Shawn Mendes: Music's First Vine Star

The 15-year-old started with a six-second cover of a Bieber hit - and now sells 214,000 downloads a week

Shawn Mendes - a sweet-voiced, dreamy-faced 15-year-old Canadian singer who's considered the first Vine sensation - sits in a rehearsal room in Manhattan. Tom Jackson, a veteran performance coach who worked extensively with teen Taylor Swift, watches intently while Mendes runs through "The Weight," from his debut EP, "Life of the Party," due July 28 on Island.

In a few hours, in this room, Mendes will play for 60 execs and journalists. Days later, he'll be on Live With Kelly and Michael, performing "Life of the Party," his debut single about insecurity, which bowed at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 dated July 12 with little promotion, thanks mostly to his rabid social media fan base buying 214,000 downloads in a week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The next day he'll begin his first-ever tour, opening 30 dates for Austin Mahone, at the 11,700-capacity Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio.

Mendes isn't quite bristling at Jackson's direction, but he is pushing back politely. He's also playing the song too fast, with a staticky energy that reminds you he's just 15. Jackson holds up his hand. "Tell me about this song," he says. "Where does it come from?"

"It's about your girlfriend cheating on you with your best friend," says Mendes.

"That's perfect," says Jackson. "There's gonna be three places in the set where you need to talk to the audience, and this is one of them. 'This song is about a girl' - 'Yaaaay!' - 'I really liked this girl' - 'Awww!' - 'but she cheated on me' - 'Awww!' - 'with my best friend' - 'Awww!' Wait for the response."

"I don't wanna, like, script it out," says Mendes. "I get weird with that."

But 25 minutes later, after several run-throughs, he's onboard. "Wow, that feels really good. So - take it from the first verse?"

Mendes is a new breed of pop star, occupying a kind of subduction zone where the future's music industry meets the past's. He grew up on social media, learned how to sing and play guitar via YouTube covers and tutorials. He was in the glee club and took acting lessons, but for the most part, he got where he is today almost directly by sitting in his bedroom in Pickering, Ontario. Like many other aspiring singers, he had been uploading covers to YouTube for a couple years. Then, one day last summer, he noticed that no one seemed to be doing anything similar on Vine.

"I was sitting in my room, my sister came in, and I said, 'Can you record this?' " he recalls.

His six-second clip of Justin Bieber's "As Long As You Love Me" had 10,000 likes by morning. He kept posting covers, gained 200,000 Vine followers by October and played Magcon, a tour for social media celebs, in Dallas in November. But Andrew Gertler, who manages rapper Rockie Fresh, didn't discover Mendes until he heard A Great Big World's "Say Something" in January. "I thought it sounded like a song people would cover, so I went on YouTube, and Shawn's was the first to come up," he remembers.

Gertler, 25, showed the clip to fellow former Atlantic marketing intern Ziggy Chareton, now an Island A&R rep. They contacted Mendes' parents and convinced them to bring him to New York for label meetings and studio work. Atlantic, RCA and Republic were interested, but the singer connected most with Island president David Massey. "I knew within the first two minutes: He's a star," says Massey.

Meanwhile, Mendes kept posting clips and gaining new fans. In April he won Ryan Seacrest's Best Cover Song contest with "Say Something." He currently has 1.3 million followers on Twitter, 1.4 million on Instagram and 2.8 million on Vine. He even flew out to L.A. and had dinner with Ed Sheeran, who offered friendly advice. Amid it all, Mendes finished his sophomore year of high school. (He'll have a tutor this fall.) "It was difficult to sit in class because my mind kept wandering," he admits. "I had to tell myself, 'In New York I focus on music, but now I'll focus on chemistry.' "

His team, however, focused on "Life of the Party," which Mendes recorded during that first New York trip. On June 26, the label released the song on iTunes and stepped back. "We put it up with no marketing because we wanted to understand how his fan base would behave," says Massey. "We released it at 11:15 p.m. - it was No. 1 on iTunes at midnight."

"It's so relatable for teenagers," says Mendes of the song. "It's hard for most of us to figure out who we want to be. This song really pushes it into your head that you're awesome just as you are."

Four days after the song was released, Mendes played a pop-up show in Times Square. Fan videos show several hundred admirers, mostly young girls, singing along. One clip is called "Me squeezing Shawn Mendes' butt," which happens as he tries to get through the crowd after police show up. "It was intense, but the way he kept everyone under control was remarkable for someone who's not yet 16," says Massey. "He's always like that, whether meeting the chairman of a company or dealing with 600 girls."

This fall, Mendes will start work on his album, targeted for late 2014 or early 2015. Soon enough, old-school record-label models will kick in. "We will widen his fan base from its core through TV, press, all the traditional methods," says Massey. "Because the modern methods have already been achieved."

Hours later, at the now-packed studio, Massey introduces "our newest signing. You're going to see how talented he is." Mendes warns that his voice might be scratchy due to rehearsing all day. It's not. He kills "Life of the Party," then joins his own party - one very different from the one he just sang about.


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