Shawn Mendes is sitting in his dressing room in New York one recent Saturday afternoon, feeling a little disoriented. Partly, this is because he just saw a guy’s leg get crushed in a gnarly traffic accident. But it’s also because the 18-year-old is about to headline Madison Square Garden for the first time. The show sold out in five minutes, and young girls with wide smiles are lined up around the venue as we talk backstage. “It’s nuts for it to be packed here for me,” says the singer-guitarist, who worries he’s “under-rehearsed” for the gig. “I don’t know what, how or why it’s happening, but I’m gonna do the best I can.”
Mendes’ whole career has been a little disorienting. In three years, he’s gone from hockey-loving teenager in a Pickering, Ontario, bedroom to Vine star to chart-topping sensation. His first LP, 2015’s Handwritten, debuted at Number One, and it’s a good bet Mendes’ new album, Illuminate, will as well. Unlike past teen idols, Mendes has achieved that status not with bad-boy bravado but with small-town charm and catchy acoustic folk-pop tunes.
The singer-songwriter caught up with Rolling Stone to discuss his sophomore album, his experience recording with eight collaborators in an upstate New York cabin called “the Club House” and his dreams of pursuing acting in the future – though he’ll have to tackle an international arena tour first.
The last time we spoke in depth, it was right before you went to the Club House to finish recording the album. You were talking about working on your vocals and musicianship. With the album completed, are you feeling that you’re getting to that point?
I’m feeling the same. I’m feeling better! I feel amazing. We’ve practiced so much. But I’m never going to feel good enough for what’s happening, to be honest with you. It’s so surreal and so crazy. It’s nuts for this to be packed here for me. I don’t know what, how or why it’s happening, but I’m gonna do the best I can because that’s all I’ve been doing. I’m just gonna go out there and have fun and connect with the crowd and do what I always do.
Listening to the album, it does show a lot of growth. How do you think Illuminate compares to your first LP?
It’s such a difference: vocally, lyrically. Just the songs are so much better. I love Handwritten but I really love Illuminate. It’s so much better to me.
What was the experience of recording at the Club House?
There were eight of us there. If you could picture a bunch of grown men at camp, it was literally the most stress-free, do-what-you-will environment. We were sleeping right beside the studio. We’d go for walks at 2 a.m. and wake up and go for jogs at 7 a.m. It was like we left the earth for 10 days and were on some other planet.
You mentioned how you were hoping to work with John Mayer on this album. Did he play any part in the songs?
I didn’t get to work with him, but he listened to a bunch of the songs and gave great pieces of advice through the music and production and lyrics and stuff, especially on songs like “Three Empty Words” and “Ruin” and “Patience.” It was great to have him listening through it all.
I love the series of songs from “Patience” through “Bad Reputation” and “Understand,” and how they show off a lot of the evolution in your songwriting. Can you tell me about those three?
“Patience” was basically about a time with an older girl, but not like much older. She was just a bit older. I don’t like age barriers. I don’t like when people treat you differently when they find out how old you are. It was kind of just my anger towards adults not treating mature kids like they deserve to be treated. Or like choosing to treat someone their age when it’s good for you and not when it’s good for them. “Bad Reputation” was the first song we wrote for the whole album. Here in New York, we started it in a hotel room; six months later we finished it at the Club House. “Understand” was one of the last songs we wrote about life in general. That was one of the most organic, beautiful things we ever created. We were all laying on the floor in the studio with a notepad and the piano on loop.
Where did the spoken-word portion of “Understand” come from?
That was totally off the top of my head. I was in the booth and that just came out. Nothing was written down so we just used it. I was confessing to how I feel and defending people who change but not in a bad way.
I feel like that’s the big concern of people who do become famous really young. It’s been great to see your music reach beyond the idea of being a teen idol, but a lot of your most vocal fans are younger. Is there a concern for you that many may not be ready to grow with you, and do you consciously think about that when you’re writing songs?
Yeah, but I wouldn’t talk about what I don’t believe in. I wouldn’t talk about drugs or alcohol because I truly don’t believe in that stuff. But if I did, I would write about it. Where I am, I’m just writing about what I’m going through, and they are growing with me and most of them are my age. It’s an awesome thing because I know that we’re all going through the same stuff. We’re all of the same age, same generation. I’m not just writing songs that are narrating my life, but everyone else around my age because they’re super-relatable.
Have you though of writing songs with or for other artists in the future?
Yeah, definitely! A lot lately. It’s just time. When I get the time to do that, I’m going to do that. I have so many ideas that aren’t right for me but could be amazing for other people.
You said that you thought you had your “Thinking Out Loud” for this album. Which one is it for you?
I feel so good about all of them that I feel like I have that song on here, whether it’s “Bad Reputation,” “Mercy,” “Don’t Be a Fool.” I can feel it on there. I can’t tell you which one people are going to react to the best, but the song I was going for was on there.
Will you have any time to cool off or rest between everything?
No. It’s kind of a bad thing but a great thing. You don’t really come down. You just kind of keep going. You just get better at going.
Are you already thinking of your next album?
Totally! I’ve already started writing for it. It’s all going to be growing with my life and what I’m listening to.
You’ve done some acting in the past and I know that was an early passion of yours. Is that something you see yourself pursuing?
For sure and as soon as I can. As soon as I get time, I really wanna dig down and do some acting.
What’s your ideal role?
Spider-Man? I’m kidding. Anything, really. I really love to just act. It doesn’t matter what it is.
How similar will the Madison Square Garden show be to your arena tour?
The MSG show was created three days [before it]. We’re all going up there scared shitless because it’s so new. We haven’t been touring for a month with this show. It’s going to be amazing because we’ve practiced so hard, but when the tour starts that will be the real show.