Charlie Puth has written a handful of platinum-selling singles at an early stage in his career, but he doesn't dress, write, or speak like a pop star. He's working on his clothing style these days ("I now wear sequined pants," he says) but is incapable of speaking in the concise sound bites of more polished stars at his level of fame. Puth can jump from discussing Lionel Richie to Blink-182 in the span of a breath or two.
"You don't have my brain," he says, unsatisfied with how poorly his words match up with the goings-on inside his racing mind. His debut album's title, Nine Track Mind, alludes to this mental restlessness, but that's about as far as the record goes in providing a personal portrait of the artist. Puth now says the album was rushed in an effort to generate fast and easy hits. He adds that it's filled with the kind of musical fluff he's working hard to dismantle on his latest album, Voicenotes.
"Everybody's trying to be famous/And I'm just trying to find a place to hide," he sings on the album's opener, "The Way I Am." Puth says that's as much a statement about his recognizability and life in L.A. as the homogeneity of musical composition in the digital age. "Everybody seems to be the most vain nowadays, and I'm just wondering when that trend is gonna go away... It's kind of like when a genre of music is dominating for so many years. You hear it being played in all the same way and same tempo, and everyone is singing the same way and putting the same vocal effect on their voice. It's the same thing with social media. How long are people going to be obsessed with Photoshopping their faces and making it seem like their life is more grandiose than it is at the very moment?"
But this is Charlie Puth's brain, and there's more than one explanation for a couplet on his album. He says he liked the staccato phrasing of the words when he was writing the song. He cites the compositions of pop superproducer Max Martin as inspiration. "[The lyric] is fun to say. That's the easy answer."
Music comes to Puth naturally. Too naturally. Voicenotes is named for the recordings he made on his iPhone when ideas for songs popped into his head during odd moments. The guitars on "The Way I Am" exist on the album as he recorded them on his phone. But leave it to Puth to complicate an uncomplicated thing. When songs come to him, he makes sure they're written in a way everyone can sing them. "My rule is, if a girl and a guy can sing it pretty easily together — you know, the girl just jumps the octave and the guy can do the lower octave — that means that it's all-inclusive." If the song comes to him in a form that does not meet his criteria, he reworks it. "I pause the production, I step away from the piano, I go for a walk, and I play the song in my head... I play the audience singing the song in my head, and if I need to change the key — which I did probably many, many times on this album — it's all for the better." Puth, who has perfect pitch — the rare ability to identify or reproduce any musical note without the benefit of a reference tone — says he has already come up with ideas for five songs on his latest tour just by hearing the collective voices of his audience.
One of the songs he's performing on the tour is "Change," a duet with James Taylor that Puth debuted at the March for Our Lives in Los Angeles earlier this year. After the first two singles on Voicenotes went platinum before the album was released, Puth decided not to put out any more individual songs. But he changed his mind when the teenage organizers of the march called his management team to request that he play a song at the L.A. protest. "I just got chills all over my body, because I knew... I knew that I had to put that song out.
"I was watching these brave kids speak so eloquently on television against all these politicians who were just so stubborn in their ways and so programmed... The kids, they might not have had the vocabulary, but they were speaking from their hearts, and it's so refreshing to see that on all these very cold news channels. And what they were saying were lyrics of a song that I hadn't even put out... There was someone telling me that it was important that this record come out... and it's one of my favorite records I've ever done."
Charlie Puth.With Hailee Steinfeld. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 1, at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansburys Way., West Palm Beach; 561-795-8883. Tickets cost $20 to $79.50 via livenation.com.
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Celia Almeida is the arts and music editor of Miami New Times. She enjoys crafting Party City-grade pop-star cosplay in her spare time. Her pop-culture criticism has been featured in Billboard and Paper.