The most surprising thing about Shawn Mendes is how unassumingly normal the Canadian teenager is. Sitting in the Manhattan offices of Island Records in March, the 16-year-old singer-songwriter looks like he could be working at the local Aeropostale: He’s dressed in a black-and-white flannel button-down with acid-washed jeans and black Nikes. He’s tall for his age — 6-foot-2 — but otherwise, unfailingly polite and attentive. So much so that he claims he can still roam freely around Toronto, the city closest to his Pickering, Ontario, hometown.
“If I dressed like a celebrity that’d be one thing, but this is how I dressed a year ago, and this is how I still dress now,” says Mendes with a sweet shrug.
But when one considers the last 12 months, Mendes isn’t that typical at all. Time named him one of the 25 Most Influential Teens of 2014 (along with Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai). Last July, the then-15-year-old became the youngest artist to debut in the Billboard Hot 100’s top 25 with a first chart entry. (His acoustic ballad “Life of the Party” entered and peaked at No. 24.) Earlier in 2014, the former youth hockey player sold out a headlining date at Los Angeles’ 5,900-seat Greek Theatre in less than an hour, which might explain why Taylor Swift hand-picked him to open 20 stadium dates during her North American 1989 Tour this summer.
Why the fuss? Mendes is one of a constellation of micro-stars to emerge from Vine, where he has amassed 3.8 million followers. After releasing a four-song, self-titled EP to quiet success last August (a No. 5 peak on the Billboard 200), he’s prepping a 12-song major-label debut, Handwritten, for April 14 — a record already so in-demand, Island bumped up its release by two weeks. Already industry sources project the release will likely debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
This is all the result, says Mendes, of an ordinary weekend in 2013 when he posted a six-second clip of him singing Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me” to Vine. “I was bored and had nothing to do,” he says. “It really came about as a surprise — the next day I woke up and this vine just took off.”
Years ago, A&R scouts relied on fan reaction from showcase performances at clubs, bars or even malls to gauge a performer’s potential viability. But ever since artists like Bieber, Ariana Grande and 5 Seconds of Summer parlayed YouTube covers into superstardom, labels have been scouting social media platforms to act quickly in developing the next teen idols, often before they’ve written any of their own material. Mendes — who now writes all his own songs — was still covering One Direction and A Great Big World when industry honchos started to notice him.
“The Vine component was not a factor in me signing Shawn,” Island Records president David Massey says. “The fan base is nice, but it doesn’t imply record sales. What it does give you is a story to take to radio and other media partners.”
The radio piece of that story is still building. Although Mendes performed on all 13 stops of iHeartRadio’s Jingle Ball arena tour last December, where he “consistently got one of the loudest receptions each night,” says Tom Poleman, iHeartRadio’s national programming chief, the singer has yet to appear on a Billboard airplay chart. “Several of our stations played ‘Life of the Party,’ but for whatever reason the song never really exploded,” adds Poleman. “With this new album, he has a little more of a mature sound that I think will connect better on our stations. You see all the signs building, it’s just a matter of the right song.”
That’s why Handwritten will be the first real test of Vine’s mettle as a career-building platform for musicians. So far, the app has already brought folk-pop act Us the Duo a multi-album deal with Republic Records — but the couple’s 2014 debut LP has sold only 9,000 copies, while lead single “No Matter Where You Are” has moved only 56,000 downloads. That’s nearly a third of what Mendes moved in just one week with “Life of the Party” — which makes Mendes the most advanced test case for just how far Vine fame can take a recording artist.
While Mendes wants to move beyond it, Vine does remain a big part of his brand. The “Life of the Party” video features Vine celebs Nash Grier and Cameron Dallas, and a lucrative deal with Pop-Tarts continues to tap into his active, tween-heavy fan base. Plus, he still posts weekly.
Though Mendes says he’s single (“I’m 16, so relationships only really last for a week or so”), romance factors into Handwritten in different forms, from distant crushes (“I Don’t Even Know Your Name”) to overbearing girlfriends (“Air,” a duet with fellow Island signee Astrid) to the stress of balancing relationships with road life (“A Little Too Much”). Produced largely by Jason Mraz collaborator Martin Terefe, the album suggests a more doe-eyed Ed Sheeran with a knack for Swift-like couplets (“Now that I’m without your kisses/I’ll be needing stitches”).
Indeed, the teen-troubadour approach worked for Sheeran two years ago, when he parlayed a similar guy-with-a-guitar opening slot for Swift into selling out his own arenas. So even as fellow millennial Bieber looked up to Michael Jackson, and Austin Mahone is still angling to be a baby Bieber, Mendes wants to be the next Sheeran. “His whole style is not fake at all,” says Mendes. “That’s how I want to be.”