Cautious Clay: ‘I’m attracted to the mess’

Chronicling his challenges from shy DJ to standout solo artist, Cautious Clay reveals the deeply personal tales that shaped his unique sound, culminating in his ambitious project, KARPEH, set to resonate on global stages.

Cautious Clay interview 2

Cautious Clay meets us on Zoom from his home in Brooklyn, headphone cans perched on his head while a microphone sits to his left, covered by a pop shield. It’s a serious setup. At first, our interview is even interrupted by a music programme interfering with the audio. “Sorry, I have to close some music programmes on my computer,” apologises the 30-year-old multi-instrumentalist.

As an anecdote, it sums Clay up quite nicely: someone for whom music is an all-consuming preoccupation. To date, his career has travelled along two distinct lines. One, as an in-demand writer and producer for others, working with the likes of Taylor Swift, John Legend, and Billie Eilish. And then there’s a nascent solo career, which has seen him release his well-received debut album Deadpan Love in 2021 and a clutch of EPs before that.

Keen observers will have noted that his music until now has shaved close to a neo-soul-slash-R&B template. New LP, KARPEH, is about to change all that. It’s his first for the famed jazz label Blue Note Records, and it’s an ambitious yet deeply personal 15-track trek through his family’s ancestral roots in Africa through to present-day life in the US. Unconventional song structures abound, often underpinned by Clay’s soulful croon and lyrical sax and flute work.

Cautious Clay interview 3

Although KARPEH could be perceived as a second album, he is keen to stress that it is a more “collaborative” proposition that sits to the side of his previous work. The musicians that accompany him give credence to this assertion. The likes of jazz guitarist Julian Lage, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Joshua Crumbly, and drummer Sean Rickman all feature. His uncle, bassist Kai Eckhardt, also appears, and his aunt is responsible for the album’s artwork.

Clay calls it “a concept record” that’s split into three chronological themes. The first is “The Past Explained”, the second “The Honeymoon of Exploration”, and it concludes with “A Bitter & Sweet Solitude”. The final section points towards the future and features mostly instrumental offerings such as ‘Yesterday’s Price’, which is one of the album’s standouts. He believes that these themes are “cyclical” and point toward the unending nature of our spiritual growth.

To get to the future, though, Clay had to delve into the past. And this wasn’t easy. “For Black Americans, a lot of the discussion about our past is just very, very messy, and also not great, you know?” he sighs. “It’s a very difficult thing to unravel. It’s a very desperate scenario.”

Fostering a desire to understand his family’s history, Clay tried to unlock that door. He sat with his grandparents and parents and asked about their experiences. As stories and recollections flowed, he recorded them and returned to them after the event. Snippets of these discussions have been braided with the music on KARPEH (Clay’s real name is Joshua Karpeh, so the album is self-titled). “I feel like a lot of information and context is left out of a family’s story. My parents didn’t do a great job preserving the past. Not because they didn’t appreciate it,” he adds, “but because it wasn’t always the easiest thing for them.”

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As an avid documentarian, he even found some archive audio he’d fastidiously filed away years ago that fit this project. He named the 32-second clip ‘102 Years of Comedy’, and it opens the album (“It’s my grandfather speaking to my mom and me around Christmas in 2015 or something,” he clarifies).

Whether material new or old, the process has been a “positive” one overall – a therapeutic act that has allowed him to “attach” his music to something “bigger”, he says, whilst allowing him to wrap his head around his antecedents’ story. Clay’s overriding impression is one of “perseverance”: the dogged determination to survive and thrive in environments that, at times, have been hostile and unwelcoming.

Cautious Clay interview

Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Clay was an only child. His mother, a lawyer, and his dad, a doctor, separated when he was around three years old. Both were “huge music heads” who filled their respective homes with “really good records”, he recalls (“All this great stuff was playing all the time: Laura Nyro, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Charles Mingus, etc.”).

At the age of seven, he started flute lessons under the tutelage of Greg Pattillo, who was no ordinary teacher. This virtuoso flautist went viral on YouTube in the days before the term “viral” even existed. “He was a beatbox flute player,” explains Clay. “And he was one of the earliest people on YouTube to blow up”.

In recent years, Clay has “reconnected” with his old teacher, whom he acknowledges encouraged a priceless “try it out” ethos that has persisted throughout his life (and he shares Pattillo’s credit with his mother too). “He was completely out of the box,” he continues. “He was a classical flute player, but he also did jazz. He showed me all this stuff, and it just hit me at the perfect time. I think there’s so many contexts where people go, ‘’Well, I’m either gonna go [down] a classical route or a non-classical route’, but he was open to it all.”

The binary choice Clay finds so limiting artistically is a notion he believes is pervasive in our society: “I think a lot of people believe that if one thing is true for them, then another thing can’t be true,” he observes. “It’s like everything has to be matter of fact, and yet what I’m attracted to has always been very blurry.” He pauses for a moment. “I’m attracted to the mess. Other people may like those little boxes, but I’ve always been attracted to the mess.”

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Throughout his life, Clay has had to battle with acute shyness. This is why he started out as a DJ, as it enabled him to engage in the thing he loved with a degree of anonymity. Slowly, he emerged bit by bit before the release of his first EP, Blood Type, in 2017, which housed the hit ‘Cold War’ – a track later interpolated by Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff for Swift’s ‘London Boy’ on 2019’s Lover. “I do still feel shy, yeah,” he says, “but not when I’m performing anymore”.

His shyness might have been influenced by a difficult time he experienced at school. “Everyone made fun of me,” he shares. “I was a dude playing flute at seven…but I was also into dubstep, Skrillex, and Kaytranada, genres that were popular, and yet I was with the band kids. I guess I’ve been an artist my whole life to a certain extent,” he shrugs.

At 15, Clay picked up the saxophone and the guitar, while the piano was something he’d always “dabbled” in as his mum was a keen amateur player in her spare time. He learnt the keys in a “piecemeal” fashion and says a knack for “understanding shapes” really helped. “I understand harmony super-well too. I have a very good ear for harmony.” If his multi-instrumentalist skills were a trivial pursuit piece, then his voice was his “last” wedge – he didn’t even contemplate singing until his early twenties.

That singing came so late might partly be an indictment of the stigma that persists amongst po-faced musos regarding the human voice. It is an attitude that sticks in Clay’s craw. “There’s not a lot of respect for singers,” he bemoans. “Everyone’s like, [dismissively] ‘Oh, they’re a singer’. But it’s an instrument, and you’ve really got to take care of it.”

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For all of his instrument-playing gifts, Clay rates his skills as a producer highest of all: “I’m a pretty good saxophone player. I’m a pretty good flute player. I’m an okay guitar player. I’m an okay piano player. I’m a phenomenal music producer.” It’s these producing skills that found him remixing Billie Eilish’s 2016 single ‘Ocean Eyes’ and subsequently producing the likes of John Mayer, Khalid, and Remi Wolf (“Remi opened for me on my first tour in 2019. She’s a wild one!” he remarks with a smile).

This leads us back to KARPEH. This weekend, Clay will host and perform at the Karma & Friends Block Party in Central Park. Then he’ll play the album in full at the Blue Note in New York across four nights. As for the UK, he “really wants” to make the trip across the Atlantic as soon as possible (“We’re thinking of doing something at Ronnie Scott’s,” he teases). In the meantime, he’s cooking up other projects, including an off-Broadway play and yet more music.

“I just want to keep the train moving,” he concludes.

This train is moving alright. And at quite the speed too.

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