In Conversation: Cautious Clay on the Emotional Depth That Powers His Sound

The Cleveland native is preparing for the release of his debut LP and learning more about himself along the way.

Although his debut album doesn’t arrive until later this year, Cautious Clay is a name that’s already on the mind of many music fans. Clay—the performance moniker of Cleveland-born Joshua Karpeh—has built a fanbase on the strength of emotionally charged melodies that blend elements of pop, hip-hop, and alt-rock, and showcase his skills writing and playing on instruments ranging from guitar to saxophone. His music has appeared on soundtracks for series including 13 Reasons Why and Insecure, he’s worked with artists like John Mayer and John Legend, and his breakout single “Cold War” was sampled by none other than Taylor Swift on her album Lover. One only needs to listen to his most recent track “Roots” to understand why his music resonates, with lyrics that relate the cosmos to the intricacies of communication and love over a strong beat and shimmering production.

As he prepares for a busy year ahead of him, we spoke to Clay about working on his album, what he’s learned from collaborating with big-name artists, and how his strong emotions are an asset for his writing.

You’ve spent the last couple years putting out singles and EPs. Is this newer music drawing from those sessions?

Pretty much. Overall it’s been such an exploratory process because I feel like I’ve put out a pretty diverse array of music. I’ve been doing rehearsals for a show coming up and I was like, “Woah, I kinda forgot some of the stuff I put out.” Not actually forgot, but when you play it you’re like, “Wow, this is so different from what I think is the path I’m on now.” I feel like these EPs serve as a way for me to dabble in hip-hop, dabble in a little more classic R&B, a little bit of indie pop. I’m now very comfortable in all of these spaces and I feel really strong about the sound I’ve crafted for this album.

What’s the process like of pulling from all of these sources and dabbling in so many areas while making the pieces fit together?

It’s quite a process. I’ve had a lot of these songs for a while, but obviously they weren’t finished. Thinking about how they all meld together and the actual track listing and all of this is definitely a process of getting to that point where you’re like, “Cool, this really flows nicely.” That’s definitely an art in and of itself, too.

“I feel like these EPs serve as a way for me to dabble in hip-hop, dabble in a little more classic R&B, a little bit of indie pop. I’m now very comfortable in all of these spaces and I feel really strong about the sound I’ve crafted for this album.”

You’ve done a lot of collaboration with some big names over the years—what are some experiences you’ve learned from that you put into your own music?

In general I’ve learned how to quickly understand what does and what doesn’t have the makings of a song that feels complete. I think that over the course of making music for myself and then also collaborating with people and genuinely caring about the process, I’ve just gotten better at writing music in general. I think it’s weird when you first start out and then there’s this whole, “Oh, there’s a new artist who has some talent or whatever.” Not saying that I didn’t sort of have a vision for my own thing, but having collaborated with a bunch of people and having this type of experience where I’ve written so much, I think the process of writing and the threshold that I have for writing something that means something is a lot higher. Overall that’s what I’ve learned, just the process in a way where it doesn’t feel like a fluke.

You’re a multi-instrumentalist. When you’re writing, do you have a go-to instrument to start on, or do you experiment with that as well? 

It really just depends on what mood I’m in. I could probably write something on a saxophone, maybe I should try doing that [laughs]. I feel like I usually will write with guitar or with the key part. Sometimes I’ll have a melody in my head and then I’ll make a chord progression around that melody, and then from there it’s the underlying of a song. That’s how a lot of songs started—“French Riviera” started that way, “Cold War.” Some songs are more just guitar, so it depends. I’m also very much a percussionist, so I also like to think of a nice groove around things sometimes.

That percussion is a strong aspect of your music, how do you make sure you don’t lose that in the production of a song? 

It’s just a matter of being aware of not overexerting one thing in the process of creating something. Like having a situation where you’re almost creating a template for what you’re doing, I think that’s always good to be aware of as a producer. And sometimes it means no drums whatsoever. It depends on the type of aesthetic and type of world you’re trying to create for the song. What purpose does it serve in the song? That can stretch along even not just in vocal music, but instrumental music. Arrangement is still just as important and just as valuable in creating dynamics and things like that. I think that’s a pretty universal thing in producing anything that is musical.

“Creating something isn’t hard, but really finishing something and seeing it through is a lot of where the energy is expunged being an artist. That’s always at the top of my mind.”

With writing around these powerful emotions, do you need to have a clear vision of where a song is going when writing, or do you feel it out and build it as you go?

I think it’s a little bit of both. It seems like sometimes it’s just a straight, raw emotion and I’ll just record it. I feel like I could just sit down and make something. It might be really good, but who knows? It might also be terrible, and then I’ll workshop it, or maybe I won’t, and then who knows? It definitely requires a lot of discipline for me. Because creating something isn’t hard, but really finishing something and seeing it through is a lot of where the energy is expunged being an artist. That’s always at the top of my mind.

Was there anything new you learned about yourself while working on this album? 

I noticed that I am a very emotional person, for sure, but I think I also separate myself from my emotions pretty easily. I can feel an emotion deeply and can look at it, but I can also separate myself from it, and I think I learned that through writing a lot of the album, because my writing style tends to beI try to be pretty on the nose, but I also try to be pretty colorful with the language I use. I try to create this narrative, but also using language in a way you can almost see the situation. That type of thing has always appealed to me, and even if I’m writing about something that happened to me I separate myself from it just because I know I’m going to put this out—I have to be like, “OK, it’s a song.” I just like to write about situations that sometimes have been through my mind or they affect me in some real way. FL

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