Behind the scenes
Literally ripping apart his vocal chords to deliver every last drop of emotion at every single performance, the words ‘work ethic’ don’t come close to describing Shawn Mendes.
Travelling with Mendes on his first world tour (including a Madison Square Garden sell-out), we followed the quadruple-platinum selling musician on the road, with unprecedented access capturing the star both in front and away from the spotlight for a special 32 page documentary feature inside HERO 16.
Fabien Kruszelnicki: How have your last few gigs gone?
Shawn Mendes: Not bad. I was just in here with one of my vocal doctors – he’s a speech pathologist and he basically works on the muscles around your throat and neck and stuff.
James West: Did you say a speech pathologist?
SM: Yeah to loosen up your voice because I got pretty sick and I was coughing and my voice was all over the place.
JW: So do they actually help you change the muscles you use to sing with?
SM: Yeah, if the muscles are tight you can’t sing.
JW: So you could rip something and it’s all over?
SM: Exactly, you have to be very careful.
FK: How long have you been seeing him for?
SM: I’ve been working with him for a couple of years now but usually on and off. But this tour’s been really busy – not in a bad way, in a good way obviously – but I’ve been constantly losing my voice, I haven’t been able to keep up with it. I’m just gonna change into these warmer socks.
JW: [laughs] Whatever makes you happy.
SM: [laughs] My feet are cold.
FK: Are those the Nike socks that say right and left?
SM: [laughs] I wish.
JW: I’ve got some that say right and left.
FK: Yeah I have them too.
SM: You guys are weird.
JW: I didn’t put it on, that’s how they came.
SM: Yeah but you guys obviously like them. [laughs]
JW: I didn’t know until I got it out of the packet but it’s quite exciting for someone to tell you, “Look, this goes on your left foot…”
SM: That would bug me because I feel socks are something like [imitating yanking his socks on] – just put them on, you know?
JW: I really like those socks you get on airplanes that keep your toes really warm.
SM: I know what you’re talking about, I put them on every time.
JW: They’re good because you get those draughts that go along the bottom…
SM: Yeah I’m not down with the airplane cold.
FK: There’s an advert on at the moment for copper ones.
FK: Like not all copper but they have copper in the elastic or thread or something.
SM: And it keeps you warm… it makes a lot of sense.
JW: Let’s talk about music shall we? We could spend the next half hour talking about socks.
SM: Anyway, socks…
JW: So how’s it going on the tour?
SM: It’s been good. It’s been ridiculously busy and it’s a huge jump in my career, and in my life, but in a good way.
JW: I see you’ve added more dates as you’ve been going along – so has it exceeded your expectations?
SM: You don’t know what it is until you do it to be honest, you could spend months planning out what it’s going to be like, but you’re never going to be able to because it always changes, you know?
“…when I go to a show I would feel overwhelmed with production and dancers and it would be too much for me to see, I love to see an artist when they’re just singing, I get chills when I see someone performing.”
JW: Doing this at such a massive level – have there been any surprises?
SM: I think it goes a lot faster than you hope it to, you don’t really get moments to understand it. But other than that – I had an opportunity to watch Austin [Mahone] and Taylor [Swift, both of whom Shawn previously supported on their tours]… you kind of learn from all that.
JW: I guess each venue is different but can it almost became a bit like groundhog day? Load in, soundcheck, meet and greet… the same structure every time?
SM: 100% that is what it becomes, and so to make everything different, to make everything new every day is very difficult.
JW: Yeah, I just saw James [TW, who is supporting Shawn on tour] had a football and a frisbee in the arena.
SM: That’s the thing, we keep ourselves occupied with the ping pong table or the frisbees.
JW: Is it actually ping pong? I saw a sign that said “ping pong” outside a room, I thought it was a euphemism for something else.
SM: No it’s actually ping pong.
FK: Are you good at it?
SM: Yes. We’re very good at it.
JW: Who choose ping pong specifically?
SM: I did, we were playing it a lot right before I left at home, I went and got a table spontaneously and it was my first time and now we’re like… we are serious about ping pong.
JW: It’s your one diva moment, “I must have a ping pong table.”
SM: It’s serious.
JW: Have you had any venues with no ping pong?
SM: Tons and it’s the worst thing ever [laughs]. No, it’s a very relaxing thing to do, a very calming, mind-numbing activity.
JW: And then you go to the gym every day as well – you have these things you build in otherwise you’d probably go crazy.
SM: I go to the gym every morning, probably an hour-and-a-half or two hours. It’s a good thing to just leave the venue, leave the bus, see people that you don’t work with, see random humans in their daily activities, go to the Starbucks, whatever. Do you know what I mean? By the time I get back for 12.30, which is still very, very early for a singer to be singing, I’m close enough to be able to do a warm up, so it’s all revolving around my singing. If I didn’t have to sing at 12.30 then I wouldn’t have got up at 7am this morning to go to the gym.
JW: It’s nice to get up early and make the most of the day.
FK: Do you ever get people recognise you when you go to the gym? Can you relax?
SM: Oh I’m not relaxing at the gym [laughs] but no… people are usually less likely to come up to you and ask for a picture when you’re like, urgggghhhhhh [imitating pushing weights]
JW: I was in the gym the other day and this guy literally had a 30 minute phone conversation with his headphones in, he was like, “Urggghhhh, I’m just in the gym, urghhh, ok I can meet you later.”
SM: Yeah yeah, [laughs] sometimes you have to.
FK: Health is quite an important thing to you isn’t it?
SM: Yeah, very.
FK: Do you think that’s just a personal thing or do you think our generation is more aware of health?
SM: I think it’s both, but I remember I really hated being skinny when I was younger, so for two years I was non-stop at the gym gaining maybe 70 pounds, and I got a lot bigger and then it became this thing where I noticed if I didn’t go I was feeling mentally less stable. So it became more of a mental thing than a physical thing for me. Also I have so much less energy if I don’t do it, it gets my mind working really quick; I’m blasting music into my ears, I’m listening to demos, I’m reading online about things. Instead of getting up at 9am, I get a snack, go to the gym… doing all this shit and my mind is awake.
FK: What do you listen to when you’re working out?
SM: Literally the top 50 songs on Spotify, to learn, just to examine what’s happening. I listen to a lot of remixes and stuff, I’ve started getting into production a lot, I’ve been producing a lot on my computer so I’m always listening for new things to learn from.
FK: What’s involved with the production side of things, I don’t really know how it actually works?
SM: I just started producing at the beginning of the tour so my stuff’s very new, but it’s really fun – it’s very very difficult, like so difficult, not only to come up with it creatively but to make it on the computer. So much brain-power goes into it so it’s been a very big challenge.
JW: One thing I like about your music is that it doesn’t feel over-produced, it doesn’t feel like this massive pop moment of a ton of crap being thrown at a track, it feels very raw.
SM: Yeah thank you. When I started releasing music I didn’t want it to be so produced because I feel like if people are gonna love the music as an acoustic production they’re going to love the music, period. In the second album a lot of the songs are a little more produced, that’s because I’ve had a lot of creative control and been like, “This is what I want to do, these are the kind of movements I want to make.” I’m not saying the next album is going to be like an EDM track though…
“I think my fans know that I’m willing to give everything.”
JW: The other thing that we like about your performances is that it’s pretty much you and a guitar for an hour and a half. Everyone goes on about how little attention span the social media generation has yet you hold an audience captive without any tricks.
SM: Of course, you know how your parents say treat people the way you want to be treated? I perform my show how I’d like to see one. So that’s kind of how I look at it, when I go to a show I would feel overwhelmed with production and dancers and it would be too much for me to see, I love to see an artist when they’re just singing, I get chills when I see someone performing.
JW: Because of that you get a very direct emotional response from your fans, is that intimacy tricky to keep a handle on as you’re playing bigger shows at bigger arenas?
SM: Definitely, very hard. I mean the more the band becomes involved, the more the lighting happens, you see the crowd less and less. But that’s why we keep the acoustic parts of the set.
JW: Are you still gonna sing with no mic tonight to the entire arena? [Shawn sings the last verse of a song with no mic and no accompaniment]
SM: Possibly, I’ve done a room bigger than this [Mohegan Sun arena, 12,000 capacity] but then sometimes I don’t, it depends on how I’m feeling.
JW: Your vocal coach must be like, “Don’t do that.”
SM: I have to have an extreme amount of confidence in the moment to be able to do that. I have a loud voice when I want it to be.
JW: I think it’s nice that you wait patiently for everyone to shut up and let you sing.
SM: I don’t think anybody is coming to have a bad time and I don’t think anyone is coming to be obnoxious but sometimes maybe they aren’t sure whether to scream here or to be quiet, so I give it that second for everyone to figure out what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m also trying to create these moments, from day one I’ve been thinking about moments in the set.
JW: I guess you need to set some kind of pace?
SM: Yeah – create the moments, make the ups and the downs and the plateau and the huge up and the huge down. You know, because that creates an emotional rollercoaster which is fun.
FK: What’s been the most memorable moments on the tour?
SM: I think when I was in Nashville. It’s funny because the crowd wasn’t even that loud, but it was the night before I turned eighteen and I was just feeling really good, I was up there and I was playing Ruin and my mum and dad were there and it was just… I was on stage and I was playing and I just noticed for a second how many people were in front of me and it was just a really – not an overwhelming scared feeling, more a heartwhelming comforting feeling, on stage when I realised where I was.
JW: And in the middle of all this when can you write? When is the magic moment?
SM: There’s no such thing, but I’m scared of over-using my voice to be honest with you. I don’t write in a low voice and quietly, when I write I’m singing full volume as hard as I can, as good as I can, because how am I supposed to know if it sounds good if I don’t? So if I’m writing I’m singing a full song ten times over, I’m doing another set basically.
FK: Your music often feels quite emotional and personal, how do you begin to write songs, do you just wake up one day and think, “This is how I’m feeling,” or do you think, “I need a love song or a slow song or a fast song?”
SM: It’s totally based on how I’m feeling in the moment. A lot of time you’re sitting somewhere, in the green room alone or in the back of the bus alone or in the hotel room and that’s where those emotional songs come in, you’re playing guitar and you’re thinking, “How do I feel right now?” Or someone will text me something and that will spark an idea and I’ll pick up a guitar, but usually I’m just playing on the guitar and I start humming.
JW: Like, “Mmmm that sounds goooood.”
SM: Yeah, “That sounds good, what is that?”
JW: Do you record it, on the phone or something?
SM: Yeah my phone… [walks over to get his phone and shows us though his memos] I have 384 voice memos.
JW: Do you name them like, ‘slow sexy tune’?
SM: Sometimes… ok, what do I have here? [scrolls through phone] “Cool B minor song idea,” [plays the song, acoustic guitar riff] this was in 2015, probably in a hotel room just playing.
JW: How many of these recordings make it into a song?
SM: Considering I wrote fifteen songs total and there’s 300, 400 on here…
JW: You can just come back to it later, you’ve already got ten albums.
SM: [laughs] I don’t for some reason [plays a different track, more singing]. This song made it into the album, it’s called Honest. I remember sitting on the bathroom floor at my house when I wrote that right there, it’s funny I can remember pretty much every single one. [plays another song, harder electric guitar] This was in my bedroom with the electric guitar, one of the first times when I was just like, “Ooh, I like electric guitar a lot.” [plays another song] Playing piano in my room, when I first started playing piano I was just recording everything I did.
Shawn Mendes / photography by Fabien Kruszelnicki
JW: It’s nice to be able to go back to it.
SM: It’s fun because if I go down down down… [scrolls down his list] then I’ll see something like…. I Know What You Did Last Summer [single released with Fifth Harmony’s Camila Cabello in 2015] I don’t know what I was doing, it’s really fun to go back and do this.
JW: And I wanted to ask you as well, you do a meet and greet at every show for a few hours beforehand, where fans come along and say hi, and we were talking about how much emotion you put into the performance and your songs. So when people come to these things and open up to you emotionally, how do you manage that? I can imagine it’s a lot.
SM: That’s the hardest part about my job, accepting other humans’ pain. And I’m not saying that in a bad way and I don’t want to discourage my fans from telling me these things because I think it’s so important that they have someone they feel like they can tell. Because I always want to have someone I can talk to. But it’s hard you know? You’re one person and to hear a lot of really rough things… [pauses]. You hear a lot of really rough things.
JW: I suppose a lot of your earlier posts on social media are just you singing and talking and it’s very bare.
SM: I think my fans know that I’m willing to give everything.
JW: So back to the music, the second album Illuminate is coming out pretty much the same day as this issue. Did you have much time to work on it now that your life has got pretty busy?
SM: I had five months to do the first album, and it was my first time writing and I had nothing to do with the production. And – you know – you just want to have more involvement with something that you put your heart into. So with this new album I made sure I was writing every single song, I was there for the production on every single song, I didn’t want it to be released without me being 100% sure about it. When I released Handwritten [Shawn’s first album] there were six songs that I was like, “They’re not done, they’re not right,” but we didn’t have enough time.
Shawn Mendes / photography by Fabien Kruszelnicki
JW: So in terms of production, what things have been important for you this time to make sure you’re happy with it?
SM: It’s literally been things like, there was a production and I said, “Strip the whole song down and let’s start from the beginning, change the drum beat” and it was tempo-ed super fast, “Let’s bring it down 10 BPM, this is a different song now.” I was just not scared about being articulate, I made everyone aware that I wasn’t being angry and mean about things I was just so in it that I needed it to be a certain way.
JW: I guess after performing so much you become very in touch with how people respond to things, do you experiment with the set as you go?
SM: Yeah, the set is different every day, every single night, depending on the crowd, depending on my energy. Some nights I’ll do something and my guitar tech will be like, “What the hell is that,” in my ears [earplugs] – like in a good way – and I’m like, “I don’t know.” That’s what the crowd inspires.
JW: And you said that you enjoy learning from the people around you on tour… I mean you’re here performing arena tours already and you could be a massive diva, so I thought that was an honest thing to acknowledge.
SM: I know nothing dude, I really don’t. I mean I’ve been playing guitar for three-and-a half years which is nothing in the guitar world, I’ve been singing for seven… people have been singing since they were two-years-old, I was singing since I was thirteen, and I’ve been playing piano for two years… I’m so so amateur it’s not even funny. The difference is I put in the effort to make the process grow twice as fast.
FK: You were saying last time we saw you that you felt a lot of pressure because of that reason, that you’re still learning.
SM: Tons of pressure, but in a great way. I feel like sometimes expectations are higher of me than they should be musically because I really am learning, I don’t know much but that pushes me to learn. But no matter how real you are as a person and how connected you are with people, at the end of the day you’re a performer and people pay money to come and see a show. So I don’t want to get on stage when I feel like I’m dying because I’m so sick and be like, “Guys I’m sounding like shit because I’ve been coughing all morning and I haven’t got any sleep and I’ve been doing tons of promo and, like, you have to take it easy on me,” they didn’t come to hear about your problems and the things that are making it hard for you to be on stage, they’re only going to feel guilty for being there. So there are times where you have to remember that you’re a performer and that’s what you do for a living.
JW: And also you arrived in the industry quickly in an explosive way which must give you a set of fresh eyes, things are changing quickly – you used to get a single release and then the album, but now people are bringing lots of singles out and interacting with their audiences in a different way online to the traditional album release schedule.
SM: You have to be creative in this day and age, but I think the best thing that ever happened to me was my ignorance to the industry, ignorance to the world, and I know that sounds horrible but see it more like I was this fourteen-year-old-kid who has an OK voice, a personality that people seem to connect with, and who seems to think he can take the entire world on – all that did was good for me. But it hurt when I did find out that things weren’t the way that they seemed, but it just made me run ten steps instead of taking longer to walk them. And because I didn’t know that if I was running there was a chance I’d fall over a log, I just jumped over it instead.
Shawn Mendes / photography by Fabien Kruszelnicki
JW: And you come at it with all that passion and energy and innocence and then you meet the internet where a whole bunch of people are really enthusiastic but you also get this trolly, nasty side too – how do you deal with that?
SM: It rips your heart out and makes you feel like shit.
JW: I’m sure it does.
SM: Like I did this thing where I had to a cover of [Zayn Malik’s] Pillowtalk and it had just been released a couple of days before, I didn’t know the song and I was thinking it up on the spot. It was early in the morning and it was silly, it was a stupid version of the song and I fucked up a bit and I got ripped apart for it. And as a singer I understand, but I wasn’t born being able to sing and perform, I work at it, I think about it 24 hours a day. So [as performers] when we do something we know we’ve messed up, you don’t have to tell us we are already beating ourselves up about it. People are very quick to judge but have no idea what goes into what we actually do.
FK: You think it’s too critical?
SM: I think the world in general is too critical. I think people need to just lay back a bit and be more relaxed about everything in general because we’re not perfect, we’re never going to be.
FK: What’s the point, if you can’t feel free to just experiment and do stuff then you’re not going to take those jumps.
SM: Why do you think so many people are uninspired to become politicians? It’s because they learn how impossible it is to change the world the way they want to. Unfortunately a lot of incredible things that could exist don’t because people are scared to be judged. The few percent of people who do things and aren’t scared are sometimes the most hated people on Earth, and also the most loved.
JW: And then on the flip side of that you have the opportunity to speak directly to a massive fan base.
SM: Yeah and the thing is, I’m the first person to say ‘thank you’ and to be appreciative for what I have. But I think it’s important that if something is really bugging you to not hold back, because at the end of the day people want to know that you’re real. Personally I’m not very passive, if someone says something I disagree with I’ll tell them. So I’m not going to pretend I’m passive online. But that doesn’t mean you have to respond in a horrible way.
FK: In the early 2000s this idea became popular of younger people wanting their five minutes of fame which has only escalated with social media, what kind of advice would you give younger people who are just trying to get famous?
SM: The most truthful and honest thing I can say is the most famous people in the world, the majority of the time are famous because of their obsession with what they do, and their love for what they do. Not because their goal was to become famous. I don’t think being famous is an occupation, so for kids that are trying to become famous, I don’t really know, I don’t have advice – I wasn’t trying to become famous, I was trying to become a singer.
Shawn Mendes’ self-titled third album is out now via Island Records.