"Music is something that is worth a lot more than you can fathom..."

There's nothing more inviting than the warm, golden rays of sun that shoot through open windows on a Friday afternoon, tempting you outside and even closer to the weekend. As summer truly begins to enliven London, the capital stirs with sanguine expectations. In a studio on a main road in Bethnal Green - while locals take to the park, commuters rush to get home early, and a New Orleans brass band lead a wedding procession to church - Shawn Mendes is gradually chasing the teasing trails of light as they glide across the room and basks in their radiance.

As Clash's photographer directs his subject through this shifting splendor of natural light, it's not difficult to appreciate the innate glow that Mendes himself emits; an instinctive and confident model, he's as genuinely effusive in front of the camera as he was during our interview just prior - in fact, from the moment he stepped foot into the studio he was an invigorating dose of sparkling positivity. Despite the somber tones that dominated the beginning of our conversation, relating of course to horrendous recent events, his dauntless smile remains affectingly unbeaten throughout the afternoon.

Shawn has every right to be happy. In two days time he will finally fly back home to Toronto having triumphantly completed the first leg of his massive Illuminate World Tour - 21 dates in six weeks around Europe that culminated at The O2 in London - while his second album, 'Illuminate' can now boast over four billion streams globally. The 18-year-old singer/songwriter commands a vast social following - they are the key to his success - and is all too aware of his duty as a contemporary role model, which shapes his respectful outlook on life and the close relationship he enjoys with his fans.

- - -

- - -

As he'll tell Clash, there's a bond he's formed with his fans, an inherent empathy that thrives on reciprocal support, but no sooner has he finished praising the incredible reception of the tour's crowds, he recalls the impact felt when his community were hit by tragedy. The second date of his tour was at the Manchester Arena where, less than a month later, a suicide bomber detonated in the foyer at the climax of a gig by Shawn's friend Ariana Grande, killing 22 people including an eight-year-old girl. Still visibly shaken, as we sit down to talk, Shawn reflects on the attack that felt all too close to home.

“I have never been more affected by something in my life,” he sighs, pointing out the parallel routes his tour was taking with Ariana's. “I guess what happens is you don't realise how close you get to these girls and guys. You're hugging them every day - hundreds of people every day - and it kinda just goes in and out, but that whole night I couldn't fall asleep; every time I closed my eyes I would see the crowd. It was just very sad. Not to put any less of the situation on the Ariana show, but it could have been a lot of any other artists, and it really hit home. It was really upsetting. I felt helpless - we all did.”

- - -

I have never been more affected by something in my life...

- - -

In defiance of the strike against the sanctuary of music, which Shawn admits did feel compromised in the aftermath, he proceeded to play Paris the following night, where he spoke from the stage about the bombing - an act he felt compelled to do. “People who have a voice and who a lot of people listen to need to show strength and power and the fact that we are not scared, so you shouldn't be… There was a part of me that wanted to cancel the whole tour and fly home. I was on the phone to my Mom and she was all ready to get me a flight home right now, and then there's a part of you that's like, 'Listen, that means they win,' so you gotta just stand up and be that role model.”

Edging out of the momentary darkness, he's heartened by the incredible show of resilience from Ariana, who returned to the city two weeks later for an emotional free concert, and also the unerring faith and optimism of young music fans around the world. They are a powerful ally, and Shawn wouldn't be here today without them.

By the time he was signed to Island Records in early 2014, Shawn had amassed millions of views and followers thanks to his regular posts on Vine. The series of six-second clips of him singing cover versions on guitar were not just fleeting glimpses of a nascent artist learning and having fun, but a foundation upon which to build an instantly effective superstar.

“Oh dude, I was so lucky,” he grins. “That doesn't happen. Artists don't come across having a fan base before releasing a song. I had immediate support from the first single I released… And that confidence boost off the top gets you kick started like nothing else.”

- - -

- - -

The debut album 'Handwritten' appeared in April 2015. Two months later, with the release of breakout third single 'Stitches', Shawn was a worldwide chart sensation. Just 16, he'd graduated from copping Ed Sheeran and John Mayer licks in his bedroom to sharing a stage with Taylor Swift (he was support on her 1989 World Tour). The speed of that transition explains in part Shawn's ability to identify with his audience - it's not long ago that he was them. “There's no separation between us,” he says, adding how he views them as being no different than his friends.

“I think teenage girls and fans have this kinda persona that people think that they're just hysterical and crazy, when they're really so smart and genuine and caring and are real people,” he says when asked how his fans inspire him. “They come up to me and they talk about the lyrics and how each song has affected them in different ways. It kinda puts it in perspective that what I'm doing, what music is, is bigger than me and bigger than everyone. Music is something that is worth a lot more than you can fathom.”

- - -

It kinda puts it in perspective that what I'm doing...

- - -

Like many young pop stars, Shawn conveys a clean, polished image, but unlike many that have come before him, it doesn't in any way feel contrived. Watch interviews on YouTube to get an idea of how engaged and enthusiastic he is in person - it's an asset he picked up from Ed Sheeran, who extoled to Shawn the importance of dedication and graft, but also it's a palpable sense of well-roundedness that stems from his family life and upbringing. Behaving appropriately may come naturally, but sometimes, he admits, it can be difficult to maintain. “Sometimes you just want to not say anything and you wanna shut down like, 'I don't wanna be Shawn Mendes today,' you know what I mean?”

With over 22 million followers on Instagram and 10 million on Twitter, Shawn is mindful of the eminent position he finds himself in. He's quick to quote the old Spiderman adage, “With great power comes great responsibility,” revealing how he applies himself to harness that authority in purely productive ways. “There's already enough negativity going on on social media, so anything I post is going to be in a positive way,” he states. “Even if I truly believe in something in a negative way, there's no need for me to speak on it, because there's enough of it.”

- - -

- - -

That conviction obviously extends to his musical output. For example, he touches upon mental health issues on his debut - 'A Little Too Much' (“probably the most commented song from my fans”) offers reassurance to people struggling with oppressive personal problems: “Sometimes it all gets a little too much / But you gotta realise that soon the fog will clear up.” Perhaps more visibly, the references to domestic abuse in the video for 'Treat You Better', the lead single from 'Illuminate', are followed by contact details of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Does he feel comfortable tackling such sensitive subjects so forthrightly?

“I think 'comfortable' is not the word. The word is very uncomfortable,” he declares. “But if I didn't, I would be doing myself a disservice. That video has a billion views… The fact that I was able to do that so easily is just incredible. If I have the ability to make something like that…I'm always gonna do it, no matter what. I think it's just really important. Companies will pay millions and millions of dollars to get stuff like that out to 50 million people. I paid nothing to get it out to a billion, and that's how wonderful that is.”

- - -

From five months ago I'm a different person...

- - -

Wisdom comes from experience, so given that some tracks on his debut date back to when he was just 15, one can easily hear the advancement made between it and 'Illuminate' both stylistically and thematically. He readily admits to not identifying anymore with the person who sang 'Kid In Love' (“If this is what it's like falling in love / Then I don't ever wanna grow up”), but says that's okay; evolution is the key to survival, after all, and he shows no signs yet of slowing down progress. “I totally feel like I have millions and millions of miles of travelling to do, in terms of my growth as a person, as an artist,” he insists. “From five months ago I'm a different person. That's how fast I feel I'm changing at the moment in my life.”

He's unquestionably excited and unfazed by what consequences may come with change - getting older, he suggests, can only inspire new subject matter: “The day I can actually write a song about my girlfriend who I am truly in love with - because I've never actually truly been in love, I don't know what type of music's going to come out of me when I am. That might be a whole new wave of music that I never thought I could write,” he beams. “And the day that my heart gets broken for the first time, which hasn't happened, will be another wave of music, and the day I have a kid… It's just going to be forever growing, and that's why I think as a songwriter you do it until the day you die.”

- - -

- - -

Outside of music, he's also enjoying the opportunities being presented to him from other creative fields that are expanding his horizons. Having studied acting when he was younger, he's keen to find an appropriate and believable film role to accept, but has some nerves to overcome first. “Acting is like 10 times as terrifying as singing for some reason,” he says, despite gladly standing on stage every other night in front of 20,000 people. “Yeah, but 20,000 people are watching me being me, not me being someone else, which is hard,” he laughs.

In June, it was announced that Shawn had collaborated with Emporio Armani for their first touchscreen smartwatch collection, signaling an intrepid step into the high fashion realm. Announcing their partnership on the dynamic new line, Giorgio Armani said: “The human component has always been fundamental for me in everything I have done. Shawn embodies and conveys the values in which I believe: professionalism, commitment, innovation and style.”

- - -

I want to create anthems for people.

- - -

But it's to his first love that he remains so resolutely faithful and focused, and he's already hinting at a transformation ahead of his next release. “Oh man, Album 3 vibe is starting to become very clear to me,” he tweeted in June. Pressed to elaborate, he enthuses to Clash about a recent Kings Of Leon gig he experienced - in particular the “anthem aspect” of their arena-sized songs - and a current obsession with Michael Jackson, implying the next record will move into urban pop with a distinctly epic rock edge.

Unlike the pre-determined career path that Ed Sheeran has set out for himself (“I have trouble planning my calendar for a couple of weeks from now,” Shawn laughs), Shawn's own vision for the direction he'll take is somewhat more esoteric, based less on specific professional goals than the emotional impact of his work. “I want to create anthems for people. I want to create anthems for big moments in their lives,” he enthuses. “I don't want my music to play for a few months and then go away forever. And not only that, I want to do incredible things that make a difference too. I think it's not only about the music you release, it's about the things you do while you're making the music.”

The altruism of this young man is undoubtedly refreshing; this time it's Clash's turn to smile. Why is that so important to him, we ask? “Because I don't think it's common for people to have an opportunity to do that, and I have an opportunity to leave a long-lasting impression on millions of people and it would just be silly for me not to.” “Music is bigger than me,” he affirms, “and I'm going to keep doing it because of that reason.”

- - -

- - -

Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Paul Phung
Fashion: Vincent Levy
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.

Buy Clash Magazine

-

Follow Clash: