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April 2020

Mabel: High expectations

She's ripping up the airwaves with banger after banger, and has just dropped a debut album of top bops. Meet UK pop's next big superstar.
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Published: 10:24 am, September 12, 2019Words: Jake Hawkes.
Mabel: High expectations

Mabel Alabama Pearl McVey, better known simply as Mabel, is fast approaching the point where she needs no introduction. Two Brit nominations, two platinum singles and a sold-out date at Brixton point towards superstar status, especially when it's all happened before she's even released her debut album.

This meteoric rise has been accompanied by a massive to-do list as the 23-year-old singer keeps pushing to capitalise on her success. When we catch up with her over the phone, she's en route to the airport for a flight to Asia and clearly about to jump into another meeting afterwards.

"I'm very ambitious," she explains when asked about her tendency to juggle a hundred things at once. "I'm willing to do anything to get to where I need to be, and even though I get tired sometimes, I always put it into perspective. It's never a question of whether I'm going to put in the work, it's just a matter of figuring out the best way to do it. As soon as I score, the goalposts move, and that's how I like it."

She talks quickly and with enthusiasm, latching onto topics and going into detail without any hesitation. "I just try to make it as fun as possible," she says, referencing the parts of her job that don't involve music. "For me, that means having my family around and bringing my friends out as much as I can, but also just throwing myself into every aspect of it, it's a fun job, so why not enjoy it?"

"I'm willing to do anything to get to where I need to be"

When conversation turns to ‘High Expectations', her debut, her excitement is clear. "I've been looking forward to releasing it for so long!" she laughs. "I've been working on it for about two years, and it's absolutely been my baby. I can't wait for people to hear what I've been up to, it's been such a special process."

"Mixtapes and albums are so different," she continues, drawing the distinction between ‘High Expectations' and 2017's ‘Ivy to Roses'. "Mixtapes to me are more of a ‘here you go, here are some tunes I've made' whereas to me an album needs to tell a story and have ups and downs and different nuances. I'm 100% an album person at heart, so it's really important to me that I've made something which feels like a proper album and not just a bunch of tracks that have been thrown onto a project."

Although it's only been a couple of years, the road to ‘High Expectations' hasn't been a simple one, with Mabel taking time to make sure she knew what she wanted before the recording started.

"After I wrote 'Finders Keepers', that's when it all began falling into place," she says, trying to pinpoint the moment she started working on the album. "Then I wrote the title-track, which is the intro and the outro, in the summer of 2017, and that was when it really clicked. I just remember being there and thinking ‘that's it, that's the story'. It says everything about me, and it was what made me feel ready to start making the record properly.

"A lot of it was just figuring out the story and finding my voice, which really happened with ‘Finders Keepers'. From there it was just working out what moments to put on there and what songs I wanted to write, which was helped massively by the amazing team of people I have around me who all helped make it become a reality."

While these are things that most artists need to work through when writing their debut, Mabel did have one other issue: the anticipation from the millions of people that have already heard her massive pre-album efforts. Her response? Just ignore the hype and work twice as hard.

"The only person that can pressure me is myself," she says with conviction. "I just focus on making good music and making things that make me happy and make me and my friends dance and smile. Worrying about what other people are going to think or whether my previous success will be a barrier isn't something that's worth doing, because it can get in the way of making something that could be great. I think if you're trying to please everybody, you're just gonna fail. I can't be everybody's cup of tea.

"For me, the album was all about making sure all of the songs made people feel confident and good about themselves," she continues. "I lacked a lot of confidence growing up, and the message I wanted to put across is if you ever felt like you weren't enough, then you are. By the end of the album I'd pieced myself back together, and I was feeling more confident than I ever had, and it was important to me that people listening feel that about themselves as well.

"We've got those fun, upbeat sappy love songs and I want everyone to be feeling themselves during those, then towards the end, there's the track 'OK' which has a really strong message – the whole album is just about making people feel good about themselves."

"Anxiety is something that's been present and with me for my whole life"

'OK (Anxiety Anthem)' is one of the track's Mabel feels strongest about, even if it was one of the hardest to write. "It was a hard one because anxiety is something that's been present and with me for my whole life. It was difficult to figure out how to write a song about that without it being negative, and I didn't feel like I could make it positive because of how negative I felt about it until last year.

"Writing that song made me realise that bad days are cool and I just need to let go of this idea of perfection and being happy at all times and just deal with the bad days as they come. It's helped me get to the point where I don't feel embarrassed anymore, and I don't think anyone else should, either. Sometimes it'd hard to just process those emotions, and I think figuring out how to say that took me years. I tried it many times because as an artist I'm open, and I'm honest about my relationships and things that I'm going through, so I knew I had to have the song on my debut album otherwise it wouldn't be complete."

"'Finder's Keepers' was an important moment, too," she says, thinking back on key points in the album's development. "Apart from everything else, it made me part of such and important family musically, and the UK R&B and hip-hop scene has been vital for me and my coming up as an artist. I've got so many people to thank, Kojo Funds, Not3s, and so many other people saw me before I had any commercial success and gave me that boost.

"The UK scene is still massively important to me, and it's not something I ever intend to leave behind. I think we've always made great music here, but there's this honesty in the lyrics now, and it isn't overly glossy, so I feel like it's really connecting. Even the production can be quite playful and not take itself too seriously, which is great. On the flipside of that, there are some incredibly serious and hard-hitting tunes coming out of here, but they're all linked by how real they all are. That's what we're good at, being real."

What stands out when talking to Mabel is her obvious love for music across genres, something that shines in her music and sets her apart from a lot of her contemporaries. She's quick to credit her family for her varied taste. "My siblings were a lot older than me, so I just used to listen to whatever they were listening to because I wanted to be part of the gang," she laughs. "Whatever they loved, I wanted to love – so it's a good thing they had great taste in music!"

"Growing up it was mostly R&B," she continues, reeling off names of her childhood idols. "TLC, Lauryn Hill, Destiny's Child, Pharrell Williams, all of those artists had a big impact on me, but I could've ended up doing anything really.

"The decision to make music was very much mine; it wasn't like anyone forced me or guided me on that path," she says, referencing her parents, Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey. "There were instruments around, and studios around but my parents were always like ‘if you wanna use them, use them, but if you don't, don't'. They didn't really care; they more cared about making sure I was happy and making sure I ended up doing something I loved.

"Obviously it's inspiring seeing them do their work and watching them perform and write, but it wasn't a thing where we ever worked together, or I was ever pushed that way. Now I'm getting more successful I've ended up doing so much other stuff more than I make music anyway," she laughs again. "It's mad because I spend so much time promoting tunes that I haven't had much of a chance to get into the studio in a while. As someone that writes every day, it takes some getting used to. It's tough as well because one of the reasons I started singing was because that was an easier way to say things for me, and now I'm having to figure out how to do interviews and say all of this stuff, but I think I'm alright at it." She pauses, before jokingly asking: "What do you think? Am I doing ok?"

After reassurances that it's all going well, she immediately bounces onto the next topic, in full flow and keen to keep moving. "When the album's out I've already decided that the next few months are gonna be an experimental phase for me, figuring out what I want the next album to be about and just figuring out where I'm going. That probably means less studio time, but I'm definitely going to go straight into making another record, one way or another."

Is maintaining that momentum and pushing onwards hard, especially in a male-dominated industry? "Definitely," she answers without hesitation. "But I'm a positive person, and I think if we all talk about the fact that it is harder for us, then that's a massive start. I'm always trying to encourage other female artists to work together and tour together – things like that are the most important thing to me, being positive and king to each other. I just put my head down and work as hard as I can, it's what's got me this far."

Taken from the September issue of Dork. Mabel's debut album 'High Expectations' is out now.

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