Within the Wild West of the digital age’s musical landscape, everyone from major label signees to independent dreamers operating out of garages and bedrooms are competing to create the next trending hit. But for Curtis Waters, whose single “Stunnin’” became the signature soundtrack for style clips all over TikTok, his relationship with the track that propelled him into cultural relevance is complicated.
“I can’t be mad at it and, you know, it’s made the world a better place because people enjoy it, but for a long time, I felt really embarrassed of it,” Waters tells NextShark. “I felt like people don’t see me as the artist I see myself and that they see me as a gimmick.”
Instead of some secret chord progression or innovative, genre-shifting instrumentation, Waters’ path to musical virality was through none other than savvy marketing.
“[“Stunnin’”] was the least effort song I made, but the most effort I’ve ever put into marketing,” Waters says. “I remember I was on TikTok way before it was normal to do this, posting it multiple times a day, every day for like, three months. I was getting death threats, like people were annoyed by me, but, you know, I had to do what I had to do.”
But Waters, born Abhi Bastakoti, is a creative first and businessman second — his calling is constructing sonic landscapes for his listeners to immerse themselves within.
“My favorite thing about music is definitely this whole world I build around it, and one day I’d love to make video games and simulations and stuff like that,” Waters shares. “I could tell you, ‘Hey, I’m really angry because I’m upset at the music industry,’ or I could show you through some crazy world metaphor or whatever.”
Having spent his youth moving across five different countries, Waters never had the opportunity to adopt a musical style tailored by regional influences. Instead, he dwelled within the digital realm and was shaped and inspired by the artists of the internet, including the foulmouthed leader of an influential and controversial West Coast hip-hop collective who is now a prominent creator in music and fashion.
“When I found out about Tyler, the Creator and he was talking about killing himself, I didn’t even know that sh*t was allowed,” Waters says. “I didn’t know you could be so honest, and I didn’t know you could win by being yourself to that degree.”
Tyler, the Creator’s penchant for projecting impressions and moods through elaborately crafted characters who wear everything from balaclavas to bowl cuts inspired Waters to create alter egos of his own.
“I remember when I first found out [Tyler, the Creator] around his ‘Goblin’ era with the green mask and the upside-down cross,” Waters says. “It gives me such freedom because I can say a lot of [what] I’m thinking of that I’m scared to say as Abhi, but as Curtis Waters or Star Killer, I can say anything because it’s this character.”
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Waters finds liberation in mystique and anonymity not only in performance, but also in his daily life. As a blank slate, he is no longer pressured into conforming to any preconceived notions that people hold from knowing him personally and can also express himself more freely.
“You know who I’m really honest with? When I go to a party and I meet a random stranger, I almost spill my whole life to them because they don’t know me, I don’t know them, it doesn’t matter. I’m not as honest to my parents or my girlfriend or my close friends about how I really feel sometimes, you know?” Waters says. “It’s easier when it’s like there’s no judgment. So in a way, Curtis Waters is the strangers, it’s a character, it’s not me. But in a way, when I’m Curtis Waters, I can be the most honest.”
Speaking with Waters over Zoom, he is dressed as his latest role: a portrayal of capitalistic rage and frustration whose dapper outfit and striking star-shaped makeup evokes a cross between Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” and David Bowie, though Waters notes that he was actually inspired by the band Kiss. While he describes his past personas as more “cutesy and loving,” the character Waters portrays in his new single “STAR KILLER” channels a far more aggressive and abrasive aspect of his identity.
“Normally I’m a very passive, almost self-deprecating person, you know?” Waters says. “There’s like a sliver of me that’s very power-hungry and angry. Here’s a bunch of music off of this part of my personality and here’s this world and here’s this outfit and here’s the pads and the shoes and everything.”Waters’ musical success not only encouraged him to peel back the layers of his psyche, but it also enabled him to begin exploring another aspect of his identity — his Nepalese heritage.
“When I was in Nepalese communities growing up, I had piercings and I would dye my hair,” says Waters. “I always felt kind of ostracized from the community. … I remember growing up, I was trying to distance myself from my culture because I didn’t feel welcome, but after ‘Stunnin’’ everybody welcomed me.”
As one of the first major artists of Nepali descent with a truly global reach and appeal, Waters reveals that he feels a newfound responsibility to be a moral influence on Nepal’s youth and also wants to inspire them to explore their creative potential.
“Growing up, I didn’t know any Nepali people that were doing what I wanted to do. The path was very hidden,” says Waters. “I hope I’ve kind of opened up the puzzle piece in some way for some kids to be like, ‘Okay, you know, Curtis Waters did it, Abhi did it, so I can do it.’”
Waters adds that he aspires to incorporate elements of the culture of his birthplace in his music and perform under his birth name someday. But he admits that he does not have a thorough enough understanding of Nepali artistry to do so… yet.
“Lately I’ve been meeting with a lot of South Asian artists, and I’ve been pretty inspired by them. I’ll see. Maybe when I go to Nepal, I’ll get inspired. I’d love to one day go by my government name Abhi,” Waters shares. “But you know, the timing’s gotta be right… I don’t feel prepared enough to tastefully deliver on a good Nepali song yet.”
While a musical foray into his ethnic background may still be in the distant future, the latest development in Curtis Waters’ craft is a project that explores his tumultuous upbringing for the first time.
“The album’s called ‘Bad Son.’ It’s about me growing up and the immigrant struggles. I tried to [cover them] on my first album, but actually, in this album, I really figured it out,” says Waters. “I think for me, it’s always about getting closest to the root and the heart. But you know, that takes time, and you’ve got to master your skills before you’re able to handle certain things.”
His sophomore album also helped him free himself from a cycle of external validation spurred by a musical landscape increasingly reliant on social media trends that forced him to scrap countless songs if he felt they lacked the potential to go viral.
“This whole time I’ve been making music, it’s been like, ‘How do I game the algorithm?’ You know what I mean?” says Waters. “I’d love to explore more in this ‘Bad Son’ album, I like taking much bigger risks. I have a 10-minute ambient song, you know, and I have all the weird, cool sh*t that I also really enjoy.”
Despite having such ambitious projects in the works, Waters acknowledges that he is still in the earliest stages of his career and that many of his most successful and innovative artistic contributions are still on the distant horizon.
“I’m so in the beginning, I’m 22. I’m excited, like, what am I doing when I’m 30?” Waters says. “Childish Gambino released ‘Because the Internet’ when he was 30 and ‘Yeezus’ came out so late in Kanye’s career. There’s so much amazing sh*t that I have yet to do.”
In the meantime, Curtis Waters’ new single “STAR KILLER” releases on Wednesday.