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As Charlie Puth gears up to release his debut album Nine Track Mind, it’s worth looking back at the extraordinary ride this multi-talented vocalist, musician, producer, and versatile songwriter has been on ever since he arrived in Los Angeles as an aspiring artist in July 2014. In short order, Puth signed with Atlantic Records and co-wrote, co-produced, and featured on Wiz Khalifa’s Furious 7 ballad “See You Again” — a 4x-platinum smash that topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 12 weeks, tying the record for the longest run at No. 1 for a rap song, and became No. 1 in over 100 countries, while its video racked up more than a billion YouTube views. He followed that up with the British chart-topper “Marvin Gaye,” featuring Meghan Trainor, which gave Puth another platinum record and his second Top 40 hit in the U.S. He made the morning talk show and late-night TV rounds (Saturday Night Live, The Today Show, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon), hit the road opening for Trainor on her U.S. tour (where fans sang along to every word of his set), and ended 2015 with an array of accolades, including two Teen Choice Awards, a Hollywood Film Award, two American Music Award, MTV Video Music Award, and MTV Europe Award nominations, plus a Golden Globe nomination for ‘Best Original Song’. As if that weren’t enough, Puth received an impressive three GRAMMY nominations including the coveted ‘Song of the Year’ category that specifically recognizes songwriters.
Along the way, Puth wrote and produced songs for an array of A-list pop and urban artists, including Lil Wayne, Jason Derulo, Stevie Wonder, Trainor, Trey Songz, and Fergie, among others. Entertainment Weekly called him “the next big thing in music,” while Forbes predicted Puth would become “a global superstar” — a forecast that seemed to be borne out during his promo tours in Europe and Asia, complete with the paparazzi chasing him in France and thousands of fans screaming for him in the Philippines. “I couldn’t believe that many people knew me as an artist,” Puth marvels. “I played for 7,000 people in the Philippines, and they knew every single word to all of the songs, even the ones that haven’t come out yet.”
While his life has changed since the early years when he would disguise his voice and pretend to be his own manager while cold-calling record company executives, the New Jersey-bred Puth has established himself as a global star by remaining deeply relatable, both as an individual and as a performer. It’s a quality that permeates the heartfelt, soulful pop of Nine Track Mind. “The album reflects me as a person by showing how closed off yet open I can be with people,” he says. “Even though I don’t appear shy times at times, I do consider myself to be a pretty shy person. This is very personal music and I’m opening myself up by sharing it with the world.”
In addition to the sultry “Marvin Gaye,” which Puth says he wanted to be like musical courage for an unassuming guy like him, every song on the album was written to express something he was feeling at the time, whether it was concern for a friend he couldn’t be there for in person because his hectic schedule (“One Call Away”), loving someone although he knew it wasn’t smart (“Dangerously”), or overwhelm from the pressure of trying to finish the album (“Losing My Mind”). Nearly every song was initially produced in his bedroom, though he did collaborate with a few select songwriters and producers. “My Gospel” was written with Nashville veteran Josh Kear (Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan). “We collaborated on the melody and it came out pretty much in a day,” Puth says. “I like when things happen fast.” He also worked with accomplished songwriter Breyan Isaac (David Guetta, Pitbull) on the sexy track “Suffer” about the pain and torture you go through when someone you want to be with is playing hard to get. As the final touch on the album, Charlie’s good friend and pop singer Selena Gomez added her vocals to the song “We Don't Talk Anymore,” which is about cutting off all communication after a break up. “I played this song for Selena and she loved it,” Puth says. “That same night we recorded her vocals and we both love how it turned out. I’m so happy to have her on the album.”
Puth’s goal was for every song to sound “soulful with a great big melody and a pop sensibility, but a bit left-of-center of what people are used to hearing in pop music,” he explains. “So it’s soulful music, with a bit of hip-hop, and lyrics that hopefully everyone can relate to. I want people to hear the realness in it. I think there’s this perception about pop music these days that every act is put together by someone in a suit. That’s why I go onstage in a white T-shirt and jeans, because I want the audience to look at me as a regular person but to be overwhelmed by the music. And I want them to be inspired to do exactly what I’m doing — following their dreams. Because for years I was completely discouraged by pursuing a career in music. And now songs I’ve recorded in my bedroom are being heard by millions of people.”
Puth first fell in love with music growing up by the shore in Rumson, New Jersey. “I didn’t grow up wealthy,” he says. “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. Shortly after, Puth began writing his own songs and eventually posting them on YouTube, along with covers. In 2011, Ellen DeGeneres tapped Puth and a friend to appear on her show after their cover of Adele’s “Someone Like You” went viral. Puth appeared on the show twice and watched his international fan base 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 has since worked with Max Martin (on Nine Track Mind’s “Then There’s You”) and returned to DeGeneres’ show to perform “See You Again” with Wiz Khalifa, so in a sense, he’s come full circle. And his most fervent wish is that his fans will be as inspired by his story as he is by theirs. “I’ve gotten some pretty powerful messages from fans,” Puth says. “There was one girl who was being physically abused by her parents and she made the decision to run out of her home. She had my music on her iPod when she was running away. I check in on her and make sure she’s okay. People go through some crazy shit in this world, and they need some sort of soundtrack to go along with their lives because sometimes it's really hard. It's kind of nice to have a comforting voice or an uplifting melody to help you get to wherever you’re going.”
*updated December 10, 2015*