Mabel: ‘Boris Johnson? It’s not a world that I want to be a part of’ | Music

Gastroenteritis doesn’t care if you’re a pop star. It’s not bothered if you have to drag yourself out of bed to appear on the Capital Breakfast show at 8.30am and then head across town to cover Mark Ronson and Camila Cabello’s Find U Again for Radio 1’s Live Lounge. You might have a debut album out that week, but gastroenteritis doesn’t care about promo. “It started last week. I’ve been travelling loads – America, Europe, Asia, back to America. I was doing a shoot when I started to feel tired and nauseous and weird,” says Mabel Alabama Pearl McVey. A few hours later, she’s throwing up side of stage before being whisked off to hospital where they initially diagnose appendicitis because she’s in so much pain.

While most of us would be under the duvet watching Cash in the Attic, for this 23-year-old there’s no such thing as a sick day. When I meet her at a central London restaurant after her live session at Radio 1, she is sprightly, noting her Live Lounge was “possibly my best yet”. She had to cancel in-stores and signings, but she’s still doing some promo (such as this interview), plus, bizarrely, appearing at the British Grand Prix, where she does a lap in a car and presents a pole award at the qualifying round – because her debut album just came out and she wants it to hit the top spot.

It’s called High Expectations, a fitting title considering the reason Mabel got ill in the first place is the pressure she puts herself under. “I’m feeling better, but it’s mainly when I get worked up, so I’m trying not to stress ’cause it makes the acid in my stomach go mad. It’s difficult because I care so much about what I do, so I say yes to everything because I want to be as big as I can be. But I’ve realised that trying to be superwoman means at some point you’ll hit a wall and not be able to do anything. Sometimes you have to sleep.”

Unfortunately, the album was kept off the top spot by Ed Sheeran and Lewis Capaldi, leaving Mabel with a No 3. “I’m so gutted. Well, I’m not gutted. Obviously it’s sick, but I really wanted a No 1. It’s alright,” she decides with a pretend pout, “we’ll go again next time.”

Mabel officially began her musical life on SoundCloud in 2015 making dreamy R&B songs such as Know Me Better and Thinking of You. She’d feature in fashion magazines and Skepta videos, all slicked back hair, gold hoops and khaki bombers. But over time she dropped cool in favour of commercial; now it’s thigh-high boots, selfies, Afrobeats and tropical house. In the beginning she was “this ‘urban, west-London, making-90s-R&B-over-a-breakbeat’ artist,” she says, “and, yeah, I enjoyed that, it’s a big part of who I am. But so is Afrobeat. I’m multicultural, I’ve got all these different sides and I want to showcase all of them.” It’s working; she’s so far clocked up over one billion streams with both her own tunes and collaborations with Not3s, Jax Jones and Stefflon Don, with YouTube views at well over 300 million. “I don’t want to make music that you have to have a fucking degree to listen to,” she says. “I want to make music that a 14-year-old girl in Cardiff will love and relate to. I want to make pop music and tour the world and stand in big arenas. I want to make people feel good, I want to make them feel confident. I want to appeal to as many people as possible.”

Besides, it made her miserable, trying to be cool. “I spent hours torturing myself thinking I should dress more like this, sing more like that. I missed a whole year of my life because I wasn’t being myself and my career stalled. My mum’s a fucking excellent example. The reason she was so successful was that she did not give a shit about what people thought.” Mabel is the daughter of Neneh ‘pregnant-on-TOTP-and-what’ Cherry and Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey. She was born in Málaga, Spain and brought up in west London. The family later moved to Stockholm when Mabel was eight, before returning to London five years ago. She bought her own place – a two-bed new build which she keeps very clean, apart from piles of shoes and bags stacked on various surfaces. Her shelves are lined with self-help books: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, as well as Lily Allen and Michelle Obama’s autobiographies. In the centre of the living room, there’s a beautiful piano, above which is a framed poster by her godfather, the visionary stylist Judy Blame, who died in February 2018.

Neneh Cherry (L) and daughter Mabel in 2014

Neneh Cherry and Mabel in 2014. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

“Is it OK that I have my plaques up?” she wonders, semi-rhetorically, nodding towards the discs that mark sales of chart success such as My Lover, Fine Line and Finders Keepers.

While her manager, Radha Medar, encouraged Mabel to seek out some vulnerability for her album – a tone that’s allowed deeper lyrical themes such as on OK (Anxiety Anthem) and Stockhlm Syndrome – it was her sassiest single, Don’t Call Me Up, that provided her with her biggest and best hit so far. With its unusual structure, the song proved she could be both kooky and commercial, and found her a new audience in America. She was so scared about performing on Jimmy Fallon she made her mum and dad come with her. “They’re good for nerves. And I had a little cry, that’s good for nerves too. I cry about all the bad things that could happen, and then they won’t happen.” Like what? “Falling on my face, singing the wrong words, you know, just generally being a twat.”

Mabel is really good company, which is a lovely surprise because it’s hard to get a sense of her personality from her socials and live shows. She appears slick and shiny, so you can’t tell that she’s funny, smart and thoughtful. At one point she mentions writing a track about lazy lovers. “I’ve been shocked at how many guys won’t lift a motherfucking finger and expect you to do all the fucking work. I’m here doing backflips and the fucking splits,” she splutters.

“What are you doing bro? Let’s get moving!” Such casual candour just doesn’t match up to Mabel’s much more polished pop star persona and she agrees there’s a disparity somewhere. “There is so much more to me, I think I’ve just been so focused on the music. I do want people to know me better,” she adds.

She’s also passionately outspoken about many issues, including Grenfell. She was raised around the corner and headed straight there that terrible first morning, on 14 June 2017, with her family.

“We donated as much as possible, cleaned, organised shit. My parents were driving food to people in hotels, families of five forced to live up on the 12th floor. So fucking traumatising. And people still don’t have housing. It’s disgusting. Just because it’s not in the news every day, you have to remember that people just like you lost their kids, their husbands, their wives. It’s gonna hurt for the rest of their lives. We have to do more. I won’t forget. We can’t forget.”

Mabel has always been empathetic, perhaps to a fault, although her mum reckons her sensitivity is her superpower. “I’ve had anxiety my whole life, I’ve always been a thinker. Since I was tiny, I had really big questions about death, war, why some people have it better than others.” Via phonetics and audio books, she taught herself to read at the age of four and would notice newspaper headlines about the war in Iraq or endemic homelessness and get so worked up she found it impossible to just be a kid and play. Her parents encouraged her to keep a journal, play piano, write songs, but her anxiety got so bad that the family returned to Neneh’s native home of Stockholm when Mabel was eight. She attended the prestigious music school Rytmus, whose past pupils include Robyn, but things didn’t improve, and she spent a lot of time hiding in toilets. Sometimes she’d cry so much she’d throw up.

“Oh, I was definitely very bullied,” she shudders, recalling the time a girl in her class invited every single person except Mabel to her birthday party. “Kids can be so horrible, very brutal. The only person to not be invited. I went home devastated.” I wonder if she was picked on because of her famous parents, but she thinks it’s more that she was “a freak, I’d make up songs, dress how I wanted to, I was this little weirdo really. I felt like an alien.” She acknowledges that her family were “very unconventional”. There was Neneh and Cameron, jazz trumpeter step-grandfather Don Cherry, as well Neneh’s birth father, Sierra Leonean musician Ahmadu Jah. In the cool, calm and collected Stockholm they stood out a mile. “Whenever my family did come to anything at school, there was always millions of us and we’d come in late, with all this noise and god knows what. My grandfather would be out barbecuing chicken on Christmas Day in -20C … ”

We move onto current affairs. “The world is fucked up. Boris Johnson? It’s just not democracy. It’s not what any of us signed up for. It’s not a world that I want to be a part of, when you think who’s in power right now. It makes me feel sad.”

She cheers up quickly. “My generation, and the generations to come are so intelligent and so switched on. Greta Thunberg! She is everything. What a hero. She’s so much smarter than all those stupid men put together. What really stresses me out is that millions of us can feel things are unfair yet we’re still being ignored. We have to keep shouting out the bullshit. That’s what I’ve been taught to do – never shut up, never stop fighting.”

It’s apparent that this is very much Mabel’s personal mantra. She’s disappointed by her chart position, but not afraid to admit it. She got gastroenteritis on the week of release, but didn’t let it stop her. Making an album has been a learning curve. “I’m proud of myself now, ’cause there was a time in my life where I wanted this but I didn’t think I’d actually do it. Two years ago I’d do a Live Lounge or whatever and I’d fuck it up. Today I just went and I was like, ‘It’s OK if it fucks up. It’s fine.’” She’s relaxed, she’s less anxious and she’s let go a bit. “I’ve made an album! I just have to make another one now.”

You get the feeling that the best is yet to come.

High Expectations by Mabel is out now

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