It’s a Wednesday night in Los Angeles and popular downtown hub L.A. Live is teeming with adolescent girls standing outside Staples Center. For those, like myself, who hadn’t yet experienced the phenomenon that is Shawn Mendes, it is a bit of a revelation.
I obviously was aware who Mendes was, but until you see firsthand the incredible crowds of thousands, all out there even before the doors open, despite the fact it is a seated show and there is no inherent advantage to being first in line, it doesn’t sink in just how big he is. Commercially, he is a one-man boy band, filling arenas, such as the Staples Center, with thousands of screaming girls.
Musically, however, it would be an insult to limit Mendes to being a boy band. Having gotten his start as an acoustic troubadour and quickly having grown to frontman for arenas, the 18-year-old is on a massive trajectory that has an end goal of stadiums and superstardom, both of which seem very much in sight, for the young singer/songwriter.
I spoke with Mendes and his manager, Andrew Gertler about Mendes’ arena tour, where he goes after such an auspicious start and why Mendes looks to Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder on how to play arenas.
Steve Baltin: What was the Staples Center experience like for you?
Shawn Mendes: It was amazing. Obviously before L.A., New York and Toronto there is freaking out, but those shows always end up being the best shows because pressure is so high and I feel like when pressure is at its highest is when the magic kind of comes out of the show.
Baltin: Did you see right away on this tour how responsive people were?
Mendes: Absolutely, but I think that’s clear as the tour has progressed. City by city it’s definitely louder, but it’s up to you to make it so that they’re more responsive. You have to work the crowd. Sometimes I get more excited for shows that I know are going to be quieter because it gets me more inspired to be more of a showman and be more of an entertainer and forces me to work harder.
Baltin: Who were the performers you saw early on that inspired you?
Mendes: I’ve watched pretty much every Ed Sheeran video on You Tube that is possible to watch. He is definitely one of my go to [acts] just because he achieves 100 percent. No matter the space he’s in, where he is in the world, he plays every show like it’s a stadium. That’s kind of how I live too because if you’re not playing that way then you’re never gonna be ready for that one show. I just recently watched the Pearl Jam documentary and I’ve become obsessed with the way Eddie Vedder is on stage. Especially in that last show, before I got on stage I wanted to embody that feeling that Eddie does so well of just letting the music take him over and not be worried about what people were thinking. About halfway through the show I think the crowd kind of accepted that I was gonna stay very out there with how much I was feeling the music. And I noticed by the end of the show it felt like everybody was kind of just lost with the music and the feeling of being at a concert. I think that’s the magic of it. And John Mayer, in terms of how technically incredible on stage and on point, I think John is one of the most incredible artists when it comes to consistency.
Baltin: As you grow musically how can you see yourself incorporating elements of all these different artists? They are different musically but all share a passion for music, so how does that inspire you going forward?
Mendes: With Eddie, when you watch footage from Woodstock or an old Pearl Jam concert and you look at the crowd people are engulfed in the music. And I think that starts with the artist on stage. I just saw Eddie at the Hammersmith in London, he did an acoustic set and it wasn’t about the technicality of the show, it was just about how much he would feel it and he let it happen. He just let it come out of him instead of trying to control it. When you hit that right it’s the most magical thing in the world. And I think that gives you room for error when you’re just letting it all out. And I absolutely love that, that’s what shows should be all about.
Baltin: How have your expectations changed as the tour has gone on so successfully?
Andrew Gertler: It’s interesting, when we did our last tour, which was kind of a bunch of theaters, we had our sights set on the goal of doing an arena tour. So we said, “Okay, we’re gonna do one arena at the end of this tour and that will be the hometown show at Air Canada Centre.” Without any real expectations we put that first arena on sale, I think this was 2016, it sold out in minutes and then we’re like, “Okay, this is interesting.” It was the last show of that last tour and biggest show of that last tour. And as we kind of evolved on that tour cycle we felt confident on the next one we could grow.
Baltin: Has there been a consistent trajectory that gave you that confidence?
Gertler: Since the beginning of Shawn’s career every show that we had put on sale had blown out extremely fast and kept growing and growing. And as we took the next steps to bigger rooms it kept doing the same thing so we were pretty confident of this arena tour on sale. Then again it was like every show was sold out. As you get into this tour cycle and we’re here on the tour and going city to city and we’re looking at it we’re like, “Okay, what’s next?” A lot of artists, once they get to the arena level might play out their entire career in arenas. But I know Shawn has his sights set high. He was an opener for Taylor Swift on her stadium tour and in his mind that’s where he wants to get. We’ve been fortunate Shawn’s music has led the way and that he’s continued to put out great successful hits and I think that’s what ultimately drives the continuing touring success, a combination of continually putting out great music and his direct bond with his fans.
Baltin: How do you ensure Shawn grows musically though as well? I saw U2 play stadiums for years, it got repetitive, and then they went back to arenas in 2015 and it was one of the best tours they’ve ever done. So, even the biggest artists need room for artistic evolution.
Gertler: Shawn started as an acoustic guitar artist. His first two headline runs and opening for Taylor Swift it was literally him and an acoustic guitar. And as he started to evolve and his music started to evolve, he started playing electric guitar and recording in the studio with a live band. And now most of his show is like a full live band show, there are still the acoustic moments, he’ll go out and play piano solo and guitar solo. He’s really become this versatile musician and, to us, that’s not only his natural music evolution, but also very intentional on his part because he wants to be able to give something new to his fans. And I think we’re both very conscious it’s important to play something that feels fresh each time. Because he was an acoustic artist starting out there will probably a Shawn acoustic tour again. It is important to not only evolve in size, but to keep ideas fresh. You can’t say, “Okay, we’re gonna keep going and going and get bigger and bigger.” At some point there has to be some creative mindset and I think that’s where the two kind of are similar. At some point Shawn probably will do that intimate theater thing again. But his sights are also set on doing stadiums.