The back of Cautious Clay’s mind is a fortress of wonder. It’s at work as he guides his interviewer and photographer around his apartment in Brooklyn to find spaces to snap a few photos. The strapping four-story brownstone in Crown Heights houses Clay, born Joshua Karpeh and 12 of his roommates. It’s ridiculously organized, with fixed gear bikes lining the living space and basil and grapes sprouting in the garden out back. As the hot concrete of his balcony threatens to burn it’s occupants’ bare feet, Clay jets downstairs to stand below the camera for an aerial shot, per his suggestion. The leaves in the backyard act as a barrier for Clay as he looks up to the camera. It’s a rather simple shot but pays tribute to his vision of the bigger picture.
With a thin veil of electronic tint to match his soulful instrumental backbone, Clay’s music is all about feeling. It’s why his SoundCloud release of “Cold War” was a fitting track for Issa Rae to include in the Season 3 premiere of Insecure and warranted over 15 million streams on Spotify. The lyrics, honest and at times brutal, call out the many mistakes both sides make in a fading relationship.
“But if we spoke, like we meant it/would you reference this open part of me/The minute I know the time we spent in, came corrected, in my anatomy,” he sings with resilience. There are also notes of how social media twists pleasure and happiness, allowing love to take an unrecognizable shape. His debut album Blood Type toys with these truths while causing subdued feelings to swell.
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“I love lyricism, I have fun with that,” Clays says about his writing style. While full of meaning, his soulful tunes aren’t coming from a place of judgment. “How I express myself varies with melodies but also with how I’m talking about things. Everyone talks about love, this is just how I see it.”
His lane of R&B has allowed him to collaborate with other soul-adjacent acts like Alina Baraz (“Floating”) and AlunaGeorge (“Superior Emotion”), while scoring big fans in John Mayer, Seal and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, Ryan Tedder. In addition to completing his stint on Baraz’ nearly sold-out tour, he was one of the few fresh faces playing at Tidal X Brooklyn and has an NPR Tiny Desk concert under his belt before Halloween rolled around. All of this comes in the first year of Clay diving into music full time. Just two years ago, the unsigned Clay worked as a leasing agent marketer in New York City.
This isn’t a Lil Baby situation. Clay’s interest in music began when he picked up the flute at age seven and later taking on the saxophone. With a mother dedicated to catering to her son’s every interest with activities like track and sailing, music seemed to pull the Cleveland native in. While citing legendary composers like Quincy Jones and Burt Bacharach as heroes, producing became a strong skill during his time at D.C.’s George Washington University, with songwriting coming right after.
Producing Blood Type solo-dolo wasn’t hard for Clay, as his former six-year relationship help crafted the “break up album.” “I write with a stream of consciousness a lot of times and I’ll understand it after the fact,” he explains. “‘Stolen Moments” points to how we move in love instead of facing the lonely truth. “It’s about being in a relationship a la ‘I think that loneliness would serve us well.’ It’s almost like having an understanding that love is a choice,” he explains. “There’s a lot of ways you can commit to certain types of people.”
But outside of love and identity, Clay’s nayhoos cater to the levels of ego and how we view it. His recent EP Resonance goes there with the single, “Crowned.” “It’s about understanding what inspires that and having to take myself out of my own head sometimes to get to that perspective,” he explains. “‘You’re crowned with the likes of us’ means everyone has these demons they’re working through especially with ego and fashion. It’s reflective. Are you moving for clout or with a true purpose?”
Directed by Clay and Alex Gallitano, the video features easter eggs like a bouncing Eggo over the lyrics as the camera pans across the room in a literal loop where Clay visualizes himself in others. “The Kraft singles line just points to the dichotomy of people having bottles in the club but also struggling to make ends meet. I’m not coming at it from a preachy perspective, it’s just something to reflect on,” he adds.
His observant mind is always at work, hence his moniker Cautious Clay. The name comes from the late Muhammad Ali’s idiosyncratic confidence to be the best. “It was more for my approach to music,” he explains. “I have control over most situations when I’m making [music]. I started out as a producer but before that, I was an instrumentalist for a long time. Throughout that process of discovery, I kind of just became the inversion of Muhammad Ali. I was very particular and wanted a vision to happen but would do it in my own way. I never had to promote myself. I would just do sh*t and people would just notice when I meant it. I’ve always tried to do that approach when I’m making music so that’s the sentiment. I feel so blessed to be in this position. It’s been cool trying things out so it’s nice to have such a positive response.”
R&B’s recent tectonic shift back into the mainstream has allowed artists like Clay to take center stage. With artists like SZA, 6LACK, Ella Mai, Daniel Caesar and many others painting portraits with their tunes, there’s more than enough room for Clay’s attentive style. “The current wave [of R&B] is awesome, it’s cool to be a part of that,” he says. “I feel I am an extension of creativity throughout many of it but I’m also outside of it.” While on stage at Brooklyn Steel recently, Clay closed his set with “Cold War.” While hitting high notes, he turned away from the crowd for just a quick moment to pull out his sax for the solo. With the moment being routine for the artist, the crowd was blown away by the moment.
“I think having instruments are cool because it’s the easiest way for me to relate to my creative process but I don’t feel like it’s totally necessary,” he says. “I’m always evolving as an artist so, I don’t want to limit myself. If it’s a cool beat or instrumental, without drums then that’s cool. I’ll follow it. Things that resonate with me are the moods of the song. Sometimes people put down drums or guitar but it doesn’t make any sense. It’s like, ‘What is this actually saying? It’s not saying anything.’ You’re moving with feeling as opposed to moving with strategy. It’s a condition of what is made as opposed to the parts that are making it. I don’t care about the parts, I care about the mood.”
His songs have recently taken on new moods as producers like Faysal Matin have flipped tracks like “Call Me” into exhilarating club mixes. There’s also his Instagram Live jam session with John Mayer, pulling more acoustic vibes into his tunes. No matter what, his messages are bound to remain as clear and concise as ever.