Anatomy of a Hit: Charlie Puth on the Runaway Success of 'Attention'

Catie Laffoon
Charlie Puth

For many artists, choosing which songs to bill as singles is a complex, risky effort. But for Charlie Puth, the hitmaker behind tracks like "We Don't Talk Anymore" with Selena Gomez and the Meghan Trainor-featuring "Marvin Gaye," the process is simple.

"When you have to play 10 songs for different people, you know you haven’t gotten the song yet. But when you don’t even care to play it for other people, that’s when you know that’s the one," Miles Beard, who works with Puth as vice president of A&R at Artist Partner Group, tells Billboard. "We just wait until those moments -- until we all hold hands and say, 'let’s go.'"

That's exactly what happened one night during a tour stop in Tokyo, when Puth pulled Beard into his traveling hotel studio to first play him "Attention." The music industry may not have seen the smash hit -- which would become Puth's third Hot 100 Top 10 -- coming, but Beard knew it right then and there.

"He played me just a little bit of the hook, not full lyrics, just kind of a mumbling thing, with that bassline. I told him, 'you’ve got to finish that,'" Beard adds. "I sat in his room until two or three a.m., and he just kept working on it."

The concept sparked for Puth when, scrolling through Instagram, he had the idea to write about cultural obsessions with attention -- "everybody uploading pictures, and perfecting their faces, and picking filters," he says. Interestingly enough, the upbeat dance track began as a somber ballad rooted in Puth's music conservatory background. That plush guitar which kicks off the beat? Originally, it was a string section.

"I hummed the melody while I was in Asia, traveling on a train, and it was this really sad ballad," Puth explains. "It was depressing me, so I decided to just keep the topline, and put this groovy beat under it."

Back in California, Puth played an iPhone-recorded demo of the track for songwriting collaborator Jacob Kasher (Selena Gomez, Fifth Harmony, One Direction), who had the same reaction as Beard. "I was like, 'bro, you cannot f--king play this for anyone else,'" says Kasher, who recognized the track's early potential immediately. "Right when he played it for me, I was like, 'please let me get in on this.'"

The two worked on "Attention" together from Puth's Range Rover -- their go-to collaborating spot, Puth says, "for whatever reason" -- eventually scrapping a chorus they thought was "too complicated" in favor of simple lyrics that resemble common conversations.

"'You just want attention' is a sentence. People say these sentences all the time, so when they hear this music, I want people to have the sensation of 'I feel like I’ve heard this before,' or 'I’ve said this before,'" Puth says. "If they can be emotionally attached to something, and dance to that -- that’s a hit record."

Adds Kasher: "I feel like everyone can own that lyric. It means just as much to me as someone who’s singing it while listening to it in the car as the person that wrote it."

Even with his confidence in "Attention," Beard knew he'd need an eye-catching marketing strategy to bring it to its full chart potential. The team mulled over several ideas, like driving a car blasting the track through a particularly Instagram-worthy corner of Melrose Avenue. Eventually, they settled on the "Attention Room," an art installation and partnership with Spotify that replicated the brain’s reaction to receiving attention, even from something as seemingly insignificant as a Facebook like.

The social experiment was a massive success over its 10-day pop-up life, leaving constant lines that wove through the luxury store-lined blocks of Melrose Avenue. For the week of May 13 roughly a month later, "Attention" debuted at No. 68 on the Hot 100.

But for Beard, the moment of relief came in early July, after Puth performed "Attention" on The Today Show and announced the title of his sophomore offering, VoiceNotes, coming soon. It's normal to see a spike in streams following a televised performance, but for Puth, the track just kept ascending.

"I got obsessed with looking at the iTunes charts at this one. My own insecurity was like, 'it’s going to drop off,'" Beard says. "But it didn’t."

The week of Aug. 5, "Attention" became Puth's third Hot 100 Top 10, following in the path of "We Don't Talk Anymore" and the 2015 Wiz Khalifa collab "See You Again." And it climbed to No. 7 on the Hot 100 charts dated the week of Aug 19 -- the highest position logged by any Puth single yet, not counting his feature on the Khalifa hit.

This landmark is especially important, Beard adds, given that "'Attention" is Puth's first hit on which he is the sole vocalist. '''Attention' is his first solo song with nobody else on it. It feels like it’s pulling the pieces together," Beard says. "People knew who Charlie was, they knew the songs, but they didn’t exactly know who he was in those songs."

Puth promises more to come this fall on his entirely self-produced VoiceNotes, named after the iPhone application where he records most of his ideas on the spot. And Kasher is all in, too.

"I hope 'Attention' continues to do well, because I really need my own Range Rover so we can write more music," he jokes.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug 19 issue of Billboard.