Last August, Shawn Mendes noticed that of all the six-second videos uploaded to the sharing service Vine — from a tutorial on making steak tartare to RiFF RaFF’s ode to his shampoo bottle — no one had uploaded a clip of a simple song. Sensing an opportunity, the Toronto 15-year-old, who had been uploading his versions of popular songs to YouTube since eighth grade, posted himself singing a necessarily short but very sweet cover of Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me.” When Mendes woke up the next morning, his Vine debut had 10,000 likes and he had just as many Vine followers.
“I was like, ‘Whoa,'” Mendes tells Billboard over the phone from his Toronto home. “It snowballed to 50,000 in a few weeks, to a 100,000; from October when I had 200,000 to now when I have 2.5 million. It’s a cool story when I think back to it.”
These days, Mendes doesn’t have a lot of time to think about much besides the here and now. Just last week, the third most-followed musician on Vine finalized his deal with Universal Music Group subsidiary Island Records, resulting in his debut original composition, “Life of the Party,” due in late June in advance of his forthcoming EP later this summer. He is also preparing to hit the road with Austin Mahone in July on his first official tour. “I’m definitely not used to anything that’s going on,” he says. “I’m in awe.”
Over the past year, Mendes has been living an aspiring songwriter’s fairy tale. In November of last year, he was invited to perform at the Dallas, Tx. edition of Magcon, a tour for social media celebrities that takes place in different cities each month. “It was a really cool experience,” he says. “Like 1200 girls came.” Then, in March of this year, he won Ryan Seacrest’s “Best Cover Song” contest with his cover of A Great Big World’s “Say Something,” the same song that had caught the attention of his now-manager, Andrew Gertler, who discovered Mendes online a few months earlier.
Gertler, who works in Warner Music Group’s D2C division and also manages rapper Rockie Fresh under his own management company, AG Artists, forwarded the video to his good friend Ziggy Chareton, manager of A&R at Island. “I got a minute and 30 seconds into the cover and I pressed pause. I had to call him. I was like, ‘Are you out of your mind? This kid is a superstar!'” he says. “Andrew was totally taken aback. He was like, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘I think we need to move really quickly. His social presence is huge.'”
After many phone calls convincing Mendes’ parents that of all the managers and A&R reps emailing him that their overture was for real, Chareton and Gertler flew Mendes and his father out to New York to meet with Island president David Massey, who saw in Mendes the same qualities that captivated his discoverers.
“Our reason for getting involved with Shawn is not specifically because of his following online,” says Massey. “It’s great when an artist has a platform, but I think we would have signed Shawn if we just discovered him a different way. His talent, industry, and intelligence are all factors that contribute to wanting to be involved with someone who’s so young, and so talented, and so driven.”
Mendes devoted himself wholeheartedly to his craft even before he knew where it would go. In fourth grade he would watch up to four hours a day of covers by “YouTubers” like Tyler Warden and Sam Tsui, imitating their vocal technique to improve his own. After he started singing with his middle school’s glee club, he began posting his own videos. “My first one was ‘Grenade’ by Bruno Mars,” he recalls. “Watching back, it’s super rough. I’m out of key. Everything’s really bad. But I realized what was happening: with every video I posted, I was getting better.” When his Vine account took off, he applied the same diligence to the guitar, which he’s been practicing up to five or six hours a day.
Almost immediately after his first meeting with the Island team, Mendes was put in a studio with up-and-coming songwriters like Ido Zmishlany and Matt Squire, who over the past few months have been helping him write songs. “It’s really cool because everyone has different ideas, and you get to see things from everyone’s angle,” he says. “It’s been a huge learning experience from the four hours I’m with them to when I leave,” says Mendes. “Every time I meet someone, they help me.”
That includes Ed Sheeran, who flew Mendes out to Los Angeles for dinner after watching videos Gertler sent to his publicist. “I feel like he was trying to help me be successful in the industry by giving me all this advice,” says Mendes. “He’s the most humble guy I’ve ever met. I forgot he’s my idol — I felt like I was in the room with one of my buddies.”
Moments like those make Mendes’ return to homework, tests, and other high school mundanities all the more bittersweet. “How am I supposed to be normal when things are abnormal is a good explanation for the way I feel at the moment,” says Mendes, who turns 16 this August. “When I go and see all my fans, to leave that and New York and these writing sessions with cool people and come back to school, where everyone expects me to forget about it.”
At least Mendes is finishing his semester in the (kind of) calm before the storm, before “Life of the Party” is released via iTunes, YouTube, and all music streaming platforms. Radio activity will follow, but for now Massey says, “The first step here is to release his first original material for his fans and for him to tour with Austin Mahone.”
As for his first live shows in front of an audience of up to 6,000 people, Mendes is mostly “super stoked.” “I think what’s going to happen is it’s me and the guitar,” he says. “The most raw experience with me and my fans; the way I’m going to be able to connect the most. Obviously that’s how I’m most comfortable. I haven’t started rehearsals or anything yet. There’s a lot to do.”