Meet Charlie Puth, self-made music mogul
3.2 billion views on Youtube. 21 million social media followers. 2016’s biggest-selling international debut album in the UK. A number 1 in the US singles charts for 12 weeks. And he’s only 25…
With 21m social media followers, he’s the biggest pop star you’ve never heard of. By Alice Vincent
Hours before he walks on to the stage of the cavernous Barclays Center arena in New York, and performs to 18,000 people who all sing hi s lyrics back at him, Charlie Puth turns to me and admits, ‘I can’t believe people actually like me. I still have that little thing at the back of my mind that says, “Oh, do people know me? I’m not that good. I’m not an amazing singer live. I can do it, but I’m not incredible”.’ He is three months into his third tour – this one supporting Canadian singer Shawn Mendes on the North America leg of his world tour – yet Puth continues to teeter between glistening confidence and discomfort. ‘I was asking, on the first night, “Are people going to actually come out for me?” And they said, “Of course they will... ” I didn’t believe them.’
Puth (rhymes with booth) is the most famous pop star you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re the parent of a tweenager. In his first two years in the music business, he has amassed three Grammy nominations, 21 million social-media followers and 3.2 billion Youtube views for his single See You Again (the most-watched Youtube video in history, ending Gangnam Style’s five-year reign). But, even so, you’re more likely to recognise the catchy, tear-jerking chorus of the song – which has been the soundtrack to TV shows, films (including Furious 7), and even funerals and memorial services, and is such a royalty cash cow that one backing singer auctioned off a portion of hi s r i ght s t o f ut ure ro y a l ti e s f o r $ 3 4,0 0 0 (£28,000) – than you are to recognise Puth.
Sitting on a plastic sofa in a locker room of the arena, surrounded by his family and chewing raspberry liquorice, he could easily pass for any other slightly gawky millennial –admittedly a good-looking one – were it not for the glint of a rose-gold Rolex beneath his cuff, a birthday gift to himself and something he discusses at length. (‘They made very few of them, nobody really has it… They didn’t have it in New York, they didn’t have it in Sweden, they didn’t have it in London, and they only had one left in Philadelphia. I raced over there to get it… [ The weight of it] is just like someone putting their hand on your hand. It makes me happy.’) He is 25, but looks younger, with the ghost of an adolescent beard and a circular scar that cuts through his eyebrow, the reminder of the 450 stitches he needed as a toddler after a dog attack that almost killed him. ‘I pulled the wrong dog’s tail – it ripped most of my face off,’ he says. ‘But now it kind of makes me look like a badass.’
Like Justin Bieber, Puth found fame through online videos, but he says that unlike Bieber he had to fight for it, as record label bosses initially planned to give See You Again to a bigger singer. ‘They didn’t want me to be on [the song], because I was this brand-new guy,’ he says. ‘They were literally like, he’s not black, he can’t sing this song, he’s not urban enough. I was like, “Are you f—ing serious right now? I wrote the song!”’ says Puth, shaking his hands with agitation. ‘I told them, “I produced the record! You’re telling me I can’t be on it? I’m not giving you the song any more.”’
Puth write s hi s s ongs fast . See You Again,
‘They were like, he’s not black, he can’t sing this song. I was like ‘‘I wrote the song!’’’
inspired by a college friend who was killed in a motorcycle accident on a bridge in Massachusetts where he had, months earlier, told Puth that Puth would one day write a number one song, was written in just 10 minutes. The chorus of One Call Away was finished in five minutes; his recent hit, Attention, took a week. The speed may partly be a result of Puth having perfect pitch – a talent that was discovered at 11 when he stepped in for an absent church organist and was able to play the entire mass by ear. ‘His secret weapon is melody,’ says Neil Mccormick, The Telegraph’s music critic. ‘He has the golden gift, that every time he plays and sings the melodic line flows freely. It is much rarer in pop music than you might think: Paul Mccartney has it, Chris Martin, Noel Gallagher: they just couldn’t write a bad tune if they tried.’
The eldest son of a builder, Charles, and a music teacher, Debra, Puth began learning to play the piano at the age of five, and wrote and recorded a Christmas album at 11, which he then sold door-to-door around his home town of Rumson in New Jersey, earning $600 – and a local nickname, ‘weirdo musician Charlie Puth’. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was bullied at school. ‘I’ve been sort of like a nerd. [Bullying] forced me to be even more independent.’ Instead of going to parties with his peers, Puth stayed at home, drank wine with his parents, taught himself how to produce music and focused on his next career move ‘I’d just go home every day after school and work on my Youtube channel, get a crazy following there, you know.’ By the time he was 17, he had 80,000 subscribers tuning in to hear him sing covers of Beyoncé and 50 Cent songs.
He trained as a jazz and classical pianist at the Manhattan School of Music, and won a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied music production and engineering, before signing with TV host Ellen Degeneres’s new record label .( Convinced it was a prank, Puth hung up on her the first time she rang.) But after the company folded, Puth found himself approaching music executives, and faced a stream of rejections, until he was signed to Atlantic Records, which represents Ed Sheeran, Rita Ora and Bruno Mars. ‘I was driving on Sunset Boulevard and I got a call from [CEO of Atlantic Records] Craig Kallman. He was like, “all right, let ’s do the deal now”. It all happened in a month.’
Miles Beard, vice-president of A&R, who signed Charlie, says, ‘What sets him apart is his work ethic – he doesn’t have off time. There is only a small group of artists who actually write their own songs, and a fraction of those people can also produce their own music. Charlie writes his music, produces it, records it and mixes it. That’s incredible.’
These days, Puth lives in the Hollywood Hills with his twin siblings, Mikaela and Stephen, 23. His father manages his finances, his mother keeps his ego in check and he likes ‘keeping it simple’ by, for example, buying his own groceries. He has tried to cling on to his old friends, but he’s distanced himself from some. ‘I lost a lot of good friends, they just couldn’t handle [the fame],’ he says. ‘ The fact that in the restaurants we use to go to, the maître’ dis now calling up these paparazzi and there would be 10 of them outside. Some of them liked it too much.’ His new confidantes include singer Niall Horan, ‘He can tell me how he dealt with the crazy One Direction days.’
He also stays in touch with Degeneres and recently bumped into Adele at the gym. ‘Adele said, “You all right, Charlie?”’ he says, in his best attempt at a British accent. ‘I was like, “You know me?” She was all, “Of course I do, you f—ing jackass!”’ And then there’s Pharrell Williams who he calls on for fashion advice. ‘[He] told me to wear the same jeans every day, so you can just concentrate on the music’.
He says fame has made dating difficult, although he has recently been linked to Selena Gomez, with whom he dueted on the single We Don’t Talk Anymore. ‘I want to be in love,’ he admits. ‘It would be so nice on this tour if I just had a cool girl who could do her own thing but also would be there for me.’ But girls must be throwing themselves at him? ‘They don’t throw themselves, they glide. They nuzzle up to me.’ He adds, ‘I’ve dated famous girls, I’ve dated notfamous girls, and I just need to find someone in the middle who doesn’t care about Charlie Puth, but cares about Charlie Puth’s heart, I guess.’ He pauses, ‘Without sounding so sappy.’
Weeks after the tour ends, I call Puth to catch up. In that time, he has gained over a million followers on Youtube and to celebrate the end of the tour and his freedom, he has thrown a ‘rager’ of a party. He sounds more confident, a little distant and different from the young man I met in that New York arena. ‘I’m feeling very good about the record. I think I’ve finally found my niche. I really do. The music is somehow more assured in a way, it’s given me a lot more confidence,’ he says. ‘I’m 25 and I’ve never felt more confident.’ Charlie Puth’s new single How Long, is out now. His second album Voicenotes will be released on 19 January
‘Adele said ”All right Charlie? “I was like, ”You know me?“
Charlie Puth performing to fans in New York in August
Before the concert in New York