Cautious Clay is mastering the act of balance, a coexistence between passion and career. But, since balancing a 9-5 shift with a 5-9 calling to pursue his own dream, when has he not tiptoed the thin line of life’s natural equilibrium? “I think it’s still [about] balance, regardless of what I’m doing in my personal life versus what I’m doing in my music life. They’re inextricably related at this point, and it’s a great thing,” he says.
Life’s been a whirlwind for Cautious Clay, born Joshua Karpeh, since he quit his white-collar job over a year ago. Since then, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist has toured alongside R&B artist Alina Baraz, performed on NPR’s coveted Tiny Desk concert series, recorded alongside John Mayer, released two EPs (Resonance and Blood Type), and had his breakthrough single “Cold War” featured on the season premiere of HBO’s Insecure.
And while majority of the aforementioned feats took place in 2018, Cautious Clay is not at all overwhelmed, for such favorable outcomes have been a long time coming. Cautious Clay has been a musician since knee-high; this year he became an artist, a role which he’s eagerly settling into.
“It’s felt like a gradual climb. It hasn’t been too much at all. If anything, it’s helped me get used to being an artist because it wasn’t a thing I was a year and a half ago,” he shares. “It was hard for me to think, ‘Yeah, this is my day. This is my life.’ I was working a day job for two years–401Ks and meetings with random other people in suits.”
Before pursuing a career in music full-time, Cautious Clay worked as a real estate agent in New York City for two years and in advertising for a year after. But during this time, and well before, he has been creating music. In high school, he picked up the flute and the saxophone and played throughout his attendance at George Washington University, where he taught himself to produce. Even before the world could hear “Cold War,” Cautious Clay was offered an opportunity to travel to Seoul to produce for other artists. In September of 2017, with majority of his 2018 EP Blood Type finished, Cautious Clay released “Cold War,” which now has over 17 million plays on Spotify.
Over the phone, I can hear Cautious Clay pace across his Crown Heights, Brooklyn apartment, a few seconds delayed compared to the quickness of his stream of conscious. Cautious Clay’s balancing act is in effect as we speak—simultaneously filtering through options for the artwork to accompany his new single, “Reasons,” co-produced by Hudson Mohawke and co-written with Tobias Jesso Jr., while sharing the inspiration behind it.
“It’s an accumulation of my life up until now, and different things that I’m coming to terms with. It’s about my experiences, and different things I’ve done in my life, or haven’t done, and why,” Cautious Clay explains. “A lot of people associate purpose with happiness, [and] that’s a huge problem because there are a lot of people that don’t know the direction they want to go in, and it’s okay to not know that.”
there are a lot of people that don’t know the direction they want to go in, and it’s okay to not know that.
Balance isn’t unfamiliar territory for Cautious Clay, as it’s at the epicenter of Blood Type. The majority of the project finds him in a push-and-pull relationship with love itself, in efforts to choose someone while keeping his own dreams afloat. Through his annotations on Genius, Cautious Clay says “Joshua Tree” “revolves around trying to find a balance between personal ambition and being in a relationship with someone,” while “Cold War” “was born out of frustration with dating in your 20s, but also the general experience of being in a long-term relationship with someone and feeling like you have grown apart over time.”
While Cautious Clay’s concept of love has evolved since parting ways with his ex-girlfriend of six years, a relationship that inspired Blood Type, his relationship with his parents influenced him greatly.
“Love is a choice. There’s a feeling of being consumed by someone in the moment, wanting to do everything you can for them no matter what. Love languages are used to try to codify love. I don’t think it’s something you can define. I do think it’s something driven by the choice to love. There were points when I hated my father. I really hated him, but I love him now. Those types of decisions [of loving] are internal and related to actions and mental breakdowns that we have,” Cautious Clay says. “He wasn’t really around, and didn’t leave my mom in the best position. He made the decisions he made. I still love him, but to me it’s interesting. I know the type of person my mom is. She’s the most beautiful person I know. Even if she wasn’t my mom, I’d still think she’s a great person. She makes decisions that are wholly beneficial to people—very thought out. Growing up with her has allowed me to have a little bit of that in my perspective. Because I was with my mom so much I was able to get that mentality and empathy that I don’t think my dad had.”
While Blood Type focused on the value of human connection, Cautious Clay describes his upcoming EP, Zero Zero Reasons as “an extension of Blood Type, but more in the physical space. It talks about what drives people to do what they do.” To emphasize the theme, he shares that unreleased Zero Zero Reasons song, “Settlers Paradise,” “toys with the idea of people’s reasons [for] moving to LA or moving elsewhere and thinking, ‘It’s so much better here,’ but then hating it a year later. It’s tongue in cheek, lyrically. [I’m] talking about different things that people associate with paradise, and the reasons that make them be somewhere with someone. It’s all tied to the idea of having infinite reasons or none.”
Why do we do the things we do? It’s an overwhelming conundrum that troubles the minds of many, but to Cautious Clay it’s fascinating. “Purpose is something a lot of people associate with the thing they feel they are willed to do, or something that they find themselves most equipped to do,” he says. “People try to look for purpose to find meaning in life.”
I’m fiercely independent, but also ready for anything.
Cautious Clay, at least, has found his calling. Although he is a willing collaborator, working with good friends Daytrip and Hudson Mohawke on the production of his new EP, he has his hands in all aspects of the creative process. From writing to producing to mixing, he also offers input on the creative direction for accompanying visuals and brainstorms with designers. “I don’t know any other way to be. At the end of the day, this is what I stand for,” he says.
Immersed in his upcoming music, Cautious Clay remains unsigned. While open to the idea of a label partnership, he’s well aware of the effort he’s put forth, on his own, to yield his current success. “I’m fiercely independent, but also ready for anything,” he says. “This is the life I chose.”