Cautious Clay has always had a musical ear. From his parents love for Minnie Ripperton to learning to play the flute in school, and throwing himself into a minor in Jazz in college. Yet, it’s the past few years of whirlwind achievement which have cemented his name in the industry as an introspective poet, gifted producer and all-around talented musician.
From collaborating with John Legend, being sampled by Taylor Swift and writing for movie scores, the 28-year-old wordsmith has always been an influence behind the scenes. But now, with his debut album ‘Deadpan Love’ freshly released via The Orchard, he’s ready to step into the spotlight himself.
We caught up with him to find out what that feels like.
Since the release of your breakout single 'Cold War' three years ago, you’ve been on a whirlwind ride. From being a real estate agent to a full-time musician – how has that experience been?
It's been great. I feel like life [as a real estate agent] feels like another life. It doesn't feel like my reality at all. It’s a pretty stark contrast to who I am now. And I'm glad that I found an alternative because it was so not for me...
At the start of your career you were considering whether to be a producer for other artists, rather than a singer yourself. What was the shift towards trusting yourself to take on this route, and how did you deal with self-doubt?
I just felt it all the time! I think it's not really something that goes away completely. But I have really great roommates and a great community that I live with, so I think they helped me to be more grounded and allowed me to have a little bit of perspective on the world. The people around me; my mom and my family - I think we're all pretty non pretentious.
I also think getting some sort of accolades and having people come to and sell out my shows has also certainly helped me deal with that anxiety of feeling like, 'oh, man, am I really the real deal?' I hate to say that too, because it's not like I really care what people think. Still, to a certain extent, I think we all care a little bit about what people think. But I think my self-worth is really determined by what I'm excited about, and how I've genuinely made a living doing this. Like, I make a lot more than I would have made during the day jobs! So, I'm just like, well, shit! Right? That's enough for me. It’s just a fuck all the haters kind of thing. Also, I don't have a record label. I’m doing this on my own and I certainly have imposter syndrome like anyone else. But I think about where I was and where I am now – and that’s great!
You’ve done amazing bits yourself with other artists. Taylor Swift sampled ‘Cold War’ on ‘London Boy’, and you’ve written with John Legend and John Mayer alongside remixing Billie Eilish’s 'Ocean Eyes'. What has it been like working with such esteemed artists in the industry so early into your career – especially when you were still figuring out if music was a viable option for you?
It was honestly pretty surreal. The Taylor thing was crazy. I think the Billie Eilish thing was a funny one because it was so early [before anyone even knew who she was]. Now, it’s so surreal because she’s one of the biggest artists in the world! So, it's just funny that that even ended up happening, when at the time it was just like, Billie's doing a thing, cool!
On the flip side, it's cool when bigger artists like your music, and it's certainly a validating force. But I'm also the type of person who would like to be able to stand on my own. I don't really get a lot from them in the context of feeling like a more legitimate artist, because they decided to fuck with me. It’s really nice of course! But I never want to be in a position where I have to rely on someone else to have credibility, you know?
“This album felt like my overall perspective around my identity as Cautious Clay.”
Now, with your debut album, 'Deadpan Love', the spotlight is completely on you. On this record, it seems like you’ve grown a lot as a person since your EPs: 'Table of Context', 'Resonance' and 'Blood Type'. How did you come about crafting such a raw project?
I wanted to have my debut album be something that spoke to who I am right now, and what I’ve been going through in the last year or so. I think concept albums are fun and interesting and something I want to do at some point, but I think that this album felt like my overall perspective around my identity as Cautious Clay, and as Joshua Karpeh; who I am by name.
I think it served almost as a challenge to me, to write music [about the] human experience, encapsulating people's cynicism, bitterness and frustration with the world. But especially, it’s about continuing to push forward and living our lives, going to work, hanging out with friends and family even though humans are just so ridiculous. I wanted to unpack that in a broad sense. You know, dealing with relationships and personal identity, toxic behaviour and the willingness to be toxic - even though it’s not right. Just all the things that people do, for better and for worse. So, the title felt very applicable because it was touching on both spectrums for me. ‘Deadpan’ being this wittiness and an almost nihilistic and apathetic frustration when people are using your intellect and your wit to reason out the bullshit. Then, ‘Love’ being this earnest and empathetic or hopeful force. I think both of those things are really who I am as a person.
Do you think that, with the pandemic and how people have been forced to see the world in a new way, wanting to share that narrative became even stronger?
Oh, interesting. It would have, definitely. I think a song like ‘Box of Bones’ I wrote later on in the album process. For that one, because we were all inside - and no one was talking or hanging out - it became very easy to get in your head.
You’ve also explained how 'Deadpan Love' grew out of a need to identify the compassion and cynicism that empowered you to create music. What would you say the biggest lesson you’ve learnt about yourself has been when creating this record?
I have a very strong sense of self and reasoning, but I think I learned of my lack of being open in my personal life. I learnt it during the process of making this album but also because I'm in a relationship and so having those experiences while also trying to put myself emotionally into an album was a lot of effort. I’ve learned how difficult it can be to be creative when making music that you put your whole self into but then eventually isn't yours. When the album is out, it's everyone else's. So yeah, I had that realisation and I’m trying to work on it a little better. I've never been fully comfortable with some things that I feel, and I think the album has helped me come to terms with that.
“To actually finish [the album] is great. Especially getting it to a place where I thought, ‘this is banging!’, you know?”
In the past, you've touched on how creating has been helpful as a healing tool. Yet it also brings out emotions that can be difficult to access, like you mentioned. How do you look after yourself when accessing such intimate and fragile emotions during the creation process?
It doesn’t feel very fragile when I'm writing it because I’m by myself. Later on, I can also hide behind my voice, you know? And that really helps. If I was rapping though, it’d all be out there.
On top of that, I'm by myself, so it doesn't feel as vulnerable. When I'm with other people, it can feel weird and it does feel like a vulnerable scenario to be in - even with my band! And I trust those guys. I love those guys!
You have also co-written and produced with multiple collaborators for this record though! How you find that?
It was interesting, because when I was writing with those people, I thought they were incredible. I wrote with J. Kash on ‘Wildfire’; he's incredible.
Working with Saba and J. Kash was really fun. Because [J. Kash] has a really interesting perspective on things, lyrically and thematically. When we were first writing ‘Wildfire’ I honestly wasn't even sure if I was going to sing it. I wasn’t totally confident in how it came out because I sang it a few different ways. And the first time I sang it, it sounded really wack! So, I took it home and thought about it and told myself ‘Okay, I'll try these things out with these people’. And most of the time it's not going to be the final idea, but that time it worked out.
The record holds an overwhelmingly positive energy at times. What was the most enjoyable experience you had when recording this record?
Probably just starting the songs, that's always fun! Finishing ‘Spinner’ and ‘Box of Bones’ too! To actually finish is great. Especially getting it to a place where I thought, 'this is banging!', you know?
And in the spirit of optimism, what are you most looking forward as life starts to change again and we can see people with less anxiety?
I’m looking forward to touring and to seeing everyone again. There’s a lot of people that I know on the road and it'll be cool to reconnect with them. I'm also excited to see what people think hopefully! But mostly to just continue to live my life and maybe make some more music! I’ve actually already started my next project.
Finally, what if anything, do you hope listeners will take away from this record?
That life is a long road with a map written by a fool. That everybody's trying and nothing's perfect, but we’ve just got to keep going.
'Deadpan Love' is out now via The Orchard.
Get your copy of the latest issue
More like this
Soothing to the extreme, but still with enough variation not to lose attention, he’s on to a winner.