Music is something that Cautious Clay, also known as Joshua Karpeh, was born to do.
The singer, songwriter, producer, flutist, saxophonist — the list could honestly go on — is a star in the making, and he’s doing it his way.
The Cleveland native had an interest in the fine arts since he was a young kid. “I’ve been playing music since I was seven years old. My mom really encouraged me. She was always like, ‘Go do that,’” he says.
And “do that” he did.
He took it to heart and did everything. No, seriously. Clay can not only sing, but he can play the flute, saxophone, guitar, and saxophone (and probably more). He took lessons and even played in concert and jazz bands when he was in middle school and high school — and not to mention that he used to be a pole vaulter and a track athlete. Clay is a zealous person who loves to try new things.
Even though he learned to play all those instruments, he didn’t start making his own music until 2015. “I guess I would say it started in D.C. I started making beats and producing on SoundCloud around 2015. I basically took that and started writing music, and it eventually became what it is now.”
But even then, he didn’t consider actually pursuing a music career. He instead picked up a job in New York City, working as a real estate agent while still producing and sharing his tracks on SoundCloud. Then all of a sudden, JBL reached out to him about licensing one of his songs. This offer took Clay by surprise because he never thought he could get paid for making music. That’s when a light bulb clicked in his head, and he made the conscious decision of doing music full-time.
People began noticing Cautious Clay when he released a remix of Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes.” Both of them were just beginning their journey and this collaboration helped give each other a major boost in their careers. It’s something that he’s truly grateful to be part of and has nothing but love for Eilish.
Then he had his big break when he quickly rose to prominence in 2017 when he released his hit single “Cold War.” It quickly amassed over 1 million streams in the first month of its release and is currently his most-streamed song. “Cold War” was featured in the 2019 coming-of-age film, Booksmart, and the HBO Original Series, Insecure. Not only that, the song was interpolated on Taylor Swift’s song “London Boy.”
Oh, let’s not forget that he also got to work with John Mayer — and it all began with a follow. Cautious Clay noticed that Mayer had followed him on Instagram and thought it was crazy. They got in contact with each other. One thing led to another, and they collaborated on “Swim Home,” featured on the Netflix Original Series, 13 Reasons Why, and on Mayer’s song “Carry Me Home.”
It’s easy to see why people like Clay. The way he envisions music and his production work is unmatched. He brings something new and fresh to the table. Clay has a voice that’s just silky smooth; it is both dreamy and soulful. When it comes to songwriting and producing, he likes to mix R&B and soft rock to make something emotional. On top of that, he incorporates his classical training in jazz and concert music in his songs which adds even more texture and layers. It’s unlike anything heard before.
When it comes to the music he wants to make, he doesn’t want to be put in a box, nor does he want to force things. Clay has an organic and natural style of songwriting. He writes and produces music off of what feels and sounds right in that moment. “It’s very fluid. I rely on my intuition a lot.”
His lyricism is one of his most intriguing aspects because it’s poetic. He’s able to paint a vivid picture with words beautifully. There’s so much thought and emotion in his songwriting. Where is it all coming from?
For the most part, it comes from his personal experiences. It’s easier to write about things you know and have emotional connections with. But it can also come from other things. “I get inspired by things that my friends show me and the things that I sort of stumble on. The relationships that I have inspire my music. With the movies and things that I watch, things I also consume very much influence what I end up putting out.”
To get a taste of what type of content he’s been consuming lately, we asked him about a favorite song that’s been in his rotation. “This artist, Dora Jar, that I really like. She has a song called, ‘Polly.’”
As for Cautious Clay’s name, he gets asked about the origin and story behind it a lot. There are a couple of meanings. The obvious one being that it’s a play on Muhammad Ali’s birth name, Cassius Clay. But it also holds a much deeper connection than that.
“It’s my take on the kind of music I make in particular. I feel like it’s hard to share my emotions and my personal life — It’s never been the easiest thing to do. I think music has always been the easiest way for me to discuss my emotions. I guess in a lot of ways, I’m always ‘cautious’ about everything, except for my music. That’s where the sentiment comes from.”
Clay is having an amazing year so far as he released his debut album, Deadpan Love, back in June. The 14-track project is filled with highlights such as “Wildfire,” “Shook,” and “Roots.” It is a magnificent performance from beginning to end as he continues to show off his raw lyricism and intricate production.
The project’s development had been years in the making, and he wrote a lot of songs for it — think hundreds.
“The process was very fluid. I started it three or four years ago and had been holding songs back and re-thinking certain songs. It was a challenge for myself to place it all together — It was a lot of work. I wrote over 100-200 songs over the last three years, and to go over those and figure out where those fit was the biggest challenge, but also the most rewarding when it came together.”
Aside from songwriting and producing, he’s also interested in putting on the director’s cap. Cautious Clay said that he’s always loved music videos. It’s another way for him to get creative and present his songs in a whole new light.
“I’m sort of in a place where I’m wanting to direct and create more. I co-directed some of my own videos for my album, so that was fun — It’s still something I’m interested in.” He has a huge drive and passion to create wherever he can, even sparking an interest in fashion.
We asked Cautious Clay about what has been his favorite accomplishment this far. Is it the streams? The fame? The money? Not quite. It’s actually something much more. “Being able to maintain my vision without giving up any of my rights as a musician — I’m fully independent. I think it’s cool that I can be that. I can release whatever dog shit I want if I want to.”
In a world where streaming services are taking over the music industry, the dream of being an artist has never been easier. Music platforms like SoundCloud and Spotify have opened up so many doors, and opportunities for people to easily share their music with the world without signing with a label. Clay has taken advantage of that. He’s enjoying having complete ownership and full creative control over his music career, which is every artist’s dream.
Despite this, he’s not ruling out the option of signing with a label entirely. “I’m only interested in signing if it’s with someone who really believes in what I’m doing and wants to cultivate a way to grow what I do in a meaningful way. If that’s not what you want to do, I don’t care. That’s sort of my philosophy.”
But he knows that he’s got a good thing going. He’s gotten this far on his own. Why change what’s working? Plus, he’s fully embraced the responsibilities and challenges that come with being an independent artist.
So what’s next for Cautious Clay?
When we got to talk with Cautious Clay, he was just getting ready for his performance at Lollapalooza. Right after that, he’ll be appearing at several festivals in the next coming months, like Austin City Limits. Then in 2022, he’s embarking on his own journey with the Karma & Friends World Tour.
He has quite the schedule coming up. But that’s not stopping him from working on music. “I’m working on a small EP. I’m also working on some cool live visuals. More live performances, too.” This has been an outstanding year for Cautious Clay, and the upcoming year will be even bigger as he’s running with crazy, hot momentum. The future is bright for Cautious Clay and he’s just getting started.
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