New Jersey native Charlie Puth had been in Los Angeles just a few days when he was asked by his music publishing company to come up with a melody that could pay tribute to the late Paul Walker in "Furious 7."
It was hardly a special invitation. Puth was one of more than 50 songwriters — many of them well known — who were asked to submit suggestions for the soundtrack. Only a small handful would be chosen.
In fact, the musician was so low on the list for this open competition he hadn't even been among the dozens of candidates shown footage from the film for inspiration.
But Puth, 23, and publishing company stablemate Justin Franks laid down a simple lyrical idea — that the singer missed his friend during an eventful time and couldn't wait to share some news with him when he got the chance.
"It just seemed to occur to me from out of nowhere," Puth said in a phone interview this week. "And basically 10 minutes later Justin and I wrote it, we sent it off, and I thought we'd never hear about it again."
As it turned out, they would. The filmmakers, Universal Pictures and the soundtrack label Atlantic Records went gaga for the song, titled "See You Again." After narrowing it down to a small group of finalists, Atlantic executives and Universal's music guru, Mike Knobloch, decided to go with "See You Again," commissioning the rap star and "Fast & Furious 6" contributor Wiz Khalifa to drop verses about family around Puth's vocals and piano.
"It was such an uncommon scene that we needed the song to come before the artist," Knobloch said, explaining how he and others decided to eschew the time-honored practice of finding a big-name musician for a key soundtrack number even though to do so posed a bigger commercial gamble. "It didn't matter that Charlie was unknown — in fact it helped because it didn't take you out of the moment," he said.
The song then went through an extensive note-giving and production process — there's a Middle Eastern-flavored sample and other flourishes--and months went by, as beats were added, dropped, and added again, all atop Puth's simple melody. By the end, Knobloch and his team had a song they liked, and director James Wan and producer Neal Moritz had threaded "See You Again" around and through the poignant final scene.
Their work paid off. Puth's blend of ethereal soul — a kind of more soaring spin on Sam Smith — mixed with his afterlife-tinged lyrics and a high-piano riff have combined to empty out Kleenex boxes in multiplexes across the country. (Lyrical excerpt: "It's been a long day without you my friend/ And I'll tell you all about it when I see you again/ We've come a long away from where we began/ Oh, I'll tell you all about it when I see you again.")
Though unabashedly sentimental, the song is also highly effective, its power boosted by the offscreen Walker back story it subtextually describes. "See You Again" has shot up to No. 1 on iTunes and is beginning to get airplay on nearly every major pop and R&B station. The video, which intercuts the artists with the Walker flashback scenes from the film, has become a viral sensation.
"The chorus felt really big and felt like it was saying something really important for what the moment was going to be," said Kevin Weaver, president of Atlantic's film and television group, adding that he thought the song fit a range of moments. "It can be about a death but also someone you miss and can't wait to see at a barbecue and talk to."
"See You Again" also worked for "Furious 7" because of the balanced note the scene struck in the film. In real life Walker died, but at the end of "Furious 7," his character, Brian O'Conner, was given a poignant retirement send-off in which he'd be living with his wife and raising a family.
"The first time we heard it we knew this was the end song," said Moritz. "It had a sense of longing and sadness but it was also uplifting as well. And we didn't want the end to be totally sad."
In part that mix is the result of Puth's own influence. In writing the song, he said he was thinking of a friend who also died abruptly. Puth declined to provide too many details, but said that tragedy also involved a car accident and that he felt his late friend's presence in the studio that day as he held the belief they could one day communicate again.
By putting an unknown musician at the center of one of the year's biggest blockbusters, "See You Again" demonstrates what happens when the giant machine of film music meshes with the more democratic Internet, where Puth first made a name for himself.
The singer grew up in southern New Jersey's Monmouth County, raised in a devout Catholic tradition. He had little interest in music until one Ash Wednesday, when the organist was a no-show. Puth, who says he knew he had perfect pitch, was a last-minute fill-in, and before long he was playing regularly at church. He soon attended and graduated from the Manhattan School of Music and the Berklee College of Music, and began performing jazz covers on YouTube, where he was discovered by Ellen DeGeneres. The host booked Puth on her show and even signed him to eleveneleven, her label for unknown artists.
"It's not typical for a breakout song to come about like this," said Weaver, who has more recently been cultivating Puth, with Atlantic's A&R President Mike Caren. "But people are discovered in new ways all the time,"
Puth has an EP hitting this summer and also co-wrote and performs on another single, "Marvin Gaye," paired with Meghan Trainor; the song offers a ribald twist on the prom as attendees are encourages to let their hair down, and then some.
But it's been "See You Again" that's quickly become a calling card for Puth. Franchise star Vin Diesel even texted him from a junket saying he couldn't stop singing the vocals at interviews.
Puth said he knows that a hummable spring hit could become overplayed very fast (just ask Carly Rae Jepsen), exhausting even to its creator.
But the musician, who has that mixture of fresh-faced eagerness and practiced polish common to many media-savvy entertainment-industry comers, said that such a turn is unlikely in this case. "I don't think I'll ever get tired of this song," he said. "It just has a quality that I think can speak to a lot of people in their own way. I'm still not sure how it happened."
He even has other versions planned — an orchestral one and possibly another take with Khalifa, who Puth never met while recording the original.
He said he might offer up a more impromptu rendition as well.
"I want to go to the ArcLight this week, buy a ticket to the movie and sit in the back. Then when the movie ends, I can have someone ask me, 'Who sings that song?' and then I can belt it out and have a singalong right in the theater. That's just the kind of song it is," he added.