BALTIMORE SUN – Top 40 radio fans might not know Charlie Puth by name.
But chances are good they know the 24-year-old’s wistful falsetto, thanks to his scene-stealing feature on Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again,” a surprise, quadruple-platinum hit from last year’s “Furious 7” soundtrack. The single hit No. 1 all around the world, topped the Billboard singles chart for a dozen weeks and earned more than 1.5 billion views on YouTube. In the process, Puth’s star rose.
More than a year after the song’s release, Puth — who headlines Rams Head Live on Saturday — still hears stories from fans about its lasting impact.
“I met a kid today whose dad passed away, and he sang it at his funeral. That’s the most touching thing I’ve ever heard,” Puth said on the phone last week as his tour bus traveled through Louisville, Ky. “Everybody puts their own special spin onto it.”
Fame for Puth — who released his debut full-length album, “Nine Track Mind,” in January — is still new. Like other artists his age, Puth utilized YouTube early on, posting acoustic cover songs like Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which caught the attention of Ellen DeGeneres. After performing on her talk show, Puth’s profile grew, leading the New Jersey native to sign with Atlantic Records.
Puth’s first single, the oversexed “Marvin Gaye” featuring Meghan Trainor, and “See You Again” proved Puth a capable collaborator with pop singers and rappers alike. The key to a fruitful collaboration, he said, is to add just enough of his personal touch to the other artist’s sound.
“If I’m working with someone who has more of a rock background and I don’t have a rock background, I’ll not totally impose [all of] my jazz knowledge on there,” Puth, who graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 2013, said. “I’ll just throw it in a little bit, because [I] don’t want to make a jazz record or a hip-hop record if I’m working with Nickelback or something.”
Puth has taken to working with rappers. Along with Wiz, Puth has songs with Lil Wayne (“Nothing But Trouble”), Wale (“Marvin Gaye (Remix)”) and Tyga (“One Call Away (Remix)”). Puth said he’s eager to find common ground with hip-hop artists early on, so he’ll break the ice by sharing some of his rap knowledge, like mentioning his love of the legendary producer J Dilla.
More than anything else, Puth said he appreciates the ability of many rappers to figure out lyrics and vocal melodies on the spot. It’s a process he often applies to his own writing because, more often than not, initial ideas are the ones that stick.
“I love working with these guys in the studio,” he said. “They just go right to the mic, have the track and spit whatever comes to mind. … The first thing is probably the best thing.”
While Puth’s songs typically incorporate modern production touches and contemporary artists, he also has a knack for old-fashioned ballads. Puth knows how specific chord changes resonate with listeners, and how their timing can create captivating moments.
When asked what quality all great ballads share, Puth perked up, unable to suppress the studied music pupil still inside a burgeoning pop star.
“Ahh, the power of the ballad? Like when David Foster, one of my idols, would write stuff like ‘All by Myself’ with a crazy modulation of four steps that you never saw coming when the last chorus comes in?” Puth said, voice slightly rising. “That stuff is chill inducing. You can never beat a power ballad.”
Puth remains on tour for the majority of the year, but that hasn’t slowed down his writing. The day “Nine Track Mind” came out, he was already working on new songs for himself and other artists. Rather than describe the direction of the material, Puth offered clues through his personal playlist.
“I’ll let you kind of figure it out from what I’ve been listening to — a lot of Majid Jordan. A lot of Simon and Garfunkel,” he said. “Anything that is that mixture.”
It doesn’t take a music historian to realize the mixture he’s describing does not yet exist. The former is a relatively new Canadian R&B duo with a house streak and a Drake co-sign. The latter is one of folk’s greatest songwriting teams. For Puth, the challenge — and the triumph — is proving even the most left-field juxtapositions can work.
“That’s the best type of record — the record that tricks the brain,” he said.