Perfectly Pitched For Success - Charlie Puth

Every now and then, someone is born with an exceptional innate talent that, even at a young age, beckons them along a special path in life.
Charlie Puth, a 21-year-old singer and songwriting sensation from Rumson, is one of those special people from right here in Monmouth County. Puth is gifted with the rare ability to identify musical notes and pitches, known as having absolute or “perfect” pitch. His utilization of it began when he starting playing the piano at a young age, and progressed as he studied classical jazz and performed at the Count Basie Theatre and Manhattan School of Music.
Now a senior at the Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts, Puth catapulted onto the national stage in 2011 when he and his classmate, Emily Luther, won a Perez Hilton cover contest for their duet of Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Puth had sold songs and maintained an internet presence before the cover, but the video of it, which currently has more than 17 million views on YouTube, was the catalyst for the growth of his current fan base.
While Puth attended high school, he harnessed his musical talents and began to grow out of his self-admitted introverted comfort zone. It’s almost unfathomable that a charming, talented musician with a world of aptitude, more than 300,000 followers on YouTube and a personal phone number to interact with random fans, was timid and withdrawn just a few years ago.
At his house in Rumson, in a family room with the piano he plays in his free time, Charlie Puth shared with Living in Media the story of how he has grown from shy solo piano player to brilliant musician with interactive internet success.

LIM: Did you grow up in Monmouth County?
CP: Yes. This house was just finished, but I’ve always lived in Rumson. I attended Holy Cross, and then Forrestdale in 7th grade.

LIM: At what point did you start getting into music?
CP: That piano’s not here anymore, but I knocked my first tooth out on our piano. That was just me, in my four year old body, wanting to go up and hit the notes, but I only stood about three feet tall and I knocked my first tooth out. But I wanted to keep playing the instrument. I even said it very professionally just like that. It just felt very natural. I started played when I was four, and I have not stopped ever since.

LIM: What was so alluring about the piano?
CP: My mom played all the time. My dad doesn’t play any instruments, but he would show me different sounding music that you wouldn’t show a toddler, like James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett and The Carpenters. What was interesting about the music selection that my mom and dad picked for me to listen to was that it was very dense and chord heavy, I would take this complicated music into my head, and then later learn how to play it just from hearing it on the piano.

LIM: You didn’t have to see the notes?
CP: I can read music, but not really well. I’d rather hear the song and then play it back. It’s called having absolute pitch or perfect pitch.

LIM: Is that something innate, or did you develop that?
CP: I don’t want to boast about it, but it’s something that’s very rare. It’s allowed me to arrange music really quickly just because I don’t have to really learn it. I just hear it and then it’s under my fingers. I think I’ve always had it, but I discovered it when I was 11 years old.

LIM: Did you learn more about it at the Manhattan School of Music?
CP: No. I went to Manhattan School of Music because I had finished my studies at Count Basie Theatre. I was in a cool jazz program there, and I wanted to go even further with my jazz piano playing, so I went to New York City every Saturday for five years, from 7th grade to the end of senior year of high school.

LIM: What made you want to pursue jazz?
CP: My hobbies when I was that age were collecting Pokémon cards and watching TV, normal kid stuff. For some reason, I always knew music was going to be it for me. I knew at a very young age. It wasn’t so much a hobby as it was preparing myself for the future. And even though I was an immature 10 or 11 year old, I still had that mature mindset that my parents engraved in me. They would say, “You need to prepare for the future. If you don’t, you’re going to fail and live in a box in Hoboken!” And I didn’t want that to happen, although Hoboken is nice. Maybe a Restoration Hardware box would be nice. But, really, I knew I wanted to pursue music, and I wanted to be around even better musicians. Not that there weren’t great musicians at Count Basie, but I wanted to be around a level
of playing to match mine at that age. I went Saturday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., so it was kind of like a job, except it was in Russian a conservatory where my hands would be slapped.

LIM: What was the curriculum?
CP: It’s a pre-college program. It was all music, no liberal arts or anything like that. I studied jazz and classical studies as a minor.

LIM: Was it difficult to manage that and your regular school work?
CP: I honestly looked forward to it. I remember being at a school dance in 8th grade and thinking, “I hate this. I feel so awkward. I just cannot wait to go to Manhattan School of Music tomorrow.” But then I got this crazy rush of endorphins and I said, “You know what, I’m just going to go up and ask this girl to dance, because I’m so excited to go to Manhattan School of Music tomorrow.” And that’s exactly how that went down. I really looked forward to going.

LIM: Did you play in concerts or competitions there?
CP: They had required juries, which I never looked forward to. They had some very neurotic teachers grading you. I had some jazz showcases that I played in, which were fun. I’m fine performing now because I have to do it a lot, but back then I was so scared to play the piano in front of 10 people, including family. I did some performing at the Count Basie Theatre too, but I did more at the Manhattan School of Music. My teachers would always get mad at me because they had sheet music that I would have to read, but I would just listen to the record and play it the way that Bill Evans played it. I would play "All the Things You Are" in three different keys and do all these modulations. They got so mad at me one day, and I told them it was making it sound better. And they couldn’t deny that.

LIM: That sounds a lot like a scene from the movie August Rush about a child music prodigy. Have you seen that movie? Can you relate to it?
CP: I’ve seen it, but I think that kid was a genius. Most people say if you have perfect pitch that you see music with colors, like b-flat would be purple or something. I don’t see it like that. The easiest way I can translate it to other people is it’s like studying for a vocabulary test, and you just memorize the words. The memory of what the notes sound like is just engraved in my head. I’ve written melodies from chairs squeaking before. In 8th grade I remembered that chairs squeaked like this [makes squeaking noise], and I translated it to the pitches that it would project, and wrote one of my songs from that.

LIM: At what age did you start singing?
CP: Really late. I was afraid to sing at talent shows, just because I was scared to get up there and what people would think. So I went to
YouTube, and I got confidence from people around the world. I started with a small audience. People from Nicaragua would say, “Oh, you’re a pretty good singer, keep it up!” So I got confidence from people outside of school. I put my first singing video up in sophomore year of high school, and it was so bad. I was so insecure that I recorded the song and then lip synched over it. It was "You Can Close Your Eyes" by James Taylor, which I ended up doing a cover with my brother Stephen. He has a good voice too.

LIM: How did you feel when you received the positive feedback?
CP: I was still afraid to perform in front of people. I could do it, but was still really nervous. I’d have hot flashes and throw up in the bathroom, but I’d be able to get up on stage.

LIM: Why were you so nervous? You’re a very talented musician.
CP: I used to be incredibly insecure. I was kind of bullied a little bit in grade school because, I guess, I was a little different than everybody else. I was outgoing, but at the time very introverted. In a social situation I was comfortable in, I would be myself. But if I didn’t like it, I would just say, “Don’t talk to me.” There was no middle ground. But the only way I could get over that was by writing my little tunes on my little piano. I think I got my first production piano at 11 years old. It was either the dining room table or the piano, and my parents went for the piano for me. I always say to myself when I get my first hit song, I want to buy my parents a room full of dining room tables.

LIM: So writing music was an escape for you?
CP: Absolutely. It’s kind of sad, but I only used to really have one friend. He was the best. His name was Kyle. We would make rap songs about all the people who made fun of us. It was kind of therapeutic in a way. That was my first instance of producing music, like laying down a beat and putting a piano over it. That’s how I got into that scene: from the bullies. So now I’ve turned a negative situation into a positive situation that can pay rent.

LIM: Why did you decide to go to Berklee?
CP: They offered me a full scholarship, which was a big reason. And it’s a pretty amazing school. Manhattan School of Music is a wonderful conservatory, and I was really going to go there for college. It was either there, Juilliard, or Berklee. I felt like I had learned so much from the classical and jazz aspect of things and I wanted to be listenable to a common audience. I wanted to translate what I learned at Manhattan School of Music to a contemporary pop field, so that’s what I started doing freshman year. I came into Berklee as a jazz pianist but I wanted people to listen to my original music, so I put jazz elements in all my original stuff. You can’t tell that it’s jazz, but it’s interesting that I have such a young fan base of teens and I throw some complicated jazz at them. I’m trying to expose my audience to different sounding music that isn’t stuff you hear on the radio. That’s what I think I’ve accomplished at Berklee, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that anywhere else, I don’t think.

LIM: Did you have any original music on iTunes before you started college?
CP: Yes. I put my first independent thing up on iTunes when I was a senior in high school. That was when I started to gain a little bit of confidence. I was known as the musician in the school at the time. So I completely freaked out when my teacher brought in her iPod one day. I asked her what she was doing. She said, “Oh nothing.” Yes, it was a big deal when I put my first song out on iTunes, but it was such a bad song and she put it on. I walked out. I died, and then I walked back in and everybody clapped. I guess everyone liked it since they bought it.

LIM: What song was it?
CP: I don’t even remember the name of it, to be completely honest with you.

LIM: Your first song? Come on.
CP: OK, I remember it, but I don’t want to say. It was this sappy love song. It was recorded in GarageBand on my Mac with an awful microphone. It was so bad. Thinking of it right now is giving me a bad taste, and I haven’t even eaten anything yet today.

LIM: How did you learn to market yourself?
CP: By watching other YouTubers, and not only musicians. I would watch the way they interacted with the camera. I got known on YouTube by making music for free for some popular YouTubers. I would hit them up and ask them if they needed a theme song for their show, and tell them I would do it for free. And then they liked it, gave me credit in their video, and then everyone came to my channel. Then I started making money by asking other YouTubers, “Hey, this famous YouTuber has my theme song. Do you want one also for $50?” Then I would buy my own pair of RayBan sunglasses, and I would say, “I bought these by myself!”

LIM: How much guidance and support did your parents give you while you were growing up and building your career?
CP: They were always supportive, especially in the torment stage. If there was a bully at school, my mom would drive over their house and talk to them. My dad did the same thing. They’ve always been 110 percent supportive of the music stuff. The internet stuff, they were a little so-so about at first. I used to do live streams of me playing music, and they would say, “What are you doing? People are going to see where you are in a small town.” But they never stopped me from pursuing it.

LIM: You did a cover with Emily Luther that really took your presence to the next level. How did you meet Emily?
CP: I met her in my Harmony class in Berklee. I had known her for a couple of years, and I knew she had a brilliant voice, and I said, “Wait a second, why have I never done a cover with you? Let’s do one!” She agreed. She has an unbelievable voice, and that blend, with my arrangement, landed us on the front page of two years ago, when we covered Adele’s “Someone Like You.”

LIM: How did you learn to produce songs?
CP: The [production] programs can be pretty complex. I got my first Pro Tools computer in 8th grade, and that was easy because I just plugged the piano into the computer to record it. Then I got my first iMac later, which was great and I recorded everything on that. I wasn’t ever really taught any of that stuff. It was all self-taught. I would watch YouTube videos, like, “How to power up Pro Tools,” and “Why does my computer catch on fire every time Pro Tools comes on?”

LIM: Did you understand how big of a hit the song was going to be?
CP: I knew it was going to be big just because it sounded so good. I uploaded it on a Sunday night because I knew everyone was going to be on their computer. I was looking for that big spike. A video doesn’t gradually get more popular. Videos like Robin Thicke’s had that huge spike and then just blew up. I was looking for that huge spike, and I saw that when I woke up the next morning. I saw that it had 99,000 hits. That’s usually what I get in a week, not in 16 hours. So that was insane. Everyone wrote me, and told me I was on Ryan Seacrest’s website, and I knew it was a golden one.

LIM: And then you won the Perez Hilton cover contest for that song.
CP: Yes. Perez and I are still very friendly, and it started from the cover competition.

LIM: What were your emotions like when you found out you won?
CP: I was really happy that I was finally getting recognition for a song that I didn’t write. I was thankful for Adele actually allowing us to sing it on national television, because she had never approved other people to sing it on TV before. I was happy to get recognition from artists that I listened to, and from big record labels. It was because of Perez pushing the video that that happened, so I really owe a lot to him.

LIM: Have you worked with any famous musicians?
CP: Yes. I’ve worked with Livingston Taylor, and I’m doing a couple of songs for him right now. He’s a really good friend. I record so much pop music that sometimes it’s nice to work on an older style, Martha’s Vineyard-sounding music. I get ear fatigue listening to pop all the time. I learned a lot from listening to James Taylor, so I understand Livingston’s sound as well.

LIM: How much do you enjoy writing your own music?
CP: If I do too many cover songs, I feel like a cover artist at a bar. I don’t want that. I usually do one cover song, and then I do more originals, just because it feels more like me. The cover song is going to get more attention than the originals, unless I ever get to Bruno Mars status, which I don’t know if that will ever happen, but I use the cover songs to get people’s attention and lure them in to watch my original stuff.

LIM: Do you perform any local concerts now?
CP: I travel a lot and am more of a songwriter and producer. So I don’t perform a lot, but when I do it’s usually at venues around Berklee. Sometimes I’ll tweet out a surprise concert and it sells out, and that makes me feel very happy.

LIM: Do you have a band or play solo?
CP: At my last show I had a bass player and a drummer. They are both really good. I like when I don’t have to put so much effort into the piano aspect because I know the back musicians are also carrying the sound.

LIM: Where does your songwriting inspiration come from?
CP: Just my surroundings. One time I was in Newport Beach, California, and I was so astounded by the sunsets. I was driving on the Pacific Coast Highway, and I had never seen the sun so bright as there. It was just incredible. Just seeing that, and the warmth and everything, something happened that made me write three songs immediately. I am not like some starving musician who can write a great song while they are cold and freezing. I need to be in a robe, take a bath, something like that. Things that make me happy, like food, inspire me. Eating at Chili’s will make me happy. That, and listening to other music too. Really, that’s how music progresses.
There’s this new 80s sound that’s popular right now, but it’s all from Madonna, Marvin Gaye and old records like that. New music is never made from someone saying they’re going to make new music, and it’s going to be this or that. It all evolves.

LIM: What’s your process for writing music?
CP: I rarely ever write music notes down. It all comes from my head. I’ll think of a melody, and say, “Ok that’s going to be the most interesting part of the song,” and then record it on my iPhone. That melody usually becomes the chorus, and then I think about what chords could go under it. I try to do it without the piano, so that way when I get to the piano it’s extra special because I have it all worked out in my head. Then I do the verse, the chords, and then I put a bridge in, and that’s the song. Then I ask myself what the song   sounds like, and write lyrics to it. Nothing really that complicated, it’s just how my brain works.

LIM: How have you pitched songs to various artists?
CP: I’ve only been doing that for about a year. I’ll call my lawyer up and ask him if he knows anyone I could get a certain song to. And he’ll tell me someone who is artists and repertoire or manager of an artist, and I’ll just knock on their door and ask them to listen to a song. And if they don’t like it, I’ll tell them I’ll come back and get them a better one.

LIM: You go physically to their houses?
CP: E-mail is great, but then they wouldn’t see this beautiful personality. I remain persistent. They set me up with sessions and it’s been on ongoing process. Now I have the attention of some producers that are responsible for millions of records sold, so that’s exciting.

LIM: How have you managed to travel and work on your musical career while attending college, and graduate a semester early?
CP: Brown-nosing. [laughs] No, turning in the assignments on time. As much as I want to say sometimes, “I’m doing so much more important stuff, I don’t care about the art of the Renaissance,” you can’t look at it that way, because it’s just a bunch of negative energy that you’re expelling and the professors are going to look at it the same way. So I’m very respectful to my professors and mindful of the work I have. I’ll graduate one semester early because I tested out of some classes early.

LIM: When will you finish college?
CP: On December 20. I think they push us as close to Christmas as possible because they like to make you as upset as possible. I’ll walk in May.

LIM: Why do you have an interactive phone number for fans to text you?
CP: I do that because I think it’s fun to interact with the fans. Right now I have about 3,000 texts to go through over the last few days. When fans are supporting me and buying my music, I feel like I kind of owe it to them, because they’re the ones who allow me to do what I like to do. They’re the ones who are showing up to my shows, so I owe them a surprise phone call. I also use it as a marketing thing, because when you get a membership to my music club, you get my personal phone number.

LIM: How does that make you feel, knowing you’re so young but you have this large following?
CP: Nervous. I don’t want to mess it up. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m not committed to all my videos. I want to make everything better every time. I’m even looking into getting a full-time production crew because I’m not great with cameras.

LIM: Did you consider auditioning for American Idol, or any show like that when you were younger?
CP: I did. When I was still afraid to sing in front of people I went on America’s Got Talent and I beat-boxed in front of the judges. I was 15, so it was before the YouTube stuff was really happening. I felt better doing that because it wasn’t singing. I also played the piano but the judge said, “I really want to hear you sing.” My dad was required to be there with me at the Javits Center in New York, and he was telling me, “Just sing. We drove three hours to get here!” But I couldn’t do it, and I regretted it ever since. So I made a promise to myself that I would always be ready to sing a song.

LIM: Did that serve as motivation for you?
CP: Absolutely. I was picturing people laughing, saying, “You can’t do this.” And I then I would say to myself, “Yes I can!”

LIM: What is your ultimate goal for your music career?
CP: I want to be someone who writes so many hits for artists that when I decide I want to completely pursue a solo career I’ll have written a ton of hit songs and be able to be successful. That would be my crazy dream goal.

Favorite Restaurant Undici
Favorite Musicians James Taylor and John Mayer
Favorite Movie Naked Gun
Pet Peeve Disingenuous people
People I’d like to Dine With John Mayer, Donald Trump, and my deceased grandfather

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01 Jun 2015

By Paul Williams