Something is very wrong with Barney. Charlie Puth holds up his iPhone to show off the most roided-out, nightmare-inducing purple dinosaur you’ve ever seen: veins popping up across his pecs and biceps, a full 10-pack on display. Before I can get a good look, though, Puth swipes to the next image — this one a random photo of Charleston Chews strewn across a counter. After that comes a close-up of a bread pudding from Magnolia Bakery. Then a blurry shot of a turtle.
Welcome to Charlie Puth’s dating profile.
“I just want whoever sees that to be like, ‘Oh, I get his humor,’ more than, ‘I want to match with him because I know him,’” the singer-songwriter-producer says. We’re sitting in the atrium of his TriBeCa hotel, which he entered clutching an espresso martini. Now a few sips in, he’s shepherding me through his account on Raya, where his approach there is less careful curation than data dump. At 30, Puth’s not interested in presenting himself as anything he’s not. Not on the apps, where his idea of thirst trap is a scrunched-up selfie that lends him half a dozen extra chins. Not in the studio, where he’s learned over the years that he can’t be anything but extremely, obsessively hands-on. Not even in this interview, during which he will insist I take note of the fact that he is eating his Caesar salad with his fingers, leaf by leaf. “I don't want to waste anybody's time,” he says, “and I don't want anybody to waste my time.”
That wasn’t always the case. At first, Puth took a dutiful path to stardom: attending Berklee College of Music; uploading viral YouTube covers that got him on Ellen; releasing two R&B-pop albums — 2016’s Nine Track Mind and 2018’s Voicenotes — that he says he’s only 20% and 60% proud of, respectively. Artistic compromises were made, he explains. (“I was being told, ‘Don't sing that, you're a white guy, you're going to be perceived as reaching.’”) In 2019, he started to roll out a third album, but none of the singles made it to the Billboard Hot 100. Even Elton John told him the tracks sucked.
Looking back, Puth thinks he was still too deferential — to trends, to big-name collaborators he thought knew better than he did. “The musical climate of things changed, songs that worked 10 years ago wouldn't necessarily work today,” he says. Trying to keep up was eating at him. “[It] made me feel pretty shitty about my musical performance and how I wasn't as big as fucking Harry Styles.” It didn’t help that he was going through what he calls a “vicious” breakup at the time: “It was like a big ice cream cone with two scoops of shit.”
So he scrapped the album he was making and decided to take a step back — just as the pandemic hit. Some find healing in therapy, others in their place of worship. The altar at which Puth found relief during this time was TikTok, where his irreverent and charmingly raunchy videos have perhaps been more of a boon for his public image than any of his prior hits. “The internet saved my life in 2003, and it saved my life in 2020,” he says. Puth had come of age on music-production forums and early meme factories like eBaum’s World, and he attacked TikTok with the same enthusiasm. Today, 16.5 million followers can watch as he Auto-Tunes users’ burps or shares videos of butterflies having sex.
“He is a savant so his mind thinks in all kinds of out-of-the-box ways,” says Katy Perry, who’s worked with Puth on songs like “Small Talk” and “Harleys in Hawaii.” “Which is really fun to watch, because it’s not the same old thing when you scroll. His sense of humor is so weird, which is why we get along so well.”
If you took the instrumental only of my music, I want people to almost get turned on by the frequency.
On TikTok, he has developed two signature shticks that prove being a goofy shitposter and a musical prodigy are not mutually exclusive — in fact, they probably feed each other. In one, Puth, who has perfect pitch, will identify the notes in a variety of everyday sounds: his car turning on, a guitar falling over, a dog barking. In the other, he’ll take fans inside his creative process, building songs around instrumental ideas and random sounds. He begins those videos with what has since become his catchphrase: “What if there was a song that started off like…” Both bits are kind of dorky, kind of self-congratulatory — the embodiment of “weird flex but OK” — and totally capture what it’s like to be in a room with him. “Charlie in the studio is a beast because it’s almost like he can totally understand what you’re thinking and interpret it as a sound or emotion, even if you have a challenging time describing it, because he is so musically inclined,” Perry says. “He just has so much access to so much music and will approach it in a road-less-traveled way.”
His TikTok bits also invite plenty of good-natured mockery, which Puth doesn’t mind. “What works really well for The Weeknd, only works for him and like two other artists. Me, I need to really show my personality off,” Puth says. “I wasn't doing that because I was surrounding myself with producers and record label heads who were like, ‘You are a massive act. You need to go away and work on your art for a while.’ The pandemic made me realize that I have to not only not do that, but the opposite of that. I need to show every step of the process.”
Puth is wearing a hoodie and a trucker hat from the Lower East Side bar Ray’s. He went there the night before and says the bartender flipped him off after he asked for Tito’s and soda with an orange slice. (“I’m so used to hotels,” he says.) So he knows he’s not for everyone. But Puth would rather you laugh at him or even give him the finger than simply not see him. “I would be more offended if somebody opens up my TikTok and they have no opinion about it, if they were indifferent. I want them to be either very angry about it or in love with it.”
If there’s one thing Puth might like talking about more than music, it’s sex. For him, the two are intertwined. “This is a really weird sentence, but if you took the instrumental only of my music, I want people to almost get turned on by the frequency,” he says, before slipping into his TikTok music-nerd persona and giving me a brief lesson on how the human body responds to bass hertz. Ironically, Puth himself can’t listen to music while having sex. “I will analyze the music playing in the background and I'll start to see the music notes in my head and I will not be able to get hard,” he says, before reflexively thrusting his arm in the air to mime an erection.
This is one of a handful of should-be-TMI details he readily offers up to the world without ever sounding creepy; he has an almost contagious lack of shame. “The first song I ever jerked off to was fucking ‘This Love’ by Maroon 5,” he says a few minutes later, practically unprompted, after checking to make sure the children nearby are out of earshot. (They’re not quite.) “Now I’m good friends with Adam Levine. [I told him] and he was like, ‘That’s really weird.’” He was a late bloomer — Puth didn’t lose his virginity until he was 21, after playing a small gig in Boston. “This girl came up to me and was like, ‘Can you sign my chest?’ I was like, I feel like a rock star,” he says. “I never saw her again. She was lovely, but it makes me sad sometimes because I wish the older version of me was like, ‘Hey, you might want to just make this like a little more memorable.’”
His TikTok account is full of flagrant displays of thirstiness. There’s ample shirtless material, dirty jokes, and eyes-emoji commentary on his own music — “Cheating On You,” apparently, includes the sound of his own moaning. Perhaps because his early hits were so earnest, this all came as a surprise to some observers. “Charlie Puth is so incredibly horny on TikTok,” comedian Sarah Schauer tweeted in August, “if someone doesn’t fuck him soon I fear the worst.”
When I read the tweet back to him, Puth doubles over laughing. “I think I actually had sex that night when I saw that,” he says, but “it made me think, ‘Wow, people really do understand me.’ I’m really horny. I think to be a creative, you have to be a little bit.”
I was taking myself too seriously, and TikTok humbled me.
Puth loves TikTok because “it just shows your vulnerability,” he says, “and I was not a vulnerable person [before].” To him, making videos on the app is also a lot like writing songs: Not every one hits, but you’ll never make one that does if you’re afraid of making a bad one. “You keep just churning them out,” he says. “There’s some downsides to that because now you have so much music coming out every day and you have so many TikTok videos coming out every day. There’s a lot of competition, but I think it’s for the better.”
Later this year, Puth will finally release his third studio album, Charlie, which he describes as his “first album, if I had complete confidence within myself at the very beginning of my career.” His first single from it, “Light Switch” — which is about being turned on, like a light switch — is a sexed-up ode to bad decisions, but the second single, “That’s Hilarious,” digs much deeper. It’s a ballad about the fallout of a breakup, and you can hear the hurt in his voice: “You took away a year/of my fuckin’ life.” (It’s purportedly about Puth’s rumored ex, fellow musician Charlotte Lawrence, though he never identifies her.) For a while, Puth didn’t know how to finish the song. He worried the lyrics were “too finger-point-y,” too vengeful. Then in the shower, he had an idea to punctuate the chorus with some “ha-ha-ha” vocals — a little laugh to lighten up a song so raw that just talking about it can bring Puth to tears.
“It’s the sugar in the medicine,” he says. A few days before its release, Puth set a TikTok video to the song with a plea for his fans: “pls roast me in the comments I need a good laugh.”
One pitfall of mining your life for your self-deprecating internet schtick is that it’s easy to lose track of whether you’re in on the joke or the butt of it. Last year, an acquaintance of Puth’s, the megaproducer Benny Blanco, started posting TikToks that made fun of him — “The CDC just said if you run into Charlie Puth and he talks about what key something is you’re allowed to slap him in his dick three times,” Blanco says in one — and graduated to calling him a loser and telling him to quit the industry. It seemed like a strange bit between friends, until Puth called it out in a November video: “You know, man, these videos were really funny at first. I don’t exactly know why you’ve been so mean to me these past couple of months, but it does genuinely hurt my feelings.” Some people, including Billie Eilish, came to Puth’s defense; others were convinced it was just a stunt.
Today, Puth says he has “no idea” what the real story is. “I watch it and I'm like, ‘Is this masked in comedy, and behind those funny, goofy layers, is there something to the core that you're actually upset at me about?’” According to Puth, Blanco says there’s no issue; when Puth put up a billboard of Blanco’s cellphone number along the route to Coachella this year for a little payback, Blanco told him later at the festival that he thought it was funny and had another prank in the works. Puth still isn’t totally convinced. “I can't help but think that there’s…” he says, his voice trailing off. “He says it's a joke, but maybe I'm just overthinking in conversations with myself.” (Blanco declined to comment for this story.)
Puth talks to himself a lot. When he’s not making music or on his phone, he doesn’t watch TV — “I watch my thoughts,” he says. “There's nothing better to me than putting my phone down, just closing my eyes and just seeing where my mind takes me.” Often, he finds himself replaying old scenarios and imagining what could have gone differently. Like: “Maybe I made out with somebody and — because when you’re watching your mind, you have complete conscious control — maybe my muscles were five times bigger or maybe I made the first move or maybe I was more confident.”
Whether that is healthy is between Puth and a therapist, but when it comes to his music career, it’s incredibly productive. Every song on Charlie started as one of these moments. “I didn’t know that was a good exercise in writing songs, but I wrote all of this album by having conversations with myself.” (He almost called the album that — Conversations With Myself.) His regrets, his embarrassing moments, all the things he never gets closure on — it’s all just material, waiting to come out.
In the past, Puth says, “I was being told to hide away and only make music with closed doors and make sure there’s a security guard at the studio — you don’t want anybody hearing this stuff early.” Now he’s content to let the world in. “I was taking myself too seriously, and TikTok kind of humbled me in a way — some videos wouldn’t do as well as other videos, and some songs wouldn’t be received as well as some other songs,” he says. “I got that information in real time. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, well, I have 16 million followers so I’m great no matter what.’”
Nobody cares about your platform or your mystique as long as you’re entertaining — and Puth is eager to earn your attention. As he leaves the hotel bar to go change for a gala performance later that evening, I ask him what he’s going to wear.
“Something horny,” he says.
Top Image Credits: Erdem clothing, Bally boots
Photographer: Matthew Brookes
Stylist: Tiffany Reid
Grooming: Darcy Gilmore
Talent Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Sam Miron