Barely 10 minutes have passed since Shawn Mendes slipped out of the back of the Saltair Pavilion, a 4,500-capacity venue outside of Salt Lake City, with his photographer, assistant and tour manager to shoot photos on the exposed bed of the Great Salt Lake, which the sun has sucked dry.
We’re scrambling after Mendes, a 6-foot-2-inch-tall 18-year-old who works out every morning at 9:30 a.m., when the walkie-talkie on his tour manager’s hip crackles.
“They’re coming,” says the voice, which belongs to Mendes’ security guard, Jake, who’s trailing behind the group. Jake is sounding a warning about the girls: Roughly a couple hundred of them have congregated at the top of a hill behind the venue to watch Mendes as he crouches low in a pose for his photographer. A few of the more intrepid of these fans have clambered down, ducked under a line of yellow caution tape and begun trudging in our direction, their feet sinking into the sand. Jake warns them that they have a choice — approach Mendes now, or be allowed to stay and see him at tonight’s show — and they retreat. These are not Sunset Strip groupies, circa ’87. These girls are here with their moms.
Does Mendes ever tire of this?
“Every day,” he replies.
The scene serves as an all-too-obvious metaphor for the distance Mendes now seeks from his first blush of celebrity, as the object of social-media-enabled tween-girl obsession. When Island Records signed him in May 2014, Mendes’ clean-scrubbed good looks and campfire-cozy performances on acoustic guitar already had earned him 200,000 followers (and his own hashtag, #shirtlessshawn) on Vine. Thanks to his 2.7 million followers on the platform, his first single, “Life of the Party,” sold almost 150,000 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen Music, with zero radio promotion. His fans again boosted his debut album, Handwritten, to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in April 2015. “Stitches” racked up 204 million streams and hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100; “Treat You Better” is No. 14 and climbing on the Hot 100. “He has his finger on the pulse of girls’ hearts,” says R&B singer JoJo, who recently covered “Treat You Better.”
It should come as no surprise that with Illuminate, his album due out Sept. 23, Mendes hopes to shed his shirtless-selfie past and embrace his pop-singer future, no social-media-star asterisk needed. His strategy? Make the leap from guitar strummer to full-blown, adult-friendly troubadour a la Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran. It’s a rarified role for anyone, but especially for a boy who came up on social media — and he takes it very seriously.
“A week ago, I lost my voice completely, and I was in tears,” recalls Mendes, serene now that his vocal coach is joining him at his bigger shows. “I was on the phone with my parents and screaming at my manager like, ‘How could we do this?’ And then last night I was onstage thinking, ‘I’m a rock star.’ I’ve never been so happy and excited and at the top of wherever I could be, on cloud nine. But I’ve also never been so deep in the ground thinking, ‘I can’t breathe,’ in my entire life.”
Today, dressed in gray Adidas warm-up shorts, a heathered short-sleeve tee and sneakers, Mendes doesn’t much resemble a rock star (or a basket case, for that matter). Instead, he looks like he’s about to help an older sister move into her college dorm room. Although the singer, who has done some modeling and is blessed with clear skin, chocolate-colored hair and a broad smile that’s even brighter in person, does incorporate a couple of quirky items into his outfit: a broken watch with a leather band (he just likes the way it looks) and a ring his grandfather wore to commemorate his 25th wedding anniversary (his grandmother gave it to him in 2015).
It’s easy to see how, for a guy who’s already worried about becoming “less of a human being and more of a product,” an old watch and a keepsake ring help him stay grounded in a life where he’s Snapchat buds with John Mayer (who also gave him a John Mayer Signature Fender Stratocaster) and gets serenaded by Swift on his 18th birthday. (Swift, who brought him on her 1989 Tour as an opener, lip-synced “Treat You Better” to him on, of course, Snapchat.) Meanwhile, he sold out his September show at Madison Square Garden in less than five minutes. All of which makes the pressure of headlining his first tour and its attendant meet-and-greets, matching the blowout success of Handwritten and transitioning from tween poster boy to genuine pop star all the more intense. Especially since — as a guitar-toting singer-songwriter, and unlike, say, Justin Bieber — he cannot rely on the Diplos and Skrillexes of the world to summon his grown-man sound for him. “The greatest [artists] are tortured souls,” says Mendes. “I’m not calling myself great. I’m tortured because I care. I’m always upset about not doing things as good as I think I could have because I care.”
Three hours earlier, Mendes lounges in his dressing room, popping mint Tums, the flavor he finds most calming. Next to a cooler of water and bottles of kombucha, a steamer and humidifier puff warm breaths into the room. “I’m very extreme about [caring for my voice],” he says, tilting his head back to massage his throat. “Did people care about how a singer sounded live back in the day? I don’t really feel like they did. Not everything was being filmed. Today, one huge mess-up and millions are seeing it. There’s a lot more on the line nowadays. We’re so cautious and scared of messing up. It adds a lot of stress to a career.”
Mendes hasn’t had much downtime to process that stress. Three years ago, he was the “most average kid ever,” bored in Pickering, a suburb of Toronto. He recalls carving tree branches into wandsand writing down spells because for years he thought he was a wizard. “I’m still a little certain I’m a wizard,” he says, seemingly half-serious. He played soccer and hockey, and auditioned for the Disney Channel in Toronto. His mom, who grew up in London, was a real estate agent, and his dad, who’s Portuguese, owned a restaurant and bar supply company, and they supported his whims. They have always been close-knit. He plans to move to Brooklyn or Los Angeles in January and says he’ll enlist his mom to design the house to feel as comfy as theirs, where he lives now, along with his younger sister.
The first CD Mendes bought with his own money was Shania Twain’s Come On Over, and when he was 13, he began posting videos of himself singing and playing guitar, a 6-month-old hobby at the time, to Vine and YouTube. “Singing kind of came out of nowhere,” he says. “And it was shitty. I would say I didn’t start getting very good till last year. There’s a lot more to success than just singing. I felt like, ‘Let’s do the rest and figure out the singing thing later.’ “
Still, Andrew Gertler, formerly of Warner Music Group and now Mendes’ manager, heard something in Mendes’ voice. After watching A Great Big World perform “Say Something” on The Voice in 2014, he Googled the song and Mendes’ cover was the first result. “You see a lot of YouTube artists who spend a lot of time on a good edit, and it almost feels fake or manufactured,” recalls Gertler. “But his voice was so good … different from every other person you see posting covers. The other amazing thing was how fast he was gaining views and followers. He would tweet, ‘I want pizza,’ and it would get 30,000 favorites. He had way fewer followers than some other artists, but he was connecting.”
“There’s so much substance to him,” says David Massey, president of Island Records. “It has been really satisfying to watch that mature in a short period of time. If he’s like this at 18, what will he be at 21?”
Mendes’ early songs were solid but standard pop fare, with him playing the good guy prone to finishing last. A girl cheats on him in “The Weight”; he dreams of professing his love, not tumbling into bed, in “Imagination.” As Jason, a 27-year-old fan waiting outside the Saltair show, explains it, “He’s not about drugs, sex and alcohol. He’s genuine and kind.”
But even Ed Sheeran needed to reveal a little edge on the way to superstardom, and Mayer, another one of Mendes’ heroes (“He’s capable of anything”), plays the rake as much as the laid-back jam-rocker. “Ruin,” Illuminate‘s second single, is a slow, bluesy burner of a track, with bedroom lyrics and a sultry electric guitar that wouldn’t be out of place in a Beale Street bar. Still, it’s not exactly gritty, and certainly not something you would grind to in the club (hello, dance-era Bieber).
Mendes simply may not have an inner bad boy to access. He admits that he and his crew “partied” while recording Illuminate in upstate New York, but all in all, he prefers tamer activities, like playing six-hour ping-pong tournaments with his old friends. In the meantime, girls have come and gone. “The second I feel about a girl the way I feel about music is when I know,” he says, all coy innocence. “Being a sex symbol isn’t cool unless you’re in love with a girl and she calls you a sex symbol.” As for actual sex, now that he’s famous, he claims it’s “impossible.” His song “Patience” “is about a girl older than me who I hooked up with, but the next day was so scared because of how young I was. I have a sore spot for older people who are weird around younger people.”
Mendes’ most dangerous relationship may be with music itself. “You have to be careful not to make music something you don’t want to do,” he says. “Which happens. I’ve gotten off the road and been like, ‘I hate it. I hate singing, I hate playing guitar.’ Six days later I’m in my bedroom singing at the top of my lungs because I love it so much.” Or maybe it’s his relationship with his fans: “You’re one person,” he says. “You can’t let them take everything from you. Because they will — not in a malicious way. They just love you. You have to be careful.”
Backstage after the Saltair show, Mendes bounces around. His eyes are almost fevered, and roses have bloomed in his cheeks. “Did you like it?” he asks with the smile of someone who has heard “Great show!” countless times but still, charmingly, hopes to hear it again.
The only girls here are the daughters of the team’s travel agent. Mendes is wary of the potential social-media consequences of bringing girls back to the bus. Members of his tween demographic are content just hugging anyway.
Still, Mendes reserves the right to change that policy as he and his demo grow. “I don’t mean to bring Justin into things,” he says, gearing up to defend Bieber as an example of the injustice of freezing pop stars in their teen molds when they should be allowed to make mistakes en route to adulthood, just like regular kids. “People thought of him as a type of person. But maybe he was the same person the whole time and you guys just didn’t give him a chance to show you who he was. Stop looking at him in a negative view and accept him as who he is. We don’t get mad at punk rock bands for doing shit like [he does], because that’s their personality. I just find it very confusing.”
Discussing controversy of any kind, Mendes grows pensive, as sensitive in real life as his songs would suggest. Though he claims he doesn’t read much, the presidential race seems to have affected him on a personal level. Asked about the election, he starts to say, “I have no…” before changing his mind and continuing: “I think it’s pathetic, actually — the way Hillary and Donald are fighting back and forth with each other. It’s a little upsetting.”
Like any young star these days, Mendes must engage in some retail politicking of his own. Perhaps the most grueling of these obligations is taking photos with fans who have paid for the Shawn Mendes VIP experience. (This also includes admission to a pop-up display of Mendes’ guitars and memorabilia; an intimate “sound-check party,” where he plays a couple of songs; and, if you spring for the $350 package, a signed baby Taylor guitar.) The photo op is typically low budget: A photo-booth-size section of the lobby is closed off with black curtains, and as each girl files in, she hands her iPhone to Mendes’ assistant, then cries, hugs and/or clutches Mendes in a prom pic pose as the assistant snaps the photo and hands the phone back. The girl then receives her signed Mendes poster and stumbles, star-struck, back outside. The whole thing takes less than a minute.”Once, I did 900. In one night,” says Mendes later. Watching him, he certainly seems to be on autopilot as he meets fans. But never once does his smile look anything less than completely genuine. How does he do it?
“There’s a switch,” he says without missing a beat. “They give it to you when you become an artist.”
Mendes heads back into his dressing room. He’s just sitting down when I poke my head in to say goodbye, but he dutifully hops up and hugs me, and I recall something he said earlier: “People know me but they have no idea. I can’t be best friends with the entire world, I can’t fall in love with every girl, I can’t be a father figure or older-brother figure to every person. But I hate being alone. I just want someone there — to get out of my own head for a minute.”
Shawn’s Fall Music Picks
Chance The Rapper
“I’m such a huge fan of his Coloring Book album and want to get out to one of his shows,” says Mendes of Chance’s tour, which runs through Oct. 21.
The band just released the single “Kids.” Mendes calls frontman and pop songwriter Ryan Tedder “one of the best writers and performers out there.”
“She’s awesome,” says Mendes of the singer. He calls “Cool Girl,” her new song, “my guilty jam.” New album Lady Wood will arrive Oct. 28.
Sheeran hasn’t announced plans for fall, but Mendes is ready “whenever he decides to come back. Music is missing him right now.”