Shawn Mendes on Spirituality and the Biggest Tour of His Career – Billboard
Written by GRB on 14/03/2022
“I hit a low point a few years ago,” Shawn Mendes admits, his brow furrowing beneath his shaggy curls.
The sun is setting over a Santa Monica, Calif., apartment complex, and Mendes is leaning forward from his seat as he explains a recent major life change: his embrace of spirituality. It started with meditation to bring a little balance to his chaotic life of pop stardom. That turned into reading religious texts, which turned into a deep dive on the Bhakti movement in Hinduism. For nearly a year, Mendes has spent every Thursday meditating and discussing scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita with Jay Shetty, the author of Think Like a Monk.
“I think everybody has a moment where they just decide it’s time to kind of do something different,” says Mendes matter-of-factly. Now spirituality is “a part of my life that is much bigger than I actually even let on.”
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It also provided an anchor as the pandemic turned his life as a road warrior upside down. Since signing to Island Records as a 15-year-old in 2014, Mendes had rarely taken much of a break from touring, often previewing and workshopping future hits for live audiences. Not being able to immediately perform his 2020 album, Wonder, was frustrating — but it also presented its own opportunity. “For years, it was run and gun, constant movement, and from a really young age,” says Mendes’ longtime manager, Andrew Gertler. “I don’t think he got the time until recently to really even go, ‘What do I care about?’ ”
Mendes has accomplished a mind-boggling amount at the age of 23: four No. 1 albums, 10 top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, stadium shows opening for Taylor Swift while his friends were taking algebra tests, headline arena tours before he was of legal drinking age. With his string of pop-rock anthems — from the shimmering “If I Can’t Have You” to sensual singalongs like “Señorita,” with former girlfriend Camila Cabello — he has earned the adoration of adult-contemporary radio listeners and tween streamers alike, cementing his transformation from teen Vine sensation to one of the most bankable artists in pop.
Yet as Mendes prepares to embark on his fifth studio album, as well as his most expansive tour to date, he describes a quarter-life crossroads. After a few years in which the pandemic drastically shifted his priorities and his personal life received a new level of tabloid scrutiny, Mendes — who has long been candid about the pressures of the spotlight — is wrestling with his creative future. He speaks openly and thoughtfully about how the hit singles and sold-out shows are no longer the end-all and be-all they once were.
“There was a long while where I was convinced that you just had to write big songs,” he says. Now he’s thinking about a different kind of endgame: “the type of music that I want to make, what I want to hear and what is important to me.”
It helps that Mendes has found success when he has stepped outside his comfort zone. “In My Blood,” the lead single from his 2018 self-titled third album, leaned into a louder rock sound, with lyrics that focused on Mendes’ struggles with anxiety. “The night that song was coming out, I was like, ‘I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life,’ ” he recalls. Instead, “In My Blood” earned Mendes both praise for its vulnerability and a Grammy Award nod for song of the year; it also became one of his most enduring radio hits, reaching No. 1 on the Adult Top 40 chart during a moment when guitars were scarce on pop formats. (For his part, Mendes is glad that time has passed: “I love the sound of guitar rock, and now everything is guitar rock. Watching Olivia [Rodrigo] take that sound by the horns in an insanely talented way is fun to watch.”)
Two years later, fourth album Wonder offered a wide-ranging mix of wall-of-sound pop, synth-driven power ballads, bass-heavy club tunes and heart-on-his-sleeve lyricism, with Mendes co-writing and co-producing nearly every track. Still, while Wonder debuted atop the Billboard 200 and included the top 10 Hot 100 hit “Monster” — a Justin Bieber duet about the pitfalls of fame — the album lacked the type of top 40 staples that Mendes has supplied for years. It has earned 513,000 U.S. equivalent album units, according to MRC Data, whereas Mendes’ previous three albums have all topped 2.5 million. “For the first time in his career, he was really at the helm,” Gertler says. “It takes creative risk to do that, and you have to be OK with the fact that some things are going to work and some things aren’t. But from a musical standpoint, Wonder is my favorite album he has ever made.”
Mendes wants to continue that approach on his next project, for which he’s already “writing a ton.” He’s working closely with Mike Sabath (Lizzo, Meghan Trainor) and has been drawing inspiration from acts ranging from Bon Iver to Paul Simon to Coldplay — performers that don’t “put themselves in a box,” as he puts it. Mendes and Cabello joined Coldplay frontman Chris Martin onstage at Global Citizen Live in New York last September to sing the band’s “Yellow” — and Mendes was so inspired by the experience, he hit the studio the next day to work on “It’ll Be Okay,” a dramatic piano ballad he co-created with Sabath and released in December as a one-off single.
“I think he really cares deeply about what he’s singing and how he’s singing it,” Martin says of Mendes. “I don’t think he’s just in it for the fame or just in it for the money or anything like that. I think he holds the responsibility that he has really well because he has been a teen idol and everything. The music could be the last thing on his mind, but I think it’s at the forefront of his instead. He wants to sing things that really hit people deeply, and I think he’s getting better and better at doing that. So I just champion him all the way.”
Mendes’ next album will also be his first with new leadership at Island, which announced Imran Majid and Justin Eshak as co-CEOs last June after president/CEO Darcus Beese stepped down in early 2021. Now one of the label’s flagship artists, Mendes says his interactions with the new label heads have him feeling excited about his future.
“I got along with them really quickly — they’re just generally positive, about life and the industry,” Mendes says of Majid and Eshak, who were previously co-heads of A&R at Columbia Records. Gertler also points out that much of Mendes’ core team has remained through the regime changes, including Mike Alexander (Island’s newly appointed GM), Sharon Timure (now Island’s head of marketing) and Ziggy Chareton (a longtime Island A&R manager who now shares management duties with Gertler), making up “a nucleus of amazing people who really understand Shawn.”
Before Mendes can officially begin his next album cycle, however, he’s committed to his vision of presenting Wonder on the road with a 73-date tour kicking off in Portland, Ore., on June 27. In addition to a European trek that begins in late spring 2023, Mendes will hit global markets that he hasn’t yet visited in Asia and the Middle East, and he’ll also likely play more stadium dates than usual, including in Latin America, according to longtime touring agent Matt Galle. “We’re not trying to rush,” says Galle of Mendes graduating to bigger venues. “Obviously, we all believe that’s going to happen, and he’s going to be there everywhere at some point. But it’s also important to realize that he’s only 23 — he’s going to have a long career.”
It’s easy to forget how young Mendes is — partly because he has been in the spotlight for such a long time already and also because he lives a low-key life offstage. (His fondness for early bedtimes has earned him the family nickname “Grandpa.”) Since the beginning of his career, Mendes has avoided the types of controversy that often plague young stars adjusting to a bright spotlight — no arrests, no Notes app apologies, nothing that would cause concern for his cross-demographic listenership. Mendes and Cabello, whose duet “Señorita” became his first Hot 100 No. 1 hit in 2019, spent two years as paparazzi magnets before ending their romantic relationship last November, but Mendes says the tabloid focus never bothered him — “I honestly don’t care,” he says with a friendly shrug — or made him lose his focus on the music. “He has always been really good at cutting through the clutter,” says Gertler.
And for Mendes, the path ahead is clear: more shows, more albums, more opportunities to push himself. “I never want to stop playing, even if I’m playing for 10 people in a bar,” he says. “And I only want to play bigger shows if I get to do it by making music that’s authentic.”
The day before our interview, Mendes was 15 miles away at the SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., taking in the Super Bowl halftime show alongside his pal Niall Horan. As Mendes watched Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar and Eminem deliver hit after hit at halftime, he wasn’t focused on the setlist or stage setup — instead, he kept thinking about how each artist had changed the contours of the mainstream and shifted popular culture in the process. “In Da Club,” “Family Affair,” “Lose Yourself” — those songs are all timeless in Mendes’ eyes. That’s the bar he has set for his own music.
“For me, it’s not to be like, ‘I have to change the world,’ ” says Mendes, an earnest smile breaking across his face. “I’m just saying, that’s where my ambition goes — to influence culture. I want to honor the opportunity that I’ve been given as an artist, to make something very true.”