Tuesday, May 11th, 2021
Cautious Clay on His Upcoming New Album “Deadpan Love”
Best of Both Worlds
May 11, 2021
By Jake Uitti
Joshua Karpeh—better known by his stage name, Cautious Clay—has the voice of an angel. His music is blissful, caring. It’s not concerned with flash and frivolity. Rather, it’s personal and exists independently, outside trend (though admittedly it is rather popular and likely only going to become more so). In recent years, the artist has worked with some of music’s biggest names, writing for Taylor Swift and John Legend and playing live on stage with artist like John Mayer.
Cautious Clay will release his newest solo LP, Deadpan Love, on June 25. In the meantime, the crooner will drop a few singles like sonic morsels along the way. We caught up with the smooth singer to ask him how he transitioned to becoming a professional musician after working in real estate, his experience playing the flute from seven years old, and what he loves most about his job.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): Hello, sir, how are you?
Cautious Clay: I’m good, I’m good. I’m having a weird thing—I got a piece of glass in my foot last night and I haven’t been able to get it out. So, I’m kind of immobile in this weird way. Other than that, I’m alright.
Oh shit! Is it like a little sliver, almost like a splinter?
Yes, it’s like the tiniest most annoying thing. Whenever I walk on it, it’s really a sharp pain. So, I’m trying to think about how to handle it. Maybe I’ll have to go to the doctor. But at this point, I’ve soaked my foot in Epsom salts and done what I can.
Maybe you can find a mouse with a little needle and thread like in the cartoons. Okay, well, I’m sorry to hear about that. If I may, I have some questions here for you. Shall we begin?
Let’s go back to the beginning and let me ask, when did you first find music? And I believe I read that you picked it up early around the house and that your parents were open-minded about the idea of creativity?
That’s definitely true. My parents, they’re both doctors and lawyers, so they did professional stuff. But they’ve always valued the arts and definitely aren’t the most traditional in their outlooks. So, being raised by my mom, a single mother, and also having a relationship with my father, I think they both showed me good music growing up. They listen to a really large diverse array, both of them. They both had different tastes but they both had taste.
I was introduced to a lot of good stuff very early, even if I didn’t know the names of the artists. It just stuck with me. I definitely have some early memories, around the age of four, when I heard something and I was honestly freaked out by it but it did make an impression on me, at the same time. My earliest musical memory was probably hearing Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots,” and, like, freaking out. Then hating the song and then liking it several years later.
You also grew up playing flute. What can you say about that?
I grew up playing flute around the age of seven. I loved and hated it for a long time then eventually I just kept with it and it was easy for me—I learned it young enough where I could hone in on the difficult stuff early enough where it was easy enough to transfer to saxophone. Melody was always what stuck with me through my early perspective around music. Melody was always what made me super attracted to musical concepts and inspired me to continue to explore that journey even before I was professionally doing it as I am now.
The flute is, in some ways, ubiquitous. It’s in high school bands and all that. But it’s also somewhat of an unusual, sparsely used instrument. I know your teacher early on was a well known flautist but what is your relationship to the instrument today?
I incorporate it as an instrument that I play, in that it’s like a tool. I never wanted to be—I made a conscious decision not to become, like, “the flute guy” or “the sax guy,” you know? I wanted everything to have a holistic approach with how I approach music. I’ve always used the flute where I thought it made sense. Like, I think where I felt most comfortable was being a writer-producer-artist and incorporating the flute where it felt like, “Oh this is cool, this is an interesting use of the flute.” A lot of times, it’s in accenting melodies or subtle things where it can be brought up.
It’s like a flavor, not the whole meal.
Totally! I could probably do that maybe as an idea one day. But I think as an overall, I’m not invested in making a flute pop song. It would be fine but it’s just not my priority.
You were born in Cleveland and went to school in Washington, D.C. before moving to New York. How did Cleveland and D.C. shape your artistry?
I think Cleveland was a really great place for music because it was so academic there and I think it gave me a foundation for my abilities musically and instilled a little bit of that inside what I do. I think I have the best of both worlds. My instructor, who you mentioned earlier, was a semi-famous flute player on YouTube and, so, I think he played a huge role in how I ended up seeing music. It hit me at a perfect time being seven years old and being super impressionable.
Then I guess D.C. is where I took a lot of those ideas that Greg instilled in me at an early age and realized that I had a natural gift for music. So, in freshman year, I got into this semi-legit reggae band and I played saxophone and sang backing vocals and did that for a few years in college. That was all in D.C. so it was this exploratory process for me. Like, ‘Oh, cool this is what it’s like to tour,’ sort of. It was my first experiences touring and playing music for money. I think that made an impression on me.
D.C. was also where I started to produce music and not just be an instrumentalist. There’s a small community of producers in the DMV—D.C., Maryland, Virginia—area and that community was blossoming at the time that I lived in D.C. So, I always think of that as the Golden Age of SoundCloud and the bedroom producer that eventually obviously disbanded and made its way into popular music, as we know it. That was the impression D.C. left on me, which was the two sides of what I ended up becoming in New York.
In New York, you worked as a real estate agent and in advertising. That’s so interesting to me because I feel like you have one of the, like, five best voices in the world. Yet, at that time, you still had one foot in a professional 9-5 job. So, how did you become fully entrenched in music after moving to New York?
To be honest, it was a lot of luck but also being skilled in what I did and spending tons of time learning how to produce—and also enjoying it and being relentless. At my best, I have a really incredible output. So, I can finish a song or two in a day, if I need to. I can zone in on that in this pretty unrelenting kind of way. So, anytime I didn’t have to work—and I was lucky that my job was pretty easy and mindless, as well. I didn’t have to invest tons of time and energy into my day job. Then I spent every other moment I could finishing what I would eventually put out as my first Cautious Clay music.
In so doing, can you explain how you developed your style and, in particular, your very smooth vocal style?
I didn’t sing for a long time. I sort of fake sang but I didn’t take it seriously. But then whatever my impression of what people were supposed to sound like in my head was what I ended up trying to sound like on my songs. Some people thought I was British, which I thought was funny. But I just made my own style with my voice and got better and better at recording it.
The first time I did it successfully was the Toro y Moi cover that I did back in 2016. That was the roughest vocal I think I ever put out. But I put out “Cold War” a year later and I think I at least somewhat perfected the vocal chain that accentuated my voice.
What about your singing voice, in general? Were you singing in the bathroom, did you build special vocal booths for yourself?
I think I developed that, honestly, though my saxophone and flute playing. They’re super melodic instruments, so my melodic sensibilities were already super strong, I think. So, my only limited was just my brain in the sense of what I could think up. Not only that, I guess, but my range as a vocalist. But I guess I was lucky enough to have a pretty decent range. So, it was the best of both worlds there. But like I said, I wasn’t necessarily—it was a mixture of my jazz background, my funk background, but also I love pop music and good melodies. I just love a good chorus, so I think I just had a strong sensibility for dynamics in vocals. I don’t know—I don’t know where it came from, I just listen to a ton of music.
These days, you’re getting a lot of attention, which must be good and but I wonder if it’s also odd? You’ve worked with FINNEAS, Taylor Swift, John Legend, John Mayer—what is this all like for you?
I don’t know—I try not to, I don’t really think about it much at this point. I’ve been doing it now since 2018, so now I just think that I’m in the right place and I’m on the right path and I’m just trying to make my own mark as an artist and producer and songwriter. I feel like this is just the beginning of that, this album. I’m just trying to be myself, you know?
Okay, let’s talk about the new record! What was the genesis of the new LP?
To be honest, the record came about mostly from my perspective around relationships. It’s a pretty reflective album but it’s also based on personal experiences. For example, the song, “High Risk Travel,” starts off with a door slam and then I get into a car and I’m basically telling a story about a situation where I would literally go at length to see someone even in a situation where it’s difficult to see them. Hence the title. Obviously that works in conjunction with the pandemic, too, which is when I wrote the song. But the emotional strain is there—you’d go at lengths to see someone but you’d risk yourself, emotionally, being vulnerable.
So, I think it can deal with more serious things like that. But the album can also serve as an observation of a social norm that I feel like is interesting or absurd. Thinking about those two things in abstraction, then, led to the idea of my album being called Deadpan Love. It was originally called Karma and Friends, actually. But I changed it to Deadpan Love because it was more holistic in how I operate as a person in my life, which is that I feel like I have an external witty side that I use as a protection mechanism for my soul, which I feel like is very earnest and empathetic and caring. So, it’s like the two sides of the same coin. Deadpan Love is how I define my identity and how it manifests.
I really love your song, “Roots.” Can you talk about that track and the blissful sounds like “Roots” you produce?
I think that’s something I’ve heard a lot. I think I make music that can sort of feel a little melancholy but also sort of hopeful, in some ways. I don’t know, you always have to leave it up to the listener, in some ways, in how it’s being interpreted, in how it’s being ingested. But I think that’s cool. With this album and that song, in particular, I definitely wanted to reach the very heights of my vocal abilities. So, I wanted to do that in a way that made sense for the song and I thought “Roots” as a great example of that. I’m singing in my normal voice and I go up pretty high in the chorus but it has a purpose, as well. So, I think that song felt right for that instance.
What do you love most about music?
I love the feeling of getting excited about it. I like the feeling of when you hear something and it makes you excited. I think that’s what I like about it. I don’t really feel that often anymore when it comes to music. But I think when you hear something like that and it really translates, it can really change your life. It’s that feeling of excitement and connection, that’s what I really like about it.