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Meet Cautious Clay, the Brooklyn-Based Singer Who Sees Fame as “Pretty Normal”

"I don’t feel any different than I did two years ago, other than the fact that there’s a lot of people who respect what I do—and that honestly keeps me going."

Cautious Clay, the Brooklyn-based R&B singer born Joshua Karpeh, was working in New York City in real estate and advertising as recently as two years ago. Later this month, on October 23, he’ll conquer the city in a whole new way, performing at the TIDAL X Brooklyn concert at the Barclays Center. Somehow, the opportunity hasn’t affected his outlook on life.

“It’s weird because, in many ways, I don’t feel any different than I did two years ago, other than the fact that there’s a lot of people who respect what I do—and that honestly keeps me going," he says over the phone, reflecting on his rather sudden rise. “But in general, I’m still kind of a dude.”

And this dude is well on his way to becoming a household name.

Karpeh grew up surrounded by music: he predominantly listened to classic artists (Quincy Jones, Joni Mitchell, and Rick James, to name a few) rather than contemporary pop, he played the flute (and later saxophone), and he began his venture into music by taking up production. The extensive knowledge of instrumentation and music theory that he acquired from these interests is evident in his intricate yet delicate sound, which he personally describes as “thoughtful and also unwavering.” 

“I think there are elements of music that are timeless, that transcend time,” he says. “They kind of influence my music and are things I consider when I’m producing music.”

While his decision to ultimately pursue singing was a gradual one, Karpeh has since reaped the benefits. His first single, “Cold War,” released in September 2017, became a viral hit—at the time of this writing it has over 15 million plays on Spotify—and the EPs that followed it, Blood Type and Resonance, further contributed to the soulful and passionate musical identity that he has been adeptly constructing.

Since “Cold War,” Karpeh has kept busy. He released the aforementioned projects, toured the country—he says he's played an estimated 30 shows over the past nine months—recorded a track with John Mayer, and performed an NPR Tiny Desk concert thanks to an electric, sold-out concert in Washington, DC—all while remaining unsigned.

“I’d love to just have a project that completely influences a paradigm shift,” Karpeh says when I ask him what the future holds. “A project that’s set in stone and inspires other people.”

DJBooth’s full interview with Cautious Clay, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: So you mentioned you consider Pharrell an influence. You were originally just a producer, right? What was the rationale behind deciding to make your own music?

Cautious Clay: Yeah, man, it sounds really weird to say, but I didn’t realize people make music in that way. I was into jazz hardcore for a long time, and I was really into beats, but nothing else really inspired me for a long period of time. I wasn’t paying attention to anything pop at the time. I was just like, “Oh, people do this [full-time]? Like why not?” Because I was raised on so much classic music, it kind of framed my reference for what I really like. I also have a really large soft spot for Chicago and yacht rock shit. A lot of that kind of shit, I really like and grew up on. People were doing different shit, you know, that was timeless—and still really relevant.

Were you always a singer or were you also playing instruments?

I started playing flute and then I switched over to saxophone in high school. I was navigating that space for a long period of time until college, when I started taking up production. I was kind of fed up with the jazz [scene] and what people’s perspectives were. I really love the sentiment of jazz, and I always have, and a lot of my homies still play jazz. But I think the sentiment for me was always about creating music in its purest form.

So when I said that my approach has always been unwavering, I think that’s to say I don’t really care about genre. I didn’t really care about what other people were creating unless it was inspiring to me. I was never like, “Oh, that’s a famous guy who makes music!” For me, music has always been something that I can’t not appreciate when I really do appreciate it. I really don’t listen to music like that, you know? Unless it has a vibe or has something that really resonates with me, it’s hard for me to be really into something.

Did you have another job before you committed to making music full-time?

Yeah, I worked in real estate as a real estate agent for two years. I was working in real estate and then switched over to advertising for a year in New York. But the decision [to make music full-time] was gradual. I got an offer, even before “Cold War” was out, to do some production shit in Korea, which was like my jumping-off point. And then when I dropped “Cold War,” that song kind of started to really move. It got like a million plays in three weeks. And from there, I just started playing the next songs.

So when you released “Cold War,” did you already have the rest of the songs on Blood Type recorded?

Yeah, almost all of them were done at that point. There was some cleaning up, mix-wise, that I was doing, but generally, it was ready to go.

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And you said you spent a whole year crafting that project?

Yeah, I’d say like a summer. Maybe four and a half, five months.

As for Resonance, how long did it take you to make that?

That was kind of the B-sides to Blood Type. It was an opportunity to use more space than Blood Type, because I feel like Blood Type is a little more dense. It has space, but it was more about me developing a sound.

Has there been a moment when you felt like you were starting to really make it, or has that moment not come yet?

It’s so strange, man. In many ways, I don’t feel any different than I did two years ago, other than the fact that there’s a lot of people who respect what I do—and that honestly keeps me going. But, in general, I’m still kind of a dude. Like sometimes I’ll get stopped on the street in New York, and that’s super strange. But for the most part, it still feels pretty normal.

When did you play your first live show?

My first live show as Cautious Clay would’ve been in February, maybe even January, so it’s been like almost nine months. So I’ve played probably close to 30 shows.

I saw on your Instagram that you recently shot an NPR Tiny Desk. How did that opportunity come about?

So Bob Boilen [creator and host of the NPR show All Songs Considered] just pulled up to my first show in DC, and that was honestly—probably to this day—one of the greatest shows I’ve ever played. I’ve never seen so many people scream my songs back at me. Like all of my songs. The crowd knew “Joshua Tree,” “Blood Type,” they just knew all of my songs and all the lyrics. And when he saw that, I think it was like an Oh shit, who is this guy? type of thing. And he was like, “If you ever want to do a Tiny Desk, the invitation is open.”

That’s pretty impressive considering that you’re not signed. Have you been in contact with any record labels trying to sign you?

Yeah, man. And I think that’s definitely part of the game, especially nowadays because there are so many different artists who are unsigned and kind of doing their own thing. It’s really inspiring because nowadays artists can really be their own business. It’s really taken a lot of organization just being able to keep growing, to keep building what I have as an artist. It’s just fun, man. At the end of the day, I just remember: this is what I love, this is my passion.

Do you plan to stay unsigned for the foreseeable future?

[If I was to sign, it would have to be a partnership. I’m always going to own my masters outright. Signing just doesn’t really make sense because I’m already just doing everything on my own and have really built this out, me and my manager. It’s really just been a lot of hard work and conversations and organizing things. You’re not the biggest topic in the world if you’re not signed, but nowadays, it’s certainly possible [to still make it big]. It’s a lot of work, but it’s possible.

So what was it like working with John Mayer? How did that come about?

He started following me on Instagram randomly one day. And then I hit him up, I was like, “Hey man, not sure what you’re up to, but I appreciate the support. I’d love to work someday.” And he was just like, “I’m inclined to work!” Verbatim. Since then, we’ve just started talking, chatting, getting to know each other. We basically just met up in LA my last trip and struck up a really good writing friendship. It’s been very insane. We very much think similarly about how to create. And on top of that, the musical sensibilities. And that was the most fun part of it all. It didn’t feel like I was with John Mayer, it just felt like I was with an incredible friend. And we recorded and made the song fifty-fifty.

And what’s one takeaway from working with John?

Just that he’s not a bullshitter. And he’s just a very funny, chill, quirky dude. And at the end of the day, I think that’s what I respect about him the most. He’s undeniably talented, and his character, his personality, is just him. That inspires me, even more, to just be myself. It’s humbling, it’s fun, it’s exciting. I know that I have what it takes, from an artistic standpoint, to just do what I want.

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