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Mabel on pop parentage, poise and perfectionism

Meet the fierce 20-year-old R&B artist flipping the music-world male gaze without missing a beat, and watch her new video made in collaboration with Tate Modern

TextDaisy JonesPhotographyJamie MorganStylingEmma Wyman

Taken from the spring 2016 issue of Dazed:

Mabel McVey is used to being chatted up by strangers. Even in the west London diner where we’ve stopped for breakfast, a passing group of boys lingers beside our table and stares at her. She rolls her eyes and shoots them a don’t-fuck-with-me look – they quickly move on. “When I get catcalled, I always shout back – fuck being the bigger person!” she says, waving a spoonful of porridge through the air. “I had a heart-to-heart with a rude boy the other day about it. I said, ‘Babes, you can’t talk to women like that. Do you have a girlfriend?’ He went, ‘No,’ and I went, ‘Well, that’s why! Treat women with respect.’ He was really embarrassed.”

It’s easy to see why the 20-year-old musician, known simply as Mabel to her fans, attracts a lot of attention. Even dressed down in a plain vest and jeans, she exudes the kind of fearless sexiness that comes from being young and secure within yourself. She rightly feels like she shouldn’t have to curtail what comes naturally. “I love how Beyoncé embraces sexiness,” she says on the subject of photoshoots. “I can always tell when someone has done it for themselves and not because someone else has made them. I never want to look like there’s a man looking at me, or that I’m looking at a man down the camera lens. You should never be ashamed of wanting to be sexy, but I like to do it for myself.”

With only two songs shared online in the past year, and an album due sometime in 2016, Mabel’s career feels poised for lift-off. The first track she released into the world was “Know Me Better”, an instantly replayable, truth-telling jam with a chorus that sticks like syrup. “Doesn’t matter what you wear now that I’ve seen you like this,” she sings, her voice a glimmering, soulful presence over 90s-style piano lines and trip-pop production. “I thought I knew you but there’s something I missed.”

More recently she released a video project with Tate Modern commemorating the opening of a new building at the London art gallery. The film, directed by filmmaker/choreographer Holly Blakey, was inspired by Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment, an immersive light display exhibited within the gallery, and features a new song by Mabel written especially for the project. “As a kid I adored music videos with choreography,” Mabel explains, “Destiny’s Child routines were often rehearsed with my sister and then we forced our family to watch multiple performances. I wanted to try to do an up-to-date version of that, using Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment and the incredible Tate Modern building as our setting.”

As the youngest daughter of riotous pop icon Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey, there’s no wonder she knows how to conjure a song with staying power – she learned from the best. I ask her whether it’s important for her not to be known as ‘Neneh Cherry’s daughter’. Does she ever feel restricted by the association? “I think there was a time as a young teenager when I wanted to be known separately (from my parents),” she says, lingering thoughtfully over her answer. “But I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished. Without it, I wouldn’t be me. A lot of my inspiration and drive has come from my parents’ lifestyles and being out on tour with them and hearing their music, so I’m never going to be like, ‘Ah, let’s not talk about them.’ I think that if you make good music and work your arse off, then nobody will give a shit who your parents are. As long as people don’t think I work through them – that’s the important part.”

It’s not something Mabel can be accused of easily. Recently, she’s been surviving off four hours of sleep a night, staying up late in a windowless studio trying to write song after song. It’s a process she’s found “potentially lethal”, as writing the lyrics required picking at old wounds and returning to the emotions surrounding a relationship breakdown. “I was 15 when I met my ex-boyfriend, and we were together for three and a half years,” she says, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. “Figuring out how to grow in separate ways without growing apart is hard. In general, I would say to any young person after doing what I did, that they shouldn’t spend time trying to fix things or make it work – just allow yourself to grow. I’ve always been very focused and my tunnel vision makes me difficult, I think.”

Her tunnel vision might have proved challenging in the confines of a relationship, but it works wonders for her music. Indeed, it’s this perfectionist bent that made her scrap the initial video for “Know Me Better”, simply because it “didn’t feel right”. “I am quite an in-your-face person and in the video, I was just in the background playing it safe,” she shrugs. “I’m so happy we didn’t release it. (The experience) taught me a lot about myself. Knowing what you don’t want is important; I make just as many mood boards about the things that I hate as the things I love.” The idea of Mabel owning a hate-inspired mood board strikes me as comical. What does it include? “Oh my God, there are so many weird things!” she laughs. “But one thing I’ll do is put a picture up of what I don’t want to look like, how I don’t want to be perceived.”

On the subject of musical inspirations, Mabel reels off a list of R&B greats without missing a beat: Lauryn Hill, Aaliyah and Destiny’s Child (“Writing on the Wall is the album that changed everything”), as well as newer names like Kehlani and Seinabo Sey. The latter she seems particularly enthralled with. “When people think of Sweden, they think of blue eyes and blonde hair – but it’s a mixed world. When I think of Swedish artists, I think of Seinabo Sey.”

With a mum whose parents were from Sierra Leone and Sweden respectively, and a dad with English and Scottish roots, Mabel has a rich cultural heritage. Having just moved from her family home in Stockholm to London, it’s a topic she seems to have thought extensively about. “I recently read the book Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is really good. It’s about a girl that moves from Nigeria to America and it made me think a lot of things about being mixed race.” She looks me in the eye and adds, “I’m really proud to have all these different things, but growing up I didn’t know how to be proud. I felt like I had four doors that were closed. I would be like, ‘I’m English!’ and my sister would say, ‘But you live in Sweden,’ and Swedish people would be like, ‘You don’t look Swedish.’ There’s not a proper word for being mixed-race in Sweden. People use the word ‘mulatto’, which is a mixture between a donkey and a horse.” I tell her that the expression sounds archaic and quite offensive. “Yeah, it’s really rude!” she agrees. “People don’t get that it’s rude. Now that I am proud, I’m not ashamed to tell people they shouldn’t be saying stuff like that.”

At times, listening to Mabel speak passionately on the issues she cares about can feel a little uncanny – until you realise it’s the same bright, fiercely outspoken attitude that her mum, Neneh Cherry, brought to the charts in the late 80s/early 90s with her free-spirited pop songs. Looking at Mabel now, you could easily blink and be transported back to 1988, the year Cherry dropped her smash hit “Buffalo Stance”. Has her mum given her any advice about how to navigate her own success? “All she ever said to me was, ‘You’re strong and you know what you want – you’ll be fine.’”