With three top ten singles also in the bank, the then 24-year-old singer had capped a night of triumph with an impressive performance of her signature tune Don’t Call Me Up.
Yet, in its immediate aftermath she felt “completely lost personally” and was secretly planning a hiatus. Then the pandemic kicked in, and changed everything.
Two years later, she finds herself preparing to release her second album, About Last Night... in thankfully a happier place. The fanfare surrounding its release seems distinctly modest as Mabel has recalibrated her notions of success.
“I think I will feel true success literally when it’s just out there,” she says via Zoom. “I’ve stuck by my guns and I’ve done what’s made me happy and I’ve worried less about what people thought and about the numbers.
“To me that’s a massive achievement because I’m such a people-pleaser and actually I’ve just been like, I don’t care if it’s not getting the same (attention). Of course, there have been moments when I’ve been comparing it to Don’t Call Me Up and (thinking) why isn’t this happening? But at the same time I’ve just put one foot in front of the other and been honest about it.
“It’s an important chapter of my life and I want people to hear it. I think literally putting it out, that’s success.”
Looking back to 2019 and the start of 2020, she considers that “nothing could ever prepare you for being that busy and travelling and getting comments online”. “It’s a lot to adjust to at any age,” she says, “but also I’m in my twenties and still growing as a person and figuring a lot of things out at the same time as being in the spotlight.
“It was so great in so many ways and I’m so happy and grateful that I got to experience that, but it was just a lot, and I think particularly I wasn’t ready for people’s opinions about me. It knocked my confidence massively, to the point where I wasn’t finding work fun, it was just difficult, and I needed a minute, I think.”
Several young artists have recently complained of industry pressure to engage on multiple social media platforms. For Mabel, the lockdowns provided a chance to step back. “I think the pandemic coming in and everyone having to slow down taught me that OK, there’s lots of things about this that are really horrible and the world was a total mess, but also I learnt a lot of things that I wanted to apply to my daily life – just about making sure I’m sleeping and eating properly and taking time with my family. Lots of things that I hadn’t been doing, and also just having the time to fall in love with what I do again, missing performing and missing making music, all of those things are so important for me to remember how much I love what I do.”
She welcomes the fact that record labels are finally waking up to the stresses felt by young artists after campaigning by the likes of Raye and Rebecca Ferguson. “It’s really important for people to remember that we’re just humans, quite often young humans, trying to figure out who we are and it takes a lot of support, definitely,” she says. “Because I’m no good to anyone and I’m not going to be making anybody any money if I’m not mentally well and enjoying what I’m doing. So yes, I think the conversation is being had. I definitely have experienced things in my career that are disappointing but I’m hoping that people are learning and that we’re all going to do better.”
Conscious of the need for outside interests during the pandemic, Mabel bought a horse and took up meditation. “I definitely needed more things in my life that are just for me, that have nothing to do with anybody else, and that there was no pressure on – although I say that and now I want to compete with my horse,” she says.
“But I just needed something that was for me, for no other reason than it made me happy, so I got my horse, I have two dogs and did a meditation course as well which has been really helpful.”
Mabel also moved back home with her parents, the singer-songwriter Neneh Cherry and producer Cameron McVey, who has worked with the likes of Massive Attack, Portishead and All Saints. Although her mother and father both have years of experience in the music world, as a family, she says: “We kept work and family separate. They were able to support me as parents but it wasn’t until quite recently where I feel confident in what I do that I’ve been able to turn to them and go, ‘will you come with me to some shows?’ or ‘I feel nervous about this’.
“Just being able to feel confident in them being there for me doesn’t take away from what I do or who I am as an artist at all. That just takes confidence and it takes time. But living together, it’s been amazing, that’s what life is about, really. I want to work hard, I want to have fun doing what I do, but then I want to come home and be with my family.”
Redefining what success meant to her was an important part of the process of regaining that confidence. “I’m still looking,” she laughs. “Definitely success for me was the numbers, the views, the followers, but the truth is that I wasn’t happy when I had all of that, and in an ideal world I would be able to come back with this project that I feel strongly about and I feel confident and get given all the opportunities that I experienced before. Performing on award shows and all of those things that happened but with me mentally in a better place. Everything has changed so much with TikTok and just the way that things are now in music I think that I have to redefine what success is to me.
“I’m still working on it because I think if I had to choose between my numbers or the way mentally that I feel now I would choose this. But I’m hoping that one day they happen at the same time.”
On About Last Night... Mabel worked with a large and varied team of songwriters including Stargate, Jax Jones, Emily Warren, Samuel Lewis and Steve Mac. However, many of the songs started with Mabel seated at her piano.
“I definitely was playing again,” she says. “I was in the studio at home a lot in my mum and dad’s house in lockdown. I was messing around a lot on my own but also talking to MNEK and Tre Jean-Marie who very much shaped the album with me... We tried some failed Zoom sessions and then eventually we figured out we needed to just send music back and forth and work on tracks that way.
“Then as soon as we could link up and get things finished, we did. In between the lockdowns we went to Oxford and did a little camp. I was in the driving seat in a different way but I also had these people protecting me which I’m so grateful for and I know we’ll make more records together.”
Lyrical inspirations stemmed from Mabel’s inveterate note-taking. “I’m always writing things down – emotions, things somebody says that speak to me,” she says. “I’m always journalling, just to have ideas when I go into the studio. It very much starts with concepts usually for me and then listening to music. I try not to listen to too much current music because I start worrying about what other people are doing now.”
Mabel’s intention is to take listeners on a journey into a night out with this record. “It was really important to me from beginning to end – although most people sadly don’t consume albums like that any more – that it was a real journey and said it all as if it was this fantasy house party that everyone is invited to. It’s not exclusive, it’s inclusive. You can go there, you can be yourself, and it’s also about life in general, human experience.
“I’ve said it’s a night out and every song is a different room, but it’s also got the nuances and the ups and downs that we all go through in life.”
Among those mentioned as influences are the late fashion stylists Judy Blame and Ray Petri along with TV shows such as Pose and RuPaul’s Drag Race. “I love RuPaul,” Mabel says. “I grew up with Judy – he lived with us when I was a kid so he was one of the main influential people in my life growing up, one of those people that really shaped me and helped me become the woman that I am.
“I was thinking about the music we would listen to. He worked a lot with Kylie and he obviously worked a lot with my mum. I’d been so busy, when he died (in 2018) I didn’t really process it, it just made me feel sad. I didn’t make it to his funeral so whenever I would think about it it would fill me with this extreme guilt and sadness, I would almost not talk about him at all. But I was thinking about all the positive things he brought into my life, and I wanted to show my appreciation in a way.”
Mabel’s other aim was to inspire people to take control of their own narrative. “I want people in general to able to feel like nobody can define you, nobody can box you in, like you think you know me, but you don’t, and I’m proud of all the weird parts of myself that maybe don’t make sense to you; they make sense to me. I think lots of people feel that way.
“So (About Last Night...) is the fantasy house party where you can come and be the person that you always wanted to be. That was really important to me, for every misfit and outside to feel like that at one of my shows or whatever. It’s a space where you should feel safe.”
About Last Night... is out on Friday July 15. Mabel plays an album launch gig for Crash Records at The Wardrobe, Leeds on Monday July 25. www.mabelofficial.com
Watch the Mabel About Last Night Album Experience on Mabel’s YouTube channel from 8pm on Friday July 22. The video will see Mabel take viewers on a visual journey of her new album, moving through different rooms and experiences with each new track. Viewers will also see Mabel perform tracks from her new album.