U.K. Pop Star Mabel Talks the Success of 'Don't Call Me Up' & Embracing Her Famous Family and Mixed-Race Identity
The rising talent also discusses what to expect from her forthcoming debut album.
It’s a bright, early spring morning in New York City and Mabel is sick. Just as the city is struggling to shake the stranglehold of winter’s bitter grasp, the singer has been battling a chest infection for days, to no avail. The persistent cough that’s been plaguing her is no doubt exacerbated by her near-constant travel schedule as of late -- in the last week alone, she’s jetted between San Francisco, L.A., Chicago and New York on a whirlwind American press tour.
However, tucked in a corner booth of a bustling coffee shop in New York’s Flatiron District, the 23-year-old Mabel looks every bit the part of a casually glamorous pop star. Throwing off an oversized fur coat, she reveals a cropped black jacket exposing a bare midriff and some kind of harness top held together by a pair of large plastic buckles. Her lime-green nails are expertly manicured, each finger emblazoned with a variation of the opulent Versace logo, down to the luxury brand’s iconic Medusa head.
While Mabel may be on the brink of international stardom herself, she remains an ardent fan -- obsessed with the melodic R&B stylings of Kehlani (“her first mixtape was, like, everything to me,” she says) and Bazzi (she loved “Beautiful” even before Camila Cabello jumped on the duet version). However, the young singer-songwriter is rapidly amassing a loyal fandom of her own. She's set to take the stage the following night at Public Arts, the posh, mid-size venue beneath the PUBLIC Hotel for her debut New York showcase -- the prospect of which leaves her unfazed after playing arenas across Europe as the opener for Harry Styles’ 2018 headlining tour. (“It’s nice to go back to playing rooms where you can see people’s faces,” she says earnestly.)
Discussing the success of her breakout single "Don't Call Me Up," Mabel’s entire face brightens, eyes twinkling to match the glint of the Chanel diamonds in her ears. The bouncy break-up banger is sitting comfortably in the top 3 of the U.K. Singles Chart following her first-ever Brit nomination, and has just cracked the Billboard Top 40, giving the rising pop star her first stateside hit on the Pop Songs Chart. (As of press time, the song has gained even more momentum, climbing to No. 27 on the chart dated March 30.)
“It’s really insane,” she says of the single’s success. “I think when you're sort of in the eye of the storm, it's such a difficult feeling to grasp. Obviously I'm so excited and stoked to be here. At the same time I'm just doing it, so I'm focusing on taking everything one day at a time and just trying to enjoy things as they're happening. But it's definitely something that I've wanted for a long time.”
The song’s arrival on this side of the Atlantic feels like a case of perfect timing for Mabel’s rise, as female pop stars like Ariana Grande, Halsey and Lady Gaga have crashed the boys club that marked the top of the charts for most of 2018. (Thus far in 2019, women have spent 11 total weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100, matching last year’s total in just three short months.) Meanwhile, in the lower stretches of the chart, newer faces like Ava Max, Fletcher and Billie Eilish are each having breakout moments of their own.
“It's really exciting for female pop now, especially,” Mabel says. “There's so many inspiring women dominating the charts, so I feel like I'm definitely a part of a wave that's just really interesting and really cool. I feel like we can look back in, like, 20 years or whatever and be like ‘That's so sick! That was the start of something epic.’"
The day before arriving in New York, Mabel had experienced another epic moment on her road to pop stardom: hearing her single for the first time on American radio. “He was like ‘She's so sweet, her name is Mabel,’” she says of the DJ’s introduction with a hearty laugh. “I was like ‘Oh my god, I'M MABEL!'"
Such giddy affirmation is the result of a long road of self-discovery. Born in Malaga, Spain to Swedish singer Neneh Cherry (whose 1989 single "Buffalo Stance" peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100) and British producer Cameron McVey, (collaborator for the likes of Massive Attack, All Saints and Portishead), the roots of Mabel’s family tree reach back generations in the music industry. (Her step-grandfather is also the late American jazz musician Don Cherry, while uncle Eagle-Eye Cherry's alt-rock hit "Save Tonight" reached No. 5 on the Hot 100 in 1998.) It’s a lineage the young singer was forced to reckon with as she began making her own music.
“When I was a teenager, I was like, ‘Aww, maybe I should change my name and try and separate myself from it.’ And then I was like, 'No' -- 'cause I'm proud of what they've done, and even though I'm a different person and a different artist, I am, still, because they are,” she says, soft Swedish vowels giving the lilt of her North London accent a decidedly philosophical bent. “And I'm proud to be their daughter, so why not just own it?”
Mabel’s rich family legacy also brought on an even more elemental question of identity, as the creative teen transitioned into adulthood. Growing up mixed-race, the budding pop talent felt particularly out of place among the blonde-haired, blue-eyed peers of her Swedish high school -- she counts Spanish, English, Swedish and Sierra Leonean ancestry among her varied heritage -- an experience she labels “painful” and “fucking weird.” However, the years spent feeling like an outsider inspired Mabel to explore how her heritage could inform her artistry.
“I think growing up, people want to put you in a box and label you quite often, just because it's kind of easier I guess,” she says with a shrug. “So I had to kind of go on a journey of going to Sweden and figuring out, ‘OK what is it about Sweden that I love? What's Swedish about me? How can I apply that to my music?’ And the same with West Africa. I think, yeah, my music definitely wouldn't sound the way that it does if it hadn't been for that.”
The singer found inspiration in her multicultural roots, creating a unique musical signature by blending her R&B background with the sensibilities of Swedish pop music and the Afrobeats of Sierra Leone.
“I think it was just about being really proud of my heritage,” she explains. “Like when the Afrobeats fell into place for me, that's a massive part of who I am. They made the record that launched my career back home, [U.K. top ten hit] ‘Finders Keepers,’ and I was kind of afraid of my identity before... I think from being a teenager up until about sort of now has all just been about figuring it out, and just learning to be really proud.”
Now that she’s found both her sound and herself, Mabel is hard at work on her debut album, recording material between press appearances and awards show nominations -- she was up against Jorja Smith, Ella Mai and eventual winner Tom Walker for British breakthrough act at this year's Brit Awards. The new LP will be a proper follow-up to her 2017 mixtape, Ivy to Roses, which recently scored a re-release featuring six tracks that were dropped in the interim -- including “Don’t Call Me Up,” “One Shot” and “Ring Ring,” her collaboration with Jax Jones and Rich The Kid.
Mabel describes the process of crafting the album as “sewing all the pieces together” into a cohesive artistic statement. She’s focused on “telling a story” with the help of a small team of trusted collaborators, including her brother, Mattafix singer Marlon Roudette, and best friend, songwriter Kelly Kiara.
“It's a lot more up-tempo and fun and playful than I thought it was gonna be,” she says of the new material. “Coming from an R&B background, I was like, ‘I’m gonna make slow jams.’ When I wrote ‘Finders Keepers,’ musically everything changed for me. I want to make people dance, I want to make people smile and I want my music to get played in clubs... I want those records that girls put on before they go out, when they're just getting ready. And I feel like the album has that.”
While an official release date has yet to be set by Universal, Mabel already has a specific goal in mind for what she hopes her debut album will accomplish.
“I'd say if anything, the goal with it is to make people feel really fucking good about themselves,” she says. “I just want people to feel confident and good and dance and be feeling themselves, because I've gained a lot of confidence in writing it. So that's what I want to give to people.”