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Shawn Mendes on success, anxiety and his love for Ronaldo

The Canadian megastar rose to fame in his teens, but his just-released album is all grown up.

The Canadian megastar rose to fame in his teens, but his just-released album is all grown up

The Canadian megastar rose to fame in his teens, but his just-released album is all grown up. 16:00
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His name is so ubiquitous, it's hard to imagine that it's only been five years since Shawn Mendes began his meteoric rise to fame – initially as a teen posting song covers on Vine and YouTube, then as a young artist on Island Records.

The rest, as they say, is history — but what a history it is. Now just shy of 20, the Pickering, Ont., native has had three albums that debuted at the top of the Billboard 200. He has toured the world, performed for Queen Elizabeth II, done the rounds of late-night talk shows, and earlier this year was named one of Time's most influential people in the world. Hits including StitchesTreat You Better and There's Nothin' Holding Me Back have become radio mainstays.

He is also outspoken about a range of causes, from mental health to education in the developing world, and created the Mexico Earthquake Relief Fund with the Red Cross following the devastating 2017 quake in that country.

Mendes recently spoke with q's Tom Power, and parts of that interview will air on Sunday's The National, 9 p.m. on CBC News Network, 10 p.m. on CBC Television. The full interview will then air on q on Monday.

But while you wait, here are 10 things we learned from our feature interview.

In My Blood is the first track on Mendes' new album because it's about his experience of anxiety

Mendes says that most albums have an obvious single — but his latest album had a few contenders. In My Blood won out as the lead track because it tackled a key theme: overcoming fear and anxiety.  "I was definitely really scared because it was nothing like I have done in the past," said Mendes, who adds the song is more personal than anything he's done before. "But the only way progression is going to happen is by talking about it and by allowing everybody to talk about it. It just becomes more of a normal thing, and hopefully 10 years from now nobody is really worried about it — and hopefully 10 years from now we have better ways of dealing with it because people talk about it and they don't suppress it."

I came up from the subway station and there were about 300 people who all turned their heads and started chasing me, it was terrifying- Shawn Mendes

The first time he realized things were going to be different for him was in downtown Toronto

Mendes is now an international star, but the first time he realized that things were going to be different for him was at a meetup of fans who were "Viners" (users of the former video loop site). Mendes knew he had thousands of followers online, but had never experienced a throng of people waiting for him in the flesh. "You see 300,000 as a number and you're like, 'Oh that's amazing.' But you see 300 people in person chasing you, that is a different feeling," he says with a laugh. "When I came up from the subway station and there were about 300 people who all turned their heads and started chasing me, it was terrifying — but at the same time so exciting," he says. "That was a big moment."

One of his biggest moments involved Portugal's World Cup soccer team

Mendes has performed for Queen Elizabeth II, topped the Billboard charts, appeared on the biggest late-night shows and won heaps of awards — but one of the highest points of his career was when he got to record a version of In My Blood to be used as the Portugal World Cup team's official anthem. "That's one of the coolest things ever. I played soccer for seven years when I was a kid and my hero is Cristiano Ronaldo. I'm a serious Portugal fan. So that was just so insane to me to be able to sing the anthem for the team." Mendes, whose father is Portuguese, says that when he performs in that country, the crowd's singing is so loud it almost overtakes the sound system. "It's intense but it's awesome," he says. "Portugal goes hard."

His new self-titled album is all grown up

Now on the cusp of his 20th birthday, Mendes' rise to fame began in his mid-teens, but critics are calling his latest release "a grown-up record." Mendes agrees, saying that the recording and touring process is so lengthy that by the time you release a new album you're a different person. "Everybody thinks of me from how I was writing music two years ago. So everybody's saying it's grown up and mature," he says. "But it's actually a genuine representation of where I am."

Mendes is getting into "older" rock bands — like ones from way back in the 2000s

Mendes has cited John Mayer, Ed Sheeran and Justin Timberlake as influences, but says he's still learning musically — even getting into "older rock" like Las Vegas band the Killers. "I didn't understand how incredible they were until a couple of weeks ago. I got to see them live at Lollapalooza. Dude, it was insane. It blew my mind," he says. "I'm so inspired by it, and it's an entirely new reason to make another album." 

Shawn Mendes talks about recently discovering older rock music like The Killers and how it's inspired him to create his next album. 0:38

50 per cent of it is for me, 'Do I love it?' And then 50 per cent of it is, 'Will they love it?'- Shawn Mendes

He makes music for himself, and for his fans

Mendes says that many artists say, "first and foremost, make music for you." But he doesn't entirely subscribe to that philosophy. "For me it's a little different. I make music for me first and foremost, but I also really love making music for people. I love writing a song and watching somebody else really enjoy it, you know?" he says. "So 50 per cent of it is for me, 'Do I love it?' And then 50 per cent of it is, 'Will they love it?'"

He also puts a lot of pressure on himself

Given his talent, not to mention his non-stop schedule, it's no surprise that Mendes puts an immense amount of pressure on himself — but he says it's how you look at it that counts. "One thing I always think about is that pressure creates diamonds. And so without that pressure, I think the care wouldn't be there to make work that you really think is incredible, and then the success wouldn't be there," he says. "So that pressure ultimately creates success."

During the writing and release of some of his biggest hits, Mendes' close friend and songwriting partner went through a gender transition

The art for Shawn Mendes's self-titled album. (Island Records)

Teddy Geiger wrote Mendes' first major hit Stitches, and Mendes says that from the start, their musical connection was "kinetic." Together they went on to write hits including Treat You Better, Mercy, There's Nothin' Holding Me Back and In My Blood. At the same time, Geiger was transitioning from male to female. "It was such a big moment, and the biggest thing that happened in her life as we were creating the biggest album of my life. So there was so much energy and so much emotion that I think it actually fuelled the fire of creating the album."

Mendes says it took him a couple of weeks to get the pronouns right, but seeing the happiness on his friend's face was priceless. "I remember the first time I referred to Teddy as a 'she,' and she looked at me with this sense of joy that you really don't see very often," he remembers. "And in that moment everything was just like, 'Wow, if everybody could see this there would be no questions anymore.'"

Just do it and take the photos and answer the questions and don't be a dick in public- Shawn Mendes

He is immensely grateful for his success

There are sacrifices that come with fame, especially at Mendes' age, because you don't get to live a normal life with your friends. As he points out, fame doesn't just change artists, it also changes the people around them. Still, he appreciates every minute. "There are obviously a lot of sacrifices to be made to do what I do. But then there are millions and millions more things that I get to do that are incredible that I'm sure every 19 year old in the world would love to do. I'm reminded every day how incredible it is that I get to do this for a living," he says. Mendes adds that the trick to surviving fame is to still go out and do normal stuff. "Just do it and take the photos and answer the questions and don't be a dick in public, and live the life that you have because that's what it is and just own it and be grateful for what you have, and then ignore what you don't have, you know?"

He wants to make good music — and do good in the world, too

Mendes says he aims to create music that's timeless and will be just as relevant 50 years from now. But it's not just about making unforgettable songs. "I also want to make a difference in the world. I want to help, and I want to use my voice and use music to take steps forward and help people take steps forward," he says, adding that the key is honesty and authenticity. "And that's not just for me — for everybody."


Watch the full interview with Shawn Mendes at the top of this post. 

Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview with Shawn Mendes produced by Cora Nijhawan and Mitch Pollock.

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