Interviewed on May 5, 2018
After writing music for six years, Joshua Karpeh decided quit his day job in mid 2017 to embark on his music career under the moniker Cautious Clay. In the following months Karpeh emerged with a sound that combined introspective soul vocals and slow burning production, merging together to filling up the empty spaces of his songs for emotional climaxes. Karpeh recently released his first Cautious Clay EP, aptly named Blood Type for exploration of his own identity and past romantic relationships. We caught up with Josh at Washington D.C.’s venue DC9 before one of his first live shows as Cautious Clay. Take a look at our conversation below, and don’t forget to listen to his new single “French Riviera”.
What The Sound: Could you give our readers an introduction to your newest release, Blood Type, the experiences that went into it, and some of themes you were focused on in writing it?
Cautious Clay: I was really focused on my personal relationships, that was a main part of it, and my personal identity around them. I had to develop a place for me to feel comfortable expressing that.
WTS: So was Blood Type a collection of experiences or does it draw from a specific time in your life?
CC: I would say it took place throughout the past five years that I've been in a relationship and a bit on my personal experiences with school, student loans, and the identity people can find within their own experience.
WTS: You've gone so far to describe this album as your Magnum Opus. What made you choose personal relationships as your primary focus?
CC: Well I felt like it was the most important to me to express that stuff as a first project because it’s the staple for where I'm coming from artistically. It just felt like the most personable to my experiences in the future, so instead of talking about the far-off past, I wanted it to be more relevant to my life today. Discussing insecurity within romantic relationships and things of that nature just felt more present than person-to-person relationships that might be considered more tongue and cheek, such as friendships. So, a lot of what I was talking about was loving relationships and personal identity, which just felt like a good place to start. I wanted it to be succinct and make sense when put together, and striking my personal identity felt the most appropriate to place first in this project.
WTS: One thing I really enjoyed was getting to know you through your music, while still relating to it myself, like having a late-night conversation with a good friend. I also wanted to touch on more of those elements later, but as a fellow GWU student I was really curious about your experience in DC. A lot of people think of this city as solely focused on politics, but you decided to come out here from Cleveland. What made you decide to come out here to make music?
CC: To be honest, I was just like, "Big city, East Coast." Cleveland is such as small place, but is still pretty musical there: Oberlin College is really close by, there’s the Cleveland Music Settlement, Cleveland Orchestra is huge there. I was really just thinking of finding something that was different from where I was at the time. I don't really have the best relationship with Cleveland so I was just trying to get the fuck out. I was still interested in international affairs and culture so DC was still a sensible place to go. Plus, at that time I wasn't really sure I was going to be able to do music for a living, so I figured maybe I would just base my career or politics or culture, because New York was just was too intimidating for me at the time, coming from Cleveland. I had family in New York, but I didn't really know much, everyone was there, and I didn't have the confidence at the time.
WTS: Did living in DC end up contributing to your sound, or was it more about the people you met here?
CC: Man, I mean DC certainly contributed. I was a producer on Soundcloud for a long time and a lot of the people I was working with lived in DC and influenced me. I had a little community going that totally made sense for what I was doing. I was definitely influenced by my surroundings.
WTS: You play flute, saxophone, keys, drums, bass, you embody the term "multi-instrumentalist." What made you go more production heavy on this album?
CC: I feel as if there is always a time and place for stuff, and especially being both an artist and musician, being a good producer is about knowing when and when not to use certain things. That was something that frustrated me about jazz and some musicians, they would overuse certain sounds. I always have taken a minimalist approach, well I took a very maximalist approach for a little bit, but I reached a peak where I realized that doesn't matter. I asked myself what about this makes it beautiful, what about this makes this important to people? And that's when you really start to take away certain elements of things and use them sparingly so you can find the best place for it. So, I made it more production heavy because I came from a producer background. I had been making beats for years, so when I finally had the power to do everything on my own the possibilities became endless. If I needed to, I could use flute, if I needed to I could use sax, and I'll use it every once and a while, but it didn't want it to be like, a shtick. I want to create on my terms and create as a vocalist. That's where I felt like I was doing my best.
WTS: Actually, I was thinking about this on the way over here, you really used your voice as an instrument on the project. How did you make adjustments to the vocals to give your voice new ranges?
CC: I was really using vocal take stuff and I was trying to find the best ways to create a space that made the most sense. I would use certain vocal takes use them where they felt right.
WTS: I heard you used to play with a bunch of other musicians, and a lot of them that I spoke to said you were a great component of any group that you were playing with. What made you want to go completely solo for this project?
CC: I wanted to do everything on my terms, and I knew I was capable and like I had a vision for what I wanted to do. I didn't want to have to rely on other people, and the best way for me to do that was just to do everything to avoid contention with other people. I feel like I've been having to deal with that for a while and putting off my own independence. Not that I'm old or anything, I've just been through a lot of different phases of music, and at one point I decided I was just going to have to do it myself. I always had the inkling, but I didn't know how to do it. I'm also a very shy person so I was never like, "Hey produce this for me!" I was never even comfortable singing, so coming to that conclusion was a big adjustment. It all just folded in to allow me to try singing. I had always been singing but I never knew what that meant with, you know, with recording and figuring it out until I just figured it out for myself. Then it was like, okay I need to learn out to write a song, and then it all just came together after learning each part of the process.
WTS: Now that you've got a handle on each aspect of creating a song and putting together an album would you consider working with other artists on future projects?
CC: Yeah, it’s just gotta be the right people and make sense for me, so yeah, it’s just a matter of whether it would elevate the conversation and add dynamics to what I'm doing?
WTS: You've commented on the importance of having a musical community, specifically citing Brockhampton or Fête Records. What exactly does that mean to you? What's your ideal musical community and how do you hope to create and contribute to one?
CC: It's hard because everyone has to be on the same page, and that's really hard to find. I don't have anyone who's artistically on the same page as me, and I don't say that in a cocky way, it’s just like, you have to be in agreement on what you are trying to do artistically. For me, I just love to create in a way that feels like I'm not restricted by a certain type of expectation, like "Oh I make that chill shit," or "I make that hip hop," you know. I feel like there's a time and place for it and if I'm going to create a community I just want everyone to be feeding off each other as collaborators. There are people with which I've worked that I'd love to make something with but at this point we're separated by location.
WTS: Like who?
CC: This guy HXNS, he's an incredible producer, I really fuck with him. We've really built together and have already worked on a couple different things that I really feel good about. It's just a matter of that happening, because up until this point I've been producing everything on my own, and while I'll let people in partially, it has always been under my direction. To have someone else who's equally creative in a sense, I have to be able to trust them, and that's not easy, especially if you have a particular way you like to do things.
WTS: Just recently you've been performing your first couple live shows under Cautious Clay, which must be fantastic feeling. What has that experience been like for you so far?
CC: It has been great man, really humbling. I'm just excited that people generally like what I'm doing and I feel like I'm slowly building something while connecting with fans in a real way. I never really envisioned that for myself, so it's kind of crazy since this music was created from a genuine place. But who knows, it could all just disappear tomorrow.
WTS: Anything could, but I'm sure you'll keep going with it. On the topic of your fans, how would you hope they experience your music live as opposed to when they are listening through their headphones or with other people?
CC: I guess it's hard to know. I think people can get a lot of different things from music. So, if they are in the show with me, I'd hope that they are generally into the craftsmanship of it all, maybe even sing along if they fuck with that. I feel like I create music from a different perspective where you can listen to it passively, or you could listen to what I'm saying. I could literally be elevator music, who knows man. If they are enjoying it in whatever way they see fit, I'm cool with it.
WTS: You directed and starred in the "Cold War" music video. Was that your first time doing both of those things? What was it like?
CC: It was crazy man. Long story short, I came with a shot list to the director, and said, "Hey I have these thoughts, and I have a list of these things sequenced out." I'm not sure if that's directing, but yeah, I came with a shot list of what I'm wearing, what I'm looking like, and who's in the shot and he (the co-director, Alex Gallitano) was like, "Cool, we can make this work." From there we put our heads together and found the right angles.
It was interesting and felt really similar to my process in production, but this took a longer time because it was so new to me. It was fun man, it's a fun exercise. I'm already working on my new video, I was even writing some shoot ideas for it on the way over. I'm excited, it's a bit more fun and light-hearted, whereas "Cold War" was pretty heavy. I think it'll be fun to create something from a perspective that's not so personal. More tongue and cheek instead of (deep voice), "I'm fucking sad and insecure." You know? Something people will fuck with, I mean I know I do. I just don't want to only write sad songs all the time.
WTS: If you don't mind me asking, which song is the next video for?
CC: Oh, it’s going to be for two songs off my next project, should be coming out at the end of the month. Called Resonance. Still working with my dude Lean Quatifah.
WTS: Yeah I've met him through some GWU people.
CC: Yeah, he's a good example of someone where we've been friends and now he would be one of the first members of what I call my music community. I've got Francesco, Chris, I got Lane (Lean Quatifah), HXNS.
WTS: Oh also, before we get too far off this, I've been so curious about the symbolism behind the scene in which you are holding the water pail on your bed. What were you trying to get across?
CC: Oh yeah, it's a little bit of an innuendo I guess, because I was watering dead flowers, so it's a harbinger for things to come. I watered dead flowers and now I'm sitting docile and shell-shocked.
WTS: When you visualized your music, is there a certain imagery you see when producing as opposed to when you are writing lyrics? For example, inspiration from memories, movies, novels, something besides other music that has a more visual aspect.
CC: Definitely movies, I love movies. Some Wes Anderson and Quinton Tarantino, both of those guys set the tone for me. In terms of lyrical content, that shit just honestly pops in my head all the time. And half the time it’s completely silly, not even funny, like, "Eating Kraft Singles in the catacombs," like what the fuck is that? You know? Catacombs are underground cemeteries and Kraft Singles, well you know what those are, you know? It's a slice of cheese, but you wouldn't just say "slice of cheese," so I just try and think of cool ways to say basic things and that will envelope into what I'm trying to say. Or, I try and think of a cool thing and have to figure out how to convey it.
WTS: Now that it has been getting sunny out, I've been trying to get back to my summer tunes. Who have you been listening to? Anyone we might not know about?
CC: Absolutely, Still Woozy, check his shit out, it's really cool. April + VISTA, cool guys. What have I been listening to though... Mac Ayres, based out of New York.
WTS: Last one, I was curious how you hope to explore your identity on future projects and how your song will change with that.
CC: Ah man, I think future projects are going to be really interesting because I'm going to... I don't know. I think Cautious Clay will become something much more dynamics. I hope that my fans will grow with my sound as I keep creating things that are interesting and unconventional, but still have an inkling of nostalgia.
WTS: As for subject matter, what is the next step in your self-exploration?
CC: Well for the next project for example, it's going to be a lot more tongue in cheek. It'll still be very retrospective and observational, but a little bit less "in my feelings." I want it to still have that self-deprecating element to it while still having a message, because I think that's a really cool space to navigate rather than feeling preachy about what I'm saying. You know, like "don't do drugs", I fucking hate that shit.
WTS: Awesome man, I'm looking forward to it. Thanks so much for speaking with What The Sound.
CC: Thanks man, it was a pleasure.
Interview by Max Goldstein