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Charlie Puth is always listening to music — even when he doesn’t want to. “Sometimes I can’t sleep because there are car horns — there’s a G sharp,” the 26-year-old pop star tells EW. “I can identify any sound and it shows up as music in my head.”
Puth is once again putting that perfect pitch to use, this time on his R&B-infused sophomore album Voicenotes (out May 11). The project — a marked switch from his doo-wop inspired debut, Nine Track Mind — features him dabbling in genres ranging from disco to funk to late ’80s and early ’90s R&B. That music icons including James Taylor and Boyz II Men both appear on the album is a testament to Puth’s knack for crafting infectious melodies.
Ahead, the singer discusses his new record, performing at March for Our Lives, the magic of exploring different genres, and a few songs he’s been grooving to of late.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You went from the 1950s doo-wop style of “Marvin Gaye” to this cool, late 1980s groove in the single “Done for Me,” which is quite a change.
I had grown up playing jazz music — John Coltrane, Miles Davis — and I always wondered why those chord changes were so absent in Top 40 radio. I wanted to make a song like “Done for Me,” which doesn’t have the typical four-chord changes in pop. What pop song on Top 40 radio right now climbing the charts has a diminished chord as a second chord?! Then I hear the new Ariana Grande single, “No Tears Left to Cry,” and the chord changes in the verse are so interesting and not typical, and I just wanted to be part of that. In “Done for Me,” it’s a late ’80s synthesizer that takes the lead. It’s ambient, but danceable, at the same time.
You’ve collaborated with some of the biggest names in music (Wiz Khalifa, Selena Gomez). For Voicenotes you worked with James Taylor, Boyz II Men, and Kehlani. How did those duets come about?
My goal is to not fill my catalogue with duets. In the beginning it was about making a name for myself because I was literally nobody. I was really happy to join forces with established artists. Kehlani really added something to “Done for Me.” She made it more of a story. And I’ve always been a fan of Boyz II Men. On paper they are an R&B group, but they had numerous no. 1 songs and top 10 records that would reach non-R&B fans. It was easy to collaborate with them because I had grown up listening to them.
What about your collaboration with James Taylor on “Change”?
What was interesting is that James seemed to be more shy than me. I was walking in about to record with the guy [who’s] the reason that I do what I do. When I saw that he was anxious to get started and worried if he’d be able to deliver, I assured him he would. In the booth next to him, I got literal chills hearing his voice. He’s so, so talented and groundbreaking. He’s always been able to put his life into his music, something that I strive to do.
You performed “Change” at the gun control demonstration March for Our Lives. Did you write the song in response to the Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy?
“Change” was a song I had written prior to the march. I see what’s happening in America, with discussions around gun control. I would watch the news and these brave kids from Parkland and these mindless politicians hiding behind their words. I would see kids reciting lyrics from a song I had written a year prior, “We have to make a change, why can’t we all just get along?” I called my manager and said, “We have to get this song out. The world is calling for it.”
What would you say is the most personal song on Voicenotes?
There’s a song called “The Way I Am,” which is the first song that I completely wrote about me: my insecurities, anxieties, how I’ve reacted to fame — which seemed to hit me overnight — how I really am in person versus how I’m perceived. That’s the most personal song. What’s so funny is that it’s meant to be a fun song, but I was almost crying while writing it because it was so overwhelming. When it comes out, the world will know more about me, which is scary! Everyone thinks that because I’m famous and successful that nothing can go wrong. I’m just like everybody else. It’s about embracing individuality, and it’s showing that I’m not that different from the listener.
I’ve read about how you hear pitch in your head, and that you can occasionally get distracted by it.
It’s called absolute pitch. If you take a glass that’s half-filled with water, and you tap and it makes that sound we all know, well, I know that that’s a “G.” It’s like seeing the color red, and your brain knowing that that’s red. Everything in this world has a tone and I’m learning more and more every day how to shut if off when I don’t need it. The good thing is that it comes in handy when I’m producing a record.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Puth Playlist
Charlie Puth shares the songs he’s been listening to on repeat.
Tyler, the Creator —“OKRA”
“Tyler’s always pushing hip-hop. It’s almost, like, ironic hip-hop — that’s the best way I can describe it — the way that he produces all these records. Like, he purposefully will drag high hats too far to the right to make them off time but it still sounds like a vibe. In this song, the sounds are all over the place but it still feels really special.”
Kacey Musgraves — “Oh, What a World”
“Her new album [Golden Hour] is absolutely fantastic. It’s country music plus R&B, which is the best way I can describe it. The whole album is just a rollercoaster of sonic pleasure — especially this song. [She uses] the chord[s], B major, F sharp minor, E major. I just love the fact that she went to F sharp minor at that second chord on that chorus.”
Rich the Kid — “Plug Walk”
“I love the mix on this damn song. The 808 [drum machine] is not so in your face like it is in every hip-hop record on Spotify or Apple Music. The way that he cued it is really cool. It’s like tucked, and the high hats are really in the center of it — like a t t t, ch, ch, ch ch ch. [It’s] very simple.”
Jamiroquai — “Virtual Insanity”
“My whole thing on Voicenotes was to make an album that has rich chord changes on every song, and kind of prove that jazz doesn’t have to be jazz just ’cause it’s on a pop record. You can put little elements of jazz into a pop song and it can still be an approachable pop song. just like ‘Virtual Insanity’ was when it came out. It still is one of Jamiroquai’s best.”
Madonna — “Into the Groove”
[Singing] “‘Get into the groove, boy you’ve got to prove…’ I believe if you took this song and made it in 2018 with modern sounds, it would still be a hit. I miss records that you press play on and you’re just right in it. There’s no wavy intro, no sustained intro, just bam. It just starts — and that’s what I hope I did on Voicenotes. Bam, here’s the beat. That [same] sense of urgency is in this record.”
H.E.R. – “Focus”
“The reason I love this song is, as downtempo and vibey as it is, it has a lot of special chord changes that I’m trying to implement into my music too — great jazz chords in a pop song. It’s very smooth track.”
“I think it’s a really, really bold and different-sounding record. And he is an incredible producer/songwriter/artist overall. I just love that this record sounds like nothing else out right now.”
BlocBoy JB — “Rover”
“It’s actually a lot more intricate than people take it for. It’s fun and you can turn up to it, but I love how the mix is purposefully not perfect. I think it adds a lot to the record. It reminds me not to make the mix so unbelievably perfect at all times because people still want to relate to the song at the end of the day.”