Over the past three years, Charlie Puth has proven himself commercially with the extraordinary success of four multi-platinum hits, “One Call Away,” “Marvin Gaye,” and “We Don’t Talk Anymore” from his platinum-selling, Top 10 debut album Nine Track Mind, as well as his breakout hit “See You Again” — the best-selling song of 2015 worldwide that spent 12 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, earned him three Grammy nominations (including Song of the Year), a Golden Globe nomination, and 9x-platinum certification in the U.S. But the New Jersey-born singer, songwriter, musician, and producer was also eager to prove himself artistically when it came time to make his second album, Voicenotes, named after the trusty iPhone app he uses to collect his musical ideas. Puth co-wrote every song and recorded and produced the album entirely himself (barring one song he co-produced with Max Martin) mainly at his home studio in Los Angeles.
“I’m very proud of the success of Nine Track Mind, but it just wasn’t truly me,” Puth says. “It was me crafting something that I thought would be appreciated by people, rather than something that was truly authentic to myself. So I wanted to make sure that my new album was the opposite, which is why I kind of half-jokingly say that Voicenotes is my debut album. This is the real introduction to who I am.”
A meticulously crafted game-changer replete with sparkling melodies and sleek, danceable grooves, Voicenotes decimates everything people may think they know about this musical polymath, who has not only written and produced his own massive hits, but also hits for artists spanning a range of genres, including Jason Derulo, Trey Songz, Thomas Rhett, Maroon 5, and G-Eazy. On Voicenotes, Puth allows himself to truly be seen, not only as an artist but also as a human, which meant stepping out from behind the detached façade of lovelorn balladeering and being transparent about his emotions and influences.
On the lyrical front, Voicenotes is an album that is largely about Puth’s struggle to find a normal relationship when nothing about his life as a newly christened celebrity is normal, and the anxiety that pursuit has induced. “I wanted it to be a story of my travels from the East Coast to the West Coast and how my growing fame has affected my mind in good and bad ways,” he says. The first three singles — “Attention,” “How Long,” and “Done For Me” featuring Kehlani — cover that territory. “Whenever I met anybody, they often knew more about me than I knew about myself,” he says. “I’d never dealt with anything like that before.” Songs like “LA Girls,” “Like A Boy,” and “Slow It Down” detail different aspects of the rarified life of someone who feels like he should be enjoying the glittering lifestyle of fabulous parties and ample romantic opportunities, but just doesn’t — something Puth addresses on self-acceptance anthem “The Way I Am,” which opens with the following lines: “Maybe I’m a get a little anxious / Maybe I’m a get a little shy / Cuz everybody’s trying to be famous / And I’m just trying to find a place to hide”).
“I thought I was supposed to go to all these parties and be this type of person so I’ve always shoved my anxiety under the carpet because I didn’t think anyone cared to hear about it,” he says. “This album touches on that, but I also wanted to make sure that these songs, at the end of the day, are fun because some people choose not to listen to the lyrics. They just want to go to the club, listen to the beat, and have a great time. And that’s totally fine, too.”
To achieve his goal of making people want to “dance and cry at the same time,” Puth allowed his love for jazz and late ’80s/early ’90s R&B to shine through, which upped the music’s sophistication level several notches. Voicenotes’ up-tempo, groove-minded songs like “Attention,” “How Long,” “Done For Me,” and “The Way I Am” are so effortlessly catchy that they seem simple on the surface, but are hardly that. Puth, whose perfect pitch means he is often distracted by identifying the notes sounded by passing car horns and leaf-blowers, began studying jazz at age 10 and attended both the Manhattan School of Music Pre-College, where he majored in jazz piano, and Berklee College of Music, where he graduated with a degree in music production and engineering. His classical training is on full display, along with his impeccable influences — which range from jazz greats Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans to R&B songwriter-producers Babyface, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Teddy Riley.
“I was influenced by artists who were proving something when they broke off from their groups,” Puth says, citing Bobby Brown and Ralph Tresvant after New Edition, Steve Perry after Journey, and George Michael after Wham!. “When George left Wham! he wanted to show the world that he could produce records like ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘Father Figure’ on his own,” Puth says. “He didn’t do it in vengeful way. He was just showing people how musical he was. That was really my goal as well.” Puth’s musical heroes turn up on two of Voicenotes’ tracks, “If You Leave Me Now,” featuring Boys II Men (“What they sent me was perfect; it was the first time I didn’t have to do anything to finish a song”) and “Change,” featuring his idol James Taylor (“I never thought I’d be able to do a song with him and when I met him, it confirmed in my mind that I want to have a career just like his”).
Audiences have embraced Puth’s bold new direction. “Attention,” which New York Times’ pop critic Jon Caramanica listed fourth on his Spotify playlist of “Best Songs of 2017,” climbed to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 (Puth’s highest-charting single as a solo artist), hit No. 1 on both the Top 40 and Hot AC radio charts, and his been certified double-platinum, while the funky, cheating-ex song “How Long“ hit No. 3 at Top 40 radio and has been certified platinum.
For all of his success, Puth still sees himself as the kid from Rumson who played organ in church and made mixtapes for the girls at school. “I still have the same deep infatuation with chord changes, girls, and food,” he says. “Nothing’s really changed. The only thing that’s changed is that I’m a bit more well-known. I still find myself to be a pretty humble guy. Every room I walk into I think I’m the worst songwriter and I have to prove myself. But it’s because of that that I get better.”
Nine Track Mind
You may not know his face (yet), but you probably know his work. Charlie Puth is a singer, songwriter, and producer who has written and produced songs for an array of A-list pop and urban artists, including Lil Wayne, Jason Derulo, Pitbull, Austin Mahone, Trey Songz, Akon, and Sage the Gemini, among others. Most recently, Puth co-wrote and sings the hook on Wiz Khalifa’s moving hip-hop anthem “See You Again,” which plays in the final scene of the motion picture Furious 7 and is a highlight of the soundtrack. “See You Again” has reached No. 1 in over 90 countries across the globe including the U.S., with the coveted No. 1 positions on the Billboard Hot 100, Shazam, iTunes and Spotify.
Now the New Jersey-born and bred Puth is ready to step out as an artist in his own right with his self-produced debut single “Marvin Gaye,” a sultry blend of Motown-influenced pop and hip-hop-flavored beats that feels like an instant classic. “I was a big fan of Marvin Gaye growing up,” Puth says. “Some of my favorite songs of his are ‘Heaven Must Have Sent You,’ ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,’ ‘Sexual Healing,’ and ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine.’ I was inspired by the soulful feeling he evoked through his music and wanted to bring that quality to my record.” Lyrically, Puth says he wants “Marvin Gaye” to be like sonic courage. “I want a dude like me who’s shy to hear the record and have the courage to go up to a girl and just kiss her or something crazy like that. I want people to hear it and be spontaneous, to act on what they feel they can’t feel. It’s like musical assistance.”
Helping Puth deliver that assistance on “Marvin Gaye” is his duet partner Meghan Trainor. “Meghan got involved after we were hanging out at a party one night in Los Angeles,” Puth says. “I played the song for her, she loved it, and said that she could absolutely kill it if I let her sing on it. Of course I’m going to let Meghan Trainor sing on it! Her vocal put the bow on the whole record. She brought such a soulful element.” Trainor also appears in “Marvin Gaye”’s prom-themed, spontaneous-make-out-filled video. Puth returned the favor by making a cameo in the video for Trainor’s latest single “Dear Future Husband.” He will also join her as support on her Mtrain Tour this summer.
“Marvin Gaye” was the first song Puth wrote the day he arrived in California for a writing trip after signing his publishing deal. On his second day he wrote “See You Again” with DJ Frank E (Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco). “It was inspired by my friend Vale who passed away in 2012,” Puth says of the poignant song that plays over Furious 7’s closing montage of late actor Paul Walker and his character Brian O’Connor. “I had him in the back of my mind when I started writing the hook. Then Frank said to me, ‘This is the song for the end of the movie’ and I said, ‘I think you’re right.’ I was thinking about my friend’s energy and him watching it when we shot the video, which gave the performance an emotional realness.”
Puth himself is the real deal, a multi-talented vocalist, musician, producer, and versatile songwriter who shuttles easily between the pop and urban realms. Puth first fell in love with music growing up by the shore in Rumson, New Jersey. “I didn’t grow up wealthy,” he says. “We couldn’t even afford spaghetti sauce when I was first born, but my mom and dad worked really hard and came from the bottom up.” He credits his supportive parents for his early music education, citing his idol James Taylor as his primary influence. “My mom would put headphones on her belly and play his records to me while she was pregnant,” he says. Later on, Puth’s father exposed him to R&B artists like Barry White, The Isley Brothers, and Marvin Gaye, while his mother, a piano teacher, played him classical music and began teaching him piano when he was four years old.
Puth played piano throughout his childhood and began studying jazz at the age of 10. As a high school student, he spent his Saturdays commuting into the city to study classical and jazz at Manhattan School of Music in Harlem. “I thought I was going to be a jazz piano player, but I always had an interest in pop because my parents would listen to all this pop music,” he recalls. “I always tried to incorporate pop elements into the jazz I was playing.” Puth began listening to more and more pop, fascinated by the way it was produced, especially Max Martin’s late ’90s work, which led him to buy his first music production keyboard at age 11 and start making his own CDs. In sixth grade, he recorded and produced his own Christmas album, which he sold door to door in his town. “I made $600 and donated the proceeds to my local church,” he says with a laugh. “I designed the artwork and put all the jewel cases together; I was really into the whole process.” Shortly after, Puth began writing his own songs and eventually posting them on YouTube, along with covers.
“I come from a very sports-oriented town,” Puth says. “Everyone plays football. It’s not a bad thing, but I felt like the black sheep in my high school, like the ‘weirdo musician.’ Whenever I would attempt to sing in front of people, they would make fun of me, so I turned to YouTube. That way people just happened across my music, which gave me confidence to one day play it in front of them, which I did. Now I can get in front of anybody and play a song.”
In 2011, Ellen DeGeneres tapped Puth and a friend to appear on her show after a cover they did of Adele’s “Someone Like You” for a Perez Hilton covers contest went viral. Puth appeared on the show twice and watched his international fanbase grow both on and offline. “It got me in front of 30 million people,” he says of the experience. “It pushed me into a different area I never thought I would reach.”
Puth looks set to reach an even bigger audience with his killer combo of “Marvin Gaye” and “See You Again.” He is also hard at work on his debut album for Atlantic Records, which promises to deliver even more of his old-meets-new musical charm. “I’ve never been more proud of what I’m doing,” Puth says. “Usually when I’d write a song, I’d be too shy to play it, but I’ve never been so confident about playing these songs for people, and that’s a great feeling to have.”