After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Curtis Waters created the album Pity Party as a way of coping with his mental health. From poppy beats, glitch, rap, punk to folk sounds, Curtis Waters is a kaleidoscope of fragmented, sampled, mixed and mingled bits and pieces of sounds and influences, that accumulate into music that’s different, mood-dependent and authentic; embracing completely the limitlessness of genre fluidity. You could describe him as a chameleon – always changing, constantly exploring and researching all these different sides of himself. We talk about the importance of acceptance, redemption and staying true to yourself.
To start off, why did you choose the stage name of Curtis Waters?
There are a lot of reasons but when I was a kid it was just funny. I was making really ignorant, crazy rap music and I just thought it’d be funny to have an old white man’s name. If you think of Curtis Waters, you think it’s going to be an old realtor but it’s not. It’s a little brown kid saying crazy shit on the internet. So that was the gist. But even then, Curtis comes from Ian Curtis who was from Joy Division and one of my favourite artists. And Waters comes from Frank Ocean, I love him so much. There was some thought put into it, but in the beginning, it was kind of a joke.
Having lived in so many different places across the globe, how would you describe your definition of ‘home?' Do you think it’s less related to a physical place, more as something that fluctuates, like the internet – portable, fluid and borderless?
Interesting question, home is interesting, I guess. I just think of it like where my loved ones are. I think you can have multiple homes. I think of Nepal as my home and I think of Canada as my home. When I think of Canada, I think of all my childhood friends. I just know if I go back anywhere, I have a home there. Even these communities on the Internet, they’re homes. Instagram feels like a home to me. I have all my friends and family and people that want to see what I’m doing there. It’s a thing that changes constantly.
Since the viral success of Stunnin you have been catapulted from your bedroom into the world. You have been offered major record deals with the big labels, but interestingly, you made the conscious decision to stay independent and be in control of your own music, by rejecting the big deals and signing with BMG, as well as management by Chris Anokute. This is a very bold move and says something about your sincerity as an artist. Can you tell us a bit more about this decision?
I just didn’t want the process to change much. I like doing everything. I like making my own beats, mixing them myself, and I like having the last say in what I need to do. I like doing art. I felt like it wasn’t really beneficial. Even the deals that I was getting offered by major labels weren’t exactly what I was looking for.
When you’re with a label, it’s a team. I still have a team now, but it feels very Curtis Waters at the end of the day. I just got the sense that if I was in a label, it’d be a lot more manufactured. I would have these calls and certain labels would say "We are masters at manufacturing authenticity." And they would say these words and I’d be like, what is wrong with you people? Let me be myself. Let me just make the music I want to make and promote the way I want to promote.
You get treated like this weird science experiment. Even outside of that, I had talks with great labels that knew what to talk about, but when it came to the paperwork, the royalty splits weren’t fair. They had these distribution fees and all these others antiquated things that I was not really interested in. For me, it was about getting a fair split and maintaining my control and that’s what I got. That’s why I went with BMG.
You stay true to yourself and make music just for you, and you’re not a one-trick pony (as you haven’t stuck to Stunnin’s sound) but keep on exploring and researching yourself, which makes for music that’s different, mood-dependent and authentic. How do you keep on pushing and inspiring yourself to reach for authenticity? Do you view your work as a self-study?
Yeah, exactly! Everything for me is an experiment. Even me making a song like Doodoodoo, which is straight pop, for me, it was to see what that would sound like. Even that to me is an experiment. I’ve always been scared of pop music. I was interested to see what my take on that would be. Even System, I don’t know what genre that is. It could be experimental pop, punk, rap, glitch, I don’t know. It was me trying to see what I could do with that.
My inspiration for Stunnin’ was slick rick and '90s hip hop and stuff. Then it came out pop. For me, every time it’s just listening to music, being really inspired and then trying to do that in the Curtis Waters way and it comes out totally different. Lately, I’ve really been into experimental pop music. For me, it’s harder to stay the same and not explore. For me, music is about coming here and making sounds and seeing what I can do.
Your consciousness of pushing the status quo feels very apparent after the release of System. You show a side of yourself that’s infuriated with the state of our world, as a direct reaction towards the music industry and the unsettling times in which we are currently living. How important for you is it to let your voice be heard about pressing topics?
I just can’t keep quiet about anything. I don’t think when I made it, I was super conscious that I was doing a big great thing. It was just like any other day where I make music. At that time, my mind was on those topics so that’s the music I made. I’m really glad I did. I actually did get a lot of pushback from people on the other side. They were like, "We want you to make songs like Stunnin’, I don’t know why you’re talking about politics, stay in your lane." People were mad.
I don’t think people see artists as humans with different interests. They see us like they see TV shows. You have to realise at the end of the day, we’re all humans. We all have our own beliefs. I just don’t think I could be the type of artist to keep quiet and not talk about things just because it’s alienating. I’ve always thought, just be 100% authentic and whoever leaves isn’t supposed to be there in the first place. 
Your parents made a sacrifice for you and your brother to have a better education in the United States. You dropped out of university and went full-time into music. How do you walk your own path without losing contact with your parents? Even though your choices went against their initial expectations of your future?
I get that a lot from immigrants' kids. For me, I was always pursuing music. Even when I was in school, my focus was on music. I was always disappointing them, to be honest, and they were always pretty upset with me. I didn’t drop out until I had enough money to take care of myself. I did go on breaks and I did do a lot of things but, at the end of the day, I knew it would work out and I made it work out.
It’s really hard for a lot of kids. Even if you do drop out, you’re going to have to go to work. You’re going to have to do something to survive. This is real life. Do what you need to do and spend the rest of your time and all your frustration making the best art you can make and try to push it and do all that stuff. If you keep doing it, eventually there will be a time when it becomes apparent that you need to make that jump.
After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, you made the album Pity Party, which was recorded in your bedroom. In the album, you deal with heavy subjects in a dual way, by using these happy beats but contrasting this with sad lyrics. This makes me realise that happiness and sadness can live together when you allow it. Did turning your mental health issues into music offer a sense of acceptance about how you were feeling? Instead of victimising yourself, were you able to grow from these struggles?
Pity Party is acceptance. It’s not this super melodramatic 'I hate my life.’ There are moments like that but, at the end of the day, I think the album is both. It’s sad and happy but, mostly, it’s about redemption. That was a word I wrote a lot when I was writing the album. I wanted it to sound like redemption. I don’t want it to make people feel hopeless.
I’m really proud of that album. When you talk about mental health, it’s such a touchy subject that you could make things worse for people by saying things. You could go back in history by saying the wrong thing. I wanted to make sure it was like a pep talk.
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Many young people today are struggling with mental health issues. When these issues are set free and shared, there’s space for healing and growth. Do you intend to present yourself as a role model for people who feel different?
I don’t think it’s a conscious decision. I have struggled with the idea of being a role model because, at the end of the day, I feel equal to everyone I talk to. I think of myself as just another guy, just like anybody that listens to me, just coping with life. I don’t always make the right decisions. I don’t pretend I do.
For me, it’s about being honest. I could fuck up later in my life. I have bad mental health days. I’m not some guy that is here like: I was depressed and now I’m not and now I work hard and this is how to save your life. That’s not what I’m pretending to do. I don’t have the answers. I’m just a guy that’s sharing how I feel and hopefully, other people can relate and feel better and share back how they feel with me.
In Pity Party, you present twelve tracks that feel like a kaleidoscope of fragmented, sampled, mixed and mingled bits and pieces of sounds and influences, but somehow the album is coherent. You talk about this genre-fluidity. The internet world is very cut and paste, and identity seems mouldable in these fluid times. Would you describe yourself as a DIY project? How do you view your own identity?
I mean it’s completely DIY. Every day, it was like: you get in the studio, you make random stuff, you listen to all kinds of music you like and you try to emulate it and then it becomes your own thing. The album cover is actually a picture of me when I was 15. It’s actually what I made on Photoshop when I was 15 and I saved it for 6 years for an album that I knew would exist.
I had one co-producer, my friend Declan, but they were all ideas I’d had since I was a kid. Every time someone says I’m a pop star, I want to do the opposite and I want to make a punk song. Every time someone says I’m an emo rapper, I cringe and I want to make the gooiest pop song ever. We’re humans. It’s not high school. There are no jocks and there’s no gods. I get that people do that for marketing and try to tell their product, but it feels weird and inauthentic. I’m just a guy making music.
It must be difficult to stay true to your own visions, when there are suddenly a lot more opinions to take into consideration, also in the way people perceive the music and the loudness of social media. How do you guard your mental health with this fast-pace success? Are you able to continue doing what you love, without losing yourself?
It's really tough. It’s easy for me to act like I don’t care but it does get to me. Even just a few days ago, I was having a really rough time where I realised that the music I want to make isn’t the music that people are wanting or expecting. But that’s never what it was about in the first place.
My favourite artists have made things that I didn’t even understand or want but then I eventually love it. Anytime I wanted Kanye to do something, he did the opposite.
Anytime I wanted Frank Ocean to do something, he came back and gave me something I didn’t know I needed. Artists need to have the space to grow and change. It’s not always about the hit. Every time I make a song, people are like, this one’s a hit, this one’s not a hit. But what about artistic expression? What about how I feel and the things I want to make? Not everything is this rat race competition. When I am in this same room that I made all my music in and I’m just experimenting and trying to make the weirdest stuff possible to express myself, it feels very much the same.
Nothing’s changed. It’s still four in the morning and I’m saying how I feel. The only time it feels different is when it’s time to release stuff and market stuff and you have to think about all these people. Then it becomes like ‘oh, I’m Curtis Waters.’ But the creative process is the exact same as when I was 15.
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What do you do to balance everything?
Because I’m bipolar, I have to really keep track and make sure I’m not going manic and crazy. I am actually kind of terrified of being too excited. I have to really ground myself. I’m here with my family; I hang out with my girlfriend; I pet my cat. You go on your phone and it’s like thousands of things and lists, all this crazy stuff. I honestly tune it out. As soon as I get crazy news, I’m just like, cool, I’m going to play Animal Crossing.’ For me, mental stability is the main thing. I don’t ever want to be too manic or too depressed or anything. I try to really keep track and take good care of myself.
Will you stay making music in your bedroom?
That’s where I feel the most comfortable, I think so. Every time I get into the studio, it feels like pressure and it just feels weird. It’s hard to break out of it; I do want to challenge myself to get into studios. When I’m in a studio, I love producing for people. Recording for me is such a personal thing that I just really want to be alone and mix myself and do the same take hundreds of times and get the right take. You don’t have that luxury when you’re with a bunch of people. There’ are very few people that I feel comfortable around to that extent. I would love to produce for anyone.
When it comes to vocals, a lot of the time it’s so personal. And it’s kind of cringe-worthy and it’s so deep in there that I’m like, I don’t want to say this while there’s a room full of dudes smoking weed and standing around. It’s just not the sort of environment for the music I make usually. When I think about that album, Pity Party, it can be that album because I’m alone in a room at four in the morning. That’s just the energy of that album.
Lastly, talk to us about these folk aspirations, how many sides of Curtis Waters does the world still need to discover?
There’s so much. When you release, it’s a bit more strategic and you think about feedback. Honestly, in an ideal world, I’d be releasing a song every week and every week it’d be like 'This week, he’s into Phoebe Bridgers...' I’m like a sponge. Every time I listen to something, I’m so deeply inspired by it that I put all my stuff in it. There’s a lot.
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