NEW YORK — "I can't believe the view count, especially since everyone's in school."
Shawn Mendes leans forward on a sofa and pulls out his phone. That morning, he released the music video for his latest single Mercy, which racked up a staggering 200,000 views in its first hour, but had now leveled out around 500,000 mid-afternoon. The power ballad's dramatic clip finds the teen heartthrob trapped inside a sinking car, wailing about unrequited love — a topic that engulfs his soulful second album, Illuminate (out Friday).
Shooting the video, "I got anxiety attacks because I was really in a dirty, old car with water up to here," says Mendes, motioning to his head. "I couldn't see anything because we had fog all around us, so I convinced myself I was drowning a couple times. But it was really fun."
At just 18, Mendes has achieved milestones that would make pop stars twice his age blush: a No. 1 album (last year's Handwritten), four platinum singles (including breakout hit Stitches) and a sold-out world tour, only a year after opening for Taylor Swift on her North American stadium trek. The Toronto native started his ascent to fame three years ago singing covers of Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran on Vine, both of whom he was frequently compared to early on.
"I was very black and white when I first started," Mendes says. "I didn't show a lot of color in interviews because I was so scared of people taking what I said the wrong way." He still gets those comparisons, "but they're a lot less. I'm still so new in the industry and people are still learning about me, and that's fine."
Which is why with Illuminate, Mendes says he hopes to become more than just a name to fans, but "an actual person." The slower, more stripped-down effort is heavily influenced by John Mayer's 2006 album Continuum, and inspired by Mendes' own experiences with dating and heartbreak. Don't Be a Fool, for example, "was actually a true thing I went through, like, 'Don't be with me, because I'm on the road and work a lot, and it's not gonna work." Reggae-inspired single Treat You Better, now at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, is "about being in love with a girl you can't have because she's happy with somebody else."
Then there's Lights On, arguably Mendes' most mature song to date. ("I wanna love you with the lights on / keep you up all night long.") Performing it for the first time for his fans, who are mostly preteen and teenage girls, "I was scared to say that stuff," he admits. "But I'm so happy it's getting taken in the right way. It was (written) in a playful, sexy, 18-year-old summer love-type of way."
Mendes, for his part, hasn't had a serious relationship since he became famous. "I haven't really found the right person," he says. "That sounds like an older person thing to say, but I'm too busy and — not in a bad way — don't want to waste my time." Gossip websites have linked him to Fifth Harmony's Camila Cabello, with whom he collaborated on the single I Know What You Did Last Summer, but he says the rumor mill "doesn't bug me. "
"Someone was like, 'If you wanna be a celebrity, know that every girl you talk to is going to be your girlfriend,' " Mendes says. "And I was like, 'Fine. I accept that for getting to do what I love for the rest of my life.' "
The singer will embark on his second world tour next year, but otherwise likes to spend time back home in Canada with his friends. He attended his high-school graduation this spring and says he would eventually like to go to college, where he'd study anatomy. ("I'm very interested in how the human body works.") Although he still lives with his parents, he plans to get a pad of his own in January.
"My mom says I'm not allowed to move out, but I'm allowed," Mendes grins. "I said I have to FaceTime her every night to make dinner with her because I won't be able to do it myself. So she said she'll accept it if I do that."