'I always set the bar high': Mabel - The Music Week interview

Great expectations: Mabel, photographed for Music Week in London, June 2019

Currently lighting up charts worldwide, Mabel is an international superstar in the making. Here, to mark the release of her debut album High Expectations, we meet a singer/songwriter aiming for the stars...

The iconic neon screens of Piccadilly Circus have showcased world famous advertisers such as Coca-Cola, Samsung and Hyundai for generations. But in May, they made way for a 23-year-old from London – temporarily, at least.

Mabel received the unique honour of having her face emblazoned across the UK’s best-known billboard by the good people at YouTube Music after being named the streaming service’s first UK Artist On The Rise (she has close to 500,000 fans on the platform). Not bad for an act yet to release a studio album...

“To have that recognition at home is just so exciting,” smiles Mabel. “I guess it’s moments like that when you stop and think, ‘Oh my God, things are really sick’ because I have a tendency to score a goal and then move the goalposts, rather than celebrate the goal. I’m just like, ‘OK, I’ve got that, now I want this', which I think is good – but it’s important to have those moments.”

Mabel McVey, to give the Spanish-born star her full name, is growing accustomed to such acclaim. Nominated for Best British Breakthrough at the 2019 BRIT Awards, she has scored two Top 10 singles to date, sold out O2 Academy Brixton and performed to a TV audience of millions on The Graham Norton Show.

Garnering a mighty 18.4 million monthly listeners, Mabel ranks 115th in the world on Spotify. She released silver-certified mixtape Ivy To Roses (69,700 sales, OCC) in 2017 and has built up a solid social media base (583,000 followers on Instagram and 107,000 on Twitter). All of which bodes well for her forthcoming debut LP, the boldly-titled High Expectations, out via Polydor on August 2.

“I’m so ready for people to hear it,” the singer/songwriter tells Music Week. “I’ve been working on it for about two-and-a-half years and I can’t wait for people to make the songs their own. They’re very personal to me, but as soon as you put a song out it belongs to everybody else in a nice way and I can’t wait for that to happen with this album.”

The daughter of singer Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey, the roots of Mabel’s breakthrough can be traced back four years. First on the scene was BMG, which raced to sign her to a publishing deal in 2015.

“She was quite understated, but you could tell there was a steely ambition there,” remembers Hugo Turquet, BMG’s SVP, publishing A&R. “I also publish her mum, her dad and her brother [ex-Mattafix frontman Marlon Roudette], so there was a family connection. That sometimes puts you off, because you wonder if you are meeting them just because they’re in the family. But I was struck by her songwriting, which I thought was really strong.

“What I’ve been astounded by is how her talent has grown; she’s got real ambition, resolve and stamina and a great work ethic, coupled with outstanding talent and vision.”

Polydor joined the fray soon after, having been drawn in by a demo version of Mabel’s debut track, Know Me Better, co-written with Athlete frontman and BMG songwriter Joel Pott.

“She walked into my old office back in Kensington High Street – I don’t miss that place! And she had a great vibe about her,” remarks Polydor co-president Ben Mortimer. “I loved that song, Know Me Better, so much. There was no hype around it, she’d maybe had one play on Toddla T’s Radio 1 show, but I just really liked her.

“[Know Me Better] wasn’t even on DSPs and I don’t even know if she had an Instagram at that point. The mind boggles when you think about how much has changed in the last four years.”

For Mabel, signing with a major label was a no-brainer.

“That had just always been my dream,” she admits. “I was like, ‘If we can do all our ideas out-of-house and then come in and have an amazing team around us to make those a reality, then the bigger, the better’. So I never was afraid of it.

“I wouldn’t say to everybody, ‘Sign to a major, it will make you successful’. That’s not necessarily the case. But for me, it works.”

The missing piece in the puzzle was Metallic Management co-founder Radha Medar, who bonded with Mabel when the singer appeared in Skepta’s Shutdown video.

“She was like, ‘I don’t have any management, do you want to work with me?’,” recalls Medar, who was then part of Skepta’s backroom team. “I thought about it and decided that the best thing to do would be to just hang out, because I didn’t know her and it’s weird trying to manage someone that you don’t know or have some kind of rapport with.

“I could see she was smart and knew what she wanted from the first time I met her, but she had trouble articulating how she wanted the music to be. One of the first things I did was ask her to send me music that she liked, and I thought there was a little bit of a disconnect [between that and] what she was putting out. I liked her previous songs, but it wasn’t something that I naturally swayed towards. I thought it was a bit too mature and that she should be making music for younger people.”

She continues: “One of the first times that we met, she played me about 20 songs. There were two that I loved, and one was Finders Keepers. I was like, ‘This is the song that you should work on’.

“We decided to make an EP, but I didn’t want to be the new manager coming in saying, ‘This is the new sound and this is what we need to do’, so I just said, ‘Let’s put Finders Keepers as track two’,” notes Medar. “We had another single [Bedroom] as the first track, and then it just grew and grew.”

Finders Keepers, which featured rapper Kojo Funds, became Mabel’s breakout hit, peaking at No.8 in late 2017, and has sold just shy of a million copies in the UK, according to the Official Charts Company. The track represented a turning point not just commercially, but in musical direction.

“At the time, the UK afrobeat scene was kicking off with Kojo Funds, Not3s and loads of other artists, but I noticed there were no females and I thought [Finders Keepers] sonically fitted within that genre,” explains Medar. “One of the first things Mabel told me is that she wants to sell millions of records and win Grammys and BRITs. And in my head I was like, ‘OK, well you need to let people know where you come from’. Cementing yourself within a culture, from my point of view, is the best way to do that.

“For me, it was important to make Mabel part of a culture and a scene that was growing because when I met her she was kind of on an island by herself – she was this kid whose mum was Neneh Cherry and her dad was Cameron McVey. My goal was to change people’s perception of her, and the tagline of her mum and dad has disappeared because the music has come to the fore of who she is.”

The hits have continued to pile up for Mabel, with her Not3s collaborations My Lover and Fine Line and Jax Jones’ link-up Ring Ring all charting inside the Top 20 in 2018. With her No.3 smash Don’t Call Me Up (712,568 sales), however, she has reached a new plateau.

“If Don’t Call Me Up had been her first single she wouldn’t be the way she is now,” suggests Medar. “She understands the process and the work ethic. A lot of people think that she’s used to it because of who her parents are, but it’s even harder for her to break out and be her own person because [of that]. People will think she’s had it handed to her on a plate, but it really hasn’t been like that. She has worked so hard for it and I’ve witnessed that every day.”

Penned with ace hitmakers Steve Mac and Camille ‘Kamille’ Purcell (the trio reunited to write Mabel’s latest single Mad Love), Don’t Call Me Up’s impact has reverberated overseas.

“Europe, Australia, Canada – it’s been a genuine global hit record and has made massive strides for her even in America, where it’s been Top 20 in the airplay chart,” beams Mortimer. “This is her moment to do it around the rest of the world.”

Mabel’s international breakthrough has been very much by design, reveals Medar. “Once she had a few hits in the UK, the next step was, ‘How do we break her out of the country?’,” she explains. “So that’s when we put her in with Steve Mac and Camille Purcell. Before that, Mabel wasn’t ready because, when I first met her, she was used to writing with the same three people and I was like, ‘You need to break out of this’. But it’s about her feeling comfortable and writing with who she wants to write with to build her confidence.”

Speaking of confidence, that ballsy album title has raised a few eyebrows. “I did say, ‘Mabe, you don’t want to set yourself up too much here’,” laughs Mortimer. “But that’s just her character – it feels very her.”

“I put pressure on everything,” nods Mabel. “I’m like that, for better or for worse. I always set the bar high and I wanted to write about that. It is something that has always been a massive part of my life and of who I am.”

Making her second appearance on the Music Week cover (she first featured in our 2018 new artists issue), we catch up with Mabel at BMG’s offices in Paddington for a frank exchange on hitmaking, mental health and high expectations...

You’ve worked on the album for more than two years. Has it felt like a grind or has the time flown by?

“Both. It is really difficult making an album, especially the kind of album that I knew I wanted to make. It wasn’t just a bunch of songs that I chucked onto a project, it was about making something cohesive. Figuring out the story I wanted to tell took time and that was frustrating at first. I remember feeling, ‘This is taking way too long’, but then I wrote the song High Expectations. I say it took two-and-a-half years because that is how long I have technically been making it, but I think all of my best songs came last year. Something happened musically for me – I sort of let go.”

Have there been many setbacks along the way?

“There have been difficult moments, I don’t know if I’d call them setbacks because I feel that, with anything bad or frustrating that’s ever happened, we always come out stronger on the other side. But as I said before, making an album can be really difficult and there were moments where I was like, ‘I don’t know if it’s ever going to be finished’ and, ‘Is it going to be good?’, and, ‘Will anybody care?’ All those things that people worry about when they’re making an album. I’m very autobiographical in my writing and I did get to a point last year when I was just like, ‘I don’t know if I can talk about my feelings anymore’ because you’re picking at old wounds every day and talking about things which you think are over but are actually still quite painful, especially when I was writing my song OK (Anxiety Anthem). Days like that are really difficult. Sometimes I feel like you lose your clarity and then somehow, magically, it comes back and you are stronger than you were before. There isn’t anything else I’d want to do – I have no other skills! So it is definitely worth it.”

How do your songs usually take shape?

“Eight times out of 10, I go into the studio with an idea. I often go into the booth with a small idea and will freestyle, which comes from working with rappers – just that stream of consciousness. I used to be so afraid of making mistakes, but then I realised that’s when all the best stuff happens. Co-writing’s magical. I could sit at home and write a song by myself and that’s how lots of songs start. But there is something amazing about a co-write because you all look at things differently so the song is going to get taken somewhere that you couldn’t take it yourself. Doing loads of sessions has made me a stronger songwriter and artist because I always try to learn something from every person that I work with.”

What have you learned about the music business so far?

“That you have to be really strong about your vision because people will always have an opinion and if you let too many people in around you, you will have 100 different opinions. That’s fine, as long as you know what you want. I have a strong team and it’s very collaborative because we know what we want and I know what my goals are. But it’s dangerous going into the business if you’re a bit like, ‘Oh I just want to do music and I don’t really know’. That’s what my first year of being in the business was like and I was broken after that year. It was right before I met my manager, because I was a bit unsure in figuring out who I was. Other people’s opinions were getting pushed on me and I just didn’t know who I was.”

Did you ever ask your parents for advice?

“They never ever tried give me any advice, other than to just be myself, because I have to make my own mistakes and I never wanted to work with them because it’s just my mum and dad. I never cared what other people thought about them being my parents, I can’t help it. I just ended up doing music because it was around. I don’t make music like them or with them. When they come to my shows and listen to my music they come as my mum and dad, not as an artist and a producer.”

What was it like growing up with two musical parents?

“When you’re a kid, you’re just a kid [but] I now feel very lucky to have grown up around creatives, because I suffered from lots of anxiety and depression. Everybody has their moments, but I think creatives maybe identify it in a different way and my parents recognised that in me from a young age. My mum would always say, ‘It’s your superpower, you can make music or art out of it’ and encouraged me to express myself. That’s why I started playing, because they were like, ‘You’ll feel much better if you’re expressing yourself’. I just feel so lucky that was my parents’ approach because I know lots of people that haven’t grown up in an environment where it was OK not to feel OK.”

Have you felt supported by the industry in that regard?

“I have felt supported, but only when I started being vocal about it. I guess I felt quite embarrassed for many years about having mental health days – being low, feeling anxious and getting scared. There was a day last year, which was a very important moment for the album, when I had a session booked with MNEK and an amazing Swedish writer called Maria Hazell. Even though I love writing with both of them, I remember just waking up and feeling like I couldn’t go because I was really low and anxious. I was like, ‘Either I cancel the session, or I go and pretend that I’m OK’. But I realised that, actually, I didn’t have to choose – that I could just go and not be OK. So I went to the session and I said to MNEK that I realise it’s OK not to be OK. And he was like, ‘That’s it! That’s the song!’ Since then, so many people I’d never think would have those issues have come out and said the same thing to me and I feel like I have a responsibility now to talk about it. In terms of the business, I have a strong team around me, so when I am feeling low it’s just about being honest with them.”

What about social media, is that more of a help or a hindrance?

“Social media is a lot of pressure. I go through phases of being obsessed with it – more before than now – but it does become a thing because I feel like it’s part of my job that I should be posting every day. But then you realise that, actually, sometimes it’s important to step away from it. Obviously, there are a lot of negatives to [social media], but the positives outweigh the negatives because I get to have a direct conversation with my fans in a way that wasn’t possible before. I get loads of [messages] about Don’t Call Me Up from girls saying, ‘I broke up with my boyfriend because of the song’. And I can literally reply to them and be like, ‘That’s sick. I love you. Stay strong’. They are my support system in a way. It’s a reason to carry on whenever I feel low. They just make me so happy.”

How important has your manager, Radha, been in your journey?

“I wouldn’t be where I am without her. Sometimes it takes somebody else to believe in you before you believe in yourself and she was that person for me. Musically, I hadn’t really worked it out and having a manager that is so gifted musically – she used to be in A&R – is priceless. We make a lot of musical decisions together.”

Was there a moment where it felt like you’d broken through?

“Finders Keepers, for me, was that moment. I lacked a lot of confidence before and that song was me. I don’t regret the music before then because it’s all a part of the journey, but that was the first song where I was just like, ‘This is who I am and the artist that I want to be’.”

And Don’t Call Me Up has taken things to a new level?

“It was like when Finders Keepers blew, but times 100, because it went international. I remember thinking it was definitely a good song when we wrote it and it was definitely different. As an artist, you always have to think of ways to reinvent yourself without changing who you are, but it is terrifying putting something different out because you’ll always get people that preferred [the music you made before]. Right before I wrote Don’t Call Me Up, I had got to a point where I was quite frustrated with songwriting; I knew there was something bubbling, but I hadn’t quite figured out what it was. When we wrote Don’t Call Me Up it was obvious that, ‘This is that moment’. I heard it on the radio in America for the first time a couple of months ago. I think we were in Chicago, and I was like, ‘That’s so wild’. I’ve always wanted to speak to as many different people as possible, all around the world.”

You’re clearly very ambitious…

“Yeah, I’ve never been afraid to say that. I want to be as big as possible. I think you have to speak these things into existence and I work hard every single day because I want to be a global artist. I’m already living the dream, so if I could carry on just making music, doing shows and singing about things that people relate to then I’ll be very happy. Obviously, I want it to grow; I want to play arenas and have No.1s and all of that but, if I carry on working hard, hopefully those things will come.”

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