Shawn Mendes is taking control of his chaos
With his self-titled third studio album, Shawn Mendes finds the truth in all the noise.
A version of this story appears in the June 1 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
You’ll never get Shawn Mendes’s journal, but you’ll get the closest thing to it: his eclectic third album, self-titled to reflect the 19-year-old’s attempt at stamping his anxious, confident, chaotic self at this moment in time… before he forgets it and everything changes again.
“Every album is going to become more honest and truthful, but I really wanted to capture this,” the singer-songwriter tells EW before the May 25 release of Shawn Mendes, the follow-up to his two platinum 2015 and 2016 records from which the breakout singles “Stitches,” “Treat You Better,” and “Mercy” were born. “I don’t know how to describe it,” he continues, “but there’s something about where I am right now in my life, being 19 and I think the most malleable I’ve ever been, and maybe ever will be. I feel like I’m going through a huge transition and everything is just crazy and exciting.”
Mendes recognizes that imprinting this moment with a self-titled release (you only get one!) means branding both the high and low points of a still-nascent career — one which, for all its success, is just four years removed from when he signed with Island Records after acquiring millions of fans on the video app Vine. These four years, he says, have landed him in “a state of incredible mayhem, in the best way,” one marked by viral songs, high-profile fans and collaborators (Taylor Swift and John Mayer among them), and tabloid devotion to his personal life. But it also came with the less desired symptoms that accompany fame in the on-demand age, compounded especially for artists whose ages still end with “teen.”
In a time when anxiety has captured the nation, Mendes joins a rising number of young celebrities who have recently incorporated the messy truth about their mental health into their art. “Help me, it’s like the walls are caving in,” he sings on the album’s inaugural single “In My Blood.” In another single, “Youth,” he issues a clarion call to the hopeless to resist the urge to despair; it’s a song open for wide interpretation, but Mendes all but confirmed its link to America’s home-grown identity crisis by employing it as an anthem against gun violence at the May 20 Billboard Music Awards.
It’s easy for artists to say they want to be open — every lyric is their most candid ever, every album their most personal one yet — but the tendency of musicians to shed their self-censoring and activate a new truthfulness in songwriting is an evolution that only comes with the hindsight of a long career. Mendes’ awakening, arriving early, is no less valid. He recognizes just how fast and furious the rites of passage can come in a pop career. His third album is his attempt at capturing that evolution in its tracks.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You say you feel like you’re going through a big transition in your life. What do you feel like you’re transitioning between?
SHAWN MENDES: A lot of things. Between being a kid to being an adult. Transitioning from somebody who wasn’t very confident in themselves musically to somebody who considers themselves a musician. And a lot of different things creatively, becoming so much more confident in what I do. I don’t know, I just feel… different. I feel like I’m going through a change in a good way.
How would Shawn of four years ago react to the maturity of this album?
He wouldn’t have believed it. No way. Shawn last year wouldn’t believe it. I mean that with all of my heart. I mean, technically… last year, I couldn’t sing falsetto. I figured out how to the day I wrote “Where Were You In the Morning.” You never discover you sing falsetto again; you just do, once. You never discover you can say a certain thing again; you just do. These songs are stamps of moments when I discovered what I was capable of.
When “In My Blood” came out, there was a huge swell of support for how open your lyrics were about anxiety, and the rest of the album definitely doesn’t let up when it comes to singing about your own vulnerability. How exposed did you maybe want to be on these songs, versus how open your lyrics actually ended up being?
As open as possible. The biggest thing I learned making this album is that if I am not writing 100 percent the truth, I’m cheating myself, and the music just isn’t going to be as good. There were so many moments where I thought of a lyric and went, “Oh, f–k, that’s a little bit too honest.” But then I was like, “Well, that’s what makes it great — write it down! F–k it! Just take a hit!” Because that’s what music is about. It’s being honest.
You don’t want to look back and regret expressing only half the sentiment that you wanted to.
Because that moment doesn’t happen again.
John Mayer is among your collaborators on this record. Given how specific you wanted this record to be, did it change your selection process for who to work with?
There were so many people in my life that I wish could have been on this album, but Julia, Khalid, and Mayer are three of my closest friends inside the music industry. Lucky enough, our timing worked out that we were able to do it. It could have easily been three other people, but I’m so thrilled because with all my heart I admire these people. And all three of them pushed me to be sincere.
Your duet with Julia Michaels, “Like to Be You,” is really cinematic and almost surprising in the way it subverts your narrative expectations for a romantic duet.
To create something like that with her was so easy and natural. I love the lyric “Don’t cry, or do — whatever makes you comfortable” and “Can I kiss you or not? Because I’m not really sure right now of what you want.” Like, that s–t is just like, conversation. That’s my favorite type of music.
Did writing any of these songs help you break through in other parts of your life? Like, in being so empathetic to this other person in “Like to Be You,” do you leave the studio and then go implement that attitude into your life afterwards?
It’s funny, I figured this out during the process. There are so many times in the day that something is bugging you or something you really care about comes to your head, but you say in your head, “Oh, hold on,” and you distract yourself with your phone or something. You give it 75 percent energy. But then all of a sudden, when you’re forced to write a song, and you have to put 100 percent of your energy into something, you force yourself to answer that question. So once I started doing that with the music, I’d do this thing every night where I’d sit with a book and I’d write the truth. At the top of this journal, every night, I say “Truth is,” and I write exactly what I feel.
Is that difficult?
It’s really hard sometimes to actually answer yourself and to really come up with the thing and how you actually feel, and it was the music that was making me believe that. Because if I would write a song and I wasn’t honest, I felt like the song sucked! And then all of a sudden I wrote a song like “Because I Had You” and it felt like everything just opened up for me. That’s what it needs to be. That’s what my life needs to be. It’s not only about music.
How would you feel if anyone ever read that journal?
Oh, man. It’s pretty clear in there how I feel about things. I’m not giving it to anybody any time soon.
You’ve spoken publicly about your producer Teddy Geiger and her influence on you, and how you were together in the studio the night she came out as a trans woman. Did any of those emotions of that night make their way into this music?
The whole album. I made the whole album with her. I met Teddy the night I cut “Stitches” and we’ve had a really special connection ever since then, and for her to feel so comfortable with me and the other songwriters the night she came out… I can’t express how happy that made me. And it’s something I really love to say: it’s a very new thing, right? People transitioning, there are still a lot of people who don’t understand it, and to refer to somebody as a pronoun that you haven’t been referring to them as their entire life, your entire life, is very difficult. But the thing that’s amazing is that I remember the day I said “she,” and it wasn’t because I said it consciously, it was because I said it without thinking, basically just in conversation. I didn’t realize I did it, but she looked at me and she had the most incredible look in her eyes. If every person in the world had one of their best friends look at them that way, and express that much joy in what it meant for her to be referred to as the pronoun she is, there would no longer be an argument [over trans rights]. People would just understand. It’s so powerful to have somebody you’re so close to go through something like that. It’s just f–g beautiful, man. I really wish you could have seen it.
This is a strange observation, but a lot of your lyrics actually don’t include pronouns. Is that a direct result of that?
Yeah, it’s true. It doesn’t matter. Everything is up for your perspective. Let it be you. It really just doesn’t matter to me at all nowadays. I love how open everybody is and how open everything is. It just makes life more fun.
Let me ask about a few specific songs. Of all the subjects in your lyrics, I’m most interested in the person in “Nervous” — it feels very present, very optimistic. Is this person still in your life, or was that a moment in time?
Dude, I get nervous in front of every girl. Honestly. And that sounds so dumb and cheesy coming from me. One thing I love is that the song sounds like a super sexy Prince song, it sounds super confident — but it actually isn’t. It’s about getting nervous, and I think that’s a cool [juxtaposition]. I’m really proud of that one.
Another subject I’m obsessed with is whoever you’re calling out in “Queen” for repeatedly introducing themselves to you. I feel that. What inspired you to write that song? Is this your “Bad Blood”?
[Laughs] Honestly, it’s a vague concept going out to everybody that’s like that. It’s not about somebody in particular. I just hate people who think they’re better than other people. There’s no reason to. It just bugs me, man. My least favorite trait in somebody is when you can feel them acting like they’re more important than you, and I just had to write a song about it. I thought the best way to talk about it was to be like, “You’re not the queen of a country.”
There has been a lot of love out there for “Youth,” which feels like a specific song for a specific feeling that a lot of the country is going through right now. What does the lyric “you can’t take my youth away” actually mean to you?
It’s not about being young. It’s not about being 19. It’s about being 50 years old and still looking at the world like it’s an awesome place, and every time something horrible happens, it feels like that youth is peeled away from you a little bit more, and that means they win and we lose. That’s what it’s about. It’s about keeping that youth within us, because that’s what makes humans awesome. The second we take that youth away from us, that playful thing, that’s what makes it suck, if that’s gone.
Since this is EW and we cover movies, what can you tell me about last year’s news involving you and the film Summer of Love?
I’m actually not in that movie! It was a crazy rumor. That would have been cool to be. But I will be doing some acting in the future.
Finally, you’re headlining your fourth tour next year. What advice would you give to yourself on day one of your first tour, knowing what you know now?
There’s no such thing as a perfect show. There’s just not. It’s never going to be what you need it to be in your head, so just let it be what it is. I’ve accepted that lately and I’ve been having more fun singing on stage than ever. It makes me so excited to go on tour because I know that it can’t be perfect. That’s not what life is. And I wish I could have told myself earlier. I would have saved myself from so many nights of being angry at myself. But that’s what growing up is.