Although many fantasize about leaving day jobs to pursue dreams and passions, it takes a certain kind of courage – or delusion – to pull the trigger and actually do it. Beyond that, success requires a heady blend of self-confidence, talent, and a fair stroke of luck – of meeting the right people and being in the right place – to actually make it work.
Just eight months ago, Josh Karpeh was another cog in the wheel, working a corporate job in New York City by day and producing music by night, all while harboring dreams of breaking through and becoming a self-sufficient artist. This isn’t to say that Karpeh – now better known by his stage Cautious Clay – was a novice to the scene; the producer and songwriter had been making music for the better part of six years, garnering moderate attention for remixes of songs for a wide range of artists including Billie Eilish and Chaz Bundick, as well as putting out a great deal of originals. But it wasn’t quite enough, and the “perfect time” to commit remained a constantly-moving target on the horizon. One day, he decided that it was now or never: bolstered by the stratospheric popularity of his single “Cold War” – one of the first songs Karpeh had sung on – he quit his job and committed to giving a music career his full attention, and an honest try. And it paid off, leading to critical acclaim from publications such as Fader and Complex, as well as plenty of demand for his songwriting abilities – engagements that have begun pulling him out of his adopted home in NYC and regularly out to Los Angeles.
Karpeh took a leap of faith so that Clay could soar. And on the evidence of his first EP, Blood Type, it looks like there’s nothing but blue skies for this creative force in ascendancy.
Cautious Clay plays DC9 in Washington DC on May 5 with April + Vista, and New York City’s Bowery Ballroom on July 24. Blood Type is out now.
Brightest Young Things: By your own admission, you were a relatively unknown producer and artist for six years and then blew up over the last six months. Can you identify the turning point, the moment that it changed for you? Was it when you started singing on your own songs?
Cautious Clay: Yeah, it was definitely when I started to put vocals on my tracks – that’s when it started to change. That would definitely be it. I went through a phase where it was mostly remixes of beats and stuff, and that got a little bit of attention, especially on SoundCloud, but it was never anything where the general populous would really fuck with it. You’re probably right.
I did a Toro y Moi remix on SoundCloud that got more attention when I released “Cold War”, and almost eclipsed that song in terms of plays on the site, but that was my first attempt at vocal stuff. I think I started doing vocals this late because although I sang, I was always super self-conscious about my voice. When I finally learned how to record my voice is when I started to branch out and feel comfortable being more creative in that element. I’ve been experimenting with my vocals for the last two or so years, and trying out things in terms of melody and writing, and that’s been fun.
BYT: How are handling all the newfound attention? Is your social media feed constantly bombarded, and are you still managing all of that yourself?
Clay: It certainly gets a little overwhelming at times. [Laughs] I still manage my own social media – it hasn’t gotten to that point yet – but my DMs can definitely be overwhelming. I try to respond to everyone and feel receptive to everyone without being half-hearted, but it is definitely very time consuming trying to be a full-time artist while maintaining relationships with fans and keeping a certain level of creativity, and doing videos and producing my music. You know, keeping up with all of those different things. It’s certainly a full-time thing that a lot of people who aren’t artists can’t really empathize in that sense.
In a perfect world, I would have a lot of other people handling things like video or production, or the creative elements beyond the music. Because there is a lot more to it than just music, and that’s something I’ve been learning working with my friends and the people I respect on an artistic level. I should say the latter is probably more important to me as an artist: I want to work with people who have the same perspective on things. It’s great when friends can be collaborators, but that’s not always the case, nor will it be, and I’m pretty realistic about that. It’s something I’ve had to buckle with over the last few months – some people are friends I can actually work with and that’s such a blessing, but somebody shouldn’t feature on a song because we’re homies. [Laughs] There’s other elements to what I’m doing and what my ambitions are that would be compromised by that. It can definitely be a lonely affair, but I feel passionate about having something super personal that hopefully connects to people.
BYT: You held a day job until the Fall of 2017, before deciding to try music full-time. Let’s talk about that decision: did you feel confident in your ability to breakthrough even then? Or was it a “fuck it, let’s give it a shot” sort of experience?
Clay: [Laughs] Yeah, that was kind of the vibe. I dunno man, so much shit has happened that has allowed me to do this full-time, but it was such a risk. I certainly didn’t see “Cold War” being such a hit; I had really modest expectations for it. I’m honestly surprised on a daily basis about who’s fucking with it or how it’s still growing, and it has allowed it to be an anchor point for my project. I’m a creative person, so I’ll always be creating, but I think that was my gut – I’m very cognizant of the fact that creativity is super intuitive for me. It’s in my blood. When I was making enough money at my day job and have saved up enough, I figured I could try and make this work. I took a leap of faith and was lucky to land in a semi stable situation that is touring and writing music full-time, and getting so much positive feedback on so many different platforms. In short: it was certainly not expected to be what it is, because I’m still independent and it’s pretty DIY at this point, but it feels like I’m building towards something.
BYT: To that end, you’ve chosen to remain an independent artist thus far. What informed that decision, beyond wanting to wait and see what pans out?
Clay: I’m definitely very comfortable being unsigned, and it works for the situation I’m in; I guess it just depends on the type of artist you are and what you find yourself comfortable with. For me, I have a very strong sense of what I’m doing, so having other main people chiming in feels a little counterproductive. I’m extremely comfortable with feeling vulnerable and put myself in those positions as an artist, but maybe having a label and having other people giving their opinions who may not truly understand the project would steer it in the wrong direction or inhibit what I am able to do. A label at this point would be a distraction for what I’m trying to create and have a sense for it, although it might not hurt when the time is right. It’s just too early for what I’m doing, and I’m rolling with it right now.
BYT: I hear you expressing a concern for a dilution of your vision. Do you have a concrete sense of what it is for this project? What’s the North Star for your art?
Clay: That’s a tough one. I definitely know my inspiration, but the more and more I create, the more I draw back from other artists I respect. To be honest, I am definitely shooting really high – my inspirations are Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West – those guys who can do whatever and people aren’t like “Oh, they do alternative R&B. Oh, they’re singers.” I kind of just want to do my own thing.
BYT: Right, they’re artists.
Clay: I want to do my own thing and not give a fuck about all this other thing, you know? I think my work can transcend all of that. I don’t want to compromise my vision as an artist. It feels crazy, because there’s always an element of self-doubt, but at this point it feels like I am comfortable doing that. For me it’s where I can see my intentions for what I’m doing.
BYT: I think I understand what you’re saying: you want to be an artist in the true sense, that no matter how you express yourself, you’re not limited to creating within certain boxes. People just understand you’re an artist. Kanye can make The College Dropout and Yeezus in the same career, and it all makes sense.
Clay: Yeah, exactly! [Laughs] No doubt. And even with what Kendrick does – there’s an element of really cool melodies and hooks, but he can also get really weird, and people don’t think it’s corny. I really admire how they’re able to navigate that.
BYT: I know you’re originally from Cleveland, and made your first forays into music in New York. Do you think artists need to make a jump to one of the bigger cities to break through in music? Or has the Internet made that unnecessary?
Clay: I think getting out of Cleveland was one hundred percent necessary for my creative process. I lived in D.C. for five years or so after Cleveland – I went to school at GW, and that was definitely a stepping stone. But I don’t know; getting out of Cleveland was important because I was surrounded by very toxic people. If I had found a community that I jived with I guess theoretically I could have been online creating and building there. It certainly could have been possible, and now that the world is so flat with the Internet and what people can create from like, Minnesota. Spooky Black (now known as Corbin) is a great example of that – he’s kind of under the radar but he’s huge. It certainly helps to have a network of people who may or may not be in the industry or can help out with PR, or something like that. It never hurts. But if you’re truly creating something different or have an aesthetic people resonate with you can kind of be anywhere. It’s a weird world, man. I’m always like “Shit! Who is that?” – I like things you can’t pigeonhole easily.
BYT: I get that. I love DC but sometimes I want to move to the middle of nowhere and write from there.
Clay: Dude, every fucking day. What’s that food show everyone’s talking about on Netflix? Shit is so wild.
BYT: Ugly Delicious? Or Chef’s Table – the episode with Francis Mallman in Patagonia, cooking over an open fire in the middle of glaciers?
Clay: Yeah! Exactly. I just want to be there for two weeks and not talk to anybody but one or two people. That sounds really great, because New York can certainly be really overwhelming. Although I do love New York.
BYT: It seems like you’re spending more and more time in Los Angeles – are you considering making a move out there, or is this out of necessity?
Clay: I don’t know. To be honest, I’ve been spending a lot of time here, but I really like New York and it’s definitely a place I want to stay in. I really like LA – one of my good friends, Lane (Lean Quatifah), is out here; he’s the homie, and one of my close friends from college – we hit it off very early on when we were both doing electronic music. He’s been doing all of the art direction for me. He went the design route and I stuck with music, although he’s still making music. That’s a great example of a friend who is also a coworker, and we work off of each other and feed off of each other. It’s a mix of business and friendship, so it can be interesting. There can be some challenges with that.
I guess LA is great because I have a lot of friends out here, but I love that in New York not everyone does the same exact thing. I’ve been in LA in an environment where I’m writing, writing, writing – and I like to write – but I feel that if someone wants to work with me, we’ll make it work. I like New York and that can change, but I feel like it’s where I want to be.
BYT: You’ve talked about the importance of being more intentional with your life – and committing to that. How’s that going for you? Do you ever catch yourself slipping?
Clay: Do I ever catch myself slipping? Yeah, definitely! I’m always second guessing my intention and what I’m trying to do. My identity is born out of having that reflection in what I’m trying to say and do with my life, so yeah. [Long pause] To be honest though, I don’t think I really do (slip) – I’m really focused on creating. That’s what I was put on Earth to do, so I don’t really find myself slipping in the sense of “my intentions are to sign a million dollar deal and get a fucking Bentley.” [Laughs] I don’t really think those things inspire me. I think in terms of what my intentions are as a human – being more intentional – it means making sure you have genuine friendships and create community as an artist. I think that’s my next move as an artist: creating community around what I’m doing, because up to this point making art has been really about me doing production, music, writing, vocals, everything. I’d really like to show up and make something out of what I’m doing, you know? Whether that’s working with Lane or working with my dudes at Arimé, the label that put out Mac Ayres – I’ll bounce ideas off of them. I’m always just trying to think of ways to create with other people who have a similar mindset.
BYT: That’s super important. And it’s not just about friendship, but whether you jive and help each other build in a creative and collaborative way.
Clay: Absolutely. It’s so funny – sometimes you can work with somebody really well, and that’s it. But you want to find the people you can develop those friendships with based on work. Not that I don’t have great homies and friends, but there is such a change that has occurred in my life in the last six months. You know, my girlfriend works in the Parks Department and has such a different perspective. And all these dudes who I used to work a nine to five corporate job with; we don’t have anything to relate to anymore. It’s different.
It’s not a “oh I’m better than you” type of thing, and it’s always good to talk to people who have differences, but sometime it’s just a perspective or a mindset thing. It’s a lot harder to find, sometimes. It’s about people’s intentions, and when you find the people you can jive with, it doesn’t matter what they do professionally or whether or not they’re creative, it’s about whether or not I fuck with you.