How Mabel Pushed Past the Pressure of Being the 'Next Big Thing'
With her debut EP on the precipice of release, the 21-year-old artist has her shit sorted and her pop sound perfected – so what comes next?
The first time I met Mabel was during an unusually humid day in August 2015, just after she'd released her first track "Know Me Better". We'd spent the morning eating porridge in a west London diner, debating the most influential pop and R&B albums, rolling our eyes about various exes and chatting about how excited she was to finally get out there and perform to the public. She'd said she'd been wanting to do this since she was five years old – the age she was when she first started playing piano.
Now, almost two years have passed in what feels like a flash, and we're meeting at the Barbican. In the time since we've spoken, her profile has risen exponentially. She's been popping up everywhere, from fashion spreads in i-D to art projects in the Tate Modern to Skepta's now-iconic video for "Shutdown" – incidentally also filmed at the Barbican. Even so, aside from a handful of songs – including her soulful, joyous jam "Thinking Of You" and recent Kojo Funds collab "Finders Keepers" – Mabel's Soundcloud has remained relatively quiet. But, with her debut EP Bedroom on the precipice of its release, it feels as though she is about to finally unleash what she's been working on for all this time – or at least some of it.
Dressed down in camo combats, a black bomber jacket and sunglasses, Mabel puts out a hand to greet me, before realising that we've met before and pulling me in for a hug. "I'm actually so sick at the moment," she says, rolling her eyes as we venture through the dark grey concrete towers of the Barbican. "I caught the flu off her," she adds, gesturing good-naturedly towards her aunt – who does her hair and makeup on photoshoots, and who snorts with laughter in reply.
It's approaching lunchtime, so we decide to find a place to sit, chat and eat. Mabel and her aunt tell me how obsessed they are with food chain Pret A Manger. "Seriously, they do the best soup!" Mabel says, clocking my surprise. Her aunt interjects: "There's this corn and quinoa one they do, and we found the actual recipe online and tried to recreate it, but it just wasn't the same." Much to their genuine disappointment, the nearest Pret we find is too rammed with stressed, hungry office workers to find a seat, so we settle for a quieter cafe spot nearby. Mabel goes for a tea for her sore throat.
The last time we spoke, Mabel had been gearing up to play her first ever show and the thought of it had filled her with anxiety. Now, performing live has become second nature. "It's the best feeling in the world, I live for it," she says, stirring a dollop of honey into her tea and taking a sip. "I turn into this whole other person that it took me a while to find. Now, there are a lot of hair flicks and dancing. I go up there and I am myself, but I do have to detach myself from the Mabel that goes to the gym, and the Mabel that makes toast, and I have to connect to something else entirely."
Building up this inner sense of assurance and detachment in order to give a great performance is something she attributes to watching her mum, Neneh Cherry, backstage before and after shows when she was a kid. "I remember seeing my mum before she would play and finding her really scary and feeling like she wasn't my mum. But then she'd come off stage and she'd be herself again," she explains, "I feel like I've learnt a lot from her. You do have to disconnect."
While Mabel's confidence levels have risen, there's also been a palpable amount of pressure piled onto her during the past couple of years. From the moment she first emerged as a teenager (she's now 21), she was touted as the Next Big Thing by everyone from the Guardian Guide to Dazed, positioned by PR and press as the young musical protege of Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack's Cameron McVey, and as someone helping to spearhead the new wave of 90s-facing UK pop and R&B. Fortunately, her output so far has lived up to these expectations, but that doesn't mean it's not daunting at times.
"It's not like I have a lot of people listening to my music in comparison to others, but it's still scary making a record when people already have expectations," she tells me. "Also, I was so young when I started putting out music, so I do just feel like it's difficult stylistically. Like, I don't want anybody to think 'she's a bit all over the place', but I am experimenting with my sound and I just want the world to hear all those things. It's so hard to narrow it all down and write a record because I've written so many songs."
It turns out she's not exaggerating – she's written hundreds of songs, most of which have been scrapped because she's not entirely happy with them, and she's gone through enough producers and songwriters to last a lifetime. "They're all good and I'm good, but it's just about chemistry because you have to spend everyday in a room with a stranger," she tells me, before explaining: "All my favourite albums were made by small teams of people who were locked away for a year – Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, for example, or even Aaliyah when it was just her and Timbaland in a room – but to find those people, you have to kiss a lot of frogs... I want to make an iconic, timeless album. I'm not saying that I'm going to, but I'm trying at least, and for me that's the way to do it."
When speaking to Mabel about her music, it's clear she retains a fiercely perfectionist streak – and so far, it's paid off. Her upcoming 4-track EP is an impressive, cohesive body of work, blending sensual, winding R&B production from Joel Compass (who has worked with FKA twigs and Tinashe) with the kind of sticky pop hooks that bury into your brain and stay there for hours. She's also got a brilliant knack for writing relatable lyrics about relationships, perfectly articulating the very specific thrills and frustrations that come with trying to find the right person, and often failing. "Two days of the week I was your main thing, because soon enough I found out that the other days were taken," she sings in title track "Bedroom", her words sinking in like meticulously aimed darts, "so I don't believe a word that you've been saying / telling me to come over, but you know that I wasn't sober". Obviously, everyone writes about love and sex, but Mabel manages to do so in a way that sounds fresh and real.
I ask her whether she always writes directly from experience. "Yeah, I literally have been in relationships since I was 15; I just love being in love," she tells me, gently laughing and adjusting her ponytail. "Bedroom", she says, was about a relationship that she simply got tired of trying to fix. "I just woke up one day and realised, 'you're not at all who I want you to be, you're not even trying…' I feel like I've learnt a lot from that experience. I feel like I'd never be in a relationship again with somebody who doesn't appreciate me. I see my sisters do it, I even see my mum do it, and it's like, 'it's not your responsibility to fix this. You're in a relationship with somebody; it shouldn't just be all you'."
While we're on the subject of relationships, she says that right now, her music will always come first, and that has presented a few problems with men whose egos are too fragile to handle it. "Even the sweetest, sweetest men can't deal with it!" she says, widening her eyes in astonishment. "I understand now why musicians go out with musicians, and actors go out with actors, even though before I thought that was so lame. It's such a typical thing – guys will fall in love with me because they're like, 'oh she's doing all these sick things, she works really hard', but then all those reasons become the things they hate; they become problems and they try to control them, and I cannot be controlled."
This simple declaration – that Mabel cannot be controlled – is one that extends far beyond her relationships and seeps into her art and her very presence. When a musician is right at the beginning of their career, before they've released an album, it can be very hard to differentiate between what they're actually creating and what is just hot air. With Mabel, though, you get the feeling that she will go far by the sheer force of her vision and the ability to fine-tune her natural talents. It's a sentiment she agrees with: "My dad's always been like 'if you work hard enough, if you're a nice person and you genuinely love what you do, there's no way that you can't get what you want' and I do believe that," she says, adding: "And every day, before I leave the house, my mum goes, "don't let them change you!"
As we get up from the table to go our separate ways, I mention that she hasn't changed at all in the two years between our meeting. "Oh my god," she starts cracking up, "literally imagine if I was here with two Chihuahuas and two personal assistants and I didn't take my sunglasses off! Just... nah."