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It’s around 11 in the morning on a Friday in Los Angeles, and Curtis Waters is doing little odd jobs in his home studio. The neighbor walking by may not know it, but through the window of that San Fernando Valley house stands one of the fiercest young musicians around.
Born Abhinav Bastakoti, Waters first started making beats when he was 14 in his home country of Nepal. Now at 23-years-old and having released his auspicious debut record, Pity Party (via BMG) in 2020, the singer-songwriter/producer has crafted a kaleidoscopic sound that is refreshingly authentic within the contemporary indie music scene.
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Not unlike Arlo Parks or, a decade earlier, Earl Sweatshirt, Waters mines the ennui of youth and emerges with sharp gems. “I’m the shame of the family,” he raps on Pity Party opener, “Shoe Laces.” Over downcast self-produced beats, he continues, “Life is a race/I’m scared to lose.” On the album’s title track, he confesses, “I hate the news/The world is ending,” echoing the depression that has plagued some Gen-Zers and millennials. Curtis Waters, however, whose moniker partially stems from his admiration for both Joy Division’s Ian Curtis and Frank Ocean, isn’t consciously trying to be the voice of a generation. He’s trying to be himself.
“Art has been the only way for me to cope with life since I was a kid,” Waters says by phone from his LA home. “I used to write poems, draw, and all of this stuff. I remember, at the time, I was really into Tyler, the Creator and this and that, and I felt that the best way to express myself was through music. I started making beats, and then I wanted to get more expressive, so I did vocals, graphic design, videos — so the main goal is just to tell a story or make a vision come to life.”
The name Curtis Waters, in fact, began as a comic book character that the artist created. “He did a lot of stuff that I was too nervous to do in real life,” Waters says. “It was just this fantasy, and I remember I had this thought, ‘You know what? Let me do some real-life performance. Let me be Curtis Waters.’ It helped me do a lot of things that I guess I was too scared to do as Abhi. I needed that, and it helped a lot.”
One of the most notable results of this self-liberation is Waters’ Pity Party single, “Stunnin’.” Over bright beats and sparkling effects, the musician sings, “I’m a pretty boy, I’m stunning/Super-speed, Sonic, I’m running,” and the song becomes an anthem of inner peace. Full of playful braggadocio, the Harm Franklin-featuring track became a hit and has garnered millions of listens on TikTok, while catching the ears of many record labels. “Stunnin’” also, however, became something of a burden for him.
“When I was doing Pity Party, with the label chase, it became very overwhelming,” he says. “It was validating in the sense that everybody wanted to sign me, but it was also sort of exhausting. I’d be in these meetings, and a lot of people say they care about your story, about your humanity, but you have a viral song and they see the dollar signs. It was my first time having to navigate that sort of situation as a kid, and I’ve learned to become less naïve over time and maneuver in the business because of that experience.”
Instead of signing with any of the labels that approached him, Waters chose to remain independent. “I have to pay for everything,” he says with a laugh. Success, then, for him isn’t as simple as the often brutal music industry demands it be. “I’ve had to reimagine and reprioritize what success means to me,” he says. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be famous. I wanted to do this and that, with ‘Stunnin’,’ I think I got a taste of that and I was very miserable. Once you start playing the game, you’ll do anything to win the game, and then it’s not really about being honest — not really about art.”
In forgoing the more business side of music, Waters has retained his musical integrity and consequently is making perhaps his best, most compelling music yet. He’s currently wrapping up work on his second album, Bad Son, which will be released in early 2023 and sees the artist working with richer sonic textures.
Waters has already released the fiery single, “RIOT (feat. chlothegod).” “Yeah yeah, everything I do iconic/Everything you dream I done it,” he raps on the song — and, with charisma spilling from his chest, he’s poised to spin heads later this year.