Mabel: ‘I try and lift up as many other women as I can because I know how powerful that has been for me’

London artist on her rapid rise to stardom, the challenges of social media and her latest album

Before becoming a pop star, Mabel McVey kept social media at arm’s length. But as she racked up hits such as Finders Keepers and Don’t Call Me Up and won a Brit for her 2019 debut album, High Expectations, she felt obliged to put herself out there on Twitter and Instagram.

With that, the floodgates opened. Fans took to the internet to express their love for her upwardly mobile pop, which slotted somewhere between the Wagnerian disco stomp of Dua Lipa and the thoughtful funk that is a hallmark of Mabel’s superstar mother, Neneh Cherry.

This positive reaction was at first a bonus. Soon it was something Mabel couldn’t get through the day without. She was addicted to the approval of strangers. Every morning Mabel would fire up her phone, looking for validation.

“I didn’t have Instagram properly until I started doing music,” Mabel (26) says from her home in London in advance of the release of her second LP, About Last Night ...

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“I’d be lying if I said ‘oh, I don’t care about the validation’. That I didn’t care when it was happening. When you are going down a dangerous path is when you’re getting too much joy from the wins and the validation. It felt good to a point where it made me so unhappy. It’s nice to hear. But there’s no real value in it, it’s not tangible.”

About Last Night ... is a twinkling magic carpet ride that chronicles the highs and lows of a house party from dusk to dawn. Yet the confidence that ripples through the project was hard won. The success of High Expectations had put a target on Mabel’s back, she feels. Along with the positivity came a deluge of hate.

The more popular she became, the harsher the comments about her on social media. And when she won the 2020 Brit for Best Female Solo Artist in advance of hipsters’ favourite FKA Twigs — of whom she is a fan — the jeers became a backlash. She needed a moment to recalibrate and to remind herself that pop stardom was supposed to be fun.

“It definitely is a learning process. In terms of the positives and the negatives of my job I’ve realised over the last few years since we went into lockdown that there’s far more positives than negatives. That I absolutely love it and wouldn’t want to do anything else. And those are the things I need to focus on,” she says.

The feedback was always overwhelmingly approving. But because she is human she focused on the nasty stuff. The comments about her appearance and her voice, claims she had blagged her career through family connections. It got inside her head.

“It doesn’t matter how secure you are: people are lying if they say it doesn’t affect you at all,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with admitting, ‘yeah of course — it hurts’.”

She went into music with eyes open — to a degree. Her mother, Neneh Cherry, is a global star while her father is the producer Cameron McVey, who has worked with Massive Attack and Portishead among others. Still, if this is the family business, stardom has changed since the 1980s when her mum was scoring smashes such as Buffalo Stance (co-produced by Cameron).

Social media is one difference. Another is the sheer, hurtling pace at which you can go from anonymous to ubiquitous. In September 2019 Mabel opened for Texas singer Khalid at 3Arena in Dublin. Six months later she was selling out two nights of her own at the city’s Olympia Theatre. Stardom, when it arrived, came knocking hard.

“It had been completely insane and numbers-wise probably the most successful year of my life. But also really, really difficult on a personal level in terms of the scrutiny and the comments,” she says. “People start talking about you all of a sudden like you’re kind of public property. I’m incredibly blessed to be able to do what I do. I wouldn’t want to do anything else. But I definitely needed some time to think about how do I feel about myself.”

Being mixed race comes with another set of problems which sometimes is like, ‘am I white, am I black…do I belong to this country or that country?’ People ask me where home is. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know’

She began to listen to the detractors, to believe what they said was true. It sucked all the joy out of recording and performing. “When you feel that way about yourself, it’s hard to stand on stage in front of thousands of people and have your picture taken and be active online. That’s a tall order. It doesn’t matter how strong your team is — doing the same hours that you are or whatever. Being the person that’s standing in front of the camera and carrying the weight, it is difficult.”

Just before lockdown she feels she reached breaking point. So she made the most of the great pause. Mabel moved home, curled up on the couch reading Harry Potter, walked the dogs. She signed up for therapy and received advice from Stormzy (he told her to be herself). And when the world started to reopen, she adopted a rescue horse, named Gus, and took him for therapeutic treks in the countryside. She learned to love him: and herself.

“I needed a break. I came home from a tour. And literally we went into lockdown three days later. My life was so different: I was living at my mum and dad’s house again. With my sister. Arguing about who was going to do the washing up,” she says. “I have the tools now to be able to get up and look myself in the mirror and feel I’m a good person.”

About Last Night ... was a fantasy that bubbled up in the darkest days of the pandemic. The idea of a house party as the theme for a record was hugely appealing at a time of enforced isolation. The project also represented a safe space where should explore the dark side of life at 1000mph. It is, in a way, a break-up LP with Mabel lamenting the unravelling of a number of relationships.

“I was going through this crazy time in my career and wasn’t feeling very good about myself,” says Mabel. “I looked to a lot of toxic relationships for validation and meaning and purpose. And situations now that I’m like, ‘wow, that was never gonna go anywhere’. And I think I did know that at the time. It’s almost as if your relationships reflect how you feel about yourself. I took a lot of losses in my love life. Which, as an artist, is actually is a powerful tool to have because you can you can write about it,” she says.

And then, in the midst of lockdown ennui, London, along with much of the rest of the world, had a moment of racial reckoning with the Black Lives Matter protests. Growing up in Sweden and having lived for a time in Spain, Mabel had always thought of herself as an outsider in a way that is distinct from her mixed-raced background. In the UK in the summer of 2020 that heritage was something she found herself considering anew.

“I know the values I have. And I know what my mother and my father taught me. And how much my blackness means to me. And being comfortable with my identity. But I realised I maybe hadn’t used my platform enough to speak on things.”

So she went on social media to post her support for the demonstrators. And to share reading lists about race and identity.

“Sometimes being mixed race ... don’t get me wrong, I understand my privilege because of the colour of my skin — I can’t say I have the same experience as someone who is dark skinned. However, being mixed race comes with another set of problems which sometimes is like, ‘am I white, am I black ... do I belong to this country or that country?’ People ask me where home is. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know’.”

Before Black Lives Matter she “felt uncomfortable speaking up” about social issues. “Which I see now as incredibly selfish. Because it’s not about me. It’s about something so much bigger. It’s about educating people: giving people a nudge. It doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin is, you should be educating yourself. If you have a platform, you should be using it to encourage people to educate themselves too. Racism is a pandemic in itself. A sickness that the world has had for way too long. It’s still so prominent in our lives. We live with it silently. That has to change.”

Women in the public eye have always been judged more harshly than men in the same situation. Mabel’s mother will have known this as a pop star in the 1980s. But while the music industry has yet to have a proper #MeToo moment, Mabel feels things are incrementally getting better. As a successful woman artist, she attempts to do her bit to elevate those around her.

“I try to lift up as many other women as I can because I know how powerful that has been for me. I am also trying to have as many females in the room as possible.”

These issues can ultimately consume you, of course. With About Last Night ... Mabel’s mission is to be the best version of her pop star self. Music is her calling. She is determined that nothing stops her pursuing her passion to its limits.

“I try to just see [race or gender] as not being a things that define me or my journey,” she says. “I get up every day and get on with it. And I enter every room as powerfully as I can.”

About Last Night ... is out now

Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about television and other cultural topics