Finding fame at just 14, five years later he’s lived enough to share stories of his own.
I’d say I’m currently — at most — within a five mile radius of Shawn Mendes. I could climb onto the roof and shout my questions into the pollution-pink London sky and he’d probably hear them. So when I dial into our call, I’m still huffing about being relegated to a phone interview despite his almost tangible proximity. He answers with Blue Peter presenter enthusiasm and addresses me eagerly by name without any prompts; a task not as simple as it seems when, like Mendes, you meet dozens of people you’ll never see again every day. My admittedly entitled attitude is shattered, thankfully before it could make its cranky presence known.
Anyway, Mendes’ schedule is planned far too early in advance for yet another journalist to pop up in person and disrupt the running order of the day. The 19-year old Vine star turned megastar, has — if you can believe it — a more pressing engagement than a phone call with me. He’s in London to perform at the Queen’s televised 92nd birthday celebration. “I’m playing ‘In My Blood’,” he explains in his soft, Canadian lilt that makes everything he says sound wholeheartedly earnest. “I don’t know how the Queen feels about loud rock music, but that’s what it’s going to sound like!” It’s probably rare for the Queen to feel like the supporting act anywhere, but when Mendes takes to the Royal Albert Hall stage the day after we speak — with a polished, guitar-led performance as promised — poor Lizzie drops down the metaphorical lineup and downgrades to first reserve headliner. Happy birthday, babes.
(LEFT) Top TOMMY HILFIGER
(RIGHT) Jacket TOMMY JEANS
You see, Mendes first shot to fame in 2013 singing covers on departed video sharing platform Vine, crooned through a half smile and with a butter-wouldn’t melt expression. Since, he’s sold over 10 million albums, 100 million singles and his songs have been streamed more than 11 billion times. We’re talking in terms of numbers too big to translate; invisible quantities so vast you’ll never truly be able to wrangle them. “I think everything is going to be pretty easy considering it’s the Queen’s birthday…” he breezes, well-versed in milestone moments, “they’ve done it a few times before.” Later tonight he’ll appear on Feels Like Friday Night at the BBC, and face a barrage of hormone-fuelled teens screaming the words back to him of songs he released just four weeks before. Tell me Gen Z can’t change the world and I’ll show you that clip.
Taken from his self-titled third album released in May, first teaser singles “Lost In Japan” and “In My Blood” mark maturity for Mendes. Where his last two long plays, 2015’s Handwritten and 2016’s Illuminate, dealt primarily in moody, longing pop ballads, the new music offers genre-hopping melodies decorated with sincerely personal lyrics. “I think people will be pleasantly surprised at the fact I can do other genres that they haven’t heard me sing,” he says. “I don’t just listen to one genre, I listen to rap, pop, rock and country and if that’s what I listen to, then that’s what I’m going to create. I let the cohesive factor be my story and my voice, and my rule is: if it’s a good song, it’s a good song. Roll with it.”
You get the sense that where a 14-year-old Mendes was once singing projections of what life and love might be like, five years later, he’s lived enough to share his own trials; “In My Blood” being the most crystalline, honest account. “It was absolutely terrifying,” he laughs nervously, revealing his struggles with anxiety within the anthemic track. “I was thinking, what if people say, ‘Why is he making sad songs? We like his songs about love.’ I was terrified, then I realised it’s not about that. The day after it came out, I started getting messages from fans, friends and family about how important it was to them. You know, I couldn’t be happier.” The song details the vacant helplessness that leads to lying on your bathroom floor, a coping mechanism that’s quite rightly a pop culture cliché and one that this medicated journalist can confirm occasionally helps you feel grounded and present, if only physically and for a second.
It was “sometime last year or the year before” when he first started tackling his anxiety by confronting it in his music. “Sometimes it’s not about seeking help and getting a therapist,” he reasons. “The hardest thing to do is accept what’s going on and the human mind has this funny thing where if you acknowledge that something is wrong, sometimes it works towards helping you instead of going against you. Just talking to friends and family and talking to people, becoming more open and vulnerable with everything that’s going on in my life, it’s really hard at first, and with the public it’s hard at first, but ultimately it made things easier for me.”
(LEFT) Top SAINT LAURENT by ANTHONY VACCARELLO
(RIGHT) Jacket and jeans TOMMY HILFIGER
Tasked with protecting not only his own mental health, Mendes acts as an adopted guardian from afar for his fans. The “Mendes army” message daily with both thanks for his music and seeking advice on all the big questions that arrive amidst the coming-of-age chaos. Whether it’s problems with relationships, sexuality, creativity or emotional and mental plights, they see their idol as an oracle. “Honestly,” he exhales, “the thing is, I don’t know the answers to those questions. All I know is the way I feel about them.” He’s not superhuman, he’s just, well… Shawn. “If they’re asking me these questions, it’s a really deep connection that they have with me,” he explains with an audible concern. “Obviously it’s a lot of pressure to be asked these big life questions and be expected to say something profound back, but I think the trick to answering in the right way is to be honest.”
By this point, I’m embarrassed to say I’m twirling my hair and clutching at the Wonderland HQ phone coil like a cartoon schoolgirl. The media trained label puppet I was cynically expecting to find on the other end of the receiver is actually just a bit of a babe. Mendes is flying through life at an accelerated speed and maturing in double time. Consider me charmed. I do have a tiny dig, though. Surely being the golden boy in a world of disgraced teen celebrities can’t be all that fun? There must have been times when rebellion was tempting? “I mean, I haven’t had a chance,” he jokes. “I just need a few years! Don’t jinx me! No, I think I’ve been really lucky to have a good foundation of people around me… I’m just a normal person and nobody talks me up too much. Support is there when you need it, but not when it’s not needed. I think it’s really important to keep your feet on the ground. You never know though,” he teases, “give it a couple
more years and you might be taking back everything you just said.”
I can’t say I’m expecting to read headlines about anything more scandalous than dating rumours any time soon. Mendes knows the value of his position, the reach of his influence and the responsibility that comes with it. “Yeah sometimes, it’s hard,” he admits. “I wish you could be me for a couple of hours. You never truly understand the magnitude of the people you’re affecting when you write something online. I don’t think that ever clicks with you because it’s impossible to picture talking to 30 million people. That’s being said, I do think about it. I don’t post dumb shit online and I process that social media is littered with negative stuff. If I’m going to add to it, I’m going to make it positive. That’s my rule.”
(LEFT) Classic denim trucker jacket TOMMY JEANS
(RIGHT) Top SAINT LAURENT by ANTHONY VACCARELLO
It’s rule he not only self-practises but preaches to the masses. “Youth” featuring Khalid from his new record is a song of solidarity that, put simply, reminds us all not to let the catastrophic shit show that is our current social and political climate poison us. “I mean, I think our generation is insanely incredible,” he agrees when I suggest we’re — quite deservedly — the angriest the world’s seen in a while. “More than ever the youth’s opinions matter,” he continues, “and when it comes to music, it makes music a hell of a lot harder, but it also cuts through the bullshit and creates this very authentic thing where authentic musicians, and musicians that are talking about things they care about cut through, and I think that’s beautiful. It hasn’t really happened like this before.”
Those aforementioned authentic artists, rising to clarity in our present murky state, join Mendes on this year’s TIME 100. The only musicians to make 2018’s list of the Most Influential People are no fucks-given walking statement Cardi B, eternal realest icon Rihanna, Jennifer “from the block now worth upwards of $300 million” Lopez, the unstoppably defiant Kesha and Mendes. “Like everything else, I couldn’t have seen that coming,” he promises, self-effacing as ever. “People don’t like when things are fake and they don’t want to conform, they want to see a truth and since the beginning that’s something I’ve stood by. It’s not so much about doing the world’s most incredible thing, it’s about trying to make a difference in a positive way.” You can like or lump Mendes if you’re too cool for the top 40 (bore off), but with his 24 hour sunshine demeanour rarely slipping, his output is refreshingly non-toxic.
The rest of 2018 will see Mendes tour his album to hundreds of thousands of fans. While a crowd the size of London’s O2 Arena might morph into a faceless frenzy from the stage, his track history of turning on the house lights and playing solo with a guitar is an endearing attempt to connect with every individual. “It’s just so important to let your guard down,” he concludes. “The crowd lets their guard down and I think it’s hard for them to go to a concert and let go and just enjoy the music. It’s hard for me when I go to a concert, I feel so conscious. So when I let my guard down on stage, I think it helps fans to do the same, which creates this beautiful thing. It’s really important to me.” A brave man, inviting 20,000 teenagers at a time to lose their inhibitions, but that’s precisely why they’re willing to.
Taken from the Summer 2018 Issue of Wonderland; available to buy here.