Twenty-year-old Curtis Waters says he owes everything to the internet: “I make all my money because of the internet, I learned everything because of the internet — it scares me how reliant I am on it.” But it’s that savviness that helped the rising artist land a breakthrough hit with “Stunnin’” (featuring Harm Franklin) and subsequently sign a licensing deal with BMG.
Since, the track has been tagged to over 1.3 million TikTok videos and this October, he released his debut album, Pity Party, made entirely in his bedroom. “It’s a very personal thing,” says Waters. “It’s like a clay sculpture that I put my hands all over, and now you can see it.” Adds Thomas Scherer, evp, repertoire and marketing, BMG Los Angeles: “His ambitions are far beyond just being a hit song with ‘Stunnin’’ with his entire album speaking volumes about his artistry. I’ve seen this DIY ethic before in artists such as Frank Ocean — Curtis is new, he’s real, he’s different.”
The Nepal-born, North Carolina based artist grew up loving Nintendo video game soundtracks, particularly the Pokémon and Kirby series, and was most inspired by Mort Garson’s 1976 album Mother Earth’s Plantasia. He soon started building out video game-inspired beats, or what he calls “straight up Nintendo soundtracks,” and uploading them to Soundcloud. As he got older, his influences expanded, including everything from Radiohead to A$AP Rocky, whom he used to Google how to produce for, learning new techniques through YouTube. Of being self-taught, Waters says, “It’s easier to break the rules if you don’t really know what the rules are.”
Waters recalls a time when he would spend hours searching marketing techniques and algorithms. “The thing with ‘Stunnin” is that TikTok was just one of my attempts,” he says. “If that didn’t work out, the next week I would have done something else — but it did.” A month before the song took off, though, A&R executive Chris Anokute hit up the aspiring artist hoping to sign him to his entertainment company, Young Forever Inc. (he was a fan of previous single “Freckles” and like what he heard of “Stunnin’”). Waters says at the same time that Anokute was trying to sign him, he was generous enough to also teach him about the industry. “While that was happening, I was blowing up — and then every record label started hitting me up and the money just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Chris couldn’t really compete,” says Waters. “But I was really confused and I was really stressed out because I don’t know anything. Chris was the only dude who cared enough to explain everything to me.” In the end, Waters chose to remain independent — but hired Chris as his manager.
Today, Waters admits he’s not using TikTok at all. “It was a strategic thing,” he says, “to go on TikTok and get immersed in the culture and figure out what the trends are but really, I just want to make music. Social media is a distraction for me.” And while he says he doesn’t listen to the radio often either, he acknowledges how crazy it is “to be accepted there” as “Stunnin'” has started to receive airplay. He wishes he could have celebrated the release of his debut album with listening parties in Nepal and Canada (where he lived for a while growing up) or even his hometown of North Carolina — just anywhere he can meet fans. “I’m really inspired by kids that remind me of me when I was 14, because that’s when I started making music,” he says. “These young kids message me and they say, ‘I see where you’re going and it makes me feel like I can do it too.’ That makes me so happy because that’s the same message I used to send to Tyler, the Creator when I was 14.”
Waters has, of course, listened back to Pity Party since its release, and though he says he’s a pessimist, he’s also incredibly proud. “It’s such a DIY [project]. I remember every single detail I put into it. I remember spending 30 hours making sure the effects on this part were really good or whatever — nobody had any impact on this album at all. I wanted my debut to be really personal; I wanted people to feel like they knew who I was, even if they never met me.”