Let's start simple: who is Curtis Waters?
My identity is not something that I feel defines me completely but it is something that bleeds into my art unintentionally, due to the experiences I have had growing up. It feels a bit silly and reductive to identify myself on paper like this, but I guess I am a young immigrant bipolar Nepali man. On a human level I am also funny, caring, sensitive, passionate and creative.
You perform under the artist name Curtis Waters, an homage to Ian Curtis and Frank Ocean.
What were your reasons for taking on an artist name, and has your relationship with it evolved over the past couple years as you’ve become more confident in your own career and identity?
When I reflect on this name I created for myself I realize It started off as a shield and maybe even a sense of internal racism. When I first started making music I felt extremely ashamed and vulnerable so I made up this fake character Curtis Waters to hide behind. It gave me some protection and anonymity and allowed me to be as honest as possible.
Lately I have also been reflecting on why I chose such an American sounding name. For years I have said it was because it was funny and ironic to be a brown person with such an American name, which I do agree with, but I also think it was because I wanted to be accepted by American culture. At the time I had this thought that if I went with my real name I would be pigeon holed strictly as a “Brown artist” and only serve a niche audience. Since I grew up on mostly American music I ended up replicating what I thought was normal and necessary for success. I think one day I will change my artist name to my real name Abhi.
Thinking about Ian Curtis’s legacy, it’s especially inspiring to see how you speak about your own mental health journey to combat the stigma surrounding it. Generally speaking, Asian - and especially immigrant - households can sometimes find it difficult to acknowledge mental health struggles.
What was your upbringing like when it comes to discussing mental health and did it influence how you eventually sought help? Was it easy to receive familial support during your initial diagnoses and treatment?
It was extremely lonely and confusing growing up with bipolar disorder. Because of the stigma surrounding mental health in immigrant communities I distanced myself from a lot of people because I felt ashamed and misunderstood. My parents are very supportive now but it took many years of arguments and denial and confusion to reach this point of love and understanding.
I just think the more we all talk honestly about our mental health, the easier it will be for everybody to get help. Society has already changed so much since I was first 14 years old and I am happy to see it's becoming less stigmatized to ask for support.
The “stiff upper lip” attitude within the immigrant experience can definitely contribute to the lack of diasporic mental health conversation, but it can also stem from the origin country’s attitude and culture as well.
Do you have a sense of what mental health awareness and treatment is like back in Nepal, especially for younger people?
I am not sure because I moved out of Nepal when I was 10 years old so my experience dealing with mental health has only been with the immigrant community but from what I understand there seems to be a lot of denial and misinformation.
With your online success gaining you an impressive international audience, has it additionally fostered a stronger connection between you and your generation in Nepal? What has surprised you most in connecting with them?
I think the biggest surprise for me is how proud people in Nepal are of me. As a teenager I felt very excluded from the immigrant Nepali community because I felt like the black sheep (probably due to the stigma of mental illness). I sort of assumed Nepali people wouldn't like me or would find me weird but I feel so much love from people back home which is really heartwarming. I hope I can go back and visit soon.
Speaking on your success, we have to talk about the two-billion-streams elephant in the room: your song 'Stunnin’' was one of the very first TikTok phenomenons, catapulting you to fame with a sound that you’ve observed as ironically dissimilar to your typical style.
Can you recap and unpack the five emotional stages of processing your 'Stunnin’' success, and how you didn’t let it stop you from creating and experimenting with newer tracks?
I can’t let it stop me from creating and experimenting with new sounds because I am not a machine that makes products, I am an artist. I love music so much I couldn't quit even if I wanted to. There's so much more I need to explore and express and I am too excited to just do the same thing over and over again.
TikTok and 'Stunnin’' kickstarted your fan base but that probably involves an ever-increasing amount of pressure and negative comments; what’s amazing is you never flounder in still posting candidly and authentically as yourself.
What’s the advice here on not letting the ill effects of social media - especially when it’s tied to your career growth - get to you or change you?
I can’t act like it doesn't impact me. Sometimes it really really does get me. But I have realized things only truly hurt me when It is something I am deeply personally insecure about. I quit TikTok for over a year because I was getting comments calling me a one hit wonder and I took that very personally because that was a huge fear and insecurity of mine.
I dealt with that fear and refound new ways in which I am proud of myself. I love the art I am making now way more even though they aren't getting a billion streams so comments like that are just funny to me.
Your latest single 'STAR KILLER' sets the stage for your next album BAD SON: shifting from an emphasis on your internal world to your external one, it brings a nostalgic yet undeniably contemporary post-punk band sound that critiques the peak unjust capitalist systems we live within in North America.
How do you feel this thematic shift connects to your own evolving happiness?
I don’t fully consider it a thematic shift because I have been making songs like 'STAR KILLER' for years. In many ways 'STAR KILLER' is a sequel to my 2020 song 'SYSTEM'. Those songs both use similar chord progressions, similar vocal tones and similar themes. I think this time I have become better at articulating my experiences and I also have dealt with being in the music business longer. Also I have started performing music live so I understand how to pace and structure my music best for a fun show.
The production on your debut album Pity Party complemented its subject matter with its atmosphere of creating music in solitude, so it’s really exciting to see you creating new music as a four-member band, especially as a bBrown frontman!
Growing up, did you sense a lack of Brown or POC presence in the music and bands you liked and how do you feel about this new shift towards performing as a group?
I am not actually in a band, I just did a one time performance video with my roommates and friends. I actually still come up with most songs alone in my bedroom or collaborate with friends here and there. Growing up I did sense a lack of Brown representation in music and media so it's exciting to be able to do this and also see my other friends like Weston Estate do so well.
As the world eagerly anticipates the arrival of your sophomore album BAD SON, can you share which song on it is your personal favourite and why?
My personal favorite song right now is arguably the worst song on the album called 'ragin’' because it is so stupid. I made it as a complete joke but I’m kind of obsessed with it. There’s so many songs on this album where I am trying to make some sort of grand important message about capitalism or mental illness or the POC experience or whatever but that one song is just so stupid and fun which is refreshing to me because in real life I don’t talk about this shit all day.
I am mostly just being stupid. And fun.
Bonus question as your parents’ son: have they heard the tracks yet and do they have a favourite too?
No, I am waiting to show my parents the album when it's done. They really want me to make poppier happy songs like stunning though, they have told me they don’t like all the yelling.