Interview: Cautious Clay Is Bringing Back the Beauty of Intentionality To Music

I caught up with rising soul artist Cautious Clay to learn more about his ascent to musical relevance, his first live performance, and releasing his debut EP.

“The music I’m creating, what I’m putting out there, is purposeful for myself.”

Cautious Clay is the artistic moniker of Joshua Karpeh, the 25-year old Neo-soul singer and producer who’s been through a whirlwind since releasing his first single “Cold War” on SoundCloud in September of 2017. His soulful, near-angelic vocals have caught the attention of tastemakers and major players alike, including Spotify, who included his music (and cover art) on their “Alternative R&B” playlist in March.

Though his music has caught fire in the last eight months, the attention isn’t getting to his head or impacting him personally. “It doesn’t really affect my personal life a whole lot, I just have to be more organized with my time…But I don’t think it’s gotten to the point where I feel like I can’t handle it”, he says. His journey as an artist and as a human-being is reflected in his debut EP, Blood Type (Read my review here), in which he opens up to share his most personal thoughts and feelings, pouring it out for his listeners to connect to.

Cautious Clay’s music is purposeful and filled with meaning, infusing the soul and fullness of gospel sound with modern, understated beats that provide color to an already colorful voice. His lyrics are symbolic in nature, but not so abstract that an attentive listener can’t pick up on the themes of his songs: Life, career, and love. With his music, Clay wants his listeners to take away that he’s genuine and speaking from his own experiences, and that he writes from a perspective that’s symbolic in nature. With Blood Type, he’s undoubtedly accomplished both of those sentiments. 

This past week, Cautious Clay re-released his debut EP with a new song titled “Stolen Moments”, and in March he played his first official show at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn. Following the show, I was able to catch some time with him to hear more about his background, influences and musical journey. You can read the full transcript below.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

EB: Hey Josh…How’s your day been so far?

CC: It’s been great, just hanging with friends working on a couple projects. I’m working on my next song, actually, so I’m pretty stoked.

EB: Do you try to keep yourself busy outside of the Cautious Clay project, with other people’s work?

CC: Yeah! I actually do. It’s definitely something I’m always doing, working on different things if it’s not for Cautious Clay. I have my hands in a couple of different projects. It helps me think about things differently as an artist, whenever I’m approaching my own stuff. It puts me in a different headspace. It’s something I’m excited about doing and continuing to do. As of late, Cautious Clay has been taking up more time, though, for sure.

EB: Your first single came out six months ago, and now you’ve got the Blood Type EP out. Looking back on this last six months, do you have any thoughts or reflections on what it’s been like?

CC: It’s interesting because I think about, sometimes, where I was and where it’s going and it feels like I’m building a cool foundation for whatever is to come, whether or not it’s new music, or touring opportunities and things of that nature. I feel like I’ve always had a vision for what I wanted to do as an artist, so it’s very humbling and incredible to be in a position where that has become the reality over such a short amount of time. I’m just excited to keep doing what I do, and hopefully I’ll have more people interested, too.

EB: Your unique sound is so much different than all of the other current modern R&B, or alternative R&B if you will. Was that sound always a part of the vision, or did that come about naturally?

CC: It really did come about naturally. I’ve always made stuff, whether it was singing, or producing, or playing saxophone or whatever. Creation was always a really big part of my process, and I never really went in saying “I’m going to ride this R&B/alternative wave”. I’ve always just created things that inspire me, and was able to figure out a sound that worked for me.

I started off as an instrumentalist, as a blues sax player and I learned production over the last five or six years. That kind of gave me the ability to then explore songwriting and vocals, different things like that, because it was something I hadn’t done yet. That kind of overall comprehensive involvement in my artistic process is what has allowed me to create something different.

EB: You learned to play the flute and sax before you ever decided to become a solo artist. What made you pick up a saxophone?

CC: I did flute, I guess, for most of that time period before I did saxophone. I was taking private lessons when I was seven. So that was my main thing. As a kid I was super involved in a bunch of random activities. Like any caring parent, my mom encouraged me to do everything. I did flute because I thought it was a cool instrument that I thought was different.

EB: Seven-year-old Joshua knew he wanted to play flute? You don’t find that very often.

CC: I know, it’s super funny. You know what it was, it was because I saw snake charmers, and I wanted to be a snake charmer. As a child I thought that would be fun or something. Still to this day I don’t know exactly what it was, but that’s probably the easiest guess.

The saxophone happened because of jazz band in high school. They were like “Oh, you should try saxophone” because it’s super similar – the flute and sax have almost the same exact keys. When you play them, they’re very similar instruments. That’s why I picked up the saxophone.

EB: Why did you choose the name Cautious Clay?

CC: That name kind of came from a combination of things, actually. There’s the obvious one, that Cassius Clay was Muhammad Ali. He was “the greatest”, so it was a play on words around that. It also came from my attitude about my music; being very particular and super-detailed.

I used to make beats on SoundCloud that were really detailed and I put a lot of effort into the very particular elements of it. So the word “Cautious” is embodied in everything that it meant to me, and my attitude about what I was doing. It kind of just stuck as I was a singer too. I was like “Oh, well I’m going to pay that much more attention to the lyrics now, to what I’m actually saying, and being coded-but-decisive in what I’m saying. That’s all been encompassed in what I’m creating.

EB: You mentioned that you just create music just because you can. Do you find it hard sometimes to just let go and make things?

CC: That’s the really crazy thing. Sometimes I’m working on projects for other artists, and I have to stay focused. That’s definitely a thing. You have to compartmentalize your creativity, because it’s just something that you have to hone in on, and be like “Okay this is for this project, this is for that project.”

But I’ve gotten better at creating for the sake of creating. As for finding places for it – I try to make stuff that I feel I’ll obviously like, but that has some utility, if that makes sense. I feel like making something completely random [laughs] is a waste of time, but at the same time it’s fun, and I don’t dislike it.

EB: You’re now coming off of the Blood Type EP, which is a very cohesive album that sounds like it was made as a project on its own. Was the vision for that to always be one cohesive piece?

CC: It was and it wasn’t. All of the music on the EP was created at a particular time in my life and it all sounded related. I was still finding my sound as the artist that I am today. Blood Type was the best selects, I would say, from that particular time when I was creating a bunch of stuff to find my own sound. Even the titles were kind of, I kind of stumbled upon them and then was able to really round out something more comprehensive once everything was put together.

EB: I don’t think a lot of listeners reflect, or think about how difficult it can be to name a song. Did you ever struggle to come up with song titles?

CC: That’s a great question. I definitely did. I think the first title, the project file for the song “Blood Type” is called “Sickle Cell”. I don’t even know why I called it that. I thought, “What’s that? It sounds like ‘Blood Type’,” and then “Blood Type” was the greatest name for it, because of what the song’s significance was and what the EP’s significance is – my identity. I almost walked myself into that one, but I certainly did struggle to come up with names a lot. A lot of times it would just be something related to a lyric in the song, or if it wasn’t, then I would just think about what the song meant to me, and then I named it. It was a process.

EB: You had your debut show at Baby’s All Right in March. What it’s like to be in front of a sold out crowd like that for your first show?

CC: It was super surreal. I was feeding off of the crowd. To me it was interesting because I had been practicing, obviously, up until that point, trying to get used to playing in front of people. I think the biggest thing to me was that when I came on stage, I felt confident because I knew what I was doing was something that felt natural.

The music I’m creating, what I’m putting out there is purposeful for myself. It doesn’t feel like I’m being corny or not doing something that I don’t believe in. My initial reaction was almost relief. You would think it maybe would’ve been nerves, but as soon as I got up there I was relieved knowing that it was what I had been working toward. This was the fun part.That’s just an attitude, I think, up until I actually figured out how to get stage presence and be comfortable with the material that I was playing with the band.

EB: You picked up the sax on stage a few times and sort of went with it and played. Was that always planned to be a part of your live show?

CC: Totally. I was definitely battling it for a minute, I was actually having an argument with my manager. I asked, “Yo, do you think I’m playing too much saxophone?” To which he said no, and I had thought that it would be too distracting, maybe, from the songs that I did. But at the end of the day I think that the music I’m playing live, I want to be a little different than what’s recorded, so that people can come back and draw something different from it, rather than feel like feeling I played the song exactly like it was on the record.

I feel like my fans are the people who want me to grow, and listeners are going to value that when they come to see me play. At the end of the day, I think what I realized was that it’s okay, and I’m going to play saxophone more. It’s something I love to do anyway, so I just gotta be myself.

EB: Your latest music has caught on really fast with your listeners, and your stripped version of “Blood Type” is on the top of Spotify’s Alternative R&B Playlist. Did you ever expect that your music would get this amount of reception in such a short time?

CC: I definitely didn’t. It’s been surreal and I have so much gratitude and positive feelings about how people are gravitating toward what I’ve been doing, because I’m not really changing who I am. I’m just kind of being myself and writing for myself. It’s always a blessing to feel like people are affected by your music.

EB: Is your vision for your eventual full-length album sonically similar to the Blood Type EP, or will it have a fresh new take on what Cautious Clay sounds like?

CC: I think it will be different. Or maybe it will be the same – well not the same – but it will be related. I think I want to put out a couple more singles / projects after this, before I start to commit to an album. That’s kind of where my head’s at, because I want to explore the sonics of what I’m doing, and not get too caught up with a particular sound while still maintaining my voice as a driving element of the project.

EB: You’ve only been singing for about two years. How has it been developing your voice, with the effort that you’ve put into it?

CC: I’ve always respected vocalists, but now I have a newfound respect for them, because your voice is an instrument. I think that it’s important that you keep it in good balance. I’m just trying to make sure that I’m taking care of my voice and at the same time developing a style with it that embodies what I’m doing artistically. I think it’s fun for me because now I don’t have to only produce, I can just sing on projects now, which takes a little bit of weight off of the different things I’m doing.

EB: When people listen to your music, is there anything you want your fans to take away from it about you as a person?

CC: I want people to know that I’m genuine and that I’m just speaking from my own experiences. If they want to get that deep with what I’m doing, that’s something I want them to know. I’m a very intentional person about what I choose to create or partake in. But also, if they want to listen casually, my music is suited for that too.

EB: Has it ever been difficult when writing songs to open up and be as revealing as your music is?

CC: That is difficult sometimes. It’s something more valid now than ever, because when I first started writing this stuff I was getting used to my voice, I told myself “I won’t talk about anything too crazy”. But stylistically, I think I like to talk about things in a way that’s not-too-obvious. Not super obscure or coded, but if you really had ears and put one and two together, you can figure out what I’m saying. It’s just how I like to write, and discuss different things that I’m going through or I can speak to. I would say that, in general, I try not to leave too many things off the table.

You can catch Cautious Clay in New York at his newly announced show in New York on July 24th for his newly announced show at Bowery Ballroom. If his first sold-out show was any indication, New York has taken notice, and the rest of the music world is close behind, so you’d better be quick on the trigger. Tickets can be purchased here.


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