Charlie Puth promises that he’s approachable. Maybe you read the interviews — in retrospect, he admits, he’s cringing at them too — and he found his debut album, Nine Track Mind, personally disappointing. But his new album’s spectacular single “Attention” is Voicenotes’s vision. Nine Track Mind was someone else’s idea of who Charlie Puth should be, and how he ought to sound. Voicenotes has ballads and classic R&B songs, presented in between sweaty make-out pop hits (the kind a summer romantic comedy ought to take advantage of immediately). There’s a song about an older lover who tells him he’s too young, right before a song asking a girl his own age to take it slow, a “Waiting on the World to Change”–like anthem about how we can make the changes ourselves. The album was inspired by Puth’s relationship to his own fame, he says, but he wanted it to be relatable to every single person imaginable.
“I speak about broad topics,” Puth says. He’s candid about the simplicity of his songs, and how they’re written in a certain way to reach the most listeners. He’s a music savant and a one-man focus group: “I’m not really reinventing the wheel lyrically. I have, You just want attention, How long has this been going on, What have you done for me, That’s just the way I am — these are sentences that people say,” he insists. “So my whole point in this album was to showcase the fact that I’m not that different than everybody else in this world. I go through heartbreak, I have major insecurities, I have a major amount of anxiety, just like everybody else. I’m trying to be the most approachable pop singer there is.” Puth talked to Vulture about Voicenotes, heartbreak, and exactly how hard it is to mix a hit song on a tour bus.
When did you start writing Voicenotes?
What’s interesting is that the 13th track — no one’s asked me this yet, you’re the first, congrats — the 13th track is actually the first song I had intended for the album, which is why it sounds completely different with a gospel string thing. It’s called “Through It All.” After “Attention” and “How Long” and “Done for Me” and “The Way I Am,” I was almost tempted to take that last song off the album. Voicenotes has taken so many different turns. I mean, we even changed the album cover. But I always had the intention of making an album where I’m writing about how fame has affected me.
How has fame affected you? In “The Way I Am,” you sing “Everybody wants to be famous, I’m just trying to find a place to hide.”
My idea of [who] I’m supposed to be got clouded for little while. I was saying stupid things in interviews. I thought I had to be a certain way to stay relevant, as messed up as that sounds. I just forgot that making music matters: making music that can speak to people, music that they can engage with matters the most. I don’t need to do all this other stuff that I was doing. I got caught up in the attention — no pun intended — but then I got back to my regular self. I know exactly who I am now, which is why I just put out a song called “The Way I Am.” I found out who I am, who I was, by the end of working on this album.
Can you tell me more about your growth as you worked on this music? Were there major turning points?
A major turning point was making a song like “Attention,” which set the stage for me musically. I’m very happy with the success of the first album, but it wasn’t me at all. I was trying to figure out who I was musically. I wrapped my heart around “Attention,” my whole personality was around that record. I knew I could feel comfortable traveling the world playing and showcasing that type of record. That record really started everything off for me.
So you think that you’re often perceived differently, as unapproachable in some way?
I think when people meet me they’re surprised. When I first came out on the scene, I had to artificially inflate my presence which was a bit off-putting, I think. People are just starting to find out that I’m a huge nerd, and I love producing music, and I love interesting little tidbits about older styles of music and how they cross over into new styles of music, and I think people are just finding out about my personality, whereas I was kind of bland before because the music was bland. It wasn’t me at all.
Do you feel at all embarrassed that? Or do you feel that it was a part of your journey that was necessary to get to this place?
It’s a part of my journey. I would be lying if I said it’s not going to be hard to put some of the older music into my new set. But I have to do it because people like that music. I mean, it’s not always about me. It’s about the people who buy tickets to my tour this summer — which is nearly sold out — and they’re excited to hear new music and old music that they made memories to a couple years ago. It’d be selfish of me to make it all about myself, so I truly believe that I’ll just make a different arrangement for them or something.
The creative autonomy on Voicenotes was important to you. Did you feel any pushback?
In my mind there was going to be a ton of pushback. Before “Attention” came out, I thought that the suits weren’t going to let me put out the music that I wanted. I thought they were going to make me put out just “One Call Away” part five, a record that I didn’t write. But the moment I presented “Attention” and “How Long,” they got it. I’m really thankful that they got it and they let me do my own thing. It was really just all in my head. I just had to give them the goods.
A lot of this album is really vulnerable. Which song was hardest to work on?
The most vulnerable one will be the simplest lyrically, and simplest everything, on the record. That’s “If You Leave Me Now,” with Boyz II Men. It’s very simple, and I know exactly who I’m singing about. (Which of course I would never say who, that’s just for me [to know.]) It’s more about people listening to the record, and putting their own story to it. But I’ll know who I’m singing about every time I’m on that stage. That hurts a lot, but I guess I have to be a little troubled to put the art out there.
Do you know if that person has heard the song?
I don’t know. I think I’m cool never knowing. I care more about other people hearing it, and how that spreads out.
Which song was the most difficult technically?
“How Long.” I had to mix the entire record on a tour bus with one broken speaker and basically guess if it was sounding good. I couldn’t really hear the bass, I couldn’t hear the high end because the speaker was literally broken. I mixed the entire record in the back of a tour bus. It was quite challenging.
You were in the back of a tour bus? Would you work on it between shows?
You have limited time between shows, that’s when I would be doing promos in between shows. It was absolute hell, and I’d want to get back on the bus as soon as possible to work out the record. I had this great idea in my head — I had a production of “How Long” all in my head, and it was just a matter of dissecting it and taking it out of my brain and putting it into the computer. I was at a disadvantage because, you know, when you’re in the back of the bus, you’re right on top of the motor. You hear a constant rumbling, and you can’t really hone in on a sound like you could in a studio. There’s a lot of guessing work, and you have to turn the AC off and it’s the middle of summer — that was a hard record to finish.
How do you choose who to collaborate with?
If I can just picture their voice on the song, it’s probably the right person to collaborate with. I can always guess singer’s range by remembering notes they’ve hit in previous songs of theirs. So, I think of Kehlani, I think of “You Should be Here,” and other works of hers where she hits a high A flat, let’s say. And I’ll think, Okay, “Done for Me” is in B minor, she can absolutely hit an A flat in a falsetto, and she doesn’t even need to do falsetto, she can do it in full voice. It’s very mathematical and technical and logistical to me, and she was the right singer for that song.
Hearing you kind of explain that is so intricate. Do you feel like you’re almost waiting for people to catch up to what you’re hearing in your head?
That’s why I really don’t collaborate with too many people. I’m very very impatient in all aspects, even outside of music, and it’s much better for me to go to the studio myself and just lay down the track and just work on the track myself. Then I can bring it to J Cash or John Ryan or other writers I like to collaborate with, and have them bring it to the finish line with me. I need to start the idea though, I can’t have someone else produce the record for me.
What do you think is most important in a relationship?
I like honesty, I like transparency, and I don’t like games. I’m a very matter-of-fact individual, which is why when I write these lyrics, these titles are just sentences. They’re not trying to be anything else than what they are. You read them and you know exactly what the song is about before even hearing it.
Does this feel like a Voicenotes-specific phase? Would you try for more layered lyrics next time?
It depends. I might make a country album next year, like, I don’t even know what’s next. I’m always just going with the vibe of my life and where I’m at. I wouldn’t have written Voicenotes if I hadn’t gone through what I was singing about. I can’t make that stuff up — I’m not a hypothetical writer, I actually have to go through this stuff. So if I’m singing about pain and heartbreak, I have to go through that many times — if it’s on multiple tracks, I have to go through it multiple times.
So when was the last time you had your heart broken?
I don’t know! You listen to the album, and it’s up to your interpretation.
This interview has been edited and condensed.