A few years after being discovered by Ellen DeGeneres on YouTube, he’s got a No. 1 smash (the Furious 7 ballad “See You Again“), a rising duet (“Marvin Gaye,” with Meghan Trainor), and one trendsetting eyebrow.
EW: What was it like to get a phone call from Ellen?
CHARLIE PUTH: I was a sophomore at Berklee College of Music, and I thought it was a joke. Then they called again and were like, “No, it’s really the Ellen show! We’d love for you to come out and sing [his cover of Adele’s “Someone Like You”].” So I did and was signed to her label. I got to be in front of 15 million people, and it’s ultimately how Atlantic Records found me—because someone just happened to be watching the show that day. It’s pretty cool.
Pretty cool you got to go back just a few years later to perform “See You Again.”
I’ve never been so not-nervous to perform on the show. I went there and it was just like a big happy family. I know all the producers—it was just fantastic.
Speaking of, let’s talk about the Wiz Khalifa collab “See You Again,” which pays tribute to the late Paul Walker.
I produced the song with DJ Frank E, and he’s known for writing huge pop hits. We didn’t know each other, [but] we wrote the hook in, like, 10 minutes. What was interesting was that we were writing the song for Paul, but we didn’t tell each other that we had both lost somebody recently. It was pretty powerful. The moment we finished it, we hugged. We were like, “You’re my bro forever!” … We sent it to Wiz, and he put down his rap on it and made the whole thing shine. He put the little bow on it.
But we just wanted to write a record for Paul [Walker] because the whole world, still, is mourning. And they didn’t have a song up until that point to celebrate his life with and now they do—and we do with our own personal experience.
So you didn’t meet Wiz until after he had already done his verses?
Yeah, can you believe that? We were recording in completely different parts of the world. But I got to meet him when I went to rehearse for Jimmy Fallon—he’s really awesome because he’s such a performer. He’s so chill and I used to be a pretty nervous performer, up until a few months ago. I was like, “Yo, Wiz, I’m worried I’m not going to sound good on Fallon, do you have any words of advice?” And he was like, “Yo, we’re going to do it again and again if you mess up. Don’t worry.”
And what’s crazy is that Wiz texted me yesterday and said that when he was writing his part he related from his personal life to what I had written. He didn’t go into detail but it’s pretty powerful knowing that a guy that I’ve looked up to in the hip-hop community is writing that to me.
You’ve also penned songs for stars like Jason Derulo, Trey Songz, and Pitbull. What was it like when you first started hearing people recording your words?
It was surreal. The first person that I ever heard sing a song I wrote was Jason Derulo. I was in the studio when he was doing it, and I mean, I’ve heard that guy’s voice my whole life. When he was singing words I wrote, I started kind of choking up, but I tried to be all manly and puff my chest up and be all “Yeah, it’s not a big deal.”
The “See You Again” music video has close to 108 million plays on YouTube. Have you started getting recognized yet?
[Laughs] I took an Uber last night and the driver just stared at me, so I was like, “Is there anything wrong?” And he was like, “No, man, you’re a great singer. I really look up to you!” And he didn’t even turn on the meter!
You had a cameo in Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband” video and she asked to sing on “Marvin Gaye.” Do you think she’s trying to tell you something?
[Laughs] Well, it didn’t happen in that order. We actually met at a party in the Hollywood Hills, and I played her a very early demo version of “Marvin Gaye” and she memorized the song and sang it in the studio a week later…. She’s taken me on and introduced me to her fans—they call themselves the Megatrons, and they’ve kind of adopted me.
So do you have your own fan-group name yet?
I actually didn’t name them, but they came up with “Supporters of Charlie Puth,” and they narrowed it down to “SupPuthers,” and then it became just “Puthers.” It’s crazy because I have a scar on my right eyebrow, but people who don’t know me very well think that I just intentionally shave that part of it. So now I see people on Twitter shaving that part of their eyebrow and saying, “I’m a Puther for life!” and I’m like, “Oh, goodness! I hope your mom doesn’t get mad at you.”
When I first heard “Marvin Gaye” I thought I had missed something—that people were actually using his name as a verb for getting in on—turns out it was all you. Where did that come from?
This is a true story, first day in California, I went to a coffee store and I started tapping my feet to the drumbeat of what would be “Marvin Gaye.” And when I was producing it it just sounded like this groovy, danceable song—I wasn’t even thinking “Marvin Gaye” but I was like, “It sounds like a sex song!” Obviously, Marvin Gaye has a song called “Let’s Get It On” so it just became, “Let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on.” It just fell out of me.
How many weird messages have you gotten from friends about wanting to Marvin Gaye since the song came out?
[Laughs] Well I get some interesting messages sometimes, but I’m fine with that. [Laughs] I actually get a lot of messages with people saying, “What’s a Marvin Gaye?” and, I mean… oh, wow. I must be getting old, because someone who was born in 2004 just asked me what a Marvin Gaye was.
An edited version of this interview ran in Entertainment Weekly issue #1362, on stands Friday, April 24.