Music interview '“ Mabel: '˜I think the UK is making the best hip-hop and R&B in the world right now'

For an artist embarking on her first tour of Europe's arenas, Mabel McVey sounds remarkably relaxed.

Mabel. Picture: Tom Oldham
Mabel. Picture: Tom Oldham

The 22-year-old is playing a string of dates as support act for Harry Styles when the YEP catches up with her. Next week she will be headlining a UK tour of her own.

“The first couple of shows were pretty intense before I went onstage, because you never know what to expect, but now I’m starting to feel pretty comfortable,” she says, noting that things have been made easier by the fact that the former One Direction singer has “got really lovely fans who are just excited”.

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The UK tour will be her second as headliner – and she’s looking forward to it.

Mabel has clocked up three top 20 hits in the UK.

“Any show is fun but it’s extra exciting obviously when you know that everybody is there to see you,” she says. “It’s a really good feeling.”

Over the past 12 months things have stepped up a gear for Mabel.

The top 10 success of her single Finders Keepers, she says, “has changed my life a lot for the better”.

“It’s been really exciting watching it and feeling it happen. You never really know when things are going to blow. It’s never like ‘OK in six months I’m going to be really successful’. It doesn’t really work that way. It was such a surprise having my first top 10 record. It was just the best feeling.”

Mabel has clocked up three top 20 hits in the UK.

She feels grateful for having had a couple of years to develop as an artist rather than being plunged straight into stardom when her first single, Know Me Better, was released in 2015.

“It’s been incredibly useful as an artist and just as a person,” she says. “I was super young when I started putting out music. I’m so happy that I’ve had time to adjust and grow as a person and as an artist [work out] what is it that I really want to say, what is it that I want to do, what style of music do I want to make. I’m really lucky that I’ve had time to do that.”

In her childhood Mabel – the daughter of singer Neneh Cherry and producer Cameron McVey – lived in Spain, Sweden and the US before settling in London. Such a background has affected her approach to music, she acknowledges.

“I’m happy that I have all these different places that I can draw inspiration from,” she says. “That’s really incredible.

“But in general songwriting comes from everywhere – things my friends are going through, things I’m going through. That’s what it is for me – it’s like journalling.”

Mabel’s own musical schooling came from 90s and turn-of-the-Millennium R&B. She believes the strong independent messages of Destiny’s Child, in particular, had an effect on her own lyrical outlook.

“I feel really lucky I grew up in that age of songwriting and it passed on a lot of positivity about independence for me,” she says.

“Without being ‘OK, I’m going to be this role model or whatever’ – that just becomes too much pressure when you start thinking like that. I do definitely think ‘OK, how do I want other young women to feel or maybe girls who are younger than me. How did my favourite female artists feel and how can I send similar positivity to listeners?’”

Writing Finders Keepers opened new musical possibilities, she feels.

“It changed my sound a lot and it’s a massively important part of how the record’s sounding now. When I wrote that it fell into place, for sure.

“I sort of found my uptempo voice with that – whereas before I definitely struggled with that. I was never going to make straight-ahead pop, four-to-the-floor, and I was never going to make house. Writing Finders Keepers helped me figure out how I can exist in that world, how my records can get played in clubs, how it can exist in an uptempo space without sounding like it’s not me.”

Fine Line and My Lover, two collaborations with east London rapper Not3s, have also made the top 20. Mabel says the experience of working with Kojo Funds on Finders Keepers (“His verse contributed so much to that record”) inspired her to seek out other to collaborate with. “I was just waiting for the right person and then Not3s released a couple of records so I reached out to him and said ‘Would you like to come into the studio?’ It was that simple.”

She doesn’t discount the idea that they might work together again in future. “I think it’s nice to think about collaborations as a long-term thing,” she says. “That’s such a 90s thing with the likes of J-Lo and LL Cool J and Aaliyah and Timberland, and it’s nice that you meet somebody and find that fire and it’s easy to collaborate and you find that chemistry to keep it going, so yeah, maybe, but not right now.”

Having also recently worked with Raye and Stefflon Don, Mabel feels the British R&B scene is currently in a really healthy place. “The way we talk about the 90s as being the best for R&B I feel like we’ll look back in 10 or 15 years and think of the British or UK R&B and hip-hop scene [of today] as being amazing. I think we’re making the best hip-hop and R&B in the world right now and that everybody’s looking at us, and we’re all encouraging each other and each other’s tunes. It feels like a really positive time.”

Work continues on Mabel’s debut album with JD Reid, Kelly Kiara and MNEK. “I write a bit at home. A lot of choruses and hooks will come from just me messing about on my own but collaborating has been very important for the album, taking things into a safe space. The people I write with are essentially my family. Going back and forth and making stuff together is what I’ve had the best results with.”

It could come out this year but she says: “I’m not rushing at all. It will happen when it happens. I’m still so young. I work super hard and momentum’s very important but the most important thing for me is that the album isn’t just a collection of songs. If I wanted to do that I would just put out another mixtape, but now I’m working on my debut album, for me you can’t rush that.”

Mabel plays at The Wardrobe on April 18.