Charlie Puth on His Geeky YouTube Beginnings and Chart-Topping Paul Walker Tribute Anthem

The fresh-faced Jersey native is all the rage with two hit songs, including the heartrending theme to Furious 7. He opens up about his unlikely rise and global smash.

That voice making grown men cry at the end of Furious 7? It belongs to 23-year-old singer-songwriter Charlie Puth, a New Jersey native and Josh Hutcherson look-alike whose beginnings mirror those of another fresh-faced crooner that rocketed from YouTube discovery to recording wunderkind practically overnight.

The difference: Justin Bieber didn’t launch his career by also penning and producing hits out of the gate. “See You Again,” Puth’s collaboration with Atlantic Records labelmate Wiz Khalifa, reached No. 1 on iTunes in three-dozen countries, while its video notched millions of views in less than 12 hours. Not bad for a newbie fresh out of music school.

“I say the word ‘insane’ a lot and I’m going to say it again,” Puth exhaled over the phone from Los Angeles, where he’s now a newly permanent Angeleno. “This whole thing has been insane.”

While studying to be a jazz pianist on a Berklee College of Music scholarship, Puth signed with Ellen DeGeneres’s record label before his 20th birthday after earning notice with a YouTube cover of Adele’s “Someone Like You.” He graduated just over a year ago, but not before switching his focus to pop music and building a YouTube following out of his dorm room by recording a mix of cover videos and his own original songs. He moved back in with his parents while plotting a cross-country move to L.A., taking a few chance shots that came his way.

“See You Again,” the tear-jerking theme to Universal’s behemoth $147 million opener Furious 7, was one of those shots. The studio and Atlantic Records were looking for a song that would fit Vin Diesel’s emotional send-off to Paul Walker that caps the Fast & Furious sequel—a scene rewritten after Walker’s tragic death.

Days into one of his visits to L.A., Puth was matched up by his publisher with DJ Frank E, a producer who’d crafted hits for the likes of Flo Rida, Madonna, B.o.B., and Chris Brown. The two met for the first time in the studio and went to work. With no studio notes and no Atlantic record deal (yet), Puth knew only that he was penning a tribute for the film and its late star. Eleven minutes later, Puth says, they had a song.

“There are so many people writing, I never thought it would happen,” he said. “They have all the greats writing. I never thought they would take mine, but I took a whack at it. I still can’t believe it. I feel like I’m in a dream right now. I wrote it in 11 minutes—11 minutes and five seconds.”

Khalifa later added his own emotional verses to the track, although he and Puth didn’t meet in person until right before their appearance last month on Jimmy Fallon. “We met for the first time in Philadelphia in a rehearsal room,” Puth said. “I thought it was insane. All of this is insane.”

They also performed together on Revolt TV and filmed the music video, which Vin Diesel posted to his massive Facebook following on Sunday. The upload has over 34 million views and counting.

“I think it’s one of the most universal songs I’ve written,” said Puth, who was also inspired to write the song for a friend who had passed away. He uploaded an alternate version with fuller-sung verses and no Khalifa lyrics to his Soundcloud this week. “I wanted a full version that was all me, for myself, and for my friend, too.”

Although Puth started out by amassing a fan following on YouTube, most of the videos that made him Internet-famous have since been hidden from the public eye. It’s all part of a concerted effort Puth’s taken to brand himself as a new recording artist whose early videos are distinctly removed from his more polished output, like “Slow Motion,” the R&B slow jam he co-wrote and co-produced for Trey Songz.

“I still want to maintain the fans that have been with me since the beginning, but at the same time I don’t want to confuse the new fans I’m getting that I see popping up on my Instagram and everything,” he explained. “I don’t want to turn them off by them seeing stuff that I did five years ago. I don’t want them to get confused seeing me dancing around with sunglasses on when I was a freshman in high school.”

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I ask why he went dark on numbers like “Haters Follow Me Like Twitter,” a YouTube hit that spawned cover videos of its own, despite the fact that the original’s now a hard-to-find Charlie Puth artifact.

“Oh my gosh! You went way back. I don’t even think that video’s up anymore,” he laughed of the goofy ditty with lyrics like “I’m a catcher in the rye with no record deal / Call me a spoiled brat—Holden Caulfield.”

“That’s when I was making funny music and I thought it would be pretty funny to make comedy videos, which is the reason why I have a huge chunk of my fan base,” he said, laughing. “I can’t do a record like that anymore, but there will always be a little hip-hop in Charlie’s music. You can quote me on that.”

Puth’s since worked with the likes of Akon, Jason Derulo, and on a track unlikely to see the light of day that he says he can’t discuss: Lil Wayne. Meanwhile, a chance meeting with Meghan Trainor at a party led to her lending vocals to “Marvin Gaye,” the soul-flavored first single from his upcoming EP, which is in its final mix.

“She one take, no mistake, just laid that second verse down and put harmonies on it. She put it down,” marveled Puth, who will join Trainor on her “Mtrain” tour this summer, starting with a date in his native New Jersey, and recently earned TMZ’s attention for smooching the “All About That Bass” singer in their new music video.

“I was at The Counter on Sunset and was walking out when the big TMZ bus rode by,” he said. “Lo and behold, the guy got on the microphone and said, ‘Charlie, how was your burger? Charlie, are you dating Meghan Trainor? I think you might have kissed her in your music video.’ I was like, this is so strange.”

As for his celebrity doppelganger—Hunger Games star Hutcherson—Puth’s been getting the comparison for years. “I’ve been hearing that since 2011,” he laughed. “I’m very flattered. He’s a cool dude. Is that what a doppelganger is? I’m still trying to figure out what that word means. Someone who looks like someone. I thought it was like some German cuisine or something. I’ll have a doppelganger with a side of wiener schnitzel.”

He might give Hutcherson a run for his money one of these days. The amiable Jersey kid jokes that he’s already gone “super L.A.” by taking up hiking (“My favorite part of Runyon is the snacks at the bottom of the trail where you can get Nutter Butters for like a dollar… sometimes if I’m feeling really lazy I’ll just go right down to the Nutter Butters”) and would consider a second career in acting, seeing as he’s already set up shop in Hollywood.

“I did all those skits on YouTube, so I’m open,” Puth decided, mulling his screen debut. “I’m down to act a little bit—go on a couple auditions or make one of those three-second cameos with one line. If I was on a Modern Family kind of show and they said, ‘You have to say that the burger is $5.55, have a good day!’… I could do that!”