Geoff Warburton Talks Songwriting With Shawn Mendes, From Pre-Fame Days to the Upcoming Album
"He's been an incredible friend who's been there for me since day one," Mendes says of Warburton.
It's snowing in Toronto.
"And way below freezing," says Geoff Warburton from his apartment in the city of the season's last gasp of winter even though it's weeks into spring. It wasn't far from here, about a half hour drive in fact, where Warburton grew up in Pickering, Ontario. It's a dull suburb of the Canadian metropolis that isn't known for much. Neil Young spent a portion of his younger years there, as did another singer-songwriter who was actually a student of Warburton's mother at Pine Ridge Secondary School.
"I remember he connected with my little brother," Warburton says of his initial recollection of his mother's former student, Shawn Mendes. "I'd see him around the house a lot and they used to jam. I think I must have been around 12 when we first met, but we didn't start working together until we were 15." At the time, Warburton's passion didn't lie in music. Publicly, at least. "Rugby was my main focus, but I was always a closet musician," he explains. "I just never knew if people would find it cool or not."
The oldest of five, Warburton was on track for successful career playing rugby for both his province and university until he was suddenly sidelined by a shoulder injury. It was blow that derailed his larger athletic dreams, but led to him to pull the lid off his secret passion. "I started playing shows around my university and my teammates were so supportive. They'd show up with their girlfriends and I'd have an instant crowd everywhere I played. That kind of pumped me up." At the same time, his little brother's friend's Vine account was a viral hit, and the two eventually became close, bonding over their common interest.
"It's going to sound weird to say, but ever since he started releasing music I always thought he was going to be big and that it'd all work out," Warburton recalls. "It seemed so right and he had that thing… I didn't know what it was because I didn't know that world at the time."
Warburton's instincts proved him right, with his friendship and creative partnership with Mendes launching the former rugby player to pop songwriting success. Starting with Mendes' debut album Handwritten, continuing to the crossover single "There's Nothing Holdin' Me Back" and straight through the bulk of his highly anticipated self-titled third effort including debut single "In My Blood," Warburton has been a common thread throughout Mendes' improbable rise to superstardom, first offering a familiar face for the singer's life on the road as his guitar tech to quickly co-writing many of his songs. "Geoff is someone who really gets me and what I want from the music," explains Mendes of his collaboration with Warburton. "Both as a guitar player helping coming up with amazing riffs and lyrically, he just understands where I'm coming from."
"I remember he was planning a trip to Los Angeles and he hit me up about going together," says Warburton of what would become their first official songwriting session together when Mendes was plotting his debut album. "(Working together) was just super natural. I remember that first day, he had just learned this guitar riff and we wrote over it. Forty-five minutes later, it became this song that wound up on his first record called 'Bring it Back.' When he started playing it live and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, people are actually hearing this song, that's really cool.' It all kind of happened really fast." It didn't hit Warburton until seeing his name credited in liner notes that songwriting could become a viable career. Not only that, they also fostered a deep kinship. Says Mendes: "He's been an incredible friend who's been there for me since day one."
After working with a hodgepodge of collaborators on Handwritten, Mendes eventually solidified his creative team for Illuminate with the same three names found all over the record: Warburton, the writer Scott Harris (perhaps best known for co-writing "Don't Let Me Down," his hit with The Chainsmokers), as well as Teddy Geiger, a former teen star herself. When they're not working side-by-side, the foursome have a group text where they record each other melodies via voice memo and trade lyrical ideas and concepts. In fact, the majority of the singer's No. 6 Hot 100 hit "There's Nothing Holdin' Me Back," which also scored the No. 1 slot on both the Adult Top 40 and Adult Contemporary Charts, was written through text.
"That was an interesting one," recalls Warburton of its origin. "I remember Shawn was playing this rocky chord progression and was just starting to have this growl in his voice. He sent us a voice memo with the melody and we thought it was awesome, so we put some lyrics to it." The group's initial draft of lyrics, based around the concept of energy, were later rewritten once they convened in a studio. "We brought that one to life when we got together and wrote the final lyrics in an hour or two. The next day, Shawn wanted to add a riff in for the beginning. He had a six-string ukulele he had just bought so we were jamming out on it, and that really added a lot to it." Warburton surmises the track became a hit because of an inherent fluidity of its sound. "There's actually not a whole lot to it; just power chords, the riff, and Shawn's killer vocals. I remember him in the booth; his vocal take was right off the demo. It was like, 'Holy crap.'"
The release of "There's Nothing Holdin' Me Back" last April marked a turn in Mendes' career, helping the teen sensation gain regard as a serious artist. (This, aside from the fact the boy from Pickering was still only 18 when the track came out.) It's a transitional hat-trick Mendes and his creative team are in the process of making again, starting off with "In My Blood." Produced by Geiger and Mendes, with writing credited to Geiger, Mendes, Harris and Warburton, its lyrics present a raw rumination on depression and was the first song concocted for his upcoming album.
"We wanted to write a song that wasn't necessarily about love," says Warburton of the track, which is currently climbing up the Billboard Hot 100, already staking a claim as Mendes' next hit. "It's about struggle… Not succumbing to it, but overcoming. So we kind of went in there with that mindset. This is one where people are saying that they really needed to hear those lyrics, that it really speaks to them. So it's been a real privilege."
Not that the team plotted specifically to create deeper tracks. "This album in general has got a lot of different flavors in it, but it's reflected by whatever we were inspired by at the time. We never set out to write a pop or rock song. If we're inspired by something and it clicks with everyone, that's our process. There will be things people won't expect and there'll be things that have that old flavor that people know and love. "
While Warburton and his cohorts are excited about the direction they're going in, that doesn't mean the songwriter, who just re-upped his deal under Sony/ATV, is sleeping easy in advance of new music. "I get so nervous before the songs come out," he says with a laugh, referring to the six tracks (including one with Khalid) he contributed to on Mendes' upcoming Shawn Mendes album. "I don't know why I get nervous. It could be because I've been so close with Shawn and the project for years, and 'In My Blood' specifically isn't very in line of what's current right now. All you can do is hope people embrace it."