Music/Interviews

Mabel is the architect of a career on her own terms

As she prepares to release her debut album, High Expectations, the breakout London-based artist is betting on herself.

August 1, 2019

In an era where a recognizable surname can invite supermodel status, celebrity seems hereditary. It’s easy to dismiss the success of emerging talent with recognizable last names as a product of nepotism. For London-based singer-songwriter Mabel, her mononym is a statement in itself. Despite being the youngest daughter of musical multi-hyphenates, fashion icon and trip-hop pioneer Neneh Cherry and renowned Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey, Mabel isn’t resting on the laurels of her last name to reach pop stardom. Her fresh take on R&B—and lack of last name—show that she is taking things into her own hands.

On the Toronto stop of her North American press tour in late Spring and fresh off the release of her recently reissued debut mixtape Ivy to Roses, Mabel’s demeanor was unfiltered and at ease. But despite her relaxed vibe, she looked camera-ready. In fact, when I arrived at our afternoon meet-up at The Drake Hotel on Queen West, her flawless, filter-free features prompted me to apologize for my ailing red manicure. She instantly assured me in her crisp London accent, “It’s OK. Sometimes I have bruk nails too.”

Mabel’s honesty isn’t reserved for in-person interactions, it transcends into her writing. Many of her songs have autobiographical undertones and her ability to candidly illustrate the ups and downs of growing up feel raw and authentic. InDon’t Call Me Up,” her first song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, she confidently dismisses an ex’s advances in favour of a solo night out. She isn’t doing Mariah Carey-level vocal acrobatics but her voice is firm, and the infectious melody make it feel like an instant playlist staple for AUX-cord concerts and millennial pre-gaming.

For Mabel, there is power in openness. “I don’t think that vulnerability makes me weak, or that it makes me less powerful,” she explained from a high-top table in the dining room of The Drake Hotel. “I don’t think that anxiety means that I can’t be a pop star,” she continued. “If anything my mom always used to call that my superpower; that I can feel more and turn all of those negatives into positives.” 

I don’t think that vulnerability makes me weak…I don’t think that anxiety means that I can’t be a pop star.

Mabel

This mention was one of the few references that Mabel made to her trendsetting mother.  This didn’t come off as remiss or reductive though. “Your parents are just your parents,” she told UK radio station KISS earlier this year. “You don’t think about things like that when you’re a kid. I lacked a lot of confidence when I was younger so that is what I want to give back to people.” After experiencing crippling anxiety as a child, coupled with bullying from her peers as a teen, she found confidence as she got deeper into her artistry, and out of her parents’ shadow.

Instead of trying to follow her parents’ blueprint, Mabel is focused on her career and learning how to remove the obstacles that she encountered early in her career, like readjusting her team and finding a new manager after writing her 2017 breakout bangerFinders Keepers” the uptempo, afrobeat-infused summer bop featuring Kojo Funds, a UK rapper who fuses London grime with Caribbean flows.

“I believed in that record. I loved ["Finders Keepers”] when I wrote it but I had a different team that wasn’t on the same page as me,” she explained. “When I wrote that [s[song]I was really excited about it, but they weren’t hearing what I was hearing. Then, I met the manager (Radha Medar) that I have now and she believed in me before I believed in myself, in many ways.” 

In 2018, Medar told DAZED that despite Mabel having already written “Finders Keepers” when they met, “no one had clocked what a big hit it would be.” Medar said that after hearing the track, she “instantly thought that it fit in with what is happening right now,” thus the beginning of their working relationship. After “Finders Keepers”, Mabel said that “a massive piece of the puzzle fell into place.” Writing the track sparked a revelation that signalled a departure from her R&B roots. “I love dancing; I love turning up; I want to play in front of big crowds and I want to have people jumping.” Though the song’s high energy vibe makes it stand out, Mabel’s vocal talent and star power shined through on the song’s many iterations, like on a soulful, stripped-down version of the song for London Live.

I want to make people feel less alone and good about themselves.

With a new team and an enlivened sound, Mabel was empowered to create music that was more authentic to her journey. “I found myself as a person as well,” she reflected. “Things like performing became much easier because I wasn’t going out feeling like I had to pretend to be somebody else. I was just going out there and being myself.” Now, she isn’t afraid to make mistakes. “What I realized with anxiety and stuff is that it’s not about running away from it,” she explained. “It’s about being OK with it and letting go of the idea of perfection, because perfection is really fucking boring.”

With momentum growing, Mabel understands that her power lies in being transparent with her fans, and understanding that they are going to cling to what they can relate to, which isn’t a model of perfection. “That’s not why I’m here,” Mabel explained about the unrealistic expectations put on young artists. “I’m here because I want to write music, and I want to sing songs, and I want to connect with people the way that I do. I want to make people feel less alone and good about themselves.” 

With empowerment as her ethos, she now feels most powerful on stage, whether it’s a major choreographed production or a stripped-down acoustic set. With women continuing to dominate the industry and push the boundaries for live shows, Mabel is part of the new class of performers taking the stage on their own terms, like Cardi B playing Coachella while heavily pregnant and Beyonce decidedly renaming the same festival Beychella after her historic headlining set. After joining Khalid for the European leg of his Free Spirit tour this summer, Mabel is following their lead. “It’s the best feeling in the world,” she said of life on stage. “I feel like a superhero.”

And she’s not afraid to harness this power. When asked how she maintains her autonomy in industry meetings, often dominated by men, Mabel confidently declared, “I’ve always been really determined and I’ve really known what I want. “I’ve always just known what I like and what I don’t like.” This, however, “can be frustrating at times.” Nonetheless, Mabel says that having a clear vision is the first step to establishing your signature sound. “Before you get managers and labels, just figure out who you are because when there are too many cooks in the kitchen, it becomes confusing.” 

In those settings, she distinguished that beginning with a clear focus is of paramount importance. “It gets dangerous when you’re uncertain about who you are. Because when you’re going into those rooms, it’s easy to get moulded into something that you’re not.” “Writing [H[High Expectations]as been the biggest confidence booster ever,” she revealed, grinning. It wasn’t without difficulty, though. She described the process as challenging, but cathartic. “You have to look within and pick at old wounds,” she reflected. “It’s a frightening experience but I’m so proud that I got through it.”

Her brown eyes widened when she described her soon to be released debut album as “sassy.” “It’s got a lot of attitude,” she continued. “It has those vulnerable moments but it’s still empowering. That’s my goal with the album.“I want to make people feel confident about themselves.” With famous parents, copping to the title of self-made can be a controversial choice. However, it is undeniable that Mabel is wholly self-assured.

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