Twenty years ago, a six-year-old Charlie Puth was listening to the Spice Girls hit “Spice Up Your Life” while watching a group of girls from school dance to the anthem in their family living room. “They asked if I’d like to join, and that’s the first time that I knew I wasn’t a dancer. But then I just became enamored with the popularity of the Spice Girls, and I wondered, ‘How could I ever be as popular as them?’” The last decade has likely satiated Puth’s curiosity, with three Grammy nominations for his 2015 mega-hit “See You Again,” close to 5 billion views on YouTube, and prime real estate on global hit charts.
Among a handful of next-generation musicians pumping fresh blood into pop music, Puth is confident, attentive, and candid as we chat at a Brooklyn studio overlooking the Manhattan skyline. His journey to international prominence began just over the Hudson River in New Jersey, the same fertile musical soil that brought us the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, and the Jonas Brothers. Growing up, Puth’s mother, a music teacher, noticed her son had the rare gift of perfect pitch, meaning he could name or sing a note without reference tones. “B flat minor!” he chimes, playfully offering proof after listening for a moment to the background music in the studio. “I don’t know what song it is, but I can see the notes happening in my head.” Having perfect pitch is a nuisance at times—“I could hear the fire drill in the shower this morning: F sharp,” he laughs. It affects his social life as well: “I get really bad socially because when people mention songs, I start to hear the song in my head.” But for a musician who produced his last album himself, an exceptionally refined ear is more gift than curse.
After his commercially successful yet critically divisive first album, Nine Track Mind, the 26-year-old decided to take total control over his second release, Voicenotes, handling lyrics and productionof the complete track list. The album title encapsulates the way compulsive inspiration is captured in the digital age, with an iPhone ready for spur-of-the-moment “voicenote” recordings. For Puth, this means waking up at 2 a.m. to make the kick drum in “How Long” a bit more “punchy.”
The midnight calls seem to be paying off, with fans and critics alike lauding Puth’s honed sound and new direction. Still, he’s his own toughest critic. “I think I suck. I really do. When people say to me that they love my music, and that it’s the best thing they ever heard and they’re so in love with it, I don’t understand it because I find every problem, every issue with every piece of music that I put together,” he confesses. “So I learned to just smile and say, ‘Thank you so much.’ But, I really don’t understand it. I’m a bit of a tortured soul in that way. Nothing that I do will ever be good enough for me.”
Here’s a glimpse of the other side of the irresistible hooks and sleek, danceable production—a sensitive, introspective soul that often mixes heartbreak and a bit of pain into the pop. This aspect of Puth mostly comes through in the lyrics, which thread mournful revelations on unsettled love, regret, and desire alongside the lighthearted sexy fun of a sing-along-in-the-club banger. “I’ll always find a reason to be bummed out about something, but I can create the image of myself that I want to be in my music. If I’m really in a bad mood, I can make a happy song. Performing it will trick my brain. It’s all about writing records and making them sound a certain way. Its just tricking my brain to making me feel an emotion that I want to feel.”
Take for example, album-closer “Through it All,” which finds Puth reminiscing on the troubles that come with an ascent like his: You could say I’ve lived a crazy life for a man so young / The kind that made me question my faith / Now I’m looking back just wondering where the time has gone / But I guess it’s just the price you pay... Or the wistful memory of simpler times and the wince of regret on “L.A. Girls”: Boy, I miss the days we’d take a Greyhound in NYC / Wish I could’ve seen that it was perfect how it was / Listen, I don’t want this to be the way you remember me / ‘Cause I know I was wrong, wrong...
This fluid intertwining of meaning and confession with perfectly crafted pop is what Puth calls “hitting two birds with one stone.” “It’s about suggesting an emotion without really saying it,” he explains—like taking a smiling selfie at the club when you’re heartbroken, pretending you’re having the time of your life when you’re really hoping that one person out there will see it and think of you. “These songs are supposed to outline that juxtaposition with a sad lyric, like in “How Long,” which has the danciest, most up- tempo beat on radio right now.” From teenage covers on YouTube to an online singing competition that captured Ellen DeGeneres’s interest, the internet has been a launch pad for Puth and for many of his peers. It’s also a source of inspiration. His music speaks to young people today in part because he acknowledges the messy digital territory where romance increasingly takes place. The malleability of his lyrics captures that state where smiley emojis, food photos, and selfies have layered, shifting meanings—where interest or affection or jealousy can be disguised in a like or a #TBT, and an unanswered text can portend heartbreak.
On the brink of his biggest North American tour to date, Puth’s career has surpassed his wildest expectations. He couldn’t have guessed, as he imagined, what it might be like to be one of the Spice Girls, or while a jazz major at the Manhattan School of Music, that one day he’d be playing to adoring crowds at Radio City Music Hall and the Greek Theatre. It’s something he thinks about a lot. “I’m a nostalgic person. I’ve walked past my beach club three times yesterday in New Jersey where I used to go on the swing set and listen to Kelly Clarkson and just dream about making records that sounded as big as that. It all comes back to me.” Any advice for those who wish for the same success? “Young artists ask me that all the time. I’m like, ‘Bro, I don’t know. Just be yourself. You already have the advantage ‘cause you’re yourself and there’s no one like you.’ Don’t pretend to be like other people. I’m not going to write about a topic that I’m not going through at the time, because people are smart. They’re going to catch the bullshit.”
If Bieber might come off as a swagged-out egotist, Ed Sheeran a John Doe, and Shawn Mendes a Ken Doll, Puth is none of the above. Earnestly imperfect, constantly questioning, vulnerable and honest, he’s a refreshing tonic to the alpha stylings so often seen in contemporary pop and hip-hop. But what’s his next move? Though he says he “goes with the wind,” he admits wondering about the direction music is heading and how he will fit. But for now, he’s content where he is. “I’m glad I can reach new fans with this new music. This is the music that I really wanted to put out for a long time,” he tells me. “It’s not cheap, or too cheeky or immature sounding. This is truly made for me.” All I can say, even though we’ve known each other for less than an hour, is that Puth needn’t sweat the future. On my way back home, a little buzzed on the M train, I put on “How Long” and let the lyrics chime: Was it real or just for show? A seemingly simple song that speaks to all of it—love in the Instagram age, masked pain, keeping it real in an era of inauthenticity. He’s already one step ahead.
Written by Osman Can Yerebakan
Photographed Max Montgomery
Styled by Joseph Episcopo
Flaunt film by XIXIKIWII
Groomer: Jayson Stacey
Stylist Assistant: Kyle Hayes