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How Charlie Puth Fought for the Right to Find His Sound

The pop star compromised himself on his first album. He wasn’t going to let that happen again.

Charlie Puth had an odd feeling as he read negative reviews of his 2016 debut album, Nine Track Mind: He agreed with them. Despite scoring three radio hits, Puth – a classic-rock fanatic from New Jersey who graduated from the Berklee College of Music – was insecure it had taken an army of songwriters and producers to help him create the LP. He was also petrified that Wiz Khalifa’s 2015 worldwide smash hit “See You Again” from the Furious 7 soundtrack, which Puth sang on, would always define him. “I was worried I would be the ‘See You Again’ boy forever – the boy with the high voice.”

That changed with Puth’s second album, Voice­notes, which he wrote and produced almost entirely himself. The album mixes sleek, Eighties-loving pop with subtle blue-eyed R&B, tied together by Puth’s warm falsetto. This time, the reviews have been great, and the album went gold in four days. Here’s how he pulled it off.

Fight for Control
No record label wants to let its artists self-produce. But Puth gained Atlantic Records’ confidence when he played execs “Attention,” a disco groove about an ex-lover who won’t leave him alone. “When they heard that song they wanted to hear more like it,” he says. “It got them excited.” It hit Number Five, Puth’s highest-charting single as a solo artist. “It gave everybody faith. If a song is mixed right, a smash can become a supersmash.” Then he hit them with “The Way I Am,” a Justin Timberlake-style R&B tune that’s been played over 15 million times on Spotify even though he has yet to officially release it as a single.”It was completely different,” he says. “In my mind, that checks all the boxes of what a hit song could be.”

Record at Home
After the success of his first LP, he decided to set up shop in the studio in his L.A. home. There, he could call the shots himself with a small crew of musicians, and obsessively tweak tracks with ProTools at all hours. “Studio fees would have ruined the album,” he says. “I’d be so neurotic, thinking, ‘I just spent $1,000 and didn’t come up with an idea.’ That’s why I love recording in the house.”

Call Your Heroes
On Puth’s first album he collaborated with the likes of Meghan Trainor and Selena Gomez, but this time around he decided to go a very unconventional route for a young pop star by bringing in artists decades his senior. “If You Leave Me Now” began as a Boyz II Men homage, so Puth sent the group a tape. They returned it the next day, fully overdubbed with their rich harmonies. James Taylor duets with Puth on the social-justice plea “Change.” “I was very nervous when he came into the studio,” says Puth. “But I said, ‘Why don’t you try this melody?’ He’s go, ‘Oh yeah.’ He’s so humble. It was a dream come true.”

Taylor had a good time too: “It was a delight to work with such a gifted fellow musician and I’m so excited to finally see the release of the finished piece,” he wrote recently. “Thanks, Charlie, for making a place for me on your beautiful new album. I can’t wait for people to hear it.”

Be a Music Nerd
Listening to “Sweet Caroline” one day, Puth thought, “Why do people not sing along with instruments anymore? The ‘bum bum bum’ almost feels like a lyric.” He created the jittery riff to the R&B stomper “The Way I Am,” a track that was streamed 16 million times before Puth released it as a single. He has always loved deconstructing the music of his heroes; “I remember listening to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘You’re Missing’ and thinking that I didn’t love the sound of the snare drum. I thought if I produced it the snare drum would sound tighter.” Puth passionately cites Seals & Croft, the Bee Gees, Luther Vandross and other artists from the distant past that few other songwriters his age turn to for inspiration.

Don’t Repeat Yourself
After producing one of the best-reviewed pop albums of the year, Puth is already thinking about how to shake up his next album. “I don’t want it to sound like Voice­notes at all,” he says. “I am thinking about it. But I’m going to keep it in my brain.” He’s also open to working with outside producers. “The only way to grow and become better, and I’m still in the process of becoming better, is to work with people,” he says. “I’m never going to be stingy and pledge only to work with myself. People’s minds are extraordinarily different I wanted to be inspired by different people.”

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