She’s R&B’s Brightest star, but who is Mabel McVey once the music’s switched off? Natalie Ticehurst finds out…

Singer Mabel among neon lights

Photo: Dan kennedy

Destiny’s Child Survivor and Girl were the tracks I grew up listening to, so I think it was drilled into me from a young age that I don’t need a man to make me happy,’ says Spanish-born, Stockholm-raised singer-songwriter Mabel McVey. ‘I thought it was an important message for me to carry on throughout my music,’ she adds, between sips of honeyed Earl Grey tea, on the set of our neon-themed festival shoot.

Indeed, at the age of 23, Mable is very much generation Independent Women: career-focused, driven, too busy making music to be distracted by arbitary society-prescribed ‘goals’. Take her lyrics, ‘Truth is, without you boy, I’m stronger’, from Don’t Call Me Up, her biggest chart topper to date – the track hit No3 in the UK Charts – and ‘I got a warning for you, don’t play me at this, I never lose’ from Fine Line. Whether it’s bouncing back from a breakup wiser (and hotter), or unapologetically asserting boundaries, her hits are empowering in word and tone.

Her debut album, High Expectations – the project she’s been perfecting for the past two years – sees a departure from the R&B corner she carved out for herself at the start of her career. ‘I’m always trying to push myself, to surprise people,’ she reflects. ‘I don’t want people to think, “Oh, she’s changed,” but, rather, “Wow, she can do that, too.”’

It’s a characteristic seemingly woven into the DNA of the greats – retaining relevancy not just with talent, but through the art of reincarnation. Mabel might be young, and her melodies might be of the moment, but she’s in it for the long haul.

‘I want to sell more records, tour the world and have my music heard by as many people as possible. I work hard every day to try and get there,’ she explains. ‘Making an album isn’t a process that can be rushed. I didn’t want to fling a bunch of tracks together, I wanted it to have a narrative and to make it with quite a tight group of people. That takes time,’ states the singer who started writing music at the age of just five.

Mabel is, and has always been, a perfectionist. A self-confessed loner, it’s unsurprising she tightened her circle – which includes her brother, Mattafix singer Marlon Roudette, and best friend, songwriter Kelly Kiara – to perfect her art. Softly spoken and self-reflective when we meet, the star isn’t afraid to discuss her tumultuous internal world, sharing the story of how she used music to turn her anxiety from foe to friend – and then to superpower. ‘It’s something I’m really open about. I think my biggest struggle is that I’ve always been so ashamed and embarrassed by it,’ she says. ‘About a year ago, I realised I’m probably going to have anxiety my whole life. Some days can be good and some days bad, but if I tell people how I’m feeling, that helps the problem. Sometimes you just need to be with your feelings,’ she adds.

‘I also think I have a responsibility, as a young woman with a lot of young followers, to be honest about myself. It’s easy to look at someone on social media and be, like, “Your life is perfect. You’re wearing this and you’re going here. How could you ever be sad?” I do feel sad sometimes. Some days are really hard. It’s really important people know that about me.’

Mabel’s found power in honesty, a quiet confidence that comes from owning the things she once wished she could change. ‘When I started performing, I had the worst stage fright, to the point when I would throw up sometimes,’ she shares. ‘I hadn’t quite found myself as a person, and when you don’t really know yourself and you’re on stage in front of a lot of people, you feel naked.

‘Now I’m confident as a person, a writer and an artist, I feel happy to go up there and show people who I am because it’s taken me such a long time to get here. I still feel the nerves and there’s always pressure, but that’s what I live for.’

Set to spend the summer jumping from gig to festival and back again, Mabel’s managed to cut through the noise surrounding the male-dominated line-ups. ‘Of course, it’s an issue. It needs to improve drastically,’ she asserts.

mabel mcvey with colourful background

Photo: Dan kennedy

‘The important thing is that we’re talking about it and making a difference. There are so many talented female artists out there, we all deserve to be seen and heard. I’m always trying to do my best to big up other female artists, whether that’s on tour with them or writing with them. It’s very important.’

Does some of this fearlessness come from her mother? It’s impossible not to talk about her heritage. Daughter of 90s icon Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey, granddaughter of American jazz musician Don Cherry and niece of Eagle-Eye Cherry of Save Tonight fame, Mabel’s is a musical dynasty. ‘My mum is fantastic, and I love her so much. She is and always has been such an icon for so many women around the world. When I think about what she was doing at the age she was doing it – like dressing the way she did in the 80s and 90s – she was breaking all the rules. I think, wow, she did that not only for herself but for so many other women.’

But does Neneh’s musical-shaped, fiercely feminist shadow make her nervous? ‘Obviously there’s pressure, but the only person who can pressure you is yourself. You can’t help who your parents are. It’s never been about them, I’ve always worked by myself and driven my own path. I happened to become a musician and that’s it really.’

It’s been a slow process for the singer, but from her videos  to her performances, her rising confidence is clear. ‘I think I lacked a lot of confidence  growing up but making the

album has done a lot for that. It’s the whole self-exploration journey. Writing about myself has made me look at myself from every angle and I’m happy with what’s there. I think that’s what’s given me the most confidence.

‘Body confidence is a journey I’m still on, though,’ she says. ‘You have to put the work in to love your body and you have to appreciate it because it does a lot for you. Even though there are things I could get hung up on, I’m proud of it. My stage outfits have changed a lot and that’s a reflection of becoming comfortable in my skin.

‘There’s great power in deciding on how you want people to perceive you using clothes. I wake up some days and feel really rubbish, so I’m like, OK, I feel my worst, so I’m going to look my best and wear something really extra so everyone will look at me. And then some days, I feel I wouldn’t want anyone to look at me and feel just as sexy in a tracksuit as I would a dress.’

Confidence up, album ready to be released, Mabel is set to have a very big summer. ‘Obviously I know that putting yourself out there and giving people the right to sort of judge you in a way comes with the job,’ she reflects. ‘It’s been difficult to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to like you and that’s OK. I think positives and love always outweigh the hate.’

Mabel’s debut album High Expectations is out 2 August. She’s touring the UK this summer and playing at South West Four 2019 festival on 24-25 August.