Joshua Karpeh, known publicly as Cautious Clay, is an R&B singer-songwriter and producer who’s delivering a sound that resonates. A Cleveland native with a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from George Washington University, pursuing music wasn’t always Clay’s plan. But a few years after graduating, he decided to take a chance, quit his day job, and pursue music—then only a hobby—full-time. Though he claims his moniker is just that—a moniker with no deeper meaning—he does relate to the ‘cautious’ part on some level. He tells Atwood Magazine, “I’m not always the most adventurous person, and I guess when it comes to trying new things and doing something crazy that feels different, it’s not for me. […] In my personal life, I always have had a hard time expressing my emotions, and so it’s something that I always deal with. In pretty much every relationship I’ve had it’s hard for me to open up about what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. So I think that could also really be why I related so much to the name Cautious.”
In September of 2017, he put out his first official track, “Cold War,” ahead of his 2018 EP, Blood Type. Simple, catchy, cool, the song was met with success and gave a taste of the musical strengths that would come to define Clay’s catalogue thus far, including his knack for creating complex sonic atmospheres that perfectly reflect the fact that emotions are rarely felt one at a time. Anger, sadness, joy, and anxiety can and do go hand-in-hand sometimes, and though capturing this presents an artistic challenge, Clay doesn’t shy away.
Since Blood Type, he’s maintained a fairly prolific output, steadily releasing singles, EPs, and, in 2021, his first full-length studio album, Deadpan Love, which was well-received by both critics and casual listeners. Through each of these releases, his music is fresh, with layered textures and polished production akin to Frank Ocean’s Blonde (2016)and vulnerable lyricism reminiscent of Arlo Parks’ Collapsed In Sunbeams (2021), while also carrying the sunny disposition of 70s funk and soul. Fuzz, reverb, and soft, smooth vocals come together to create his sensory dreamscapes. Little lyrical details—breath fogging up window glass, sipping cold-brew coffee—help imbue each of his songs with an air of intimacy so even when he’s discussing broad themes—love, success, fear—his storytelling feels novel.
Naturally, he’s developed a devoted fanbase, with his biggest tracks accruing tens of millions of streams. But he’s also made fans out of his own peers. On “London Boy,” a track from Taylor Swift’s Lover (2019), Swift sampled Clay’s track, “Cold War,” which earned him a writing credit on the album. The same year, Clay’s song, “Swim Home,” a collaboration with John Mayer, was featured on Netflix’s hit show Thirteen Reasons Why. He’s also co-written for a variety of musicians—most notably, John Legend, with whom he wrote several tracks on Legend’s 2020 album, Bigger Love, including “One Life,” which also featured songwriting from rap star Anderson .Paak.
Clay’s immediate success makes total sense. Aside from his plain talent, his ability to blend such a wide range of moods came at just the right time. His constant interplay of joyful and dreadful moments felt and continues to feel genuine in today’s climate of uncertainty, which really began to take hold right as Clay stepped onto the music scene. When the shiny optimism of radio pop feels phony but the gloom of heavier genres feels too bleak, Clay’s sound offers a sweet spot—easy listening with substance.
The territory he’s carved out seems to be fully intentional. Clay tells us, “I think of my music as being very fluid, I use melodies and wordplay to describe the complexity of human emotions. I feel like the job of the artist is to reflect on the human condition in all of its forms. So the hope with my music is to be part of that fabric that enhances our awareness of what it means to be human while nourishing myself and others throughout the process.”
This authentic approach extends beyond making music for Clay. Recognizing the detrimental effect that the Covid-19 Pandemic was having on the music industry, Clay decided to donate all of the profits from his 2020 collaborative track, “Cheesin,’” to The Recording Academy’s Musicares, a non-profit devoted to providing financial assistance to musicians in need. In the end, over $175,000 were raised.
Accomplishments like these are surely only the first few of many if this trajectory continues. To hear his unique sound in person, get a pass to Roots N Blues Festival at Stephens Lake Park in Columbia, MO, where he’ll perform on Saturday, October 8th: https://rootsnbluesfestival.frontgatetickets.com/