INTERVIEW: Shawn Mendes




At just 24, Canadian singer Shawn Mendes has racked up some serious musical achievements – and a heap of awards. But he’s found his real peace in God, as Violet Wilder discovered.

Success is a peculiar thing, mainly because of the different ways it seems to affect people; either raising them up or bending and eventually breaking them. For some, like Shawn Mendes, it came with such ease, so early in the game, and so forcefully, he was almost left shivering in its wake, unsure of where to go next. 

“To think I was only 15 when this whole crazy story kicked off is something that, looking back, I almost find quite terrifying,” he begins. “At the time you are swept along with the momentum, and it feels exciting and the biggest thrill you could ever imagine… and of course it is.

“However, receiving that sort of adulation at such a young age is probably unnatural… it’s not real life. And in the seven years straight I had on the road – a lot of big songs, big gigs, big experience – I think gradually I brought about a feeling of sanity to my life, but it really did take that long; and there were many things I had to lean on along the way to get to where I am now.”

Of course, Shawn Mendes won’t have been the first pop star to believe his own hype, albeit it manifested itself in a way the Canadian star didn’t expect. “I think the stress of going along with a certain version of yourself is actually the thing that terrifies you most,” he reveals. “I have always said it’s something of a monster, and I could feel it eating me from the inside, gnawing away at my self-confidence.

“The pressure gave me a fragility I had never felt before, to the point where criticism I might have brushed off a year or 18 months earlier, I was taking to heart, and it was destroying me.”

Considering that the 24-year-old has already spent nearly a decade of his life in the limelight, it is understandable that his celebrity status feels intricately bound to his personality. Mendes felt the first thrills of recognition way back in 2012 when, after teaching himself to play guitar using YouTube tutorials, he garnered half a billion views singing pop covers on now-defunct social media app Vine. He was one of the first in a new generation of stars whose DIY approach and self-starting ambitions give the notion that fame is one touch of a screen away. Inevitably, those six-second snippets of songs drew the attention of a management company, which led to a life-changing contract with Island Records. 

A debut album, Handwritten, went to number one in his native Canada, and topped the billboard charts in America (as did his two follow-up records). His first single Stitches has over a billion views on YouTube and his song Treat You Better has double that number. Mendes has supported Taylor Swift on tour and had a high-profile relationship with Cuban-born sweetheart Camila Cabello. And these are just some of the extraordinary feats for one so young. Yet even the indefatigable Mendes wasn’t safe from the spectre of self-doubt. 

“Things really came to a head a couple of months before lockdown,” admits Mendes, who looks fit, wholesome and has shifted his image away from those initial years of boyishness. “Around January I almost had something of a creative shut-out, where my body would just not allow me to sing.

“This was all brought about by severe anxiety, and that came from a place of feeling desperately out of sorts with how I was going to get my next album together. I think most people are used to fear that consumes you in the moment, but mine was a daily thing. I was totally stuck.”

From Judy Garland to Britney Spears, history has a hefty roster of young stars who became victims of the fame monster, but unusually it was Mendes and his management team who were labelled as exploitative, unethical and irresponsible by various child advocacy groups. It came after a highly dubious marketing stunt whereby fans, desperate to meet their idol, were encouraged to ‘buy all album copies’ of Handwritten, some of which hid golden access ‘meet and greet’ passes. “It was one of those where the idea was better than the execution – it happens.”

Despite this controversy, the singer has always had an untarnished air of affability. Charming, authentic, polite and always ready with that starry white grin for a selfie with a starstruck fan, he was, and still is, the perfect pop star. 

Photo by Sara Jaye Weiss/Shutterstock (9705097u) Shawn Mendes iheart Radio Wango Tango Backstage Portrait Studio, Los Angeles, USA – 02 Jun 2018

Unavoidably, it is that quest for perfection that becomes the chink in one’s armour. For while he is adored by many, there are still the usual naysayers who say his music is formulaic, that he lacks personality and even those who are convinced his two-year relationship with Cabello was merely a publicity stunt. 

“I’ve come to terms with the ‘formulaic’ tag,” he says. “The fact is, you cannot make music that pleases everyone – it’s just impossible.

“I think at its worst, I came close to quitting the whole thing. I lost sight of the fact I had an ability to control my place in the industry; it didn’t have to be the industry was controlling me. That was never the deal when I was 12 or 13 in my bedroom making music. It was just a love for what I was doing, and I needed to win back a bit of that mentality.”

A big part of that recovery ultimately came when Mendes turned to a higher power for healing. He admits to reading over 50 self-help books in a bid to fix his mental health. He also exercised hard; yet in the end, it was meditation and spiritual energy which really made the difference.

“I think when you tap into real spirituality, it is something that will really transform who you are,” he says. “For me that started with meditation – I just jumped on a YouTube video, cleared my mind, and found a new way through.”

Mendes went on to use an app product conceived by instructor Jeff Warren. “It was a 30-day thing, but it took me from a place of anxiety into a new sphere. It taught me compassion, temperance, and indirectly reconnected me with the power of faith.”

In 2021, along with Cabello, Mendes launched his own series for the mindfulness and meditation app Calm, titled ‘Breathe Into It’. It consists of 24 sessions which explore experiences in overcoming anxiety and building a sense of self-acceptance and gratitude. He also announced a partnership that will provide thousands of free Calm memberships to youth activists and leaders through the Movement Voter Fund and the Shawn Mendes Foundation. For Mendes, it’s an opportunity not just to destigmatise the conversation around mental health, but also to give back.

“I wanted to get as far away from the idea of this being a commercial activity as possible, because it’s totally not. We have offered free memberships because, in my mind, everything connected to health and positivity and wellbeing should be free. It’s so important these days; maybe more important than ever.”

Mendes’ soul-searching also took him on another great journey – one which realigned him to God. In fact, it was while listening to Maverick City, a contemporary worship music collective who originate from Atlanta, Georgia, that he experienced an electrifying epiphany. The 100-strong gospel group were singing about Jesus, and Mendes found himself moved to tears.

“I’ve always known that music is a real connector to our emotions, but when it came to religion it never really got me to that place. I would say that gospel was the genre that went closest, but when you are in a room with a gospel choir, when the power and the passion of faith is reverberating around you – well, it’s an incredible experience. It has opened up a lot for more.”

In recent months, Mendes and fellow Canadian star Justin Bieber have been spotted leaving services at the Beverly Hills chapter of Churchome – the Seattle-based church led by Pastor Judah Smith which is endorsed by numerous celebrities and even has its own app. Besides sharing a home country and a wealth of talent, both Bieber and Mendes have been admirably candid about their personal struggles with fame and its repercussions on their mental health, including postponing tours in a bid to ‘ground’ themselves. In 2020 the pair even released the duet Monster which deals with the trappings of fame and perils of worshipping false idols. 

Bieber has long worn his love for Jesus on his sleeve. Not only has he performed with Maverick City at a worship service – you can find his stirring rendition of the song Jireh (a duet with the group’s co-founder Chandler Moore) on YouTube – but the title of his hit 2015 album, Purpose, literally refers to his relationship with God.

For Mendes the transition appears to be a little more on the subtle side. One obvious shift is how his much his fourth studio album, Wonder, differs from his previous work. On the title song, soaring choirs and earnest soul-searching, that crescendo in the chorus where he asks: “I wonder what it’s like to be loved by you?” have replaced the palpable anxiety and despair of his 2018 masterpiece In My Blood

Mendes is the first to recognise that his ultimate downfall was his own avarice and appetite for success. While always clean-living, his drive for success had become an addiction that, he believes, turned him away from his true self.

“I think most of us use faith and God as a way of wanting things to happen,” he says. “Praying, hoping, committing ourselves is often a way of yearning for something more in our lives, and I certainly did that for many, many years.

“I guess what I have ultimately learned is that sometimes the whole point of believing is that when you reach out it is just for consolidation, or for normality. That is ultimately so much more valuable – to be able to go back to your equilibrium.

“Everything else in life is really what you bring yourself – and if you don’t then maybe that doesn’t matter anyway; but at least be content in yourself.”

Subsequently, in his bid to find clarity and truth, Mendes has fully gone back to the basics. Reconnecting with old friends and family – his parents live in Ontario, Canada but his mother is originally from Somerset and his father is Portuguese – he now finds peace and beauty in the world around him, rather than YouTube hits and bank balances. He has also invested time into other realms of spirituality, discussing scriptures with author Jay Shetty.

“For me it is true enlightenment. I cannot be a global face without taking in those influences from around the planet – I’m just glad I’ve got to this point right now.”

Photo by Sara Jaye Weiss/Shutterstock (9705097w) Shawn Mendes iheart Radio Wango Tango Backstage Portrait Studio, Los Angeles, USA – 02 Jun 2018

Currently Mendes is in between albums, having cancelled the majority of his Wonder tour dates in order to prioritise his health and take forward even further the epiphanous lessons from 2022.

Perhaps, as well, in the time away from relentless touring, he may afford himself a deeper foray into cinema. In the recently-released film of Bernard Waber’s beloved 1965 children’s book Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, Mendes voices the eponymous singing reptile who must eventually choose between a glamorous life of showbusiness and a homely one in Manhattan with the Primm family.

In the end, Mendes is, himself, much like the doleful, gentle crocodile, though it has taken him a little while longer to realise that it is faith, family and friendship, not fame, that bring you the greatest joy. 

Guest Writer

In the quest to bring you more insights Sorted includes interesting articles from specially selected Guest Writers. Each piece is carefully chosen and edited by our own Editorial Team to inform, inspire and entertain our readers.

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