In an era where the music industry’s conceptions of “credibility” are constantly morphing, Mabel McVey wears her love for pure pop music on her sleeve. Her response when asked whether she thinks the lingering connotations of pop music being ‘uncool’ are beginning to genuinely disappear, her reply is succinct – “Well I really hope so, because it’s absolute bullshit.”
When I call Mabel she’s fresh from a hot yoga session, strolling around sunny Los Angeles with a smoothie bowl in hand. This Californian lifestyle is one of many she’s already experienced in just 20 years – she was born in the mountains of rural Spain before her family moved to London, where she lived until she was eight years old and returned to when she was 18. Between these spells in the British capital, the musician spent her adolescence in the perceivably straight-laced Stockholm. It was here that Mabel became acutely aware of her racial identity. “There just wasn’t a word for what I was,” she tells me. “In London, I would tell people I was mixed- race and they’d just say ‘OK, cool’, whereas in Sweden it was difficult because I felt like I had to explain myself. People still say ‘mulatto’, which basically means ‘mule.’”
Despite the prevalence of uneducated attitudes towards race, Sweden’s musical output appears to be diversifying, with artists such as Seinabo Sey (who is half-Gambian) and Zhala (a musician of Kurdish heritage) gathering local support and international attention. “I think people like to label everything, so they’ll think about Sweden and assume everybody’s blonde,” Mabel says. “If you look at all these amazingly strong women in music now, we’re all brown – and I love that!” Aside from her contemporaries, Mabel cites throwback influences as sources of inspiration. “I feel like a lot of RnB victimises women, and I hate that. Women are strong, we’re powerful – I think Destiny’s Child showed me that.”
The musician’s affinity for the 90s is as evident in her style. “Fashion is one of the only other ways I learned to express myself,” she tells me. “Growing up, I was always into wearing these crazy outfits, so it’s nice that it puts me in control of defining the way that people perceive me.” She admits that her outfits have the ability to both reflect and affect her mood. “Sometimes I can spend an hour wearing something that just makes me feel really banging. That can change my day.”
Mabel’s also aware of the power of her platform, and she’s eager to share her spotlight with young designers.
In this shoot, she wears designs from Londoners Ashley Williams and Christopher Shannon, as well as pieces from Nicopanda and Moschino. “The fact that people are supporting me is amazing, so I want to be supporting other young people that are doing things just because I know how important it is. Music and fashion go hand in hand, so it’s important to help each other out.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Mabel initially tried resisting her urges to explore music as career. She is, somewhat famously, the daughter of Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey – a musical heritage which she admits made the release of her first single a daunting experience. “I naturally thought that people would assume a lot of stuff, which they do. People assume that my parents helped me write the tunes, which they didn’t.” Her debut single Know Me Better – released last year – was an infectious, upbeat invitation to look past her famous parents and instead explore her own personality, juxtaposing candid lyrics with huge pop choruses.
Follow-up single My Boy My Town increased Mabel’s hype, earning her a Twitter endorsement from one of the most successful women in music, Adele. “I was so shocked! But she tells real stories, and I want to do that too, so it was good for me and my confidence.” Ultimately, though, for Mabel it all comes down to accessibility, creating songs which are euphoric yet relatable. “I really love when people just smash a good pop tune,” she says. “Yeah, I like to try that.”
Words: Jake Hall
Photography: Leonn Ward
Styling: Luci Ellis
Hair: Nuriye Sonmez using ghd & Bumble and Bumble
Make-up: Anna Wild using Charlotte Tilbury & Caudalie Skincare