For this month’s First Look Friday we look at Cautious Clay: a multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter who uses music to soul-search while finding the meaning in every major and minor experience along the way.
Less than two years ago, Josh Karpeh decided to quit his job in real estate and pursue a full-time life as Cautious Clay — a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter whose soul-searching lyrics explore the travails and tensions of love and everyday life. Since then, the young artist dropped his debut 7-track EP, Blood Type; had his music featured on the soundtrack of HBO’s Insecure; graced the stage at the 2018 Soul Train Awards; performed a NPR Tiny Desk concert; and powered through an international tour. His stand-out single, “Cold War,” amassed more than 21 million listens on Spotify.
It’s the kind of precipitate career success that few artists could dream of, much less dream up.
But before he was Cautious Clay, Karpeh was an ambivalent saxophone-playing International Affairs student at George Washington University surrounded by, he says, people who wanted to be presidents, politicians, and dignitaries. And before that, he was busy growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, where the cultural milieu felt dissatisfying and incomplete. But the decisions he’s made eventually found him in Brooklyn, where, even with a full-time job, he was leisurely producing the kind of beats and remixes that captured the attention of the likes of John Mayer and pop sensation Billie Eilish,
Blood Type is a deeply emotional album, with the kind of lyrics you’d see on someone’s MySpace page or AIM status back in 2000 when it was still socially acceptable to be sincerely vulnerable online. “I started this job selling rocks and arrows,” he sings on “Cold War.” “’Cause you only swipe right if you fuck for follows. Welcome to the days of the broke and shallow.”
With his new album, Table of Context, slated for release on March 27th, the independent artist sat down with Okayplayer and talked about his transition from a nine-to-five to making music full-time, finding the purpose in all things and nothing, and whether he can beat Lizzo in a flute-off.
Your last album was a lot about love and losing love. What are some of the thematic elements of this new album?
With Tables of Context, one of the main things [it’s about is] trying to adjust to not necessarily meeting our purpose for happiness, just kind of being okay with that, and finding meaning in some of the things that don’t necessarily give purpose but they lead to more experiences, if that makes sense.
In many ways, it’s an example of my life in some ways and the things I’ve learned from not necessarily taking the path that would lead me to music. In general, the production is a lot more minimal. There’s a lot of cohesion between each track and, yeah, it’s going to have a pretty interesting cover.
When you’re writing a song, do you find that you’re working through your own emotions or do you already come to the table having figured out what you need to put to paper?
It’s always different, but a lot of what I’m doing is always leading back to a concept, the thesis. That is the one thing that I learned from college — the thesis and how important that is. Everybody has ideas but they’re not always cohesive. So, I try to make sense of everything from a grand scheme. So, there’s different methods but a lot of time I’ll start ideas from a beat, or sometimes I’ll start it from lyric, or sometimes it will be from melody. It will always find itself.
What did you study in college?
I studied international affairs.
What made you want to study international affairs?
At the time I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew that I liked other cultures. Music was on the top of my mind, but I was not sure how to meet that. I was only playing saxophone and flute and I didn’t know if I wanted to literally be a saxophone player. International affairs seemed kind of just the most generic, culturally interesting [subject].
What was it like growing up in Ohio?
I don’t really like living in Cleveland, Ohio very much. It’s kind of suffocating. But I did learn a lot about different people. I was kind of doing a lot of different things. I was playing soccer and doing track, pole vaulting, doing random activities like sailing, just different things that I thought were interesting. My mom was like, “oh you should try this.”
I was very thankful to be exposed to a lot of things in the city, and I was in good schools that really allowed me to get a good education. But it’s a rust belt city. There’s some really good musicians there. I’d say creatively and culturally, it sometimes can be a little bit one-dimensional.
What’s the music scene like?
My first concert I ever went to was a Jet concert. My mom took me to a festival when I was two or three called the Burning River Fest with KC and the Sunshine Band. I feel like it was either very pop/punk stuff or old-time stuff. There were a lot of different artists that came through, but there weren’t many interesting artists doing interesting stuff in Cleveland. It wasn’t very much of a cultural center for artists when I was growing up.
I was in a band called Into the Clouds and was playing the flute in it. Funny enough, it was a pop-punk band.
What kind of music did you grow up within your home, the ones that most inform your music today?
It’s kind of all over the map: Green Day, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Lil’ Bow Wow, Busta Rhymes, Pharrell, Outcast, Delfonics, Barry White, Sade. Anywhere from R&B to punk, to grunge.
Who are some of your dream collaborators?
Probably Kendrick Lamar and André 3000.
You’ve talked about staying independent. Is that something you plan on continuing?
Yeah, definitely. I guess it just depends on how things are going. Certainly not opposed to signing to a label, but I think it just has to make sense.
Outside of just music, what are some of the most exciting experiences you’ve had your new-found success exposed you to?
Traveling. Just to see different people and different places that I’ve never been. That’s been an awesome experience. I feel very, really lucky.
Would you ever engage in a flute battle with Lizzo?
Yeah, I would. I haven’t had the guts to challenge her. I probably should… She’s so fierce. I would have to get out there and suck it up, I guess. I don’t know. That’s definitely in the cards, for sure. She’s a force with flute. She’s got a lot of sauce. I’ve got to get my twerk up.
Tasbeeh Herwees is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, CA.