Shawn Mendes Talks Falling Deep Into a ‘Hole’ of Anxiety & How Taylor Swift Helped Him Conquer Touring
By Leena Tailor
Seven months since revealing his battle with anxiety in the chart-topping hit, “In My Blood,” Canadian musician Shawn Mendes is opening up further about his struggle with the mental illness, how it has impacted his upcoming schedule and the biggest tool he has learned to avoid falling “deeper into this hole.”
The 20-year-old Toronto native was named Live Music Artist of the Year at the Billboard Live Music Summit and Awards in Los Angeles on Tuesday evening, but before accepting the honor, he sat down with his longtime manager, Andrew Gertler, for a candid panel discussion about his phenomenal rise to success.
Since shooting to fame at 15 after posting videos on Vine, the "Lost in Translation" singer has topped the charts around the globe and toured extensively, but he admitted that dealing with his anxiety becomes more of a struggle once he’s home in between the dream concert runs.
“It’s actually much harder off the road because I was 14,15 when I started and I’ve become so used to Andrew being there [as well as] our tour manager, my security guard and my whole crew that I can lean on and be with, [so] when I get home, I feel disoriented about it,” he said. “The big thing for me [was] every time I felt overwhelmed and didn’t tell Andrew, I got deeper into this hole. So, now every time I have even a small amount of that overwhelming [feeling,] I tell him immediately.”
“Because if you’re not solving the problem the second it starts, you’re going to create this massive, massive thing,” Mendes continued. “I found that the less I would give out and explain how I was feeling, all of sudden Andrew would ask me to sign 10 posters and I would stress over it. [When] I started to explain how I felt and tackle all these things, I could sign 10 posters and do 10 shows and it would be no problem.”
Gertler added that these days, when Mendes approaches him feeling overwhelmed, they have a “serious conversation” and assess whether they need to rearrange his schedule. “We had one of those recently where we were about to set a booking up in January and he just said, ‘It’s too much, OK,’” Gertler said, explaining that the two then decided to take the holidays off. Mendes will resume touring on March 7 in the Netherlands.
Mendes said that seeing fans reach out to him on social media about how “In My Blood” helped them with their own struggles has been the greatest reward for being open about his experience with anxiety. “The feeling I got from ‘In My Blood’ being released and reading 10 tweets, trumped 1,000 tweets about ‘Treat You Better’ because I realized me being so open about this anxiety thing was connecting with fans,” he explained during the panel, which was moderated by Billboard’s West Coast editor, Melinda Newman. “That’s the whole reason we do this -- to have a connection.”
During the intimate session at Montage Beverly Hills, Mendes also reflected on his early days as a musician, from quitting after his first guitar lesson because the teacher only wanted him to learn chords, to getting on YouTube to teach himself, then spending between 30 minutes to 10 hours a day practicing what has become his signature instrument.
Gertler discovered Mendes on YouTube and before long, the teen was flying to New York (after Gertler spent two weeks convincing his mom, Karen, to let him), being offered a record deal and cutting back his school hours. “I got out of science class every Friday -- it was great!” Mendes laughed.
Yet, when the time came to perform his first television show in New York, Mendes doubted whether he and his guitar were “enough.”
“I called Andrew freaking out saying, ‘I need a track! I really don’t know what to do,’ and he said, ‘Just play these songs and do your thing.’ I was like, ‘That’s not good enough,’ because I was watching everybody and they were singing to track [so I thought I needed] a band and backing. He was like, ‘No. What’s special about you is the guitar that you play. You write and you’re an artist.’ It took me two years to really believe that and to understand that. Two years after playing 150-200 gigs with just an acoustic guitar, I think it couldn’t have been a better route for me. It made me grow up as an artist really fast and in the best way. Thank God I didn’t have dancers in that first show!”
Added Gertler: “He also called me right before the Taylor Swift tour and was like, ‘I need a band,’ and I was like, ‘You can’t put a band together in a week!’”
“She said to me one day, ‘Are you nervous?’ And, I got nervous just because she’s Taylor Swift -- my face would get red every time! I said, ‘Yes. I just don’t want to mess up.’ She goes, ‘Everybody in the audience is there to have fun and support you. Nobody is there to judge. It’s not a TV show where they’re judging you.’”
“From that moment, I really learned what it means to be a performer and it wasn’t about being perfect -- it was about enjoying it,” Mendes continued. “Because you watch someone on stage and whatever they’re doing, if they’re really enjoying themselves, so are you. She went on stage every night to have fun, to enjoy and to be in happiness because that’s what the live show is about. It wasn’t about being perfect. She’s perfect anyway, but that was the biggest thing I learned from her.”
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Despite his early confidence issues and ongoing struggle with anxiety, today Mendes is the big boss to a crew of 60 when he’s on the road and he said that the trick to commanding that status with people who are often much older than him has been spending quality time “hanging out.” On tour, he wakes up every morning and checks in on everyone from his front-of-house crew to production staff to build respect, so that when he has to make tough decisions, they understand he’s doing so for good reasons.
However, it’s his fans who remain at the forefront of Mendes’ concerns. After being inundated with messages from Muslim fans thanking him for representing them in his empowering new music video, “Youth,” featuring Khalid, Mendes noted he has learned how “one little clip can change so many lives,” and will remember so in future projects.
He also refuses to inflate concert ticket prices for the sake of a bigger income, noting he has been “very involved” with maintaining affordability, even as his star power continues to escalate.
“It’s a big thing we talk about a lot,” said Mendes, who co-wrote the new Backstreet Boys single, "Chances,". “When I first started [it was like,] ‘You have two options: The ticket prices can be this and you can make this much money, or it can be this and you’ll make this much [more] money.’ You realize if you went into that arena and it was 60% sold and a lot of those people were upset because they got ripped off, you’ll get on stage and not be too happy with that. But if you walk into a 100% sold-out arena where everyone’s so excited to be there -- and you have to do that two months straight without going home -- that’s what you want more than however much [extra] money it is. You learn really quickly that the quality of what’s happening is so much more important than how much money you make.”