Photo by Hassan Rashid
With A New Single, "Freckles," And Upcoming Album 'Pity Party,' Curtis Waters' Year Only Gets More "Stunnin'"
Four years ago, a heavily depressed 16-year-old Nepali immigrant living in Calgary named Abhi Bastakoti was told by his grandmother to hang in there, because she had looked at his future, and had a feeling his life would take a turn. She even made a prediction: that her grandson's best year would come at age 20.
That’s the kind of woman you want picking your lottery numbers. Because four years later, only months after turning 20, Bastakoti’s ship came in. Under his artist name Curtis Waters, he became one of this challenging year’s breakout stars. When most of the world had gone into COVID quarantine, he expertly employed the viral powers of TikTok to tease out the impending release of "Stunnin'"—a sly, raunchy, hilarious and insanely catchy two-and-a-half minute collaboration with Canadian pals Harm Franklin and Declan Hoy that has, no cap, changed Waters' life.
The star-making powers of TikTok were on full display when those teasers caught fire, priming the pump for the May release of the song, which was a monster. "Stunnin'"s numbers lived up to its name: 700,000 streams a day by early summer; 70 million plays on Spotify alone as of late August; hundreds of thousands of TikTokers have posted their own clips to the song, including platform superstar Dixie D’Amelio; and an irresistible D.I.Y. music video featuring a tux-clad Curtis busting some moves and a cameo from his younger brother Albert has, to date, 11.6 million views.
To borrow one of "Stunnin'"s lyrics, Curtis busted quick, and sure enough, the labels came circling. Even before the song's release, based solely on the TikTok buzz, industry players waved lots of deals with lots of zeros. But rather than opt for a quick payout from people who, Waters sensed, were more interested in a dozen more "Stunnin'"s than in the totality of what he wanted to do as an artist, he and manager Chris Anokute (an industry vet, former A&R for Katy Perry and Joss Stone, and the founder of Young Forever Inc.) opted for a more artist-friendly license-only deal with BMG.
Waters soon proved himself much more than that one viral hit, with two summertime follow-up singles, each dramatically different from "Stunnin'"s horny flex. In June there was "System"—a pugilistic, electro-punk indictment of both music biz commodification of artists and the cancer of racial injustice that America was once again confronting with the killing of George Floyd; followed by July's "The feelings tend to stay the same," a shimmery, sentimental pop reflection on a college romance that had to end, with a misty, Wes Anderson-worthy video to match.
Now Curtis, who says he loves upending genres and "pushing boundaries," adds yet another chapter to an eclectic image, in the new single "Freckles." The first taste of Waters' upcoming album Pity Party is a bright and tender ode to a survivor, and it was the first song that made Anokute interested in working with Waters. The manager happened across it via an algorithm in February, when both "Freckles" and the entire album were briefly online (Pity Party was soon taken down, but gets its official release next month).
"I think it probably says more about me than 'Stunnin'' to be honest,” says Waters of "Freckles," which was born out of a friendship with a girl he met when he was in a mental hospital, and her determination to carry on in the face of numerous traumas. The artist's own mental health struggles have long informed his music. He's been making beats since he was 14, started making songs for himself a few years after that, and a visit to his Soundcloud page reveals plenty of earlier songs that vary wildly, from trap to straight pop-punk—including a first album, 2018’s Prom Night—which, despite being consistently upbeat and often funny, mine themes of depression, anxiety and inadequacy.
Waters was born in Nepal, moved to Germany at 4, Canada at 10 and North Carolina at 17, where in 2019 he was diagnosed as bipolar. That led to a slippery slope of over-medication and a sabbatical from college—a chapter of his life that will be chronicled on Pity Party. He hopes his candor about those struggles will reach other young people in similar situations, and it’s one topic we touched on with him over Zoom in mid-August. Also discussed: his conservative parents (academics with multiple degrees) and what they make of his rawer lyrics; the glory of the Smashing Pumpkins’ "1979"; the complexity of Curtis’ musical hero Kanye West; and Waters' challenging musical ambitions, which go far beyond "Stunnin'."
Congratulations, man! What a crazy last few months it's been for you, and what a year for it to happen in.
Thanks! It’s only been I guess, six months?
I saw you tweet the other day, "Usually I wake up so anxious but lately I have felt so f**king good, waking up every day excited to make music."
And I have been making a lot of music too!
In one of the Nepali papers this summer you said, "I see myself as more of a producer who knows how to make myself sound good," rather than a great singer or rapper.
Yeah. I only started making music for myself when I was 17, with vocals? But I’ve kind of finessed my way into knowing how to produce really well over the years. And I’m getting better at singing. I want to challenge myself to make more acoustic, stripped-down almost folk-type songs too. But so far it’s just been like—I wake up every day and I make like five beats a day. I’m just always working on stuff. So I don’t think I am an amazing singer by any means, but I think I’m—I kind of know how to write songs, and I know how to make cool stuff. You know what I mean?
Having a breakthrough year in this crazy pandemic year—it’s got to be great and a little weird. But you said your grandma predicted this would be the year for you back when you were 16?
Yeah. I was going through a really difficult time. I had left high school because of my depression. And I was just looking for hope. And I was talking to my mom, and my mom told my grandma without really telling me, and my grandma went and saw a fortune teller. And for years I wasn’t religious or superstitious, so it was hard for me to be like, "Oh, things are gonna work out one day.” But she said 20 will be the year where I start finding happiness, and things will really start looking up. It was always this like self-fulfilling prophecy where I was like working really hard to making sure something would happen by the age of 20. But then also knowing something would happen because my grandma said so.
Since "Freckles" is the new single, tell me about that one first and we'll work our way backwards. It was the first song Chris [Anokute] heard and made him want to work with you?
Yeah, a hundred per cent. I don’t think Chris ever really cared for "Stunnin'," to be honest. It’s not his type of song. Honestly, even for me "Stunnin'" is—it’s a fun song? But I don’t really listen to music like that most of the time. I mean, of course it’s been awesome for me because I get to live out my dreams. But "Freckles" was a song that I had my heart in.
You had posted "Freckles" online early this year, before "Stunnin',” along with the whole Pity Party album, and then took it down?
Yeah, from the very beginning I was like, "Okay I don’t have any industry connections, but I know my music and is gonna get slept on and I don’t know what to do about this. I made this entire album in my bedroom, mixed and mastered, everything, but I just don’t know how to get it out there." And you know I would send it to these A&Rs, these label people, and finally I was like, "F**k waiting." I knew in my heart it was amazing, thought people were gonna love it and whatever happens, happens. And it kind of did happen. Chris found me randomly, just really naturally because of a Soundcloud algorithm, he heard the record and just loved it so much.
"Freckles" is sweet, but there is this intense line about "Band-aids on your arm/ Your scars they remind me/ All that you’ve been through/ But you’re still here smiling." Is there a story behind it?
Yeah the whole album kind of started because I was in a mental hospital and I was diagnosed with bipolar [disorder], and then I came back home. And it relates because this girl I met in this mental hospital, I reconnected with her, maybe like six months after I came back home? And she was just telling me about traumatic things that were happening, but like the whole time we hung out, it was such a pleasant conversation. She was just so strong, and so happy. And so much happened in her life, but she still had such a positive mindset. She was like, "I’m gonna become a flight attendant," and she was just excited about her future.
And another girl was at the heart of your recent single "The feelings tend to stay the same"—which may be the most sentimental thing you’ve put out. Definitely a world away from "Stunnin'."
What’s interesting is for me, now—I’m sort of playing catch-up. Because people are finally hearing the stuff from the album, and I’m already thinking about what’s next, right? So people are discovering "The feelings tend to stay the same," whereas really that’s what I was feeling back like a year ago, when I wrote it. But that song is probably the best look into where I am most right now—emotionally.
And it’s got this great video out on a lake, in a field…
Yeah that was in the park around where I live. My brother’s in it, and my friend Fallon that I went to prom with in high school, and my friend Jailyn from college. So it was easy, because it was all friends.
Speaking of high school friends, I actually retweeted you recently when you talked about your love for the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979"— which is truly one of my favorite songs of all time.
Oh, I love that song!
So great. It’s such a quintessential teen-years song. I told [Billy] Corgan years ago that as far as I’m concerned that song is so perfect it would be like "Drop the mic, I’m done" after writing that.
I love that video too. I want to capture—that’s what I want my music to be. Like, what I feel when I listen to that, that’s what I want. It’s like—I know how to make beats, I know how to do this, right? But I’ve been making more stuff like that recently, for sure. Regardless of sonics and stuff, that’s the emotion I want to really hone in on.
You’ve been really open about your mental health and being diagnosed as bipolar. Do you still have high highs and low lows?
This year I’ve controlled it. I’ve controlled it way better. I mean I am a stable guy, for sure. But like when I was younger, it was really hard. Even when I was writing this album it was really hard. But at this point—I hope nothing goes wrong where I go completely off the track again? But I am in a good spot for sure, at this point.
No celebrity has been more open in recent months about his own bipolar condition than one of your personal musical heroes, Kanye West. What are your thoughts on his artistry, his openness about that side of his life and his more divisive political involvements?
It's hard. You idolize certain people, and then at the end of the day they're just like you. And that can sometimes be good, and other times you can realize they’re just as flawed, or just as incoherent, or they’re just winging it. I don’t know. All I can really say is I hope he finds happiness. I hope he finds stability. Sometimes I just feel like, none of this shit matters. Just be with your family, be happy, be healthy, you know? But he’s changed my life, with his honesty. And the thing about honesty is, you’re not always gonna like it, right? I don't agree with everything he says. I don’t support a lot of things he says. But I can’t ignore how much [he] impacted my way of thinking and my life, and how it liberated me, creatively and as a human, growing up.
Who knows if we would be here talking if it weren’t for "Stunnin'." So much has been said about the TikTok campaign. But what do you remember about that song coming together? It was your friend Declan [Hoy] who did the beats?
Yeah he sent me the original beat, and I played the chords on it, and I rapped on it, and I did the chorus and I rearranged it and all that stuff. Usually I make the beat, and finish everything myself. But this time I took what he sent me, made my version of it, and at first I—I kind of hated the song. [Laughs.] I sent it back, he was in the same city with my friend Harm Franklin, and he sent me his version back. I put Auto-Tune on it, mixed and mastered it, finished the song. And I just didn’t know what I was gonna do with it, because I was really trying to do songs more in the realm of "The feelings tend to stay the same," just reflecting all this stuff that I had been going through emotionally, right? And then I had "Stunnin'," which felt like a detour from where I was trying to go artistically. But, then corona happened, and so I was like, "Okay, no more sad music. Everyone’s already sad. Let’s cheer people up." So I teased it, saw the response, and then I was like, "Wow, okay. This is not a bad song. People love the song." It got such a crazy reaction. 'Cause usually the people who react to my music are a certain demographic, you know? I mean, I know who likes sad, emo pop-punk, whatever you wanna call the type of energy I’m on usually. And "Stunnin'" was a different energy, and it was like—not to say "normies," but the casual listeners were really in for it. So, you know, when it’s reaching the casual people that’s when you know, it’s like, "Okay. This is not just for me."
I thought of your now-infamous "Good p*ssy sound like pasta" line when Cardi B talked about hers being like "Macaroni in a pot" in "WAP"! You guys were in sync there!
Yes sir! Known fact! [Laughs.] But the thing about that is—the shit that I say in "Stunnin'"—that doesn’t have to be me. You know, I could be an actor in a movie and do all this crazy shit, and no one’s gonna be mad at me, because I’m acting, right? So I can just take on this dickhead character in a song, where I just say vulgar stuff. You know what I mean? But sometimes people message me like, "I can’t believe you said this!" And I’m like, "Why would you believe that—I'm not…! It’s just a fun song!" It’s entertainment.
But lines like that one, or "I can go slow or go faster, if I bust quick that’s a bastard"—you can play that stuff for your parents?
I don’t think they even understand most of what I’m saying. Uh…which allows me to get away with stuff? But there’s like an unspoken rule where, if there’s some lyrics that are questionable, we don’t talk about it? You know, they listened to "The feelings tend to stay the same" and they read the lyrics and they were like, "Yeah this is amazing" and they loved it and we talked about it. But we’ve never talked about "Stunnin'" lyrics and I hope we never do. [Laughs.]
This year alone you’ve shown a lot of variety. You think it’s reductive to call Curtis Waters just a hip-hop artist?
I don’t think any label is accurate. I don’t know what I am—I’m finding out every day. Some people will tell me "You’re a pop artist" or "You’re a hip-hop artist," you’re this, you’re that. I’m just a dude making stuff that I like every day. I mean the way I think about my albums is like, eras of Kanye, or eras of Tyler, the Creator. You know what I mean? I mean I am already thinking, "What is the next era?" And not even albums—even just songs. Those three songs—"System," "Stunnin'" and "The feelings…"? For me, those are completely different songs. I don’t know what genres they are. And I love that. You know, I want to keep doing that. I want to keep challenging, pushing myself, pushing whatever boundaries there are already. I feel like my music is not even weird enough right now. I want to get weirder!
Curtis Waters' "Freckles" is out now. His album Pity Party is set to drop Oct. 9.