To say that 2015 should be a busy year for Charlie Puth is an understatement. The 23-year-old singer first arrived on listeners’ radars in 2011 thanks to a popular cover of Adele‘s “Someone Like You” that landed him a pair of appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Fast-forward to 2015, and Puth, now armed with songwriting and producing skills, has collaborated with two high-profile artists as he aims for a splashy debut. Puth’s first single, the groovy “Marvin Gaye,” boasts Meghan Trainor as a duet partner, while he recruited Wiz Khalifa for “See You Again,” a cut on the Furious 7 soundtrack.
Beyond working on his own records, Puth flexes his songwriting and producing talents for other artists, arranging sessions with Trey Songz, Jason Derulo and Lil Wayne. As Puth’s career begins to take off, Billboard spoke with the rising star to discuss his high-profile pairings, Motown’s influence on his music and his late-night debut on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.
Ellen DeGeneres’ show was your big arrival, and you were signed to her label, eleveneleven. What happened with that?
Ellen‘s definitely an amazing person, but sometimes things don’t work out. I can’t be too upset though — those two appearances got me my international base and shot my YouTube subscribers up. Actually, the show first got my publisher’s attention, so it was still a really wonderful experience. One of the best things from it is that it actually inspired me to write more music for myself.
“Marvin Gaye” went to radio not too along ago. How did that song come about and how did you get Meghan involved with it?
I was at this coffee place on Cahuenga [Boulevard] in Hollywood, and I just started tapping my foot and clapping along, and that’s the drum beat on “Marvin Gaye.” Meghan and I were at a party one night, and we were exchanging the new music, and she heard “Marvin Gaye” and asked, “Who else is singing on this? It should be a duet. Let me sing on it!” So I’m like … OK, Meghan Trainor just asked me to sing on my song, absolutely! In one day, she knew the whole thing. We did it all in one take.
Does Marvin Gaye inspire your music in general?
I listened to a lot of Marvin Gaye and Motown records. When I was making my record, I just wanted to make this soulful sound. When Marvin Gaye made his music, he evoked this feeling that would reach everybody. Now, my record is also actually a musical assistance record. I’ll define that: Since I’m kind of a shy person, I can’t just walk up to girls and be like, “Yo, let me get your number!” That’s where the song comes in as a musical icebreaker. If you hear it on the radio or at a bar, it’s a way to say, “Hey! Let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on.”
Interesting that your bio on Twitter just reads “Motown Soul 2015.”
Well, I’m always inspired by people who have really cool Twitter profiles. So I wanted to have people scratching their heads, wondering, “What does that mean, ‘Motown Soul 2015?'” Really, it’s the sound I’m going after. I’ve got an EP that I’m finishing up this month, and I want to keep that throwback vibe but with some new drum sonic twists. Like in “Marvin Gaye,” when Meghan’s voice comes in, it drops into this trap thing with this hard-ass distorted 808. I’m looking to contemporize it, like what Motown soul would sound like in 2015.
You’ve got another record making waves: “See You Again” with Wiz Khalifa.
Yeah, it’s crazy. I knew it was gonna be big, but I didn’t expect it to grow so quickly. I really love that people love it.
You guys are performing the track on The Tonight Show — maybe you’ll even get to play in a sketch.
I’m really, really stoked about it. That’s an ab workout for me every time — when [Jimmy Fallon] switches faces with Sofia Vergara and she switched lips, I’m literally pounding the floor crying in laughter, it’s so funny.
In addition to your own songs, your Tumblr page says you’re also writing for other artists: Lil Wayne, Jason Derulo and Trey Songz. How do you balance all of that?
I try to incorporate little bits of me and treat it like my own song at first. When Trey cut [“Slow Motion”], he put his own little melodic twist — he Trey Songz-ified it. But when you hear a record I did for another artist, you’ll still hear vocal stacks of me in the production.
When you see major artists recording your songs, what does that do for you?
When they’re recording it, I get really emotional. I did something with Akon the other day, and I’ve been listening to his stuff since I was in fifth grade. So hearing him say, “Oh, I like that idea” and then watching him go into the booth and — I’m not gonna imitate Akon [laughs] — but he starts singing the lyric. And this voice I’ve started hearing for 12 years of my life singing my song… I start crying.
With the Trey Songz track, did you go to a school dance? You know they always have the slow jam at the end. They don’t really have that at the club. 2 a.m. in Los Angeles, they just turn the lights on and everybody leaves. When I was making the song, I was trying to make the “slow dance” record of the club.
“Slow Motion” is definitely catching on.
I went to Trey’s show in L.A. the other night, and I heard 15,000 people scream along the lyrics to the chorus, which is pretty incredible. I made this song in my bedroom, and to hear 15,000 people singing along in an arena is just… whoa.
Between Meghan, Wiz and everyone else, you’ve collaborated a lot already. Is there anyone else in the music industry you’d like to work with?
This might be a weird answer, but James Taylor. He’s the reason why I write music. If he’s reading this — James Taylor, I’d love to work with you! My mom would put headphones on her belly before I was born, so I’ve been listening to him literally all of my life. When my dad played me “Walking Man,” I heard those chord changes and that melody, it completely blew me away. Maybe you wouldn’t really hear the James Taylor influences in my music, but they’re definitely buried in there.