They say the second album is the hardest. Usually, the story goes, you put your whole life into your first record, but then have to make the follow-up project under pressure, in a rush, on the move.
But that’s not how it worked out for Shawn Mendes, whose 2015 debut Handwritten entered the Billboard charts at Number One and spun off four platinum singles. “It was actually kind of the opposite for me,” he says. “I’m really proud of Handwritten, but we had to get it done in five months—I couldn’t really pay attention to the production, we just had to get it out there.
“This time, I knew I would be standing next to the producer the whole time and making sure it was exactly what I wanted, and we captured this new, inner voice that I had no idea I even had.”
With Illuminate, Mendes reveals a growth and maturity, a greater sense of ambition and exploration. (Even the first single “Treat You Better,” which instantly reached Number One in 23 countries, illustrates this evolution, complete with a video addressing the issue of domestic violence.) Recorded with Grammy-nominated producer Jake Gosling, who worked on Ed Sheeran’s + and x albums, the record brings the young songwriter into new territory both musically and emotionally. And no one was more surprised than Shawn himself by what emerged during the recording sessions.
“I was just looking for whatever happened, whatever came straight from the heart,” he says. “It was a really different, out-of-body experience. Being open to failing, to change, to movement and inspiration, I found that there was more of me in every song—serious problems and thoughts that I didn’t know how to put into words. It was really magical.”
He points to the raw and bluesy song “Ruin” as an early indicator of where Illuminate was headed. “When we did that, it felt like ‘This is it, this is where Shawn Mendes is going to go.’ By the time he cut “Mercy,” he felt transformed. “Something different than I’ve ever felt before happened when I sang that—I could feel it in the studio,” he says. “I realized that’s how powerful music is, that it can pull something entirely new out of me.”
Not that Mendes hadn’t already seen the impact that music can have up close. After becoming one of the world’s most-followed musicians online, he was discovered by artist manager Andrew Gertler and signed to Island Records; his first single, "Life Of The Party," broke records, topping the iTunes Charts and selling over 150,000 copies in its first week. Handwritten also included the quadruple-platinum smash “Stitches,” as well as “Something Big” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Mendes was named as one of Time Magazine’s “Most Influential Teens” of 2014 and 2015, as well as one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” in 2016, and he won “Favorite New Artist” at the 2016 People’s Choice Awards.
When it came time to go back into the studio, he started with some of the same collaborators who joined him on Handwritten, including hit songwriters Scott Harris and Teddy Geiger. “Those guys took a chance on me when they had no idea where my career was going to go,” he says. “It’s important that I’m comfortable with people, and we’re so close, we barely have to speak—it’s like I’m writing with my best friends.”
Eventually, though, Mendes did bring in some other contributors for Illuminate, including producer Gosling and acclaimed songwriter Tobias Jesso, Jr., and a bit of mentoring from someone especially important to the young artist.
“I had been listening non-stop to John Mayer’s Continuum album,” says Mendes. “What I picked up was not just that the music was phenomenal, but that every single song had different meanings to me and my friends. It made every one of us happy, and I found that it was an unusual album in that it made friendships stronger. So that became my goal for the album, to create something that would help build relationships.”
He got to fully realize this vision when Mayer himself reached out to lend a helping hand, offering his wisdom and helping Shawn craft his songwriting and guitar-playing prowess with songs like “Three Empty Words”. “He was just as cool as I thought—always talking to me and giving me advice,” he says; Mayer even gave Mendes a guitar that he’s now playing on stage. “John is a magical dude, from a world that’s a little different from ours.”
Mostly, though, what he learned from the experience was the same lesson he took from touring with the likes of Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. “There is no amount of success that allows you to stop working hard,” he says. “They all work their asses off—it’s fun, but it’s not all fun and games. I watch them and know that I need to keep working hard for the rest of my career.”
On the eve of a sold-out world tour, Mendes notes that more than anything, his time on the road has helped him find his direction. “Touring is the number one way of figuring out where to take the music,” he says. “You see what fans react to, what they like. I really created this music picturing it being performed live.”
With Illuminate, Shawn Mendes proves that he’s making music for the long haul, that he’s looking beyond hits and toward a real career. And he’s rightly proud of the advances that this batch of songs represents.
“I don’t want to sound cocky, but it was very easy to make this music,” he says. “The stars aligned and I found a whole new voice. I feel like I really know myself right now. I just hope the world views me as who I am, musically and otherwise. It’s hard for millions of people to really understand any one person without sitting and talking to them, but music is one of the fastest ways to learn about somebody.
“I needed to get these songs out of me,” he continues, “but I’m ready to go write albums three, four, and five right now. I just have so many more songs to write.”