BERLIN – If you’re not a female between the ages of 12 and 18, you may not yet have heard of Charlie Puth. The 24-year-old heartthrob follows a clique of young crooners who make their teenage fans cry, like Justin Bieber and Nick Jonas, with their love songs and boyish good looks. In Puth’s case, it happens to be Jewish good looks (from his mom’s side).
Puth’s “One Call Away” has conquered international airwaves – and the hearts of young German girls. When he got on stage for his Berlin concert last week at the Postbanhof Club, Puth noticed a fan’s sign that had him dressed as Superman, a play on the line: “I’m only one call away/I’ll be there to save the day/Superman’s got nothing on me.”
Puth was only one call – or rather one message – away when a mutual friend introduced me to Puth’s Israeli music director and guitarist, Asaf Rodeh, ahead of his Berlin concert, which happened to coincide with the Eurovision song contest. Rodeh arranged a “meet and greet” with the pop star for us.
Later, as the teenage stampede made their way to the concert hall, Rodeh went completely ignored. Rodeh prefers it that way.
He even gets a kick out of it when fans ask him, as some random guy, to take their pictures.
“I’m here for the music and to do my job, and I know that it could be anyone else,” Rodeh told The Jerusalem Post in an interview outside the hall, the worn-out Berlin wall in the distance. “They didn’t buy tickets for me.”
After serving in the IDF armored and artillery corps, Rodeh studied at Rimon School of Music, the Israeli partner of Berklee College of Music, Puth’s alma mater. Rodeh had passed up a Berklee scholarship to focus on working as a musician in Israel, and eventually in Los Angeles.
“There are a lot of great musicians in Israel, a lot of great music, but when I tried to see what my life was going to look like in 10 or 20 years, I thought, ‘if I’m lucky – because there are a lot of a great musicians – I would be successful, I’ll do stuff.’ But even that stuff wasn’t exciting enough for me to pursue.”
Serving as Puth’s music director and guitarist is an exciting pinnacle, and not just because he gets to travel the world over. He regards Puth as a musical genius and is constantly impressed with his skill in producing songs on the fly, including his latest hit, featuring starlet Selena Gomez, “We Don’t Talk Any More,” which Puth had sketched out in a dressing room in Japan.
“He held the phone just like that and asked me to play a guitar part which ended up being on the record,” Rodeh related with his slight Israeli accent, demonstrating with a phone. “And there were people there, and he’s like, ‘Shut up for a second.
We’re trying to record it.’ And that’s how we did it.”
The next day, Puth presented a full track he had produced on his laptop. On the Berlin stage, Puth would break out into piano solos between his chart-topping “Marvin Gaye” and “Suffer,” and at one point sang with only guitar accompaniment by “everybody make some noise for... Asaf!” Puth got his start as a YouTube sensation, performing acoustic covers to hits like Sia’s “Chandelier” and Adele’s “Someone Like You” that got noticed by Ellen DeGeneres, who signed him to her label and promoted him on her show. (Atlantic Records put out Puth’s latest album, Nine Track Mind.) “See You Again” with Wiz Khalifa – a tribute to the late Paul Walker of the Fast and Furious franchise – catapulted Puth to stardom, and he had to put together a band, quickly.
A friend recommended Rodeh as a guitarist, a break that came 10 years after he “paid his dues” building a resume that included working with pop stars Ariana Grande and Rita Ora. When Rodeh first moved to Los Angeles – legally, he made sure – he threw professional snobbery out the window. (He now holds a green card for extraordinary ability).
“I went on Craiglist and started playing with the shittiest gigs. Every single thing,” he says.
Looking back, he doesn’t miss that hustle.
“I would never even get close to that stuff if I were in Israel, but then I just started playing all the clubs and got to know everybody.
That’s how to do it.”
His work ethic and modesty gave him an advantage.
“Charlie’s my friend now, but he’s also my boss.”
Great skill doesn’t always suffice; musicians must go the extra mile, “showing up on time, being aware and knowing your place in this, and knowing how to hang.”
This “knowing how to hang,” especially as A-list pop stars orbit around his employers, translates, in Rodeh’s case, into tempering that notorious Israeli chutzpah.
But it’s that Israeli informality he sometimes misses, along with Israeli food, his parents and siblings – and Hebrew slang.
“At least for me, in Hebrew I’m a different person. To say ‘hakol sababa’ and ‘magniv’ and ‘hey dude, it’s all good’ – it’s not the same thing at all.”
Rodeh lives with his wife, Mika, in Studio City. He’ll be in Israel in June for his sister’s wedding. Puth has never been to Israel, but Rodeh’s hoping they’ll tour the Holy Land next year. As for anti-Israel activists who pressure artists to boycott Israel, Rodeh said, “it’s never going to work.” Puth’s team has its share of Israel aficionados. Superman’s got nothing on Puth, after all, and Rodeh’s an ambassador in his own, quiet way.
“I’m an ars [slang for “gruff Israeli”] at the end of the day, and I’m proud of it. I like that. It’s kind of that Israeli thing. I was never trying to hide it, but I was always trying to not be different, but then you get to a point where you’re like: I guess I am who I am. I don’t take the negative things – you know: I’m polite, I try to be aware of people around me, like a decent human being.”