The rise of Curtis Waters

Abhi Bastakoti as Curtis Waters

Somewhere out there, at this very moment, there are people listening to Nepal-born Curtis Waters. And it is probably his infectious single Stunnin’.

In less than two months, the song has been streamed over 25 million times and is climbing across many Top 40 radio formats around the world. It ranked #3 on Rolling Stone magazine’s Breakthrough 25 Chart for June.

Last week, it appeared on a Mercedes Benz advertisement. Things have been moving fast for Waters, who was born Abhi Bastakoti in Kathmandu literally at the turn of the 21st century when the Internet was still sparse. He came of age online and on social media in Germany and North America. Now, at 20, he isn’t just living on the Internet, he has emerged as one of its biggest sensations.

“We are seven weeks in, and Stunnin’ is growing faster than any song released this year,” said Chris Anokute, who discovered Curtis Waters by chance, and is now his manager. “It takes about 20 to 25 weeks to properly cement a song into the marketplace, and another six to nine months to cement the artist. So it's still early days and we are very excited about the potential of what's to come.”

Anokute would know. He is one of American music industry’s top A&R executives and was central in launching young artists to great enduring success, including Katy Perry, Iggy Azalea and Rihanna.

When he heard Freckles by Waters, Anokute was captivated. “The song literally blew me away,” he recalled. Like so many times before, he knew he was listening to an artist that just needed to be discovered by the world. So he reached out. The timing couldn’t have been better.

Stunnin’ was not released yet, but after more than six months of working on it, Waters had just started teasing it out on TikTok by posting snippets. It did not take long for it to go viral. That’s when Waters was flooded with offers from record companies.

“It was an extremely stressful three weeks,” Waters recalled, speaking to Nepali Times about the many simultaneous offers from various major record labels he was suddenly having to figure out. “I would not have been able to navigate this without Chris. For me, I like making music and having fun. He really came through in helping guide me on the business side.”

In the end, Waters decided to stay independent and signed on with Young Forever, Anokute’s artist management company. The first order of business for this new relationship: releasing Stunnin'

Stunnin’ is fresh, I liked it instantly,” Ranzen, the popular Nepali producer and DJ said. “And its great to see that he could choose to stay independent.”

“Its raunchy 2020,” added Rohit Shakya, perhaps the most versatile and prodigious musician, songwriter and producer in Nepal today.

Born in Kathmandu on 20 December 1999, Waters was only four years old when he moved to Germany with his parents. When the family relocated to Canada, he was 10. His father is a PhD in environment science, and his mother has a double masters and works in Geographic Information Systems.

He has returned to Nepal only once, for his bratabanda coming of age ceremony at age 14. Those three months in Nepal would change the trajectory of his life.

Waters enjoyed his sightseeing trips to Chitwan and Pokhara, but remembers being stuck in Kathmandu with bad Internet and an unfamiliar way of life while his actual high-school teenage life was falling apart. He could not talk to his friends in Canada because of the time difference, and what had become a long distance relationship with his girlfriend had ended with her cheating on him.

“I was super bored, and I was also a little depressed,” he recalled. “And I had a lot of time. So I started learning how to make music.”

He hasn’t stopped since. If there is a reason Stunnin’ sounds like the work of a polished artist with a sleek producer, it is because Waters has spent all this teenage years training to be one -- both as an artist and a keen audience of pop-punk, pop and rap.

Over the last four years, he has left a digital trail of his music and life. His songs were written when he was a teenager, and they do not pretend to by anything else. The lyrics tell it like it is: ‘I like things/ I like girls/ I like the world/ I know the world is mine,’ he sings in one. ‘I ain’t so sure about my future,’ he confesses in another.

Musically, genres seem to matter less to Waters. His focus is clearly on catchy melodies filled with clever layers and beats while making it all sound simple, whole and natural. Stylistically, there are plenty of odes to his influences from all the years that he has been alive.

Its not surprising that currently 70% of his listening fan base is under 27 and about 65% are female. Nepalis now make up a part of his fast growing legion of followers. And as Nepalis discover him, Waters is himself trying to learn more about his Nepali roots.

“Honestly speaking, because I was so young when I left Nepal, I missed out on a lot of my culture. But I am on this journey of connecting with my Nepali roots now, and I love it,” he said.

Waters confesses to also being fairly disconnected from the new Nepali music scene, but he is certain about his favorites in Nepali music: “I love Narayan Gopal, he is my favorite Nepali artist, and Jun Phool Mailey is my favorite Narayan Gopal song. And Gaun Gaun Bata Utha is my favorite Nepali song.”

Sure enough, he was recently holding court on Instagram Live when he spontaneously burst into the chorus of Raamesh Shrestha’s revolutionary Gaun Gaun Bata Utha as his audience from around the world cheered him on. “My song System, you know I wanted the audience to feel the rage, sort of like Gaun Gaun Bata Utha,” he added.

Waters is currently busy preparing for the launch of his album in September. It was recorded in his college dorm at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “Curtis produced and executive produced the entire album, with maybe four collaborators in a few co-productions and features,” said Anokute.

Freckles, the song that drew Anokute to Waters, will be released before the album. An older listener might find traces of the bright pop radio hits from about a decade ago, and be caught humming it before even realising it. And the sincere melancholic confession will certainly leave a lot for the younger audiences to relate to. Freckles may well become inescapable on the radio and online this autumn, just as Stunnin’ has fast become a part of the soundtrack to Summer 2020.

Anokute was the first major music executives to reach out to Waters, before any mainstream success. “Everybody loved Stunnin’ but Chris didn’t care about it. He loved the album,” Waters said, of their initial conversations. “My life has really changed the last three months and everything has come together in a super surreal way.”

When Waters worked at Tropical Smoothie, a local smoothie shop in North Carolina, occasionally a student would recognise him from his nascent online presence. Anonymity is now a thing of the past.

“Its pretty bizarre. Every time I go out people come up to me. And I’m walking around with my family, and when I’m with my family I’m just Abhi. On the internet, I’m Curtis Waters.  It’s sort of a character in my head,” he said, giddy and wary in equal measure. “Now kids come up. It’s a new thing, and am not used to it yet. I gotta look good every time I’m outside now.”

For Nepalis, Waters is the first Nepal born artist to reach international success of this kind, a feat that Waters, who yearns to understand and experience Nepal more than ever, is himself immensely proud of. But as a rising star with a serious international hit and a highly anticipated forthcoming album, this is perhaps only a glimpse of what’s coming his way.

“He wrote the song, and I opened up doors for it to be heard and supported at major levels,” Anokute said, of Stunnin’. “There's no difference between how this feels compared to when we launched Katy Perry's I Kissed A Girl. It's just 12 years later, but the story always stays the same. Hits don’t lie. Stunnin’ is a TikTok sensation, but Curtis is more than a sensation. He's here to stay.”

Kashish Das Shrestha has written about youth and music culture in Nepal since 1997. Twitter, Instagram: @Kashishds

Read also: A brief history of Arthur Gunn by Kashish Das Shrestha

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