Charlie Puth Has More Heart and Soul Than You Know

by Brad Wete

Charlie Puth at Los Angeles' Staples Center (July 12) | all photos shot by David Romo

Charlie Puth at Los Angeles' Staples Center (July 12) | all photos shot by David Romo

Being efficient with time is arguably the most important part of being an opening act at a concert. Making the most of a little is the magic trick singer-songwriter Charlie Puth pulled off effortlessly at the Staples Center on a recent mid-July evening in Los Angeles. If we’re being honest, though, he kind of cheated. It’s not like he’s the classic opener—a relative unknown hoping to scrape up a handful of new fans whilst warming up the speakers and a mostly hollow arena for whoever’s name is on the marquee. Nah, Charlie Puth’s got hit records. Big ones. Several of his songs have lived inside of the Top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart.  

So he spent the bulk of his 30 minutes up there performing to a nearly packed venue for an audience that appeared to be as excited to see him as they were to catch heartthrob headliner Shawn Mendes. After running through “Marvin Gaye,” a bluesy “Suffer,” “One Call Away” and “See You Again,” the Wiz Khalifa-featuring track that just became the most watched music video ever on YouTube, we spoke backstage. Relaxed in black Chelsea boots, matching jeans and a lumberjack button-down shirt, his first admission was a bit surprising: “I was nervous,” Puth said of his half-hour. I couldn’t tell. He looked quite at ease behind his keyboard and with his band, never warbling or sounding off key. Though he did mention that it’s tough to hit his falsetto at the peak of his new single “Attention” nightly (again, I couldn’t tell).

Our talk ranged from a story of how he almost took “See You Again” off the Furious 7 soundtrack, to a chat about his short time as a dating-app swiping Los Angeles party boy (mom put that to a stop), and Puth opening up about why he hopes fans feel his “realness” when they pick up his forthcoming album VoiceNotes this fall. Apparently, he has some dirt under the veneer of Jersey kid pop sheen. And at 25, Charlie is ready to push it towards the surface.

You wrote and originally sang “See You Again,” but artists like Chris Brown and Trey Songz both gave your vocals a shot and almost were picked over you to be featured on the track. How did you deal with that process?

I wasn’t going to be on the song vocally or in the video. I was just going to be a writer on it. But it just felt so wrong having someone else sing it. At the time, I didn’t have a record deal. I was just this unpublished, unsigned kid from New Jersey. I called this very important roundtable of people putting the movie together and said ‘I’m not giving you the song if I don’t sing it.”

Luckily, there were some people who stood behind me and vouched for me. But there were a lot of crying nights. I wrote it for my best friend when he passed away. It was so similar to the Paul Walker situation. I had to be the one to sing it. I have so much respect for all of these artists and I love all of them. But hearing so-and-so’s voice singing my lyrics and my melodies didn’t feel right. It was a real thing for me.

And now the video—one you weren’t even supposed to be in—is the most played YouTube video ever.

Yeah, it’s crazy. When I started my YouTube channel in 2007 all I wanted to do is get 10,000 hits. Now we’re at 3 billion.

“Attention” uses the Los Angeles club and party scene as a backdrop. You’ve lived here in LA for two years now. How do you like to party?

I’m definitely not a club guy. I like it when everyone comes to me. In Germany, people actually seek out going to the club. It’s actually really fun. Same with Italy and London. Out here in LA—maybe it’s just my opinion—nobody actually wants to go to the club. Everybody just wants to show off their apartment or home. But people pretend that they like the opposite. I like to have people over, cook dinner and then let’s turn the fuck up after. I’ve had people jump from the third floor balcony into my pool, which I heat up to 104 degrees.

But for a while there, I was getting too crazy. I touch on that on the album coming out this year. I was dating all of these different women. My mom is the one who stopped it. She called me and said, “I’m sick and tired of seeing you on all these paparazzi TV shows. You’re losing touch. You don’t want to become that guy.” I always listen to my mom. She’ll beat my ass if I don’t.

On the song, you’re talking about a specific kind of LA scene girl. Could you describe that type a bit more?

Without completely shitting on LA girls, because there are some definite winners, I’m talking about the girls who don’t make me try so hard. I’m not even going to lie: I’ve been on Tinder, Raya and those kinds of things. If women are overly inviting and giving their numbers to me, dating kind of loses its classic touch a bit. I’m supposed to get the number. I like to think I’m a bit of a classic guy. We don’t have to go out on a date, but we can go to the beach or something. Let’s feel like humans.

I got lost in that sphere for a while and I’d have a girl trying to Snapchat me like, “We should be documenting this! What’s your favorite filter on Instagram?” I’m like, “Get out of here.” There are some awesome girls who were born and raised here. I think it’s the ones who weren’t that feel like they have to act a certain way, which is unfortunate. As humans, we’re one of ones. Why would you feel like you have to be someone else? I’ve never understood that.

I think the wave is changing a little bit, the whole Instagram model thing. Me and Lil Wayne made["Nothing But Trouble”] about them. That whole persona is being shit on so much that women don’t want to be that anymore. So hopefully we’re getting into a more grounded space.

One of the cooler parts of the “Attention” video is at the end, where we get to hear the original voice note recording you beatboxed into your phone.

It was a disco song that I had in my head in Tokyo. I saw this cool train and wondered what the soundtrack would be if I was speeding along in that bullet train. Then I started beatboxing and put it on my phone and added “You just want attention.” I always think of these phrases. Then I work backward.

I assume that you have bursts of creativity like that all of the time. Do they ever come at inopportune times?

Maybe this is too much information, but I’ve literally written songs while being intimate with someone. I’ll be thinking and I hear music constantly. As Shawn Mendes is performing now, I’m hearing the muffled subs and the white noise from the audience.

I heard a lot of R&B in your vocals when I was listening to you out there. Does that genre have a big influence on you?

I’m really inspirited by early 2000s Hip-Hop and late ‘90s R&B. And that ‘80s period with Babyface and LA Reid and Bobby Brown's “Tenderoni.”  Good chord changes need to come back to pop music. They were present. All it is is jazz derivative. It’s John Coltrane. It’s [jazz pianist] Bill Evans. It’s all from jazz and classical.

As far as how you’ve been presented so far, most wouldn’t know that you love all of those acts.

People thought, when I first came into the industry, that I was just a pop tart singing songs that were written for me. Nobody believed that I played the piano. Nobody believed that I produced and mixed these records. They just wanted to assume. So rather than get frustrated, I proved it to them with the music.

What do you hope is revealed to your fans and listeners when VoiceNotes comes out?

I hope people see the realness. I hope people hear the jazz. Every Saturday I would drive up to 122nd Street and Claremont [the Manhattan School of Music in Harlem, NYC] from 7am to 9pm. I’d listen to a shitload of jazz. I became a classical major and I always thought there was a way to segue to the pop land. I’d bring all these chords and all this Babyface and Coltrane. I want people to hear the chord changes, right when the album starts.  

I want people to know where I came from, my musical background. Even though I’m this honky-dory suburban kid from New Jersey, I’m so influenced from, like, 2006 when I heard Keak Da Sneak's "Super Hyphy" for the first time. He was from the Bay. I heard the most unique 808 pattern. And The Federation with E-40. There was a new wave.

My dad played me the Isley Brothers “For the Love of You” and my mom showed me James Taylor. There are similarities everywhere.

Plenty of people will be pleasantly surprised to learn all of this.

I produced “Slow Motion” for Trey Songz. I produce a lot of Hip-Hop records. While I’m making my pop album, the Migos and OG Genasis are like, “You got any beats for me?” I love it. It’s how I thrive. I’m very passionate about this stuff. I just want people to hear what I’ve learned. I’m not just a ballad guy.

I went through a lot of fucked up shit this year and last year. Bad stuff that I won’t mention. But you can hear it in the tone of my voice when you listen to this album. I haven’t decided on album art yet, but the first album [Nine Track Mind] was bright yellow. It kind of signified the music—very bright! Easy pop stuff. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe this album will be purple, something darker.


Written by: Brad Wete
Photos by: David Romo