Shawn Mendes: 'The fear strangled me. I really fell down'
As a teen he wanted to be the biggest pop star in the world, but global fame came with crippling anxiety that left him unable to sing. So, ‘three therapists and 55 self-help books’ later, has he overcome his addiction to success?
Wed 9 Dec 2020 08.00 EST
Shawn Mendes had a simple ambition. He wanted to be the biggest pop star in the world. At the age of 14, he taught himself guitar from YouTube videos. At 15, he was recording six-second covers of other people’s songs on the social media platform Vine. By the time Vine was discontinued three years later, he had clocked up more than half a billion views.
When he was 17, his debut album of self-penned songs (with help from seasoned professionals), Handwritten, went to No 1 in the US and his home country, Canada. So did its two successors. His first No 1 single, Stitches, has been viewed on YouTube well over 1bn times, as has Señorita, a duet with his girlfriend, Camila Cabello. His song Treat You Better is closing in on 2bn YouTube views. It really is an astonishing story.
I expect to meet a self-assured 22-year-old, bathing in his success and telling me why his fourth album, Wonder, will be his biggest and his best. But he could not be more different. Sure, Mendes has talked about his vulnerability and neuroses in the past, but often it has seemed part of his relatability shtick. Today, though, he is punishingly self-critical.
It all starts with an innocent question. How is Wonder different from his previous albums? “Well, that’s a loaded question,” Mendes says, as if preparing to go on the attack. But he doesn’t – far from it. Instead, he tells me about his past year. “I had a moment at the end of January when my body would not allow me to sing.” He looks terrific – fit and fresh-faced – but he sounds tired. Why does he think he couldn’t sing? “I physically couldn’t sing because of my anxiety to have a successful album. The fear strangled me and literally stopped me being able to sing.” How long for? “It was a month before I felt like I was taking the first step. I really fell down.”
Of course, he worried about his voice – he’s a singer. But he started to ask bigger questions, too: what did he want out of life, why was it so important to be succeed, and did his idea of success correlate to anything of real value? He takes me back to the beginning. “I started playing music in front of an audience of the world at 15 years old. I was on the road for seven years straight and I had a lot of success, a lot of big songs, a lot of reasons for people to praise me and to think I was great, and a lot of reasons for me to think I was great.”
And did you think you were great? “That’s where it gets stressful. All of that praise and all that success was turning into a big monster that was eating my self-confidence because, if anybody said they didn’t like my music, all of a sudden I felt I was worth nothing. And that’s what happens when you connect who you are with what you do.”
The early marketing of Shawn Mendes was ingenious and relentless – and condemned by child-advocacy groups as unethical. Mendes and his management encouraged fans to buy multiple copies of Handwritten in the hope of finding a golden access pass to meet him in person and watch him perform in a tropical destination. Young kids and teenagers – predominantly girls – adored him. He sold himself on his likability and authenticity. He never refused fans’ selfies, turned up for endless meet-and-greets. He built himself an eight-pack, wore white vests, frequently went topless and modelled underwear for Calvin Klein. He was unfailingly polite, charming, gorgeous: the perfect pop star.
But there was a hint of something more. While many of his early songs channelled Taylor Swift and Justins Timberlake and Bieber, In My Blood showed he could rock like Kings of Leon. An article on NME last year even suggested he had the makings of a Generation Z Bruce Springsteen: he looks good in a sleeveless vest, knows how to steam up a crowd, and is regarded as an all-round good guy who respects rather than objectifies women.
Mendes is in Miami when we Zoom. He is chatting from what looks like an exotic glasshouse, but is in fact a luxury Airbnb. He had been staying with Cabello, but has moved out for a couple of days while she focuses on making new music. “I’m giving her space because I don’t want to mess up her creative flow.” He says he loves it in Miami, where the Cuba-born Cabello grew up. “I’m looking for a house here with Camila, just trying to figure out where.”
Perhaps it is not so surprising that Mendes is so sensitive to criticism. For all the millions of fans, he has plenty of detractors who say he lacks personality, his music is bland and formulaic, and that his relationship with Cabello is a PR stunt designed to boost both careers. That must hurt, but I am still amazed when he says he gets upset if anybody dislikes his music. That’s bonkers, I say, because the music is designed for a particular demographic; it is inevitable that some people won’t like it. He nods. Of course, he knows that. “That’s the problem. That’s where you go into a complete meltdown, when you try to make something that’s impossible to make: something that the whole world likes.”
I ask if Camila is more pragmatic: does she think it’s a mad ambition to be liked by everybody? “She believes more that your art is magical because some people believe it’s magical. Not everybody needs to believe it’s magical. She is not as obsessive as I am in that sense.” He corrects himself. “Or as I was.”
With Camila Cabello at the MTV Video Music awards in 2019.
With Camila Cabello at the MTV Video Music awards in 2019. Photograph: John Shearer/Getty Images
It all sounds like a nightmare. He nods again, and smiles. “It is a psychological head-f**k. It completely is, and that’s after three therapists and 55 self-help books plus meditation and exercise and life experience and all of the things I’ve been working through for the last year and a half.”
Mendes says it all goes back to his hunger, or greed, for success. He looks back now and thinks it was unseemly: the desperation to measure everything by figures. Mendes may be clean living (the odd glass of wine and spliff), but it does sound as if he became addicted to success. And a very specific kind of corporate success. I remind him of a time early in his career when he was so determined to sell out the 55,000-capacity Rogers Centre in Toronto that he wrote: “I will sell out the Rogers Centre” repeatedly in his diary. “But I sold it out!” he protests. “I willed a lot of those things to happen. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to sell out a stadium. But now I understand that it doesn’t bring you fulfilment.”
Look, he says, he has been fantastically lucky; he’s hardly complaining. “When you have been given the wave, you have to ride it.” But you cannot help thinking he believes he may just have caught the wrong one. “If you asked 15-year-old Shawn what it is to be majorly successful, he would have said to have a couple of big songs and play shows in front of lots of people. Well I’ve had more than a couple of big songs and it is amazing, but happiness definitely isn’t spawned from that. Happiness is spawned from human connection and falling in love and being there for your sister’s birthday and having close friends, not just playing shows in front of 50,000 people. Happiness doesn’t lie at the end of a crazy long train ride.”
When Mendes realised he was so anxious he couldn’t sing, he started to question his motives. “I asked myself: why is it so valuable to me to be such a successful musician? Is success just something that feeds my ego or is it really great? And I found it was something that was feeding my ego, and I just wasn’t going to feed that any more. The more success you have, the more fearful you are of losing it, so you become desperate.”
Did people tell him he had changed? “Thank God, no.” But he knows he did. “I moved into my condo when I was 18, and the first time I had dinner with my family there was this year. I made dinner and we had wine, and I was, like, why hasn’t this happened in three years?” The answer was simple, he says: he had not made time for it. Did they say anything about it? “No, cos they are so sweet, and they just really want me to be living my dream now.”
Did he tell them that he discovered what he thought was his dream no longer is. “Absolutely. The truth is I don’t know what my dream is now.” His parents, who live in Ontario, Canada, sound lovely, anything but the classic pushy parents of child stars. His mother grew up in Somerset, England, and is an estate agent, while his Portuguese father sells bar and restaurant supplies. Mendes talks about how brilliant they are at keeping him real. “I don’t know if it’s because my mom grew up on a farm that she has a perspective on what really matters in life. She always told me, when I was freaking out about something, that everything was going to be OK, because I have a family that loves me.”
In Monster, the duet with Bieber, he addresses his issues with celebrity, notably being put on a pedestal and the fear of falling. I mention Bieber’s very public meltdown in 2014, morphing from angelic teen idol to bad boy overnight. Mendes simply asks how you can not go loopy in the world of celebrity. “Being famous is crazy, it’s absurd. Having millions of people worldwide praise you and paparazzi follow you and show up at your front door every day while you’re trying to have a coffee is ridiculous.”
I tell him I was surprised he recorded a song with Bieber; they were supposed to be bitter rivals. In 2015, when asked about Mendes, Bieber dismissively replied: “Who’s Shawn Mendes?” Today, Mendes says: “I don’t think he actually did know who I was at that point. People put more of a tension on us than we had on ourselves.” Are they genuine friends now? “Yes, we absolutely are friends now. He texted me last night checking in on me, and that’s the best thing that has come out of this: a friendship that was unexpected for me.”
I ask if he also lost the plot this year, albeit in a very different way from Bieber: a quiet, internalised Shawnish-style meltdown. He laughs. “Yes, in a very Shawnish way. I burnt out and had a meltdown within, but not externally.” Did he think of quitting the music industry? “Yes,” he says. “I came extremely close. Extremely, extremely close.” What stopped him? “I realised it’s not the industry, it’s the way I do the industry. I let the industry control what I do, rather than me controlling my life.”
Mendes does seem to have suffered a profound identity crisis. What he always prided himself on in the past was his authenticity, but he began to realise that in obsessing over success he had sacrificed just that, or he no longer knew what it meant. He was desperate not to offend lest he alienate people. “I became a bit of a politician at a young age with my words, and the problem with that was that I wasn’t standing for much. Most of the time I would weasel my way out of any question that made me uncomfortable.”
It is funny, I say: here you are talking now about your lack of authenticity in the past, but the one thing you were accused of faking was your relationship with Camila, which is real. “There was a desperation for me to come out as being gay, which is such a ridiculous thing. I got upset because I know people who are gay who haven’t come out and I know the suffering they experience because of that. It’s just completely ignorant and insensitive of people to be on that s**t.”
Now, he says, he has finally got the balance right in life. I mention that his last two singles have not been so successful. Is he at a stage where he can accept that, or even embrace it? “I could not care less, to be honest. I guess what people don’t see are the emails and messages I get about how inspired those songs have made people feel.”
Two years ago, Mendes told Rolling Stone magazine: “It’s literally my biggest fear to wake up tomorrow and find that nobody cares.” This seems to be at the heart of …, I begin to say. He completes the sentence for me: “… my anxiety. Exactly. Now what would happen to me if everyone forgot about me tomorrow? Well, I’d say: ‘Do I still have parents and a sister who loves me? Do I still have my girlfriend and this puppy behind me?’” He points to Tarzan, a 10-week golden retriever who has been asleep by his side. “The answer is, I’d be fine. I have health and wealth and support and safety. I would be absolutely fine.”www.theguardian.com/music/2020/dec/09/shawn-mendes-the-fear-strangled-me-i-really-fell-down