"I just want a studio house like Ryan Tedder," says Charlie Puth with a sigh. The 26-year-old gazes into the flames of the fire pit next to the pool behind his own perfectly nice house, a sleek mid-century abode nestled in a tree-lined section of Beverly Hills where there’s currently a $10,000 reward posted for a stolen Pomeranian. "My manager also manages him, so I get to see what my career could potentially look like," continues Puth, referring to the OneRepublic frontman and songwriter -- producer to stars like U2 and Taylor Swift. "He has another house for his studio. He has candles, so now I have candles." Puth curls up, hugging his knees. "I like candles."
Puth -- whose own career kicked off with his 2015 smash with Wiz Khalifa, "See You Again," and now includes "Attention," his 2017 hit that reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 -- has been up since 4 a.m. this January morning. He completed a three-hour training session with celebrity fitness guru Harley Pasternak, who’s prepping him for his summer headlining tour, and spent another two hours with his allergist. With his fluffy shock of hair and lanky 5-foot-11-inch frame clad in head-to-toe athleisure -- fluorescent yellow Alexander Wang for Adidas hoodie, Lululemon shorts and leggings -- Puth looks more like a tuckered-out high school athlete than a pop star. Since finding fame, he has become a bit of a homebody. "I like to stay in my house a lot," he says. "Or hang out with Adam Levine, who likes the same things I like." He grins. "You know, freshly cut fruits and toilets that greet you when you walk into the bathroom, and Porsches."
"Charlie is one of the most well-rounded and purely talented artists we’ve got right now," says Levine, a friend and collaborator. Puth’s songwriting partner, JKash -- Jacob Kasher, a former rapper from Virginia Beach, Va., who co-wrote Kesha’s “We R Who We R” and Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls Go Bad” -- says that as soon as he met Puth in 2014, "I knew this kid had a very unique gift. Maybe Max Martin has it. There are few people in the world like Charlie."
Puth and JKash write together primarily while cruising the Los Angeles suburbs in Kash’s top-of-the-line Range Rover Autobiography. "Range Rovers symbolize success to me, but, like, of more to come," says Puth. "I don’t have one, but I want one. And even when I do have one, I’m going to think, 'I want to be a member of a country club, and I want to write songs in my head on the way there.' What the hell can I say? I’m inspired by materialistic things."
But driving around Burbank and Glendale with Kash is also a way for Puth to recapture the feeling he got as a teen making mixtapes for girls. "I think we secretly like being around normal people -- like if we’re near them, we can reach them," says Puth. "When I’m on tour, I get a driver and I pretend I live [in the area]. If I see a group of teenagers, I know they’re probably listening to some kind of hip-hop, and I want to make a pop record that gives them the same emotion they get from 'Mask Off,'" the hit by Future.
When "See You Again," the Furious 7 anthem that served as a tribute to the film’s late star Paul Walker, tied Eminem’s "Lose Yourself" and The Black Eyed Peas' “Boom Boom Pow” as the rap song with the most weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100, Puth hadn't even released his debut album yet. Nine Track Mind, which came in early 2016, positioned him as a piano-playing, blue-eyed soul man with clean-cut good looks at a time when Justin Timberlake was between albums and Robin Thicke was already looking backward at "Blurred Lines" (and its related lawsuit). The album peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and spent 92 weeks on the chart, where, two years later, it periodically resurfaces.
But the album’s blandly sentimental songs prompted as many eye-rolls as sales. "It has the lowest Metacritic rating... ever?" says Puth with a laugh (actually, not quite: the 15th lowest for an album). "But I agree with that score. That album was not me at all."
"Charlie was thrust into the spotlight pretty quickly,” says Dionnee Harper, senior vp marketing for Atlantic Records, who has worked with Puth from the start. "'See You Again' took on such a life I don’t think anyone anticipated, and we had to quickly galvanize to capitalize off the momentum." Puth says the album was rushed, resulting in "a mishmash pile of music," and he compares hearing it to "flossing with aluminum foil" and "bitten nails on a chalkboard."
"Everything I didn't want to happen to me -- typical things you hear about a young kid getting signed in the music industry -- happened to me," says Puth. "I was being told to do this, this and this. I didn't want to do any of it, and I was just going along with the punches." He spent two years flogging a hit he never intended to sing -- he wrote the "See You Again" chorus for Sam Smith -- and an album he didn't believe in.
Then, in April 2017, he released a song that didn't sound much like Charlie Puth at all. Driven by a taut, disco-tinged bassline, "Attention" is meticulously arranged, uptempo and definitely not romantic. "It’s shit-talking," says Puth. "It’s a mean song." It’s also his highest-charting single as a solo artist, and his first to earn bona fide pop-snob admiration. (New York Times critic Jon Caramanica called it the fourth best song of 2017; the popular music-nerd podcast Switched on Pop has effusively praised it.) In October, he dropped "How Long," a similarly funky, R&B-inflected j’accuse at a cheating ex that just reached No. 21 on the Hot 100.
"I didn't feel like an artist until 'Attention' came out," says Puth, as the backyard fire sputters. "And I feel like people are just starting to get it. I’m not mad that they’re just finding out -- they’re getting the message I wasn't allowed to say before. 'Attention' is me saying, 'Fuck everybody: I’m doing this song the way I want to do it.'"
This is the life Puth always wanted, going back to his days as a teen coming into New York from Rumson, N.J., to study jazz piano at the Manhattan School of Music. Walking in the city one day with his father, a real estate developer and broker, Puth visited a street-corner psychic. "She said, 'You’re not going to be famous, but it’s OK!' I was like, 'Fuck no! Dad, go give her money and tell her to check again. I am going to be fucking famous.'"
If Puth had what he now calls a "humble arrogance," it was for good reason. He grew up in relative comfort, with twin younger siblings, both of whom now live with him (Mikaela, who used to work at Refinery29, now manages his day-to-day; Stephen is also a songwriter); his father, who built a prosperous business during Puth’s childhood; and a mother who decided, when 12-year-old Puth played the entire Catholic Mass on organ from memory, to find a music teacher who could explain how he did it. The answer: He had perfect pitch, probably from age 3, when he sang Neil Sedaka's "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" from memory in the key it was written.
"I was such a little punk," says Puth. "You know when you see a cartoon and someone smiles, like, 'ding!'? I had that little sparkle." From age 9, when he bought Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, he was drawn to hip-hop. "I had never heard a song with hi-hat on every off-beat," he explains, launching into a beatbox and mouth-trumpet version of "The Real Slim Shady" (one-man-band mode is Puth’s default). By seventh grade, he had rigged his home stereo to hook up to a Korg Triton Studio and was producing mixtapes for girls in his class. "I'd combine 'Candy Shop' with 'Drop It Like It’s Hot,'" he recalls, giving a vocal demo. "They’d be like, 'OMG, Puth is so weird, but he’s kind of cute!'"
Making mixtapes and jumping on the piano at parties, Puth saw, got him attention. "I’ve always loved... not manipulating people, but finessing people," he says. "I love studying people’s reactions, and the best way to do that is by making music." Later, as a full-scholarship music production and engineering major at the Berklee College of Music, "I’d just go to parties where I knew there would be pianos, and be like" -- he sidles over awkwardly -- "'Oooh, what’s this? Does anybody know... "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John?'"
He didn't have much experience singing, but at Berklee Puth started putting videos of himself on YouTube, covering songs like Adele’s "Someone Like You" with a duet partner, Emily Luther. What happened next provides the foundation of the Puth legend, such as it is: Ellen DeGeneres took notice and signed the duo to her emerging-artists label; it didn't work out; Puth went back to Berklee and, post-graduation, got an offer to come to Los Angeles and join writing sessions. In his first, he co-wrote what would become his 2015 hit with Meghan Trainor, "Marvin Gaye," originally for Cee Lo Green; in the second, "See You Again."
"I got some money, I got a publishing contract, I got a Versace chain that I ended up giving to Kehlani," says Puth today with a laugh, referring to the singer, a longtime friend. "She was probably like, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'" He dreamed of a life like the one portrayed in John Mayer’s "Who Says" music video. "It’s him walking around this New York apartment, and I always wanted that ambience," Puth says. "Like, I’m having a chill party and people are smoking cigarettes and there’s a cheese board with grapes and wineglasses everywhere."
He also started, as he puts it, "super-starring out a little too much." Working with Wiz Khalifa, he says, "I’d never seen so much marijuana in my life," and by 2014, when Jason Derulo took him along on his tour bus and introduced Puth to JKash, Puth himself was "out-smoking some rappers," he says. One day, after eating "like, a pound of marijuana cookies," Puth experienced a six-hour freakout. "I should have been sedated," he says. "I think I almost died." He hasn't touched it since, and today shivers remembering those days. "I thought I had to party and date a lot of girls and just go crazy," he says. "I thought it was what was expected of me as a musician. My mom was the one who was like, 'You’re losing touch with why you got here.'"
The only song from Nine Track Mind that Puth says makes the album "bearable" for him is "We Don’t Talk Anymore," a breathy duet with Selena Gomez. "It’s about a particular moment in my life, when someone very close to me wanted the attention of somebody else. When I found that out and we ended it, I might have done some shady things too, and she might have asked me, 'How long has this been going on?'" Later, he delves a bit deeper. "I don’t kiss and tell, but the only way a song like that can come across as real is if there’s something else going on behind the scenes," he says. "And that’s what was happening [with Gomez]. Very short-lived, very small, but very impactful. And it really messed me up. I’m trying to put this the best way possible: It wasn’t like I was the only person on her mind. And I think I knew that going in -- what I was getting myself into."
Puth takes a deep breath and slumps down. "You gather up a bunch of emotion with the life shovel, throw it in the life bucket, mix it up," he says with a shrug. "And she evoked such good emotion on that song, it was a pleasure working with her. That’s why I’m always happy to sing it, even though it came from a dark point in my life."
"That was Jennifer Lopez."
Puth’s gaze darts toward the entrance of the Hotel Bel-Air, where we -- and, apparently, Lopez and Alex Rodriguez -- have come for lunch. "I love J.Lo, but I don’t give a shit." Puth’s driver, an elderly man named Bela, whisked us here after Puth declared "I’m hungies!" Now, Puth zeroes in on his meal: two plates of hamachi sashimi, black truffle-dusted roast chicken and some charred broccolini he dutifully munches to satisfy Pasternak, his trainer. "Oh, my God, I care more about the truffles on my chicken. Fucking delicious."
Celebrity has never fazed Puth. Take the way he calmed James Taylor, who appears on VoiceNotes. "He was texting me, like, 'This is a really high song. How am I going to be able to sing this?'" recalls Puth. "I was like, 'No. 1, you’re James Taylor. No. 2, I have it in my head exactly how you’re going to sing it; I can just hear it.' Lo and behold, that’s how it happened. We didn’t even have to change keys." Or Boyz II Men, who loved Puth’s arrangement for his recent collaboration with them, "If You Leave Me Now," which, he says, references the trio’s 1991 classic "It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday." "He’s very intuitive," says Boyz II Men’s Nathan Morris. "To have that musicality at 26 years old in this era, he’s a fish swimming upstream, but he’s swimming upstream pretty strong."
Puth calls his approach to R&B "nodding to the greats," and pinpoints the sound of VoiceNotes with impressive specificity: "Like walking down a dirt road and listening to New Edition in 1989 -- and being heartbroken, of course." More generally, says Puth, he’s channeling the "dark R&B" of the late 1980s created by Babyface, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Teddy Riley, "these great producers who shaped where dance music and ballads would go." At a moment when cultural appropriation is so central to the conversation around pop music, I ask him if he feels any added responsibility as a white singer in a genre pioneered by black musicians. "I’m not the white guy who’s trying to be so cultural -- I just appreciate the culture," replies Puth.
Writing VoiceNotes, he continues, "had a lot to do with my surroundings: I spent a lot of time traveling the world alone in hotel rooms. Sometimes I’d be in the south of France with that warm balmy breeze coming through and white linen curtains, seeing this girl I just called it off with, looking at the ocean, and Janet Jackson’s 'Come Back to Me' is playing," he says. "I want to be the one who makes the modern-day version of that song."
Suddenly, a harsh noise breaks through the hushed air in the restaurant. Puth perks up. "That car revving just now? That was an F," he says, humming the note. "So now I’m thinking of songs in F major, and all I hear is 'Racing in the Streets' by Bruce Springsteen and 'Mine' by Phoebe Ryan..." Distracted by the music in his head, he looks happy. "I want fucking massive songs that people are going to listen to forever," says Puth, as if it is the simplest request in the world.
A diverse crew of artists rely on Puth’s abilities -- whether as co-writer, producer or video hottie.
“He’s a real musician: He plays, like, a thousand instruments and understands the structure and theory behind music,” says the singer-songwriter, who cast Puth as a car-wash stud in her “Boys” video. “He’s crazy, crazy talented.”
Puth co-wrote on Derulo’s Everything Is 4, most notably the Stevie Wonder-Keith Urban collaboration “Broke.” “He’s a little left of center, which is always cool to me,” says Derulo of Puth. “He’s not worried about a trend.”
The duo collaborated on a “Hotline Bling” remix; Puth hopes to rope her in for VoiceNotes. “She’s almost like the Bruce Springsteen of R&B,” says Puth of the singer. “She just pokes at people’s hearts.”
“A lot of artists get lost in their own sauce and don’t know how to take suggestions. Charlie is a sponge and has always been excited to learn.”
"Charlie's got really eclectic taste and a really extensive memory bank," says the rapper, who roped in Puth as writer, producer, and featured artist for his "Sober." "When we first meet, we talked about the hyphy movement [the rap coming out of the Bay Area in the mid-2000s] and that's what impressed me the most -- his understanding of music across genres and decades."
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of Billboard.