Cautious Clay is the artist alias of Cleveland-born, New York-based singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Josh Karpeh. Drawing from R&B, hip hop, and leftfield indie pop, Cautious Clay has built a reputation for poetic and emotionally honest music defined by his sophisticated songwriting, soulful singing, and cinematic sound.
Since the release of his breakout debut single “Cold War” three years ago, 27-year-old Josh Karpeh has been on a whirlwind ride. He’s released three EPs that have earned praise from the New Yorker, the New York Times, Complex, and more. His songs have soundtracked key scenes in films like Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart and TV shows like Issa Rae’s Insecure. His music has been used by Taylor Swift, and he’s written songs with John Legend and John Mayer. His single “Cheesin” saw him link up with a who’s-who of new generation talent, featuring Remi Wolf, Still Woozy, Sophie Meiers, Claud, Melanie Faye, and HXNS, to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund. Now, Karpeh is releasing Deadpan Love, his debut album as Cautious Clay.
Deadpan Love is an album about balance: between others and one’s self, between intransigence and compromise, between sarcasm and sincerity. Its title, Karpeh says, refers to the inner sensitivity that often lies behind a person’s tough exterior. “It’s about having an outer layer that’s tougher, this deadpan or blank state, and an inner layer of compassion, where you’re open to being there for the people you care about,” says Karpeh. “Deadpan Love is the idea of two opposites coming together to make something better.”
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, compassion was a virtue instilled in Karpeh from a young age. “My family has always been open-minded, but at school that open-mindedness wasn’t widely shared,” he says. “People would make fun of you for being a certain way; it was very cliquey. I’m a very earnest person, but I’m also not naive. Being aware of people sometimes mistaking my kindness for weakness is something my mom made sure I was conscious of.”
When he was a kid, Karpeh’s parents would play classic R&B, soul, and folk around the house, from Minnie Ripperton and Teddy Pendergrass to Nick Drake. Karpeh’s own eclectic takes were best captured by the first CDs he ever bought: Creed, the Isley Brothers, Lil Bow Wow. “A little bit of trash, a little bit of taste, a little bit of being a child,” he jokes. Aged seven, he decided to learn the flute, inspired after misidentifying the instrument in Aladdin. It turned out to be the best decision he could have made. His teacher, Greg Pattillo, would later become one of YouTube’s early viral music stars thanks to his ‘Beatbox Flute’ series, and he showed Karpeh the creative, contemporary ways you could use a traditional instrument. “I really credit him a lot with opening my mind to the possibilities of playing a classical instrument, but making it into something completely different.”
Despite his liberal upbringing, Karpeh’s teenage years saw him attend an all-boys’ Catholic high school, where he felt stifled by the conservative environment and the parameters people tried to place around him. “Being a person of color, you get pigeonholed,” he says. “The black kids thought I wasn’t black enough, and the white kids thought I was trying to be white. There was a constant battle in my identity that defined me as a person. It’s what I ended up writing about, and what inspired me musically.” He threw himself into music, learning saxophone and playing in the school jazz band, as well as jazz groups and rock bands around town. “I’d always put up a wall and not let it get to me,” says Karpeh. “By removing myself personally from these crazy people, it allowed me to be in a headspace where I could release emotions through music.”
Karpeh found that college in Washington, D.C. was far more open-minded. There, Karpeh majored in international relations (seeing the potential in it to travel) and minored in jazz. He also began the next logical step from playing music to writing and producing tracks himself, building up buzz online. On SoundCloud, Karpeh honed his own musical identity and connected with a loose-knit scene of producers like Kaytranada and Medasin making leftfield sounds, and during semester studying abroad in London, he ended up in sessions with artists like MNEK and Zak Abel, who were impressed by the tracks that he had been sharing. He also found another fan in Billie Eilish’s brother and producer Finneas O’Connell, who hit up Karpeh while Eilish was still unsigned asking him to remix the future star’s breakthrough single “Ocean Eyes”.
Still, Karpeh wasn’t sure if music could ever become a viable career path for him. After all, he was a totally DIY artist from the Midwest with no connections in the music industry (plus, a certain amount of caution was built into his artist name from the start). After college, Karpeh worked a job he hated by day, and continued sharing his beats and tracks with the world by night. When he was eventually fired, he moved to New York City and took a job in real estate while continuing to expand his sound. By this point, his music had a distinct identity, and he began experimenting with using his own voice. “When recording my voice actually started to sound really good, I thought, ‘Maybe I could put this out,’” he says.
Cautious Clay’s debut single was 2017’s “Cold War”. “Three years ago, I was still considering whether I was going to be a beat producer who wrote toplines for other artists,” says Karpeh. “I didn’t think I was going to be a singer.” This uncertainty was unwarranted. Karpeh’s vocals took his music to another level. The New Yorker has described his singing as “the kind of voice that seems to emote and connect without effort; it burrows warmly into acoustic guitar melodies and floats atop more maximalist backdrops”. What’s more, Karpeh revealed he was not just a talented singer, but a gifted lyricist too. “Lyrically, I was inspired by poetry,” he says. He cites Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds as a big inspiration, as well as the work of E. E. Cummings and Toni Morrison. “They wrote in a way that was abstract, which was interesting to me as I always loved words in the abstract.”
“Cold War” blew up practically overnight. In the three years since its release, the song has racked up tens of millions of streams, soundtracked Olivia Wilde’s cult coming-of-age comedy Booksmart, and been interpolated by Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff on the song “London Boy”. The EP that followed, 2018’s Blood Type, saw Karpeh continue to expand his range as a songwriter and producer; it was also a huge success, and highlighted Cautious Clay’s DIY ingenuity, where as the sole creator behind every aspect of his music, he was able to write, record, and release on his own terms.
Karpeh was able to quit his job after just a year in New York and focus on music full-time – both writing his own songs and touring around the United States, but also working with a growing number of collaborators (he’s put in time with John Legend, John Mayer, Ellie Goulding, Ryan Tedder, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and more). His next two EPs, 2018’s Resonance and 2019’s Table of Context, showed his willingness to explore new ideas in his sound, with songs like “French Riviera” reflecting the comfort he had in himself. “Artistically, I was beginning to feel more confident in expressing these feelings in a way that was my own,” he says. “I wasn’t leaning into a particular existing sound, but one that was inspiring to me as who I am as a person. I’m defined by my color, but only because ‘my skin is my apparel’, as I say in the song.”
Cautious Clay’s debut album Deadpan Love is a culmination of this growth. If Karpeh’s previous EPs showed the artist experimenting with different singing, songwriting, and production forms, then Deadpan Love sees him confidently owning his sound, expressing his ideas in his most assured and direct way yet. The single “Roots” (co-written and co-produced with Dan Nigro and Jim-E-Stack) sees Cautious Clay ruminate on the deep roots shared between people who are close. “It’s about how deep things can go with a person, while also recognizing the simplicity of a relationship and how important that is,” he explains.
Songs like “Dying in the Subtlety” illustrate Karpeh’s expanded vocal style, inspired by 80s pop stars like Tears for Fears and Peter Gabriel. “Whoa” and “Shook” see Karpeh co-write with Adele collaborator Tobias Jesso Jr. “Artificial Irrelevance” looks at how phone screens can place a wall between two people, while other songs take a more autobiographical slant, like the piano ballad “Spinner” (recorded during quarantine), which ruminates on the nature of being an artist: “When you’re living for your dreams, it’s never quite exactly what it seems, on screens.” As Karpeh explains, “being an artist the past few years made me realize how much emotionally taxing it can be putting yourself out there non-stop”.
Previous single “Agreeable” (co-written and produced with Sia collaborator Jesse Shatkin) captures Karpeh’s sense for satire, exploring how compromises can affect personal growth, as well as how difficult it can be to reach a fair middle ground during an era where divisive rhetoric prevails. Sarcasm is a device he deploys often on Deadpan Love, a way of describing the absurdity of the world around us, as well as a method to deal with the anxiety of rejection. “Satire is an important part of my identity,” he says. “It’s how I deal with absurdity. That’s why I gravitate towards it. There are so many things in the States that are crazy.” He points to “Bump Stock”, a song about gun violence, as an example. “It’s absurd how we’re so desensitized to gun violence. I want to talk about it in an open-hearted way.”
Yet for all the deadpanning on the album, there is, of course love, too. Beneath a veneer of cynicism, Cautious Clay’s music is hopeful and optimistic. “Positivity and hope, but with a realistic spin,” as he puts it. He cites his own results from the Dungeons & Dragons alignment chart test – Chaotic Good – as the key to Deadpan Love’s character, and ultimately his own. “I like the sentiment of ‘Chaotic Good’,” Karpeh says. “It encapsulates who I am.”