American Songwriter September Cover Story: Charlie Puth Unveils Most Personal Album Yet—“I’m Learning to Love the Imperfection”

Recording then looping a melody from a dream. Looping “cheesy” piano and bass with drums, then playing with the speed of the track. Explaining how cell phones typically vibrate in A-flat or the secret to layering three different vocals. The more obscure the sound, the more Charlie Puth is fascinated by it and will figure out a way to transform it, like the shriek of a minor-second fire alarm he processed into something sonically palatable. Navigating all his musical idiosyncrasies, Puth has positioned himself on TikTok, offering one-part comic relief and the other short, musical lessons. Continuing to slyly encourage viewers to make their music along the way, in front of his 18.2 million (and growing) TikTok followers, Puth even created a new song and later welcomed remixes of another track, while chronicling the making of his third and most personal album, Charlie.

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“It’s an album that’s about stuff I went through from 2019 through 2022,” shares Puth, “but it’s just as much about the listener as well, and me wanting to guide them to inspiration.”

On Charlie, Puth also put his usual template, from his 2016 debut, Nine Track Mind,and the follow-up Voicenotes, in reverse. This time, the lyrics came before the music. “I wanted to approach this album a little differently, where on Voicenotes it was all music first, lyrics after, and that’s usually how I write a lot of music for myself and for other artists,” says Puth, adding that when he wrote “Stay” for Justin Bieber and The Kid LAROI in 2021, he used the same format. “For this album, I had so much to say and throughout all the conversations that I had with myself, I was able to start with the lyrics first and then put the music on afterward.”

Pick up the latest issue of American Songwriter with Charlie Puth; Available now.

A recollection of personal entanglements and life experiences spanning a three-year timeframe, Charlieis the most candid album the singer-songwriter and producer says he’s ever produced.“The most important thing you can do as a songwriter is tell the truth, and I was telling the truth a little bit before, but now the cup is overflowing with truth on this album,” shares Puth, who says going into detail about his own personal experiences on Charliewassomething he was afraid to do on previous albums. 

“I’m a pretty private person,” adds Puth, “but I’m very open about the mistakes that I’ve made in the past in these new songs.”

Cracking Charlie open is a catastrophic love on the R&B, drum-drenched “That’s Hilarious,” flared up in lyrics, You took away a year / Of my fuckin’ life and I can’t get it back no more / So when I see those tears comin’ out your eyes / I hope it’s me they’re for. “I love musical dichotomies,” says Puth. “Lyrically, it’s about something very heavy that I went through, about how you can be manipulated and how love can make you do things that you never thought were possible. I would never have written a song like that years ago, but I always like to see the lighter side of things, regardless of how dense the subject matter is, so I put almost laughable ‘ha ha has’ into the song to balance out what I’m singing about.”

Elaborating on the dualities throughout Charlie, “That’s Hilarious” was recorded in half time with Puth generating snare drum sound from slapping two cylinders together. “It was like [imitates animated sound] ‘doink,’” he says. “It’s almost comedic, like when Wile E. Coyote bumped his head, and it went ‘doink,’ but it’s above these beautiful, padded out Rhodes chords, so you have beauty against this really annoying, almost ‘this should not belong here,’ type of snare drums.” 

Then Puth doused the track in even more drums. “The 808 [Roland drum machine] is the foulest 808 I’ve ever made, which is made to rumble any alpine system you have installed in your car,” he says. “Then, I had strings from an orchestra above the nasty 808, so that’s just one example of like how left and right things can be on this album. That’s the theme of the entire album: genre-bending and sounds that normally wouldn’t go together.”

Deconstructing then reconstructing the making ofCharlieinTikTok posts created a breeding ground of new music coming into Puth from all directions, as he documented the song- and music-making process, including the making of track “Left and Right,” featuring Jung Kook of BTS, and encouraged followers to share their own remixes of the song—receiving a Cantonese recreation and an acoustic rendition. “Why didn’t I think of that,” asked Puth on TikTok of the more stripped-back version.

“My whole thing was, I wanted people to listen to this album, and I wanted them to make their own album and realize that anybody can be a musician,” says Puth. “Anybody can write a No. 1 record. Anybody can write up a song and they don’t have to necessarily go to school or be a ‘musician.’ Music is everywhere. You just have to activate it.”

He adds, “I want people to listen to this and realize that they’re the activators. They can tap a pair of scissors and make a pretty steady hi-hat track that could actually work very well.”

Hoping to light a fire under prospective artists creates a cross-pollination of sounds and inspiration that Puth wants to see more of in music. “I don’t even look at it as competition, because I still don’t know how to do everything,” says Puth. “It would make me so happy if someone produced a massive song that reached millions of ears and is universally loved, and it was all because of something that I did on my album that they thought I could have done better. I want to be critiqued. I want people to be inspired by what I do, because I love that, and the 15-year-old me would have loved that.”

TikTok is successful, says Puth, because it allows users to be vulnerable. “There was a time when everybody was face-tuning the absolute hell out of their faces where you didn’t see the real person behind the filter. I don’t think it’s a popular option to use filters on TikTok, because people want to see the real person. I really do believe that it’s had a huge influence on how songs are written nowadays.”

For Puth, “Left and Right” was also born from a more technical place, listening to opposite ends of vocals recorded by The Beatles on their 1964 hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and 10th album Yellow Submarine. “On the vocals, they were very limited how they could record things, and they had eight tracks, and sometimes you would put the vocal on a hi-hat track, and sometimes it’d be on the immediate left side—you’d hear Paul McCartney sing only on the left side, and they’d stack his voice and then sometimes you’d only hear a couple things on the right side,” explains Puth. “I was really intrigued by how nobody puts a vocal to a song today like this when they can do everything under the sun. Why don’t people pan a vocal all the way to the left? I tried it and I know why: because it doesn’t sound good. So I thought to myself, ‘What if I put a vocal to the left and to the right.’” 

All the songs were ultimately crafted from Puth talking to himself. “I thought, ‘If I put a vocal to the left and to the right, maybe the song is called ‘Left and Right,’” he says. “I’m singing about how this person takes up every corner of my mind and [the word] mind is a loose rhyme with right, so it works when I sing it. When I say the words out loud, it doesn’t rhyme, but when I sang it in the shower, I was like, ‘I got it.’”

Dance-y “Light Switch” gives a more theatrical spin on Charlie, admits Puth, and features the actual sound of a light switch flicking on and off, which was recorded and posted on his Tik Tok page. “It’s a risky song to put out,” says Puth. “It’s almost quirky and maybe not the coolest song, but I think the fact that it’s not the coolest song makes it cool because that’s just me as a song. I’m not a cool person. I always thought I had to pretend to be someone I wasn’t, which is why there were so many songs on the second album that were genuine; the first album, I was still finding myself.”

Charlie is Puth at his most exposed, all while hunting relentlessly for the next sound. “The intentional thing I wanted to get across, sonically, was bending the idea that I could put, I call them expensive chord progressions, into my music,” says Puth. “My jazz background, I wanted to incorporate that into pop music, and you can hear that a lot on this album, but you can also hear very simplified chord progressions as well, so it’s like a black and white cookie.” 

After his 2016 hit “One Call Away” (off Nine Track Mind), Puth admits he was afraid to use the piano when writing for fear that it would sound like he was making the same song again. On Charlie, every song, with the exception of “Light Switch” and “Left and Right,” started out on the piano. 

“I sat down at the piano and thought, ‘OK, I don’t want this to be a piano sound, but I have written the entire chorus on the piano, so let’s go pick a new sound and figure out what could be different,’” remembers Puth. “There’s also a lot of synthesized guitar. One of my biggest regrets is not learning how to properly play the guitar, so I learned how to play realistic things on the piano that could also be played on guitar.”

Leading up to the release of Charlie, Puth previewed the formation of each single on TikTok. There were no musical secrets. Everything was left out in the open with Charlie. “It’s not about one singular song,” says Puth. “I’ve found it’s really just about the album as a whole.” 

Appearing on the Today show on NBC, Puth said Charliewas the “most me album” he’s made, but it doesn’t change the connection he has to his older songs.

“I still listen to them with joy, because it’s such a time period,” shares Puth. “I love the way songs like ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ still sound pretty modern. I’ve become a better sonic producer. I’ve become better at putting songs together, and there’s more headroom in my mixes now. I don’t need to slam it with compression so much. At the same time, I’m also less precious about things.”

Puth spent six months writing his Voicenotes hit, “Attention,” trying to perfect it but says it’s easier to accept more of the imperfections in a song now. “I think in this day and age where music moves so quickly, you don’t really have time to say, ‘I didn’t hit that G-sharp perfectly. I better tune that up.’ I let a lot of things go now, but it still sounds very well thought out.”

In his more advanced musical stage, Puth still says there’s nothing he would touch on either of his first two albums. I would never do anything over because it reminds me of where I was,” he says. “I had a really bad deviated septum: a couple of years ago, so I got the inside of my nose fixed, and it widened my voice a lot and made it better.” Puth’s 2018 nasal surgery resulted in a perfect pitch singing voice. “I hear my voice with the deviated septum I used to sing like this,” jokes Puth, speaking in a hoarser voice.

“I do have perfect pitch, but I am now not so upset if I don’t hit the note correctly,” says Puth. “I listened to Tapestry by Carole King, where with every song one is better than the next. No offense to her, but it’s not like she was the most on-pitch every time, but it’s those moments where she may have went a little sharp or flat to meld with the musicians that made it very distinct and memorable. If it’s too perfect, it’s like a robot. I’m learning to love the imperfection.”

Continuously expanding the library of music in his head, Puth listens to everything, from Luther Vandross’ 1988 album, Any Love, to even some early aughts nu metal. “I listen to everything,” he says. “In order to do what I do, I have to listen to everything, so I listened to Tapestry yesterday, and the day prior was Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water [2000] by Limp Bizkit. I’m fascinated with that album, and in the early 2000s when combining hard rock with pop was controversial at the time. I really don’t think there would be a Marshall Mathers [Eminem] today without the pop influence of Fred Durst. You have to listen to everything.”

The exploratory nature of creating music is something Puth says has helped him work through overthinking and other personal struggles. “When you have social anxiety like me, you’re always thinking about what the party is going to look like, thinking, ‘I’ve been to this backyard before. There’s a swing over there that I can sit on,’” reveals Puth. “You think about what the party is going to look like but then you get there and all the furniture is rearranged, and they took out the grass to be more water-conscious and replaced it all with pebbles. I can’t overthink, ‘Now what am I going to do?’ I sit down and live life and whatever drops into my head I will take note of it.”

Another song spinning around Puth’s head, is the Charlie track “Tears On My Piano,” inspired by the time he saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Giants Stadium (now MetLife Stadium) in New Jersey in 2008. At the time, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011 at the age of 69, was still alive and everyone was singing along to his solo on the band’s nearly 10-minute Born to Run closing track “Jungleland.”

“He was playing the saxophone solo and all of the audience was singing along to ‘Jungleland’ and there were no lyrics on it,” says Puth. “I thought to myself, ‘One day I want to make a song where people sing along to the actual instrument that’s being played,’ and when you listen to ‘Tears On My Piano,’ there’s a melody played on the piano, funny enough, and it’s directly mirrored to the melody of the chorus, so people can sing the chorus melody, and they can sing the piano melody.”

When he spoke to Springsteen recently, Puth didn’t share the story of “Tears On My Piano” and his lingering aspiration to create something like their 1975 song. 

“I never want to inconvenience anybody by telling them my dreams,” says Puth. “I was gonna tell him. … I’ll tell him about it someday.”

Check out Charlie on the latest cover of American Songwriter Magazine, available now.

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