Mabel McVey likes to be surrounded by her favourite things. On the day of her HUNGER shoot, she comes with quite the entourage: there’s her stylist, Simone Beyene, who she has known since childhood, her extended team of nine publicists, managers, assistants and glam, plus an assortment of close friends and her two Italian greyhounds. They’re all exhausted after an unrelenting few days of promo for her banger-heavy second album, About Last Night…, which journeys through the heady highs and lows of a big night out. But the Mabel we meet today isn’t who you would necessarily expect for someone known for dance anthems that dominate clubs across the UK. She’s softly spoken, homely, focused – and it’s this side of herself that she’s ready to share.
“Obviously you have to be open as an artist, but in my personal life, I’m very much an introvert. I just like that I’m not alone when I’m with my dogs and my horse and it means I don’t need to be around people,” laughs the 26-year-old. It was in 2019, just before the first Covid-19 lockdown, that her hairstylist bought McVey her first dog, Imani, sensing that she was in desperate need of grounding. It worked: with every feed and every walk, Imani reminded her to take care of her own basic needs, which she had been woefully neglecting.
Externally, though, McVey was at the top of her game. Her 2019 track “Don’t Call Me Up” became the biggest-selling single by a British female artist that year. She has since scooped up a dozen top 20 hits – and a Brit award, precisely 30 years after her musician mother Neneh Cherry did the same (her father is Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey). “It should have been the time of my life,” she acknowledges about the record’s success, but the reality couldn’t have looked more different.
“Nothing can really prepare you for suddenly getting a lot of views, numbers, followers and having a lot of protection around you. Even though it was the most successful time in my career, I wasn’t enjoying it,” she says. “I was just so scared of everything and wrapped up in other people’s validation. I didn’t have any of the tools to cope with it, and mentally I was just on edge the whole time.” Contending with anxiety and depression was nothing new for McVey, who pinpoints first struggling with the former as a four-year-old. Being bullied at school in her mother’s native Stockholm didn’t help, and McVey grew to live with a constant thrum of anxiety, which continued unchecked as she climbed the ranks as a young female pop artist, crucially, in the age of social media.
On one of the last weekends before lockdown, during what should have been her first bit of time off in a year, McVey hit breaking point and decided to go sober. “I was already stressing about work and what people were gonna say about my next moves,” she recalls. “So I went out two nights in a row. You think it’s gonna make you feel better and that it’ll help you forget, but there’s gonna be a point where it’ll hit you – whether you’re dancing or when you get home. I just realised that looking forward to something that’s here one second and gone the next isn’t healthy. My confidence was so low that I felt like liquid courage was too much of a negative spiral to get caught in. I needed to clear my head.”
When the stay-at-home order hit, McVey retreated to the safety of her parents’ home in west London, and the realisations came thick and fast. Calling everything she had been told and advised in her career into question, she figured out that her team weren’t necessarily working in her best interests, and had, in some instances, led her astray. “It started with thinking that I’m not feeling like myself, but in fact I had no idea who I even was – and none of the people around me were my friends. It’s very easy when you’re a young, pretty girl to end up doing a lot of things that don’t have longevity,” she says carefully, adding that she isn’t putting the blame on any one individual. “People still to this day come to my shows and say they had no idea I can sing. Sometimes doing the thing that won’t give you the highest chart position isn’t encouraged, but I’m thinking about the next ten years! Sadly, in this industry, people aren’t going to stay with you that long and everyone is thinking about their paycheque. I was incredibly naive about that.”
Lockdown provided McVey with the time and space to recover. She opened up to her parents, went to therapy and started taking medication. “It would have been so easy to not sort myself out,” she says, pulling at her long, waist-length braids. “I could have carried on what I was doing and had a complete breakdown, but I care so much about what I do and my family that I had to do it right, even if it took a bit of time.” Although 2019 was her biggest year, McVey was only in the studio four times, but at home, she found herself writing her second album, which despite her year of sobriety, is a love letter to those transcendent, hedonistic moments that can only be found in the early hours of the morning, on a dancefloor, surrounded by sweaty bodies and mates who have made an unspoken pact to keep going until dawn.
“The album is about a time when I was going out a lot and those experiences made for some amazing songs. It’s fine to have fun, but in this industry, it’s so easy. It’s crazy how people grow from their early to late twenties. Now it could be a crazy party and I’d be like… I’m tired.” Still, there are clearly no regrets. “I think it signifies a time in my life and that’s beautiful. It’s like tattoos,” McVey exclaims, pointing at her arms. “I have some shit ones but I’m not ashamed of them because they signify a time in my life I don’t wanna forget. The album is a metaphor for the person I was and she was really fun. But it’s storytelling too – I want to invite people into this fantasy party where they can be themselves. My purpose as a person is to make people feel good.’’
McVey is clearly more comfortable with herself now. Making About Last Night… she became more assured in her dual-heritage identity, as she started incorporating elements of her cultural upbringing into the music and visuals. “Being in Sweden, I never addressed the fact that I am a mixed-race woman. But as my mum said to me the other day about having my hair in braids, it’s actually offensive to not own the fact that I am.” It’s something she only realised when her maternal grandfather, the Sierra Leonean jazz musician Ahmadu Jah, died. “I listen to so much Afrobeats, and I never spoke to him about it because I felt my skin was too pale and I can look white-passing. I didn’t want to offend anyone.” Of course, McVey’s experience with trolling has been well documented – had she shirked away from her identity in fear, I wonder. “I know my privilege in no sob story way,” she levels. “But I do think that being mixed you also end up in this weird space where you’re not allowed to do some things, and not knowing entirely who you are makes it difficult to be creative.”
At this point in the conversation, there’s clearly an elephant in the room: that of the music industry and its historic treatment of female pop stars. “There’s an incredible amount of pressure placed on young female artists. I’m sorry, but the number of guys I see who just stand around with a guitar… I would get absolutely slated for sitting and doing an acoustic set.” There’s also the pressure to conform to the “machine” of fame: “Everyone gets media training but at a young age that can be damaging. It definitely was for me, because I came into this new era where everyone wants banter on TikTok and they want you to be authentic. People are saying they don’t know who I am and I’m, like, that’s the industry’s fault! They polished away all those rough, exciting, funny bits. I’m still figuring it out.”
So who is Mabel McVey? For starters, she loves her animals, she loves her team and she really loves her family. On the day of her shoot, I was surprised at how many people she brought along, but over the course of our conversation I got it – they’re people who truly care about her and her vision – “I always have at least one person who is just there to bring good vibes,” Mabel laughs. She goes to her father for advice and touring is now a McVey-family activity, but safety net aside, she has realised that her success is only valid if she has stayed true to herself throughout. “Some people would look at this campaign in comparison to my first and see it is a failure because I’ve lost numbers. But it’s a huge success to me,” she declares. “I’m thinking about what truly makes me happy. You can be really passionate about what you do, but it shouldn’t define who you are or compromise your mental health. I want to be as big as I can possibly be, but it’s got to be on my own terms.”
This feature comes from HUNGER 25, the celebrity issue — purchase here.