Diving deep into “Cold Waters” with Robert Sanders

Two similar images of Robert Sanders 
 smiling are layered on top of each other. In both, there is a shadow across his face and a plain black background.
Hong Kong Boyfriend’s debut summer single “Cold Waters” is followed by his most recent release “Tiramisu.” (Photo courtesy of Eddie Mandell)

Robert Sanders — or Hong Kong Boyfriend, as you might know him — is comfortable floating around in feelings of nostalgia and past loves, and he has no problem sharing that with the world.

Sanders, a senior majoring in popular music performance, just released his debut single, “Cold Waters” Aug. 26.

Originally from the Bay Area, Sanders has been playing music since he was a kid. He started with the violin when he was young, but eventually quit to pursue singing and pop music performance. 

“I feel like there’s more things that can be expressed with pop music than classical music, personally,” Sanders said. “[There were] more things that I wanted to say that I couldn’t say through violin and stuff.” 

Drawing inspiration from musicians such as Bon Iver, Frank Ocean and Travis Scott, Sanders doesn’t feel bound to any one genre or style of songwriting. He even listens to hyper pop (“it’s like TikTok music, basically,” he said) and underground rap/hip-hop on SoundCloud. For Sanders, music is more than a genre — it’s something he can create to understand himself, without relying on outside influences. 

“Music is an outlet for me to express a side of myself that I had to discover on my own,” Sanders said. “No one ever told me I should or could do pop music, so it’s been a way to find myself.” 

All the support and encouragement Sanders received from his parents when he was younger slowly turned into hesitation and reluctance when it became clear that music and songwriting were his true passions. Though she’s come around now, Sanders’ mom took a while to support music as a career choice. 

“My mom didn’t believe in me until I got into [the Thornton School of Music], saw how small the program was and how amazing of an opportunity it could be for me,” Sanders said. “I feel like until I had the support of a big organization, my mom didn’t really believe in me.” 

Through this process of exploring different sides of himself and figuring out who he is, Sanders has been able to pull from nostalgic experiences to write his songs. Sanders said that by reminiscing on past events and memories, he’s able to reflect in a way that leads him to genuinely understanding the things that happened in his life and why they did as well. Because of this, he said he thinks of his songs as pieces of advice that he can pass out to other young people, so they, too, can understand their life experiences a bit better. 

“A big reason I write music is to give advice to a younger version of myself,” Sanders said. “I’ve learned a lot just through life, and I feel like passing on some of the ideas and stuff would be good for the world because a lot of people have no idea what they’re doing when they’re growing up, so just trying to help out.” 

Sean Lewow, who manages Hong Kong Boyfriend and runs the artist management division of the creative studio and artist management company Ourros, proclaims that Sanders is a “visionary.”

“Everything that Rob puts out under the ‘Hong Kong Boyfriend’ name — it can be stood behind,” Lewow said. “It’s something that he’s prodded upon and thought about both visually as well as sonically for years. He very much knows what he wants to say and is far more creative than almost anyone I’ve met.”

With “Cold Waters,” Sanders recalls a time in his life where he was in love with an older girl, so much so that he lost himself a little bit. Upon the song’s release, he wrote in an Instagram post, “When I was young, I met a girl who played cello and talked a lot more than me. I had a flip phone and a single-speed bike. Maybe it was love, maybe we just needed each other. ‘Cold Waters’ is a song about spiraling.”

The music video, which was directed by Aamir Khuller and is Sanders’ first-ever video, works to expand the meaning of “Cold Waters.” It features different relationship dynamics — a clear inspiration throughout Sanders’ work — including that of a couple, going through good and bad times. 

Khuller, a senior majoring in media arts and practice, directed the “Cold Waters” video with Frank Ocean’s “Nikes” in mind, calling it the “holy grail of music videos” to him and Sanders.

“I was inspired by wanting to make a collage of the ‘Nikes’ video,” Khuller said. “I love how many different textures and feelings and different pieces of a story there are to hold on to in that video and how they’re all collaged together. It just started from there — just wanting to tell a story.”

For Sanders, the video was a way to explore the universality of this romantic experience, rather than focusing on how he was special in the things he had gone through. 

“As soon as you bring in actors to represent your ideas, you realize that how you felt was not really important,” Sanders said. “Now, it’s up to someone else to relay that emotion. It’s humbling.” 

The “Cold Waters” video also almost exclusively features Asian Americans, which was important to Sanders, who is half Chinese. 

“Representation matters to me because, as [a person] of color, if you’re in a spot where [other] people are going to see you doing something cool, you have to make yourself known,” Sanders said. “You probably didn’t have that when you were a kid, and someone else needs that out there.” 

Khuller, who is Indian American, had similar goals regarding representation in the music video.

“What we wanted to do with ‘Cold Waters’ … was allow [Asian Americans] to carry out a storyline and not be tokenized,” Khuller said. “They’re people that have real storylines and emotions. They go through an arc, and hopefully you just see them as real people that happen to be Asian American.”

Sanders said he aims to be true to himself with his music and artistry and release more music.

“It’s not about looking perfect in every scene, it’s about being who you are and letting that resonate with people,” Sanders said. 

Hong Kong Boyfriend’s songs “Cold Waters” and “Tiramisu” are available on Spotify and the corresponding music videos are available on YouTube. His EP is projected to drop sometime in 2021.

Sept. 22, 5:37 p.m.: This post was updated to add Eddie Mandell’s photo credit.