Shawn Mendes never meant to become a pop star, but social media won him fans the world over. Is this the future of guitar heroes?
Once upon a time it was the likes of Slash, James Hetfield or Billy Joe Armstrong that inspired teenagers to nag their parents for an electric guitar to keep the neighbourhood awake with their discordant twanging. These days, thanks in no small part to social media, a different kind of artist is capturing the imagination of young guitar players: the troubadour.
Ed Sheeran is the most famous, and is seemingly an anomaly in that he can retain his credentials as a songwriter, and still sell out Wembley Arena. Even Justin Bieber has toned down his bubblegum brat persona in favour of something more subdued; his recent acousticdriven hit, Love Yourself was co-written with Sheeran.
James Bay, Passenger, Jake Bugg, Hozier, Jason Mraz… all artists having huge hits with acoustic-driven ballads. And any of you lamenting that we don’t need any more from where that came from look away now: 17-year-old Shawn Mendes, the Canadian behind January’s No 1 hit, Stitches, is tipped as the next phenomenon. And he’s already in the eye of a brewing storm of fame.
A new breed
Is this a new breed of guitar star? The crowd of young, mainly female fans gathering outside the Hammersmith Apollo five hours before Shawn is due on stage seem to think so.
They’re a tiny fraction of the 12 million followers he’s got across Twitter, YouTube and Vine (the app that made him famous), and it’s not unreasonable to assume that many of these fans like looking at him as much as they like his music.
Someone like Shawn is more likely to set pulses racing among a certain demographic than an angry shredder, so it figures that he’s become something of a teen idol. But when we meet him in the depths of the venue away from the growing pandemonium outside, we discover girls weren’t on his mind when he took up the guitar. He just wanted to play like Ed.
“When I was younger everyone wanted to play electric guitar, then I started to grow out of it, and everyone wanted to play acoustic instead,” says Shawn, who enthusiastically nods when we ask him if his generation’s idea of a guitar hero is the acoustic troubadour.
“It was like a phase, and Ed was a huge thing for that. I remember watching YouTube covers and skipping the ones that had a backing track, and wanting to find the people playing acoustic guitar.”
Shawn’s rise to global stardom is a prime example of young people harnessing the power of social media. Bored one day back in 2013, he posted a clip on micro-video app Vine of him singing along to fellow Canadian Justin Bieber’s As Long As You Love Me, and woke up the next morning to 10,000 followers. He wasn’t aiming to become the next Bieber; he didn’t even mean to make himself famous.
“I was young - I was about 13, and I didn’t choose Vine for any reason other than it was fun. I was really bored, I had my guitar and literally just did it for no reason, and it turned into something. I knew that I loved music and that it would be really cool to be a singer, but it wasn’t my intention to use Vine as a platform to start a career. It’s just really cool and lucky, and once I started seeing people react, I took a hold of it and made it happen.”
Three years later, Shawn scored a number one single in the UK with Stitches, and puts its success down to it bridging the gap between the pop and acoustic genres. There’s no doubt it’s a great pop song, but given that Stitches was first released in March 2015, you’d think he’d be fed up of playing it by now. However, he doesn’t seem to mind that it’s become his signature tune…
It's a stitch-up
“It’s a big pop song, but stepped up with an awesome, acoustically-driven thing,” he tells us. “When I play it live with no band, it still works, because underneath it’s acoustic throughout. It’s a really good mix of being on the popular side, but also being me, the singer-songwriter.”
Island Records president David Massey has claimed that Shawn’s Vine presence “wasn’t a factor” in signing him, saying that, “the fan base is nice, but it doesn’t imply record sales”. Shawn’s chart success since suggests that either Massey was wrong, or that his offline fan base grew in astonishingly quick time.
His 2015 debut album, Handwritten, entered the Billboard 200 at number one with 119,000 unit sales, and was certified gold in five countries, and platinum in four. Shawn made Time’s list of Most Influential Teens in both 2014 and 2015, and is on Forbes’s 30 Under 30 this year.
The ‘likes’ and ‘literallys’ he peppers his speech with might give away his age, but he’s got the laid-back, unassuming air of someone who isn’t letting stardom go to his head. There’s no entourage loitering as we chat on the sofa in his dressing room, and no evidence of an extravagant backstage rider. In short, he’s no Bieber, and he doesn’t want to be.
“I love Justin. I grew up being very inspired by him, and wanting to be like him when I was younger,” he says. “But as I’ve grown up I’ve fallen into this person who loves music, loves playing guitar, playing piano and became a songwriter. This new album in particular was super-inspired by John Mayer [who gave him the Strat he’s holding in our portraits].
“I really look up to him as a guitar player, singer and a songwriter. There’s a song called Ruin which has a [Mayer’s 2006 Grammy-winning single] Gravity-esque vibe to it. I’m listening to a lot of James Bay lately, and I love what he’s doing. As much as it’s inspired by John, James and Ed, I think I come into my own on this album.”
For this second album, the details of which are being kept under wraps for now, he’s pulling out the big guns in the form of Jake Gosling, the Grammy- and Brit-winning songwriter who co-wrote Ed Sheeran’s huge hits, Thinking Out Loud and Lego House.
With his other writing or producing credits including James Bay, One Direction, Paloma Faith, Christina Perri and All Time Low, Jake was the natural choice of producer, and Shawn’s hopeful that his experience with the singer-songwriter genre will help him win over new fans, and prove that there’s more to him than Stitches.
“As a new songwriter - someone who just kinda fell into their sound - Jake has done a phenomenal job to hone in on that,” Shawn muses. “Usually when I create a song, it’s just guitar and vocal, and it’s really, really hard to find a producer who’ll make it sound like you want. Jake and I were in New York in this really cool cabin in the woods for about a week and a half, and we just nailed these songs. He was producing on the spot; he immediately ‘got it’. He’s one of those producers, I think, who won’t do all of the gigs he gets; he’ll do it when he really believes in it.”
Tagging along with Taylor
As for where we might hear Jake’s influence on the next album, Shawn says he’s particularly pleased with his efforts on the new tracks Lights On and Three Empty Words.
“On Three Empty Words, he wanted a beat in there ’cause we were listening to the click while I was playing, but he was skeptical about putting drums in. So he was hitting his chest because it had a certain tone to it. He’s really good at keeping it minimal and super singer-songwriter.”
Jake isn’t the only industry heavyweight to have noticed Shawn’s potential. Last year, he was chosen to support Taylor Swift on her 1989 World Tour, and while he may not have emerged as a card-carrying member of her squad, he’s under no illusions about the graft needed to reach Swiftian levels of world domination.
“The biggest thing I learned from her was that no amount of success can allow you to stop working hard,” he says. “She’s the best of the best doing stadiums, and she just worked her ass off 24/7. It was really cool seeing someone at that level, working as hard as I am. It doesn’t matter how popular you are; you still have to work hard to get there and stay there. She doesn’t just work hard when she’s doing a stadium then effs off. She keeps it going.”
The idea of one man and a guitar putting on an entertaining show at arena level was almost unheard of until Ed Sheeran sold out Wembley Stadium last July. Much like his hero Ed, Shawn has various tricks up his sleeve to keep huge and rowdy crowd interested, and opts for a backing band instead of the trusty loop pedal.
“I’m very much into being one with the crowd and not just being a performer on stage,” he explains. “I look up to Ed in that sense; his dynamics and his crowd interaction. I’m not looping throughout the set at all, but it goes from acoustic to a big band climax, then to piano.”
He admits that playing with a full band didn’t come naturally at first. “When I first got the band, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I was so used to being up there by myself, and if I stopped playing, there’s no sound. Now I’m starting to learn how to accept them being behind me and enhancing me.”
The fans Shawn instructs to ‘scream it out’ while he’s performing are only too happy to oblige, and he smiles bashfully when we ask how he feels about the inevitable hordes of admirers he’s attracted, giving a stoic take on his teen heartthrob status.
“It’s intense, but it comes with the job,” he laughs. “The girls - I really love them. They truly love my music and they love me as a personality. That’s really awesome. You have to be accepting; if you’re willing to tell everyone about your life and love stories through music, you have to accept the other side of it. It’s not like I don’t enjoy it. It’s fun, and it’s a good feeling being a role model to those girls.”
A new face
He’s hopeful, though, that the new record will prove that he is, as the saying goes, more than a pretty face. ”I think guys are a little harder to crack, being a guy myself,” he ponders. “I don’t know how many guys would take a chance to listen to Stitches, but I think the new album will break into the guy and girl category.”
We’re certainly seeing plenty of young buskers around London who certainly are familiar with that song and its value though - pop music that connects with a guitar at its heart. As we finish the interview and Shawn’s publicist prepares to usher us out of his dressing room, he grins.
“That’s the first interview I’ve done where I actually talked about my music, and not just what my favourite colour is,” he says, laughing. It’s easy to write off a teen pin-up as a lesser musician, but Shawn’s potential influence on, and popularity among the next generation of music fans shouldn’t be underestimated.
The music industry is changing, and he’s already conquered its digital coalface. Whether or not he can win over more traditional guitar fans with his new record remains to be seen, but with Taylor Swift and John Mayer’s seal of approval, he’s got a fighting chance.