do normal stuff. That's what we want to do when we listen to music. That's what I want to do, I want to relate to what the artist is saying and in order for it to be relatable you kind of have to be relatable.
Tell me about your style evolution. I've noticed it's full of a lot of throwbacks...
Other than music, [fashion] is my only other way of expression, really. I love that I can wake up in the morning and determine how people are going to see me. Depending on my mood, people could see me differently. That is sick. I feel like I sort of caught on to that power when I was really young. I was eccentric as a kid with my outfits. My mom would be like, "Where are you going in this insane outfit? Where did you come from?" I'm not afraid. If you know who you are, you can experiment with different styles and still look like you.
I feel comfortable wearing dresses, but then I love being more of a tomboy some days. Aaliyah is one of my big style icons 'cause she was so sexy on her own terms. So many people define sexy as wearing those little dresses and heels, which is cool if that is genuinely what makes you sexy, but I don't think it's the only way to be sexy. I love mixing heels with trousers or a tracksuit and then dresses with trainers. When it comes to designers, I like mixing it with really cheap stuff from the market near my house. My mom really taught me that as well, she's so good at mixing vintage with new. It wouldn't be very me to wear a full Fendi look. I think style is more than that and you can look so good for no money at all. Sometimes you see really rich people, and you're like, "This isn't working."
I'm always loving your denim on denim looks.
Denim on denim on denim. Oh my god, it's the best. I've actually loved it since I was a kid. I was wearing two different types of denim, and someone was like, "What's happening? Is this a thing?" I was like, "Yes! You can wear different types of denim together. Oh my god, what is wrong with you?"
I'm glad that tracksuits are back, but I hope that people show it respect.
To me, it's still so tragic that women's tracksuits aren't better in 2017. I buy men's tracksuits, but then you have that problem with like the little awful dick area. Why are women's tracksuits still pink and have weird fits? A lot of them are really tight but really low-wasted. I buy a lot of menswear. If I were ever to design anything I think I'd make like a line of really stylish women's tracksuits, like velour ones... I love the classic Adidas, the ones that were silk with the poppers down the side. I'd love to bring those back... I love a stylish tracksuit with heels.
That's my new club look now.
I literally only wear tracksuit bottoms, and then I put my grill on.
I did notice grills are making a comeback this year...
Massive comeback. I got mine done in Paris. I literally use them constantly. I'm way too gassed about the grill and whenever I wear them I'm like "Teeth everywhere." People are like, "You never smile this much, you have a resting bitch face."