The artist opens up to Kevin Abstract on everything from comparison culture to the power of therapy.

Shawn Mendes Wonderland shirtless with guitar
Shawn Mendes Wonderland shirtless with guitar

Taken from our Summer 21 issue. Order your copy now.
It all started with a tweet.

“Today, I meet him.” Kevin Abstract, the mastermind behind dizzying hip-hop collective Brockhampton, elusively posts on his Twitter feed. It’s 7:03 PM, July 2017.

“FUCKKK,” an out-of-focus snap of Abstract’s Shawn Mendes Illuminate World Tour VIP pass is quickly attached to the excited exclamation. After another excruciating ten minutes, he tweets again. “People behind me planning on how they are gonna talk to Shawn and I actually feel them I’m so nervous bro.” We’re watching the founding member of Brockhampton melt into the gushing mess only a true stan is capable of: “Do I hug him or shake his hand?” We call this the Shawn Mendes effect.

It’s gone 12.30 AM. Abstract finally arrives inside the dressing room of the global artist and icon. “HE WAS SO TALL DAWG OH MY GOD HE SAID ‘I LIKE YOUR SHIRT’ AND TOUCHED THE SHIRT OMG…”

But that was back then. Fast-forward four years, and today Mendes is sitting in Abstract’s LA home. For this interview, thankfully no VIP Pass is needed. Between uninhibited laughs and broken musings about their beloved dogs, Mendes describes their friendship as one based on “mostly deep stuff, sprinkled with a little bit of surface stuff in there [too].” But even outside their relationship, “surface stuff” has never really been on Mendes’ agenda.

The 22-year-old pop superstar continuously strives to raise awareness about mental health, an issue he’s struggled with both personally and publicly, citing that his expectations became so high for himself and his music that he battled to keep afloat in the sea of expectations that threatened – especially at the tender age of 17 – to drown him. So in honour of mental health awareness month, Mendes partnered with the meditation app, Calm, to help destigmatize the crucial conversation surrounding mental wellbeing, giving insight into his own journey to mindfulness (which has included a strict pescatarian diet and an unstoppable weakness for HU chocolate) with his exclusive new series ‘Breathe Into It.’“Taking 20 minutes to meditate every day has become the most important ritual in my life,” he explains. “I usually meditate right after I wake up and then I’ll journal and drink coffee for another 20 minutes. These two things really have changed my life.”

Shawn Mendes Wonderland shirtless

Jeans by LEVI’S, rings by ELLIOT GASKIN and necklace by VITALY.

Shawn Mendes Wonderland shirtless
Jeans by LEVI’S, rings by ELLIOT GASKIN and necklace by VITALY.

Alongside this, his self-named foundation which seeks to amplify and empower young trailblazers recently introduced life-changing ‘Wonder Grants,’ special funds designed to help next generation’s activists launch projects across music, film, the environment, and more – to their already prolific list of achievements. The first prestigious prize went to 18-year-old academic and social activism poet, Fanta Ballo, who Mendes discovered online, to help her complete her first book of poetry, For All the Things I Never Got to Say.

And somehow still, he has time to record new music, just months after releasing his fourth No.1 album Wonder back in December. And wonder we do, how Mendes has enough time – and energy – to do it all.

Mendes’ rise to fame is a story that’s been told so many times it’s soon to compete with the number of albums he’s sold. Okay, maybe that phenomenon is yet to reach the 10 million landmark. But with Mendes’ continuous rise both on and off the charts, the feat seems to be more than plausible in the near future. So, here it goes. At 14-years-old, he taught himself how to play the guitar at home in his native Toronto. By 15, he was on social media app Vine, amassing over half a billion views before its subsequent close quickly chucked him headfirst into the spotlight – blissfully ambitious and unprepared for what fame could throw at him. But unlike other pop stars with a following as big as him, each time he delves into his past, the narrative isn’t the same polished, pre-packaged tale churned out and chewed over by the mouths of many. Mendes undoubtedly radiates in his ability to be honest, repeatedly delving deeper and deeper into the crippling anxieties and struggles he’s faced as one of the biggest pop stars of our generation. Perhaps because underneath it all, Mendes is still just a small-town boy from Canada who willingly gave over his heart to music.

In one of those refreshingly frank and sincere conversations, Shawn Mendes opens up to Kevin Abstract on everything from comparison culture to the power of therapy, and how he struggles to live up to the unrealistic expectation of his own image.

Shawn Mendes Wonderland shirtless on bed

Jeans by LEVI’S, rings by ELLIOT GASKIN and necklace by VITALY.

Shawn Mendes Wonderland shirtless on bed
Jeans by LEVI’S, rings by ELLIOT GASKIN and necklace by VITALY.

SM: Do you wanna do this thing bro?
KA: I’m so down. Can I see some of the photos [from your Wonderland shoot]?

SM: [Passes over the phone] Yeah. You can keep scrolling.
KA: Fire!

SM: That’s a booger in my nose. Bro, how good is the booger selfie though?
KA: I got so distracted by the booger selfie. Are you happy with them?

SM: Yeah, I’m so happy. I think throughout Wonder I was thinking really big. And then I just wanted to bring it down, be very grounded, and just have some fun with the shoot, instead of being so ethereal. I was on the way [to the shoot], and my 21-year-old Creative Director – his name is Connor Brashier– who just got signed as a model said to me, ‘The way I feel about shoots is [that I’m] not having to represent myself. I feel like I have to just try and make art. I move my body and become art.’ And it’s like, it doesn’t have to be me either, it can just be me as a piece of art. I felt like that was so helpful, because it’s kind of crazy doing shoots especially when you’re shirtless, and you’re going for it. It was cool that he said that.
KA: That’s really cool.

SM: During that shoot, I was seeing myself shirtless on the monitor with my body oiled and I was like, ‘The craziest thing about these photos is I can never live up to that guy.’
KA: What do you mean?

SM: It’s something that I haven’t really spoken about, but when I was [featured] in my first Calvin Klein shoot, I was shirtless on a billboard. Any shoot where you’re basically ‘sexy’ in any type of way can really mess with your psyche because you’re struggling every day to live up to that guy. But you know, the lighting was there, you have makeup and a hairstylist there. People are there to make you look amazing. And then they capture the photo for one second, and you look at it like, ‘Wow.’ But realistically, you can’t really fit the shoes of that person in that photo – even as that person. It’s interesting because I know that there’s a lot of struggle in comparison culture. Everyone is comparing [themselves]. It’s important for me to say that even as the person in the photo, I can’t be the person in the photo. So, striving to be that person is not fair to anybody.
KA: Do you want to be the person though?

Shawn Mendes Wonderland black and white

Suit by FENDI, rings by ELLIOT GASKIN and bracelet by DAVID YURMAN.

Shawn Mendes Wonderland black and white
Suit by FENDI, rings by ELLIOT GASKIN and bracelet by DAVID YURMAN.

SM: No. I don’t even know if that person is real. I felt like after my Calvin Klein shoot, I had body dysmorphia through trying to be that person all the time. It can’t happen. If I had heard that the artist or the person in the photograph was trying to say they couldn’t even be that person, I’d be like, ‘Oh, I don’t need to be like that either.’
KA: Yeah, that’s sad.

SM: There is a sadness to it, for sure. But there’s also a unity to it, being able to say the human body is art when it’s shot in a cool and interesting way. Instead of it being like, ‘That person is the pinnacle of beauty, sex, and fitness.’ Instead of making it about the person, make it about the photo, which takes away the pressure and makes it so much more fun and playful.
KA: Outside of photoshoots, when do you feel the most confident?

SM: When I’m performing. I lose my sense of fear after about five minutes, and this flow-state comes in – it’s the most amazing feeling. I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve been on stage. I’m dying to play shows and feel that energy again!
KA: Do you have to think about people taking pictures of you when you leave the house every day?

SM: I do. But I stopped necessarily caring so much about that over the last year.
KA: Awesome.

SM: Yeah, because I feel like I really struggled with…I still struggle with trying to fit into the shoes of who I believe ‘Shawn Mendes’ should be.
KA: What do you think people want from you

SM: I don’t even think people want anything from me, I think it’s what I think people want from me, or what I think I should give to them.
KA: What does that look like?

SM: At some point along the line, my expectations and my standard of who I should be, the music I should make, and the way I should look, became so high that no matter what I did and no matter how hard I was trying with my music, I couldn’t fit those shoes. If I even struggle to [live up to] what I think I should be, I definitely don’t want to make it harder for the 14-year-old kid in Canada to be who they are by having some sort of unrealistic expectation of what you should look like.
KA: Is it easy for you to trust people on shoots?

SM: I dunno man, that’s a hard question because I think I’ve been doing it from such a young age. I think that I feel pretty comfortable in front of the camera now. When I first started, photoshoots were the thing that made me not want to do this for a living. They’re so hard and uncomfortable at the beginning. How do you feel?
KA: I hate it. It’s hard. Is there anything you’d wanna change about yourself?

SM: I think at this point I’ve just learned that it is what it is, and it’s all changeable, you know? You don’t have to wish and wait for your wish to come true to change something about yourself, you can work at it. For me, it’s always mental stuff.
KA: Who do you like to talk to the most?

Shawn Mendes Wonderland black and white
Shawn Mendes Wonderland black and white
Shawn Mendes Wonderland black and white
Shawn Mendes Wonderland black and white
Suit by FENDI, rings by ELLIOT GASKIN and bracelet by DAVID YURMAN.
Shawn Mendes Wonderland black and white
Shawn Mendes Wonderland black and white

SM: Probably my girlfriend.
KA: In what ways do you think talking to Camila [Cabello] has changed your creative process?

SM: Camila has helped me find so much freedom in my creative process. She’s constantly reminding me that I am not in a box, I can do whatever feels right in the moment, and the goal is enjoying the process and not always having to have a perfect product. I enjoy making music so much more nowadays.
KA: Do you guys talk about super deep stuff like this a lot?

SM: Definitely. I ran down from the shoot being like, ‘Damn, these photos are really awesome but I can’t live up to that guy!’ And that was the first thing I told her and she understood that completely. I talk to her a lot about that stuff, it’s important.
KA: Do you have therapy?

SM: Yeah.
KA: How often?

SM: Twice a week. But it’s been different, I’ve had different therapists and I’ve had different types of therapy. Where I am currently in my life, it’s a lot about realising you just got to let your humanity spill out, you know? You just gotta let it be there. I’m just trying to be there for myself and accept that. I went through a phase where I felt like I had to always be proactively fixing something about myself or healing. I think mental health is really tough because everybody’s struggling with something different, and I was going through a phase where I wasn’t even letting myself have any dark thoughts, bad feelings, or any judgment towards other people because I was like, ‘This is wrong, change it.’ I realised by doing that, I was suffocating myself. If for 22 years you went your whole life judging people and then on your 22nd year you decide you’re not going to judge anymore, it’s not just going to happen overnight. You have to be really open and okay with being messed up sometimes. I feel like that’s when you start to make serious progress.
KA: That’s cool.

Shawn Mendes Wonderland black and white with guitar
Shawn Mendes Wonderland black and white with guitar
Shawn Mendes Wonderland black and white with guitar
Suit by FENDI, rings by ELLIOT GASKIN and bracelet by DAVID YURMAN.
Shawn Mendes Wonderland black and white with guitar

SM: Therapy, it’s important.
KA: Yeah I’ve got to pick [therapy] back up.

SM: You don’t do it anymore?
KA: No.

SM: Did it help you with anything?
KA: Yeah it helped a lot. I guess…It’s so draining.

SM: It’s hard. Sometimes it’s like, I don’t know what I want to say. You just feel like shit. Were you doing it a lot?
KA: Yeah, which is okay too. Just once a week, and then when I started working on the album I really couldn’t balance therapy and going to the studio because my whole mood would just be fucked up.

SM: 100% and sometimes also I have this weird thing when I’m making music I kind of wanna be a little fucked up.
KA: I get that.

SM: You know? Because you’re coming from a place of angst and you’re making music and your anxious but it’s also creating emotional stuff. It’s weird.
KA: Yeah it is weird. Did you go to high school?

SM: Yeah for a year, I ended at 10th grade. I was young. I dropped out but I continued online and graduated, and I actually came back and graduated with my year. But yeah, by 10th grade I’d basically stopped going to school which is weird. Did you finish?
KA: I finished high school but I had to take this thing called the Graduation test and I was in Atlanta at the time and I failed the test. But they were like, you can still come to graduation though. But since I never passed that test I never got my diploma. So I guess I never really graduated…

Suit by DZOJCHEN and jewellery by DAVID YURMAN.

Suit by DZOJCHEN and jewellery by DAVID YURMAN.

SM: I was lucky though I got a lot of help, and I mean a lot of help.
KA: Maybe you shouldn’t say this.

SM: [Laughs] No I just got a lot of help.
KA: Being a touring artist from such a young age, what’s something that has always felt like home or made you feel comfortable while always being on the road?

SM: It’s always been weird to be away from home and friends for so long every year, but I have to say, something about constantly moving and never settling down does feel like home to me. The tour bus and hotel rooms have become a part of me. I get to be a resident of the world.
KA: Back in 10th grade, did the people around you know this was going to be a really big thing?

SM: I mean no, honestly. But I think if you’re in any town and you’ve got 50,000 followers you’re treated differently. But now everyone has 50,000 followers. Back then it felt a lot harder to get followers.

KA: What did you do to get attention? Were you trying to get attention or just expressing yourself?
SM: Both. Yeah, I can’t say that I wasn’t consciously aware of how to get people’s attention, you know? It was really just singing popular songs. I’ve loved pop music since I was a kid, so it wasn’t hard for me, that was the stuff I was [already] playing. I wasn’t going out of my way to be somebody I wasn’t. I was already a pop artist before I became a pop artist.

KA: You seem so excited right now on Instagram about your new music.
SM: Yeah, I’m pretty stoked.

KA: Why are you so excited? You seem more excited now than you have been before.
SM: Yeah, I think that’s because I had so much pressure on myself before. I was trying to make music that was equivalent to The Beatles combined with Kanye West and Michael Jackson all at the same time. And it’s just ridiculous to hold yourself to that standard. It’s ridiculous trying to make music to reach that.

KA: I know what you’re saying [laughs].
SM: You know exactly what I’m saying! It’s ridiculous, you know? And I think this time around, I’m just dropping the ‘I have to be prolific’ thing as much as I can. And I’m just moving forward with the ‘if it feels good, it just feels good.’

Shawn Mendes Wonderland with camera
Shawn Mendes Wonderland with camera
Suit by DZOJCHEN and jewellery by DAVID YURMAN.

KA: You’re more chasing an emotion and the energy around it rather than trying to be some of your inspirations?
SM: I think so. As you said [earlier], you love music and I’m just realising I love music so much. A couple of these records have a lot of live players and singers on them, and it’s just so inspiring to me to hear amazing musicians play on my songs because the song was good before they played on it, but the second they played on it, they made me seem so much cooler! Injecting their years of practice into a song that I wrote just made me feel so blessed. It made me excited again about musicianship.

KA: How much time do you spend on the internet?
SM: Too much time.

KA: I can’t picture you online.
SM: Literally last night it broke me and I was like, ‘I’m not going to go on Instagram at all. I need rehab from social media for a week.’

KA: Are you just addicted to it?
SM: Totally, and I was really good for a while. I think there has to be a balance, like if you just completely delete Instagram, if that’s what you want to do – by all means. But if I delete Instagram I feel disconnected from my fans, and disconnected from culture. But if I’m on Instagram for two hours a day then my reality becomes culture which isn’t reality. It’s a separate reality. Are you on Instagram a lot?

KA: Yeah, but a lot of it is for work or research so it’s justifiable social media usage!
SM: Are you comparing yourself to other people the whole time?

KA: Yeah, for sure.
SM: Yeah because I feel the same too, I’m looking at other artists’ profiles and learning about what they did creatively, and the way their stuff is looking, and then I realise I’m just there comparing myself to them which is not helpful at all.

Shawn Mendes Wonderland shirtless on bed
Shawn Mendes Wonderland shirtless on bed
Suit by DZOJCHEN and jewellery by DAVID YURMAN.

KA: Is there someone that you would consider a real mentor in your life?
SM: Yeah, I mean I think I have lots.

KA: Do you have a number one?
SM: Yeah my tour manager whose name is Cez, I think I told you about him. He came into my life right at the point I could have gone one of two ways. I was so anxious, stressed, and unhealthy because for a while I felt like everyone was trying to get something from me at 17, and that’s a sad place to be. It was tough, and I felt like I was eating really bad and really nonchalantly – without even telling me to do stuff – he would just go to dinner [with me] and he would order spinach. And after four nights of seeing him order spinach, I was like maybe I’ll try some spinach.

KA: [Laughing] That’s amazing.
SM: And then in the morning we’d be going to get a coffee – I love it – and I’d be so used to running into Starbucks and getting an Espresso, then leaving and going to the gym. One morning we went to a different coffee spot, and I ran in and I got an Espresso and he ordered a coffee and sat down. I was like, ‘What are you doing? We’re going to the gym, no?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah but I’m just going to drink this coffee first.’ So I’d tell him to meet me there. After a couple of days, he was like ‘Why don’t you try sitting down.’ I had the coffee in my to-go coffee cup and then the next day I ordered it in a proper mug and sat down. That became such a metaphor for slowing down and enjoying the little things. He’s never told me to do anything, he’s always just taught by action. But now that’s become the biggest part of my day. Just waking up in the morning and pouring myself a coffee, quietly thinking, and not having to be anyone until that coffee is done.

Shawn Mendes Wonderland on bed in jeans
Shawn Mendes Wonderland on bed in jeans
Shawn Mendes Wonderland on bed in jeans
Suit by DZOJCHEN and jewellery by DAVID YURMAN.
Shawn Mendes Wonderland on bed in jeans
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