The INTO Interview

Kevin Atwater Captures Gay Yearning In A Bottle On “retriever”

If you’re on gay TikTok, you might know Kevin Atwater (@kevinatwater) from his insane edits of pop divas in absurd scenarios: Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande ordering McDonald’s from Doja Cat and Lana Del Ray, for example. They’ve earned him over a million followers.

But on his second TikTok account (@kevinatwatermusic), Atwater showcases an entirely different skillset: his folk music. Blending the musical style of classic Sufjan Stevens with the queer sentimentality of media like Heartstopper, he uniquely captures a modern queer experience. INTO sat down with Atwater to talk his recent EP “retriever,” how he balances having two personalities on TikTok, and what’s next for his music career.


INTO: For someone who had never heard your music, how would you describe your musical style? What’s your sales pitch? 

KEVIN ATWATER: I usually like to describe my music as folk, but the term folk paints a picture of a specific time period as well as a style of music that I don’t think I necessarily fit into. But I think “folk with a queer twist” is a fun way of putting it. Like if Sufjan Stevens was like, “You know what, let me do my stripped back stuff again.” And I’m not saying I’m as good as Sufjan Stevens, like, he’s the holy grail. But something like that: very honest, queer, unapologetically authentic folk music for everyone to enjoy. 

And on your EP “retriever,” there are a lot of themes of gay yearning, loneliness —

Yup.

What inspired you to tackle those themes?

So, I put out three singles before I put the EP out, and they were all kind of — I don’t want to say ambiguous, but I was kind of toeing the line of getting personal and speaking about really personal things in my life that I’ve dealt with. When I sat down and started writing my EP, I was like, “I’m just gonna do it. I’m gonna put it all out there. I have a lot to unpack anyway, and songwriting is a good way to process things that you’ve been through.” 

Basically, the whole EP, I’m taking it back to middle school and high school, and unpacking some specific things that I was dealing with at the time that were unique to me, but also probably really relatable. A lot of queer youth can probably relate to pining for someone but having that person so out of reach. And I mean, yearning is relatable to everyone in the world. But I think for queer people, it’s very, very specific and can bring back times of confusion and not understanding why you can’t have it the way that everyone else has it. That’s where I drew inspiration. 

I remember having a conversation, actually, when I put my first songs out. They were like, “Do you think it’s gonna be weird if you get that personal in your music? Are people going to be able to relate to it?” I think when I listen to music and people talk specifically about their experiences, you can always pull something from that specificity even if you haven’t been through the same exact thing. I think it’s kind of insulting to a listener to be like, “I’m gonna write it super ambiguous so everyone can relate to it!” But like, no, you can write specific, and people will pick up what they pick up, you know?

Courtesy of Kevin Atwater.

Totally! I was going to bring up the specificity of your lyrics — are the details pulled from your own life?

With “retriever,” it’s all — I don’t want to say “all,” but it’s pretty much super specific to what I was going through. I really challenged myself to write honestly, because sometimes it can be fun to get caught up in metaphor and thinking outside the box.

For example, on the song “ashes,” I was like, “I’m gonna write about this person.” And I had a lot of anxiety about it too, because I knew they were gonna hear it. So I did reach out to them and we had a conversation before I put it out, because I didn’t want them to be blindsided. But I was like, “I’m going to write the beginning of this relationship, the middle and the end. And I’m just going to be super honest.” I wrote it in probably 20 minutes, and it turned into a song. And I really wanted to do that for the whole EP. 

Personally, I really do appreciate your honesty in your music. Like you said, for a lot of queer youth, that period of our lives is so formative, and we can’t really process it while we’re going through it. So it’s really nice to see it being candidly talked about — I think it’s really powerful to have that, for people who might be going through it right now. 

Yeah, it’s been really cool having a lot of people reaching out to me who are in high school or middle school and figuring things out. I’ve had some really, really personal messages sent to me. And it’s like — that means more to me than anything else in the world. It makes me emotional. It truly is something so special. And I’m like, “This is why you do it.” 

Absolutely. I also wanted to ask who some of your biggest musical inspirations are. I know you already mentioned Sufjan Stevens —

Oh my gosh, well, I HAVE to mention Sufjan Stevens! I’ve been listening to him for so long, too, because he keeps evolving and changing and coming back into mainstream culture. It’s like I can’t be rid of him! But I don’t want to be rid of him. I just love his hushed vocals and how he’s not scared of singing in his falsetto and being quiet and vulnerable. I really appreciate that. 

I also really love Phoebe Bridgers, as most everyone does. But she too is such an influence to me with her songwriting. 

Other than that, I think Nick Drake. He was a folk rock singer in the ‘70s. And he has this album, called “Pink Moon,” that is one of my all-time favorite albums. And actually, he took his own life after the album came out, and then it grew to huge popularity. He’s very quiet. It’s just guitar and him singing, and it’s so beautiful. I remember hearing that for the first time in college, and I was like, “I need to find my guitar right now. I need to write.” His music just moves to you to want to connect with people. So I would say him too. 

I’ll give it a listen! I also feel like we have to talk about your TikTok. There’s definitely a big contrast tonally between most of your posts and what you do musically. Do you have any thoughts about that balance?

It’s funny, because I have been writing music forever. I didn’t start putting it out until two years ago during the pandemic, but before that, I’ve always considered myself to be a weirdo. So when TikTok first fell into my hands, I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna be funny on here. Like, that’s my thing.” And I didn’t even realize it when it was happening, but I was like, “Oh, this is now what I’m going to be known for on here.” And it was cool! I was really thankful — it’s super fun. I mean, that stuff that I do on there, I love doing that.

@kevinatwater my day as an Apple store employee #fyp #apple #lanadelrey #nickiminaj ♬ Happy Up Beat (Medium) – TimTaj

But then when I started taking music more seriously, I was like, “How do I incorporate this?” And I actually have a music account on TikTok too. It was funny having one side of what people see of me as this uber-personality, crazy, weird, edited TikTok videos of Nicki Minaj. And then my music is not that at all. It’s been fun trying to find the balance, I would say. It can be a little difficult when people on that account are like, “Oh, music. That’s cool, but where’s Nicki Minaj getting hit by a bus?” And I’m like, “Slay.”

That’s why I started the music account. It’s been cool, because I now have a pretty substantial following on there too. So it’s like, you know what? You can do them both in 2022. You can be a comedian and a singer. 

Yeah, why not? Go on tour, act one is comedy, act two is music.

Stand-up and then singing? I mean, it could work! 

Courtesy of Kevin Atwater.

Generally, what do you hope that people are taking away from listening to your music? If someone listens to “retriever” front to back, what do you hope they walk away thinking? 

I want people listening to this to find something in it that they can relate to, and come away feeling like they’re not alone in that respect. The music for everyone, but I was writing this EP for queer youth who don’t have that folk singer who’s singing about queer issues and their vulnerable experiences, feeling like you don’t have anyone to confide in, or feeling like you’ll never find the person that you’re supposed to be with, stuff like that. So I hope people just come out of it feeling less alone. 

I think it does have that effect. I especially love that you cover such a wide range of subjects still within this relatable perspective — like, the last song, “a song about murder,” is more about friendship. It’s a little bit different thematically from the rest of the EP.

Yeah, that was the last song that I added to the EP because I felt it needed a moment of conclusion or levity. And that one actually is written about my roommate, my friend, and me being there for her during a really difficult time. I had written it and I didn’t know if it would fit. I was like, “Nothing else is about this. Is it weird to have it end like this?” But then hearing it in the track progression, it feels like it should end somewhere coming back to community and friendship. And also, all the voices at the end of the song are my friends. I had them all come over and record it. That’s five of my friends singing with me. 

That’s such a lovely story! Do you have any other music coming out soon we can look forward to?

I do! I’m releasing a song called “my blood is your blood,” which went viral on TikTok on my music account a few months ago. I produced it with a friend, and it’s coming out on May 20. 

@kevinatwatermusic queer yearning song (as usual) #folk #gay #singersongwriter #originalsong #kevinatwater #voiceeffects ♬ my blood is ur blood – Kevin atwater 🙂

Very exciting! I’ll go pre-save on Spotify.

Also, have you watched Heartstopper on Netflix?

Oh, please. I’ve gotten too into it, to be honest. 

What I wanted to do with “retriever,” I feel like that show is also doing. It’s so, so important just for queer representation in media and seeing a story that’s not depressing. And it has something that people can relate to. So I just wanted to give a quick shoutout to that.

I was thinking of bringing that up, just with all these thoughts about gay yearning!

I watched it because people were in my comments on TikTok like, “Your music is this!” Also, they were all calling me Nick Nelson. I was like, I’m Charlie Spring.♦

“retriever” is now streaming on all platforms.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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