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‘Nine Track Mind’: How Charlie Puth Gave Retro-Pop Mass Appeal
In Depth

‘Nine Track Mind’: How Charlie Puth Gave Retro-Pop Mass Appeal

Evincing a love of soul-pop and R&B, Charlie Puth’s debut album, ‘Nine Track Mind’, signalled the arrival of an irrepressible talent.

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After the New Jersey-born singer Charlie Puth went viral in the early 2010s, from uploading performance videos to YouTube – most notably a cover of Adele’s Someone Like You – his rise to fame was positively stratospheric. Thanks to the release of Puth’s duet with Meghan Trainor on the song Marvin Gaye, and a star-making feature spot on Wiz Khalifa’s See You Again, in 2015, the pop singer began tentatively prepping his debut album, Nine Track Mind, at Atlantic Studios, in Los Angeles, California. This is the story of how Charlie Puth set out on a one-man mission to bring retro-pop back from the brink.

Listen to ‘Nine Track Mind’ here.

The ambition: “I just wanted to make this soulful sound”

Having already built himself a strong social-media following thanks to his background as a YouTube personality and a live TV show appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Charlie Puth gave fans an early taste of what to expect from his debut album when he released his first single, Marvin Gaye, in February 2015. A duet with All About That Bass singer Meghan Trainor, this well-intentioned doo-wop-inspired soul-music throwback couldn’t have got Puth’s career off to a better start, peaking at No.1 in the UK and No.21 in the US.

“I listened to a lot of Marvin Gaye and Motown records,” Puth explained of the song’s retro inspiration. “When I was making my record, I just wanted to make this soulful sound.” With playful lyrics that tipped their hat to Gaye’s steamy 1973 hit Let’s Get It On as well as Ben E King’s Stand By Me, its shiny contemporary-pop production values indicated how, with Nine Track Mind, Puth would put a fresh spin on vintage soul sounds of the past.

Working in the studio with a seasoned team of hitmakers, including songwriter DJ Frank E (Justin Bieber, Jason Derulo) and hip-hop producer Infamous (Lil Wayne, Lupe Fiasco), Puth intended for Nine Track Mind to reflect his diverse range of musical influences, encompassing both his love of 70s soul and funk, as well as his fondness for mainstream pop-rap and R&B. Like Ed Sheeran before him, Puth was keen to flex his songwriting abilities and prove himself as the next big pop superstar-in-waiting.

The songs: “I wanted to make an anthem for everyone in a long-distance relationship”

Though it would only be included as a bonus track on the international edition of Nine Track Mind, Puth’s collaboration with rapper Wiz Khalifa on the pop-rap hit See You Again was a significant factor in his escalating popularity. Included on the soundtrack for the movie Furious 7, during which it was played over an emotional farewell scene for the late actor Paul Walker, the song spent 12 weeks at No.1 in the US and became hip-hop’s biggest success story since Eminem’s Lose Yourself. With Puth singing the song’s chorus, to this day See You Again remains one of the most-streamed songs on Spotify.

Released in August 2015, the second single to be taken from Charlie Puth’s upcoming debut album was One Call Away, a gospel-infused track written following a conversation Puth had with a friend about missing his girlfriend. “I wanted to make an anthem for everyone in a long-distance relationship or just someone they haven’t seen in awhile,” he told MTV News. Peaking at No.12 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and No.26 in the UK, it made clear that the singer could imbue his vocals with spiritual longing.

As a church-goer himself, Puth maintains that his experience of singing hymns as a youngster helped to foster his love of performing. “I’d go to church every Sunday and hear the same songs,” Puth told Billboard magazine. “When the church organist didn’t show up, I played the whole mass from memory, and they all praised me for it.” This experience revealed Puth’s perfect pitch, and he has often showcased his awe-inspiring ability to identify specific chords purely by ear. No doubt this helped the singer make One Call Away one of the most sincere ballads of the 2010s.

The inspiration: “You gather up a bunch of emotion with the life shovel, throw it in the life bucket, mix it up”

Now with two successful hit singles to his name – three if you include See You Again – Charlie Puth eventually released his debut album, Nine Track Mind, on 29 January 2016, and it instantly soared to the No.6 spot on both the US and the UK album charts. Flaunting his ambitions to become a pop balladeer, notable highlights on the album included the upbeat piano piece Left Right Left and the string-laden slice of contemporary R&B romanticism Then There’s You. Fully in control of his effortless falsetto throughout, Charlie Puth had well and truly arrived.

Teaming up with Disney Channel teen-pop singer Selena Gomez for Nine Track Mind’s third single, We Don’t Talk Anymore, Puth scored himself yet another US Top 10 hit, with lyrics inspired in a fit of delirium after a bout of food poisoning. Reflecting upon a messy break-up with a mysterious love interest, We Don’t Talk Anymore saw Puth tell the story of a relationship gone wrong. “It’s about a particular moment in my life, when someone very close to me wanted the attention of somebody else,” he explained. “You gather up a bunch of emotion with the life shovel, throw it in the life bucket, mix it up.”

With its bittersweet sentiment and its surprisingly upbeat tropical-inspired groove, We Don’t Talk Anymore boasts great vocal chemistry between Puth and Gomez, with both adding sincerity to lyrics that paint a picture of a fling that has run its course. “It was a pleasure working with her,” Puth said of Gomez’s involvement. “That’s why I’m always happy to sing it, even though it came from a dark point in my life.”

The legacy: “people seemed to like it, which made me happy”

By the end of 2016, Nine Track Mind had gone double platinum in the United States, selling over two million copies. Yet despite its commercial success, Puth has gone on to express mixed feelings about his debut album’s enduring popularity. “I was putting out music that did very well on the charts and people seemed to like it, which made me happy,” he told MTV in 2022. Two years earlier, however, he had expressed some regrets. “It was very rudimentary production, but it was me,” Puth reflected in The Wall Street Journal. “[The album] was super rushed and didn’t feel like me at all.”

Despite his reservations, few commercial pop acts are lucky enough to have a debut album rack up such strong sales figures as Nine Track Mind. Hits such as Marvin Gaye and One Call Away proved enormously popular on the radio, and audiences reacted positively to Puth’s arrival on the pop scene. Though Puth himself would be the first to say he has gone on to produce work that has musically surpassed his first clutch of solo singles, there’s no doubt that Nine Track Mind will always occupy a special place in many fans’ hearts.

Find out which Charlie Puth track ranks among our best songs of 2022.

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