Mendes shares the unlikely inspiration behind 'There's Nothing Holdin' Me Back'
Shawn Mendes just can’t stop working. It’s only been a few months since he wrapped his last world tour, but he’s about to embark on a new all-arena trek that will take him across five continents. His latest album, Illuminate, came out last September, but the 18-year-old star tells EW he’s “deep, deep, deep” into planning his next album already. It’s a cycle that happens every time he hits the road, Mendes explains. He writes new music, makes plans to tour it, and then touring only makes him want to write more new music.
“It’s become a little bit of a problem when I go home,” he jokes. “Sometimes I should really go out and hang out with my friends, but what happens is I get really inspired.”
This time, he’s not waiting to give fans new material: Just a few days before his Illuminate World Tour kicks off in Europe, he released a new single, “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” which he describes as a “big step” forward in his sound.
Below, Mendes talks about being inspired by Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, what to expect from his tour, and how he unwinds between shows.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you record this song, and what made you want to go back into the studio?
SHAWN MENDES: I had some time at the beginning of the year, so I went into the studio for just a couple days. Literally, I had three days in the studio, and this was one of the songs we came out with. It was one of those things where it would be a crime not to release this as a single even though we don’t have a [new] album right now. I wanted to make sure we released something going into the tour and summer. I’m really pumped for it. I think it’s a big step.
Is this the first time you’ve gone into the studio since Illuminate came out?
Yeah. I mean, I’ve been recording stuff and doing stuff in my bedroom. I’m writing all the time, really. It’s become a little bit of a problem when I go home. Sometimes I should really go out and hang out with my friends, but what happens is I get really inspired and then just go and mess around on the computer. Whether it becomes a song or not, I just need to get it out of me.
When you announced “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” you said the song represented what you loved about both Illuminate as well as upcoming music. Are you deep into planning for album No. 3?
Deep, deep, deep, deep into planning! It’s weird. When you go on tour you get so pumped up to make more music, learn more about yourself, and grow more musically. It always happens.
There’s a rougher, grittier quality to your voice on this song. Does tapping into that come easy to you?
It happened naturally, but I wouldn’t say it was easy. That day I had no voice. It took a hundred tries to get a take because my voice was so gone. I was basically singing on nothing. At first, I was like, “Damn, we’re going to have to re-cut this, but we don’t have time.” And then we listened back to it and were like, “Woah, this actually sounds kind of badass?” So a day when I had no voice ended up working out in my favor.
“There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” also has a lot going on musically — let’s start with that almost Middle Eastern-sounding guitar part. It sounds like something Timbaland would sample in the early 2000s.
It’s so cool that you say that because that is what I was going for. We wrote the song, cut it, and then the next day I was listening back. There was this empty space after the chorus, and I [imagined] this part, this sample that Timbaland would use. I ordered this guitalele, which is like a baby guitar with nylon strings that sounds like a ukelele. I went over to my buddy and was like, “I’m just going to play this.” It ended up sounding so badass. It sounds like something you’d hear on an old Justin Timberlake record, right?
The track is also probably the danciest song you’ve ever put out.
Definitely. That was the point. I wanted to make something that could play in the clubs. I wanted something people could dance to at parties. I realized I never had that [in my catalog]. And even though we created something like that, it’s still very singer-songwriter-y. I’m doing a couple festivals this summer so I know that’ll be a good one to play live.
It was only a few months ago that you were touring your last album. What’s the biggest difference between this tour and the previous one?
We’re doing arenas, man. It’s a big deal. It’s a big difference. You have so many more crew members. It’s a bigger stage, a bigger setup, more buses. It’s huge. I’m not exactly ready for it, but I’m ready for it at the same time — I can’t explain it. I’ll be ready five or 10 shows into the tour. Everything is way more extreme — but in a good way, it’s not overbearing.
Some songs on Illuminate had a really intimate feel. How do you preserve that when you’re in these giant venues playing to thousands of people? Is it even possible?
It’s not impossible at all. Honestly, it’s really just about knowing that as an artist, you can have a million things going on, but you have to be there. You have to be present. You take your in-ears out and you’re present with the crowd, you’re not just performing. No matter where you play, a stadium or an arena, when you’re present on stage, it’s going to feel like a theater. And that’s my job. That’s no one else’s job but mine to make sure, during the entire set, I’m right there, talking with them, keeping my connection.
Arena shows have their own opportunities as well. What was on your tour wish list? Fancy screens? Pyrotechnics?
I really just wanted a stunning [stage] design, and we’re spending today working on it. I wanted something that told a story and wasn’t just flashing lights. I wanted it to enhance the music without overshadowing it. That is harder than anything — to create a production that makes it better but isn’t more than the music. For songs like “Ruin,” we have these beautiful doves flying around and it literally feels you’re inside of a movie.
Wait, doves on screen? Or real doves?
Doves on screen! I don’t think we’d be able to control actual doves in the arena.
You begin this tour in Europe before coming to North America in the summer. Will you tweak the show for American audiences?
Last year the shows were very different, but this year I wanted to make sure they were pretty much the exact same so everyone in the world would get the same show. It’ll be a bit different though, maybe there will be a couple different songs interchanged when I come to America.
How pumped are you to tour with Charlie Puth?
So excited! He’s such a professional and a really cool guy. And an incredible writer-producer. He’ll be really cool to work with.
Headliners and their openers can sometimes interact like ships passing in the night. Will you guys get time to actually hang out?
Absolutely. There’s a ton of off-days for that reason. I wanted to make sure that we weren’t just out here working, that we’re actually going out in each country and city we’re in and having fun and making the most of everything.
How do you like to spend your downtime?
I am usually pretty okay with just chilling, going to the gym, getting food, going back and relaxing. But I want to make an effort this time, especially in Europe, to go out and see places, to go on hikes, to make sure I’m actually getting to visit. Last year I went everywhere but saw nothing, and I don’t want that to happen again.
It seems like you’re always either touring or working on new music. Have you gotten a chance to process and soak in the past few months?
Yeah, it’s been crazy. You don’t see what you’re doing until a couple months after, when you’re looking from a bird’s eye view down at everything. I see that my musical world has gotten so much bigger. The fact that I’m on an arena tour is insane to me. Honestly, the more things start to get bigger and better, the more I am just inspired to work harder and put my music out there and make better music and keep everything going. It’s incredible. And I know keep saying it’s amazing and incredible, but it really, truly is a magical thing out there! With touring, you get to feel what you’ve done, you get to see those numbers. You get 100,000 favorites on a tweet, and you don’t really know what that feels like until you have 15,000 people in an arena in front of you screaming and you’re like, “This is the craziest s— I’ve ever seen in my whole life!” That’s when everything comes into perspective, those moments.