One thing to know about Mabel McVey is that she has a hard time making up her mind. When we sit down in Manhattan's Souen Soho, the 21-year-old looks slightly overwhelmed as she flips through the pages of the healthy menu with her long, blue nails. "I'm so indecisive," she says with a smile. "But my mom is worse than me, she always changes her order. After everyone else is done ordering she'll be like 'Actually, I changed my mind...'"
This mother that she speaks of is Swedish music legend Neneh Cherry, and her father is producer Cameron McVey. (No big deal, right?) Mabel was fortunate enough to get a lot of good genes passed down from both of her parents, including her natural music abilities.
Raised as a strict vegetarian, Mabel grew up in what she describes as a "hippie" household in London. Starting at a young age, she was always drawn to the sounds of R&B; Mabel cites '90s and '00s icons like Lauryn Hill and Destiny's Child as the biggest influences on her as a singer and songwriter.
Mabel never took singing lessons as a child, preferring to spend her time mimicking artists that she loved, like Mariah Carey, and learning the basics, like harmonies, melodies, and... whistling. "I think that that's what I did for the first 10 years of my musical relationship," she laughs.
It wasn't until Mabel moved back to Stockholm as a teenager that she attended a real music school. She recalls how "it was such a wake-up call going to music school and being one among so many that are really good at singing." Mabel adds, "It taught me so much about how to sing properly. You have to be so careful with your voice, especially when you're using it every day."
Instead of playing guitar like most of her indie-entranced classmates at Rytmus, Mabel was deeply attached to the piano. Her approach to music has never been what is considered mainstream, but that's exactly what makes Mabel stand out amongst her peers. She's strategic about every move she makes and sees the benefit of fine-tuning the little details to fill out the bigger picture.
Being an authentic version of herself is something else that is extremely important to Mabel; she refers to Rihanna as one of the best examples of defining yourself as an artist. "Whatever she does, she just owns it," says Mabel. "I think it takes time, to get that confidence."
Even though Mabel is in the early stages of her career, she is already thinking about building a lasting musical legacy. (As if you could ever forget that powerful, soulful voice of hers.) This is why she isn't doing too many things at once, especially in other commercial fields. Even though she loves fashion, Mabel is very particular about what clothing brands she chooses to partner with despite what this means in terms of gaining exposure.
"I want to be an artist that grows slowly. If you appear overnight there's a chance that you will also just disappear overnight," she says before biting into a piece of tofu teriyaki. "I think people do want to see the natural evolutions. I don't want to be all over the place with my style and my music, but I am experimenting... People are more forgiving with that than we think, you don't have to pick one thing."
And maybe that's why Mabel feels so indecisive—she knows the only thing limiting her is how far she wants to go.
Mabel's debut Bedroom EP is out now. Learn more about Mabel in the interview, below.
You obviously come from a musical family, but can you recall your earliest memory of music?
It would probably be falling asleep in the studio. I can remember my eyes closing, and it was in my dad's studio, which was in Primrose Hill, not far from where our house was. He was working with The Sugababes at the time, and it was super dark in there, and I remember the bass feeling really nice and being like, "Ahhh, this is great." I loved, really heavy bass; sometimes in the studio, I'm like, "Wow, this makes me sleepy."
Was everyone in your family expecting you to pursue music or did they just let you figure it out for yourself?
I was a super-sensitive kid; I was quite anxious and had a lot of questions. Not that I'm like that necessarily now, but I was quite intelligent. Often when you're a kid and your brain is working faster, your emotional capacity can't really understand things... The best way [my parents] knew how to deal with emotions was through music. My dad was like, "Emotions are an instrument, have something positive as a creative outlet." I learned piano, and then my mom always kept journals... I must have been like five or six when I realized that I could connect the two—my journals could become lyrics.