It’s a full-force bright-skies Saturday when I sit to chat with Curtis Waters about his latest project, Plastic World. He is our generation’s answer to the one effortlessly cool scene kid of the early aughts: the self-effacing wuderkind has a penchant for a very self-aware brand of irony, and grew up in Nepalese culture, which is a world (and few shades of melanin) away from the predominantly white pop-punk that captured his musical imagination growing up. His warm and sunny laughter brings the sunshine inside in a way that allows me to forget I am embarking on what feels like my millionth Zoom call of pandemic purgatory. Curtis is the consummate gentleman and immediately sympathetic.

“Since I’ve become popular, the Internet isn’t fun for me, the 21-year-old tells Complex. “I feel like I need to be in real life. I have my notifications turned off and I have to be with my girlfriend and spend time with my family.“ 

The Nepal-born, Calgary-bred artist’s phone has undoubtedly been blowing up since uploading his song “Stunnin’” on TikTok last year. Tens of millions of views and streams later, he’s got three recent Juno nods, a placement in a Mercedes Benz commercial, an article in Rolling Stone, and a deal with BMG to his name. But he’s also got a lot less privacy.

This tension between our immersion in a consumer-driven online reality and the vulnerability and isolation that can come with navigating life offline is foundational to Plastic World, the follow-up to his debut album Pity Party. Although just two songs, you can hear the influence of Yeezus-era Kanye and early Tyler the Creator on it, an ornate and pleasurable chaos intertwining the bravado and brashness of punk, pop, and hip-hop. “I wanted this to be something that you could tell was inspired by that lineage of music,” he shares. “It’s so easy to get lost in your own self-deprecation… songs on this project validate that mania that I had growing up and makes me feel less alone. I hope people can be comforted by that. I want the weird stuff I make to turn into a hit because it resonates with people.”

Nothing about the frenetic trashiness is unintentional—on the contrary, Waters meticulously self-produced and layered the instrumentation throughout the project’s soundscape into a hyperactive study of isolation in overdrive. The final product is startlingly soft; a hard-pried shell hiding a gleaming sea stone. Waters bares it all, exploring self-aggrandizement, suicidality, and the tender absurdity of feeling anger towards your own loneliness. 

We caught up with Curtis to chat about weird Harmony Korine movies, DIY culture, and how he’s pushing the pop-punk sound. 

What inspired Plastic World? And how do you think it’s pushing on your dope album Pity Party
Pity Party was what I made before I had any accolades or recognition. It was very self-deprecating. Plastic World is more like ego death—I’m battling between being an insecure person and being like, “Oh my god, I’m a god, I’m manic right now.” It was a great way to explore this crazy insecurity and paranoia. It’s compensation, and definitely overplayed—there’s lots of crazy visuals in the album that play into that. It’s really about ego death and the cycle of being manic and depressive. 

What drew you to explore that in music?
Music is my coping mechanism: if I’m having a good day, I make music; if I’m having a bad day, I make music. I just don’t know how to express myself very well outside of that. If I’m having an excess amount of validation, you can come to depend on external validation. My take on vulnerability is that there are two sides: there’s one where you see yourself as worthless, and the other where you’re compensating and being really egotistical. 

So do you think that’s coming through in the “pop vs. anti-pop” hype around your music?  
I never thought I made pop music! I fell into this character and I guess… I’ve been doing pop star role-play for a year now? I just wake up and think, “I’m Curtis Waters and I’m going to go on the Internet and create parasocial relationships for the profit.” I’m weirdly self-aware about it because it’s so bizarrely strange and not human. It’s funny because I’m like, “celebrity culture is bad” but at the same time being like “buy my merch and shit.” I don’t know if it’s good that I’m self-aware of it. I wish I could turn it off sometimes. Plastic World is really about how I was feeling about the world at the time: just curated and fake. But it also has both anti-pop and pop in there. 

“Even though I’m a brown immigrant kid, I have no idea why I relate to this skinny white kid complaining about his step-dad and small town in California.”

Celebrity culture is crazy! How do you balance that self-awareness with your own rising popularity?  
It’s a blessing. I’m a sensitive person, and have always been vulnerable, but now I have thousands of people aware of that. I can be having a bad day and post that I’m feeling suicidal, and people will react by saying, “Oh, that’s so cringe.” But I’m just trying to normalize it. I don’t know if it’s pretentious but I do feel this responsibility to not glorify my life. I might do it in my music, but in the end, it’s a character. One thing I like about this project is that as biographical as it is, there is an exaggerated character as well that the project is based around. 

Since I’ve become popular, the Internet isn’t fun for me and I feel like I need to be in real life. I have my notifications turned off and I have to be with my girlfriend, spend time with my family. I have real friends who don’t care whether I have a hit or not. I have people in real life who do not give a fuck about my music and I think that really balances me out. 

Curtis Waters drops Plastic World
Image via Niall Proctor

What role does your character play in your music? 
Artists can put on a character and make 100 songs in this character. But for me, if I’m manic, the character will be manic, and if I’m depressed, the character is going to be depressed. It’s very personal to me. I know my fanbase might be divided on this release because it’s so weird and aggressive and punk and digital and there are people who came to me for a sweet pop sound. I think that’s cool but I also need to express myself so I don’t die. 

Where are you inspired to take your sound now?
Lately, I’ve been into industrial rap. I’ve been into Godly the Ruler. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been into pop-punk and emo stuff. Growing up, I was looking at 20 white dudes playing drums in their basements playing guitar and complaining about their step-dads and was like, “Wow, that’s what I feel like, for some odd reason.” Like, even though I’m a brown immigrant kid, I have no idea why I relate to this skinny white kid complaining about his step-dad and small town in California.

I also really like Jean Dawson. When that album came out I was depressed because this is such a masterpiece and I’m not there. But it also makes me want to work harder at what I do. Once you know how to make a little bit of music, you know how to make a hit, in my opinion. It’s just mentally taxing: I could make more songs that would blow up, but I would be sad because I wasn’t able to express myself. That’s why I love this project so much: I didn’t think about mass appeal or streaming or algorithms. I sat down, played guitar, played bass and made the coolest shit. I start a verse off by saying, “It’s the brown skin chronicles!” If I was a young brown kid with no one to look up to and there was an artist opening up a verse like that… it feels like I’m making music for kids like me, you know? 

It’s amazing that you’re repping all the kids of colour out there that are into alternative music!
We’re into all kinds of stuff, and I don’t want us to be held back because of the colour of our skin. Like right now, I’m literally making British house rap with my friends, I’m songwriting for female singers. and we’re making Disney XDS music. I hate being stereotyped and put in a box. I don’t like to think about it in technical meters of success, but I’m proud because I played the guitar and bass, said so much cool shit, and produced the whole thing by myself.  

What’s it been like to work with your friends and family?
We shot a music video out in Vancouver recently. Our best friends that we get drunk with had this house and it had a red carpet and red couch and it was so dingy. We found random friends from Instagram and made it happen all day. My friends were putting fake blood on me. It’s very DIY. It feels like a village and like we’re building something together. I work with my little brother back home, he’s still in high school. I bought him a camera and he takes pictures all the time. It’s all very homemade.  

And you’re making all these projects under your own label? 
Yeah! It’s Curtis Waters Inc licensed to BMG. No one’s signed to the label, but down the road, I wanna sign people to the label because I love producing. I wanna be like Pharrell. There’s so many things I can’t do: I’d love to make sexy R&B music. I can do rap, pop and punk, but I want to expand my scope to do everything. I’d love to work with artists that have a very whimsical fairy vibe but contrast it with hard industrial style. I’m a big fan of soft voices. 

Tell us the story of the bunny suit?
I watched Gummo as a teenager. I’ve always been inspired by it. It was also inspired by Clockwork Orange: it’s weird to have a sinister person drinking milk around, so I thought that I could explore that with a cute bunny outfit with aggressive music. There’s also a shout-out to Kubrick stairs—so much of the album was inspired by weird movies. A fan of mine actually sent me a bunny hat in my PO Box and I loved it so much I decided it needed to be a character. I made a photoshop version of myself with red makeup and a star on my forehead and asker her if she could make me a custom character for this album.

What are you gonna get up to in a post-lockdown world? 
I blew up before I’ve ever done a show. I wanna make a bunch of punk songs and tour. I wanna go back to Nepal; I miss my family there. Last time I was back was 2014. I wanna get a cabin somewhere random and play guitar and disappear for a bit.