Mabel talks about the conception of her debut Bedroom EP, writing and collaborating with a purpose, and the beauty of creating globally understood art through the vehicles of language and sound.
It’s an early Tuesday evening in London when Mabel McVey reveals that she’s a “crazy, crazy control freak,” but this is a trait that few would pin on the 21-year-old singer/songwriter after a first impression. From visuals to sounds, Mabel’s aesthetic – derived from not just the female forces of ‘90s pop and R&B, but the urban fashion they touted – epitomizes calm, cool and collected. When she speaks and gently laughs over the phone, maintaining this relaxed atmosphere seems effortless, even as she details her upcoming debut EP, Bedroom, that’s slated for released in exactly a week via Polydor/Capitol.
Then again, that tonal confidence should come as no surprise to those acquainted with Mabel; even her earliest singles from 2015, “Know Me Better” and “My Boy My Town,” were telling of the young woman’s promising future as an artist who would leave detectable, larger cracks in the ever-growing UK R&B scene. Elegantly produced and sung with grace equal to that of Brandy or Aaliyah’s soulful pop projects, such beginnings also signified that the creative genes of her musically inclined parents – Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey and Grammy nominated singer Neneh Cherry – had certainly flowed into the next generation.
But familial relations are minutiae at best, especially when Mabel’s already made it clear that she’s too fond of her own path to trap herself by the wayside of any outsider’s rushed, pedestrian ideas. In 2016, unexpected collaborations with Tate Modern (a popular modern art gallery in her hometown of London) and indietronica producer SBTRKT (Sampha, Little Dragon) on his newest studio album, Save Yourself, further hinted that Mabel’s priority as a rising musician was exploring curiosities rather than achieving ubiquitous popularity – although the drop of her biggest single to date, “Thinking of You” in June 2016, positively assisted with the latter.
“Tried to forget about you and no chance, waiting on some other guy to pick me up – tell all your friends that I’m coming right back,” Mabel sings in the track’s chorus and bridge. It’s a youthful narrative we’ve all experienced before: regretting the end of a connection, convincing yourself that it’s worthy of a second visit only after settling on some new, disappointing character who couldn’t possibly compare. And with an instrumental saturated in ‘90s pop wistfulness and charm, the single continues to have infinite replay value long after a first listen. In these ways, “Thinking of You” would easily blend into the rest of Bedroom, the product of Mabel’s proudest pop moments. But despite the track’s absence, this forthcoming release is no less addictive, thanks to the abundance of lush, fast-moving choruses and emotive lyricism that’s quickly become her signature recipe.
Last week, Atwood Magazine spoke with Mabel about the conception of her debut EP, writing and collaborating with a purpose, and the beauty of creating globally understood art through the vehicles of language and sound.
Watch: “Bedroom” – Mabel
Atwood Magazine: Your first EP is coming out in just weeks now – how’s that process of mental preparation been going?
Mabel: It’s been really good. I wanted to put something out for my fans, a body of work that really told a story – I think it’s so easy these days to just do like, “single, single, single,” and then you jump straight into the album, but I really wanted to work up to the album because it’s such an important project for me. I still think it’s so hard to gain supporters these days, but it’s important to put little bodies of work out.
How long had you been working on the release?
Mabel: It happened quite quickly when I had the idea. I guess it started with “Finders Keepers,” and then some of the songs got cut off, and then I ended up writing the last one quite recently. It took a couple of months.
Listen: “Finders Keepers” – Mabel
Including “Finders Keepers,” Bedroom consists of four tracks – what was it like, trying to choose which songs would make the final cut?
Mabel: It is quite hard knowing when to stop, but I wanted the project to be short and concise. To me, I knew what I wanted it to be about. So it’s difficult, but when I was really hard on myself, I was like, you know what? What’s really the story here? And I said, okay, the four tracks on Bedroom are the songs that I really want to use.
With your previous singles, we’ve heard you explore the multifacetedness of relationships: compromise, vulnerability, frustration, and most recently, a spirited, careless sexual liberation with “Finders Keepers.” What stories and emotions should we expect to hear on Bedroom?
Mabel: The whole EP is about power play: how one second you could be in the driver’s seat, and then something shifts and you’re out of control. That’s quite new to me because I’ve always been a crazy, crazy control freak and over the last couple of years I’ve had some good learning experiences love-wise and relationship-wise, where I’ve been so out of control and it’s been so frustrating. But I really love a lot about myself and I think that all the songs tell that story, so you can decide which ones are which, but some are about frustration and feeling super out-of-control, and the other ones are more empowering. I wanted to write one for women – like you said, “Finders Keepers” is about sexual liberation, sex with no strings. I wanted to experiment with that because not a lot of songs explore that from a woman’s perspective. Everybody’s always like, “oh my god, that song is so sexy,” and some people say it in a bad way, and I’m like, “Yeah, but if it were a man (singing it), you probably would never comment about it.”
I feel like that song is a quiet feminist statement.
Mabel: Yeah, exactly, that’s kind of what I was going for. And I also wanted it to be fun – I wanted to write some stuff that my friend and I could dance to.
Is there a track on the project that’s a favorite?
Mabel: Maybe “Talk About Forever.” Forever is my favorite word because it’s such a crazy concept and we’re always saying it to each other, especially when you meet someone you really love, you know you want that feeling to last forever. That’s what people say, “I want to be with you forever,” but no, you really want what you’re feeling to last forever. But actually, a lot of the time, it doesn’t – so now when people say it to me I’m like, woah. In the beginning, like my first love – I guess I was 15 – I was definitely feeling it too, like, “Oh my god, this will last forever.” Now I’m like, “You know what, I’m having a great time right now, and we need to focus on right now, and preferably not even talk about tomorrow.”
That’s what people say, “I want to be with you forever,” but no, you really want what you’re feeling to last forever.
Speaking of “Finder Keepers,” the song was the first collaborative one you’ve released. How did you end up working with Kojo Funds?
Mabel: Oh, I love Kojo, his work is great. British hip-hop and R&B and soul is having such a moment right now. I’d hear his music, but then he put out this song called “Dun Talkin’,” and it was a big tune for me – it always got played when I would go out with all my girlfriends and we would get really gassed and excited about it. And then I wrote “Finders Keepers,” and then me and JD. Reid, who produced it, just thought it would be so sick to get an MC on it. But it has quite a specific sound because I was definitely experimenting with my cultural heritage, like it has an afrobeat-y vibe to it, and my family is from Sierra Leone. So when it came to finding an MC I was asking myself, “Huh, who’s the right person to put on this?” And Kojo just felt perfect. And I hit him up and he came to the studio – it happened very naturally.
London is your home, and you’ve said it's where you feel most ‘in your element’ creatively. Was it important for your first collaboration to be with another London-based artist like Kojo, or was it a coincidence that you two have like origins?
Mabel: It was super-important to me that he was from London. I definitely want to do the American collab, but it’s important for me that everything I do feels natural, and that nothing I do feels forced. I think that it would’ve been weird if my label had hit someone up in the States, and put some big rap feature on it. You know when you just see features and you’re like, “You guys have never met!” So that common ground was key, but also sound-wise, it has some tropical vibes, and there’s something that’s so nice about summer in London, which is the best.
I definitely want to do the American collab, but it’s important for me that everything I do feels natural, and that nothing I do feels forced. I think that it would’ve been weird if my label had hit someone up in the States, and put some big rap feature on it.
You’ve said that you’ve been in romantic relationships since you were 15, and that all your lyrics stem from reality. Do you more often find yourself today writing about love you’ve experienced as an adult, or writing retrospectively on situations you went through as a teenager?
Mabel: Both, I think! Sometimes I’m super in the moment and I just want to really write about something that’s happening right now, but a lot of the time you need some distance from something to write about it. Like I had a lot of anxiety growing up, and now, just recently, it’s the first time I’ve been really interested in thinking about it, what it was rooted in. And that thinking has been good for me personally and musically. It’s been super-interesting. But I definitely needed some distance from it to be able to write about it.
The UK’s been offering a lot of charismatic R&B over the last couple of years, and your music has a place in that resurgence – how do you distinguish yourself as a musician in a genre where so many people from similar places, like London for instance, are pursuing comparable sounds?
Mabel: I think language is really important. I heard a bit of Stormzy and Skepta’s albums playing in the States, and there’s something exciting about that because even though there’s so much American hip-hop and R&B, Americans are still excited to be a part of that music. Every place has its own sound and vibe, and there’s so much exciting stuff coming out of London – I think more than there’s been in a long time, with musicians like Skepta and Ray BLK and Jorja Smith and Raye.
I think language is really important. Every place has its own sound and vibe, and there’s so much exciting stuff coming out of London – I think more than there’s been in a long time, with musicians like Skepta and Ray BLK and Jorja Smith and Raye.
Watch: “Thinking of You” – Mabel
It’s so funny that you mention that stuff because being from California, hearing Skepta is just like, “What is this? I’ve never heard this, what is grime, this is the best thing I’ve heard in my life!” And it seems so new, it’s crazy.
Mabel: It is! I was just in LA and when he played Coachella I saw him. But he did a headline show in Los Angeles as well, and it was just crazy to me, growing up listening to lots of grime and now seeing American kids literally losing their shit to grime the way English people do when we see Skepta. It’s such a global thing that’s happening right now – everybody’s kind of like, okay, London’s got a little wave going on, let’s see what it’s about!
How have you managed to already cultivate a sound that’s identifiably you, Mabel McVey, without putting out any material that sounds too much like a previous release – too uniform or repetitive?
Mabel: If you’re comfortable with who you are then your art is bound to be unique as well because we’re all different. The music I’ve grown up listening to has shaped the way I write, like Lauryn Hill for sure, and Destiny’s Child when it comes to my harmonies. And Amy Winehouse, too, along with lots of rap. For me it’s a bit of an interesting mixture of what I listen to and where I’m from that’s really affected my music.
Should fans on this side of the pond anticipate your playing any U.S. shows anytime soon?
Mabel: I’m definitely going to come over this year to do a show in LA or NY – I would really love to tour properly there, like a support tour or something. I’ll keep it super chill – it’s a hard territory to break and I don’t want to force anything. It’s going to take the time that it’s going to take, but I’m willing to put the work in.
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cover © Polydor Records