Chances are you can still find Curtis Waters' breakout hit 'Stunnin'' rattling around TikTok's brightly lit, cluttered halls, soundtracking the umpteenth person showing you what they might look like if they were in Harry Potter, or in their favourite band or what have you. But, he's not a TikTok artist.
Born in Nepal before moving to Canada, he's gone from relative anonymity to people rocking up to his parents' house, where he currently lives in North Carolina, and doing a dance he cobbled together for the sake of a 20-second video. It's something Curtis just has to deal with now.
"I love TikTok, I go on all the time, but…" Curtis gathers his words, reclining in his bedroom. "I saw an opportunity for 'Stunnin'' to blow up. I didn't make it for TikTok, but the way it was promoted was like, you know, this could be like 'Old Town Road'. I knew it was catchy. I knew it wasn't genre-specific."
But doesn't using that platform, kinda set up the idea that you are, in fact, a TikTok artist?
"People can say whatever. You can call me a SoundCloud artist, or a TikTok artist," he says. "I know what I am, I know what I make, you know what I mean? Hopefully, my catalogue proves whatever, you know - I don't feel the need to defend it."
With this wild ride, the fact he's now in the public eye is what he quotes as the "strangest" part. "Before my whole identity was based around vulnerability, and being brutally honest and just as weird and emotional as possible. My friends and fans are watching, but it wasn't this massive thing. Right now, though, there are so many passive watches that it sort of makes me rethink sometimes… maybe put up a guard a little bit, which is kind of unfortunate because I never grew up like that. I was always like, 'do this, do that'. Maybe, eventually, I'll stop caring again."
However, it doesn't seem to be settling down any time soon. Curtis himself posted to Instagram the velocity of the numbers has outpaced that of Crazy Frog, so not even little novelty anthropomorphic frogs can get in the way of the 'Stunnin'' freight train.
"It's just surreal, man. I'll be honest, it is overwhelming sometimes. I'm not used to it."
The artist part of Curtis, inspired, at the tender age of fourteen, by the likes of Odd Future, Kanye West, Frank Ocean et al, are where the genre-fluidity of his sound stems. Further influenced by emo stalwarts American Football, Modern Baseball and The Front Bottoms, along with a dash of Death Grips. "The most important things I think were emotional vulnerability and the humour of pop-punk music."
Which is why 'System', the follow-up to 'Stunnin'', is a distorted barrage of anti-establishment that fits quite nicely into the second theme of 2020. Filled to the brim with its calls for protests and change. Certainly not a meme-able track, if you will.
"The fun for me is just trying to reinvent myself constantly," Curtis says. "It's awesome 'Stunnin' is a radio hit, but it was never intended to be a radio hit or whatever. I always think it's kind of funny that is the song that blew up because it's sort of an anomaly in terms of my catalogue. Now and then I'll make a fun, random… like, 'I'm a pretty boy, I'm stunning'… but most of the time, I just close my eyes, put on my headphones and I'm singing in auto-tune about how sad I am."
From the age of fourteen, he's been writing down the thoughts and feelings that seep into his head, and now those are forming the songs that he wants to stand with him forever. Even if they're to be overshadowed forever by 'Stunnin''.
"It would have been impossible for me to be like, 'Oh, 'Stunnin' Part Two'' when all this is going on," he says as if gesturing wildly to the world. "I wasn't thinking about stupid shit like studying, you know what I mean? I wasn't in that mindset. I want my music to always be a reflection of my emotions and what I'm thinking - that's always relevant."
Given the success of 'Stunnin'' came when it was a one-man operation, Curtis did err away from any label interference, but since then has signed a licensing deal with BMG. Mostly, he wants you to know that his album "was made when I was independent, here in my room, all alone."
With the album, he has grand ideas. "My goal is to normalise mental health issues instantly, you know what I mean?" he says. "And the thing is the songs are always going to be catchy. The songs are always gonna be fun because they're songs - if they're not, there's no point."
Leaping away from the sound that broke him on TikTok with 'System' is, if anything, a brave move. It would've been easy for Curtis to bust out another soak-in-the-sun R&B laden beat for the world to get changed to, but, as he puts it "I've always known what my brand is or identity or whatever."
So what is his brand, or identity?
He breaks a smirk. "I can't define it, because if you define it, it becomes a formula... a formula only I know."
Certainly, it's a formula unlike most, though its foundations reside in the familiar, with trip-hop beats, laid back, ready to be built upon, either toward the lounging perfection of 'Stunnin'', or the aggressive 'System', or even the yearning pull of latest single 'The feelings tend to stay the same' ("a vulnerable, like emotional, whatever song"), it's all just following his gut. There's no denying Curtis is someone who knows what he wants to do.
"For the whole time, I was like 'No, this is perfect - this is what I need to do'," he explains on 'System'. "The day before release I had a bit of like anxiety, I was like, what if everybody hates me?" His face contorts, and voice collapses into a babbling wah-wah.
"But I talked to my friends, and everybody was like, you're anxious for a good reason, because you really do care. You do care what you're saying, there's a reason you're not just doing this shit, so do it. It's not because I care about the reception, or whether it's a hit or not. I care whether I'm making an educated statement, you know?"
Which is where the important distinction between Curtis Waters; the chancer uploading a quick video, and Curtis Waters; the musical chameleon who wants to be taken seriously, comes into play. Even now, since his world has blown up, the battle to retain that integrity rages on as he hasn't "had as much time to make music… I thought being a musician [would be] making music all the time." But, as with Dork's chat today, it's actually just talking "about myself all day."
The problem he's encountered with finding his rise sequestered to TikTok is that, well, you kind of do become a 'TikTok artist'. "I don't want any one thing to define me," he implores with an air of relegation. "I'm sure 'Stunnin'' will define me - it's gonna outlive me, which is fine. But I'm constantly evolving, constantly doing stuff, making new ideas." But, the reality is summed up in six words: "Sometimes things work, sometimes they don't."
Who would have thought that success could come from a place where a viral video for a song you create is sandwiched between someone miming to a Mickey Flanagan routine and a pigeon spinning around on a roof air duct system. But that's where we are in 2020 - just don't expect any more dance routines.
"I don't want to be a gimmick," Curtis admits. "For me, I'm having fun experimenting, it's not about doing the same song over and over. If I do it is because I like it, right? I listen to so much different music that I'm always like, 'Can I do this? What would this sound like if Curtis waters made it?' You know what I mean?" Spoken like a true artist.
Taken from the September issue of Dork.
Featuring Dominic Fike, Arlo Parks, Cavetown and loads more.