Stephen Puth Talks “Sexual Vibe” & Signing With Arista Records: Interview
Stephen Puth didn’t go looking for a career in pop, it found him. The 24-year-old decided to try his luck as a songwriter-for-hire after finishing college (he studied English and History), but fate had other plans. David Massey, the President/CEO of Arista Records, spotted raw potential in the newcomer and wanted to sign him as an artist. After some initial hesitation, the New Jersey native decided to take a leap of faith and go for it. It’s a risk that is destined to pay off — at least, if “Sexual Vibe” is any indication.
The crooner’s debut single arrives today (December 5) and it showcases Stephen’s deep baritone and soulful, retro-tinged sound. I recently caught up with the rising star and dug a little deeper into the creation of “Sexual Vibe,” which was recorded in the early hours of the morning after a night at the club. He explained that there’s more to the lyrics than innuendo — something that comes across nicely in the Ally Pankiw-directed video (below) — and opened up about his upcoming debut EP. Get to know Stephen a little better in our Q&A below.
Let’s talk about “Sexual Vibe.” How did the song come about?
It was the first year I was in Los Angeles and I went to a club for a friend’s birthday. I don’t really like clubs, it’s not my favorite place to be. Shockingly, I loved every second of it. It was like two in the morning, club closes and my friend [songwriter Brian Lee] suggested we go to his studio. So we walk there and it was just this voice note. He was on the guitar and we were just messing around, showing each other music. Then the roughest version of the song came out. It was just yelling, the mic was all messed up.
So I sat on that voice note for a year. I didn’t forget about it, I knew it was there, but I didn’t know how to make it a song. It was like 14 minutes of straight nonsense. One day, I sat down and opened up my computer. I replicated the guitar riff. Then I just laid down some random melodies and produced around it. I was like, “Okay, this is a start.” The only direction in the voice note was “Sexual Vibe.” “It has to have a sexual vibe.” That wasn’t the title, but we knew the song was going to have a sexual vibe.
Then I took the song to my other buddy, who is really good with lyrics and story telling. It all just came together. That’s how “Sexual Vibe” happened. A weird, two-year process after a club. Really unexpected but it was a cool way to come about it.
Are there layers to the song or is it just about hooking up?
When you listen to the lyrics, there are some obvious innuendos. “I’m under your influence when you’re on top.” What else could that mean? Well, the idea is actually you meet someone at a club and throughout the night, you might start communicating with somebody and you catch that vibe. The “sexual vibe” I’m talking about is that vibe where you meet someone and you’re like, “I don’t know you, but I want to find out who you are.” So that line, “I’m under your influence when you’re on top” could be literal, but you could also view it as they have the power and you’re playing along because you really like the idea of them and you want to figure them out.
Why did you choose to launch with “Sexual Vibe”?
It sounds really different. It could still be defined as pop but it’s pretty organic. We didn’t use all these crazy synths. There’s a guitar and some drums. It has a ’50s or ’60s vibe. Then, we just brought it into 2018. It’s upbeat, it makes you want to dance. It reminds me of partying with your friends. It just has a good vibe that works anywhere. In the car, at the beach. [Laughs].
Are you going to radio with this song?
I honestly don’t know the plan yet. I think we are going to put this song out and let it grow. We’re just going to see how people engage with it. I don’t think you can force it. Don’t get me wrong, it would be great if it does well on all the streaming platforms but it’s just the foundation.
Just to take a little step back. How did you end up with Arista Records?
Initially, I was looking at songwriting deals. One of my last meetings was with David Massey. He said he wanted to sign me as an artist. I said no immediately. By the end of the meeting, he kind of talked me down a little and I promised to keep an open mind. I met him again and I was like, “Maybe.” Then, the third time, I called him and I was like, “I want to do this.”
What was holding you back initially?
It’s just scary. It’s one thing to sit in a studio and write and produce. You’re with friends for the day. It’s so much fun. It’s not even like working. The best part is, is if there’s an artist in the room, they’re cutting the vocal. You get in a different headspace about the song because you’re viewing it from outside in as opposed to performing it. Songwriting is comfortable and it’s really fun. I thought I should focus on writing and producing because I had only been doing it for a couple of years.
That was another insecurity. I haven’t been doing this for very long. I don’t have any credibility as a writer yet so maybe the artist thing is a bad idea. But then I thought to myself, “What’s the worst thing that happens if you fail?” I can always just go back to writing. There’s literally nothing to lose. I could spend more time developing, but sometimes you just need to jump and take the leap of faith. Why not? That’s literally all I can think of. Why not?
How much material do you have? Is an album the goal?
You know, I don’t think very far ahead. Albums are not antiquated by any means, but people listen to music in different ways now. Hundreds of thousands of songs are released worldwide weekly. Maybe I’ll start with an EP and then include those songs on a subsequent album. I think that could work. In terms of material, I definitely have enough to pull together an EP.
Is “Sexual Vibe” reflective of your other songs?
I think the commonality between every song is obviously my voice, the tonality of it, and the straightforward approach. I use real guitars, real bass. Occasionally, I’ll toss a piano in there. There are live drums. Then you mix the digital stuff into it and that’s what makes it all come together. All the songs, by accident, not on purpose, have guitar in them. If you said to me, “You need to go make a “Sexual Vibe” part two, I couldn’t. I don’t even know how I made “Sexual Vibe” part one.
Do you have any live performances planned?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m down to do it. I’ve only done one performance in my life and that was this summer. It was pretty terrifying, but it was sick! I’m excited to do it when the time comes. I think it’s a matter of getting the material out there first and just introducing myself to people. I’ll do performances, like one-song performances. I just need more content, but it’s a journey so to speak. You want people to show up to the concert because they know every song.
Ok, important question. What are you going to call your fans?
I feel the terminology of what fans call themselves, is always cultivated by them. One way or another. I’m creative, but I’m just not that creative. What happens if I had a really bad idea and wanted to call them “Sputhers.”
That sounds lewd.
It’s terrible! Imagine if I tried to force that. All my fans would be like, “I feel weird.” So let them collectively figure it out.
Thank you for your time.