Cau­tious wears pants by Gucci, shoes by Con­verse, neck­lace and bracelet by Lisa Mai­ta, and shirt model’s own

Cau­tious Clay’s music is too damn catchy

Clay is a self-taught, flute-playing multi-instrumentalist making pop-adjacent power tunes for the world, despite being a bit of a loner.

Seat­ed near the win­dow at Cafe Cot­ton Bean on a Crown Heights side street, Cau­tious Clay sips from a green smooth­ie. Mere steps from the main thor­ough­fare of Nos­trand Avenue, the Cleve­land-bred, Brook­lyn-based singer-song­writer born Josh Karpeh takes in the sun­ny after­noon scene as a diverse set of peo­ple, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the coun­ter­vail­ing forces of immi­gra­tion and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, go about their dai­ly busi­ness. And like so many young cre­atives who flock to this city to make their art or devel­op their craft, he finds the bus­tle quite to his liking.

I like to inter­face with peo­ple even if it’s not com­fort­able for me,” says Clay. Liv­ing in places where you’re not forced to be close togeth­er, on the sub­way or walk­ing down the streets, I think you lose touch with real­i­ty a lit­tle bit.” Con­sid­er­ing the inti­ma­cy his oft won­drous music exudes, his desire to stay teth­ered to the world makes sense.

Hav­ing moved to New York only a few years ago, fol­low­ing an under­grad­u­ate inter­na­tion­al rela­tions degree pro­gram in Wash­ing­ton D.C., his famil­iar­i­ty with the city pre­cedes his cur­rent tenure thanks to fre­quent vis­its as a kid to see aunts, uncles, and cousins in Hobo­ken and on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Grow­ing up he stud­ied jazz flute and pur­sued it as a minor in col­lege, yet now, at 26 years old, has large­ly opt­ed out of that sub­cul­ture entirely.

Cau­tious wears shirt by Koz­aburo, pants by Alexan­der Wang, shoes by Con­verse, neck­lace by Lisa Mai­ta, and belt model’s own 

There is a lot of good jazz, but there’s just a lot of it that gets sort of vapid,” Clay mus­es. Any music is capa­ble of being vapid if it’s done in a way that feels very inter­est­ing.” He cites young vibra­phon­ist Joel Ross’ recent Blue Note debut as a note­wor­thy excep­tion, and on occa­sion he’ll attend shows at clubs like Smalls or The Vil­lage Van­guard. Still, you won’t find him tak­ing the stage at any of the open jam ses­sions any time soon. I get a lit­tle bit intim­i­dat­ed because I haven’t been in that space in such a long time. But I know I can hang.”

For some­one like Clay – who writes music like his genre-adverse lat­est EP, Table Of Con­text, pri­mar­i­ly at home and essen­tial­ly by him­self – the infor­ma­tion pre­sent­ed by the out­side world inspires in sub­tle ways, often as a result of all that noise and data. When I’m super fuck­ing busy is when I’m in my best head­space,” he says.

Even still, lis­ten­ing to songs like Hon­est Enough and the some­what self-dep­re­cat­ing Sidewinder reveals a metic­u­lous focus. Detail and nuance pop­u­late his work under this whim­si­cal Cau­tious Clay pseu­do­nym, a melt­ing pot par­al­lel to the world out­side that cof­fee shop win­dow where R&B, indie pop, jazz, and elec­tron­ics find homey nooks via refresh­ing frag­men­ta­tion. Draw­ing influ­ence from chill­wave pio­neer Toro y Moi and the lit­er­ary likes of E. E. Cum­mings, the son­ic and the­mat­ic palette ben­e­fits from his lived-in het­ero­gene­ity, some­thing evi­dent from the depth and den­si­ty of his 2018 break­out sin­gle Cold War, which now fea­tures in a cru­cial scene in actor-direc­tor Olivia Wilde’s recent com­ing-of-age dram­e­dy Books­mart.

Left: Cau­tious wears shirt by Our Lega­cy, pants by Koz­aburo, socks by Vans, shoes by Birken­stock and neck­lace by Lisa Mai­ta. Right: Cau­tious wears shirt by Dior Men, socks (as before), neck­lace (as before) and shorts talent’s own.

This song was on my dri­ve-to-work mix through­out the [Books­mart] shoot, which was usu­al­ly around an hour, and per­fect for dream­ing up the playlist I would BLAST on set all day,” Wilde wrote on her Insta­gram of her choice to include the track in her film. Once I sus­pect­ed this @cautiousxclay track would be the per­fect accom­pa­ni­ment to our piv­otal Amy x Hope scene, I played the song on set and watched every­one imme­di­ate­ly start groooooovin. Then I knew we had the per­fect song for the scene. Could this song be sex­i­er? No.”

Even as his music sound­tracks one of the year’s most crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed films, he still comes across as pri­vate and shy, a quin­tes­sen­tial lon­er. I real­ly like to pro­duce with neg­a­tive space in mind,” says Clay. Some­times, it’ll start with a drum sound or pat­tern that strikes him, giv­ing him a skele­ton to build upon. In oth­er instances, he reach­es for his phone’s Notes app, where he’s tapped out loose thoughts or phras­es that lat­er spark more expan­sive think­ing and songcraft. It’s nice to not feel as though you have to write some­thing extreme­ly com­pli­cat­ed or hard to understand.”

Some­times it’s hard for me to total­ly under­stand where I’m com­ing from. It’s that inde­ci­sive nature that I some­times feel I have” – Cau­tious Clay

One of Clay’s most adven­ti­tious wells of cre­ativ­i­ty, how­ev­er, hap­pens to be his own unre­leased work. Begin­ning with last year’s beguil­ing Blood Type, his delib­er­ate­ly slow pace of EP-length releas­es belies a cat­a­log of exist­ing mate­r­i­al he draws upon to devel­op new tunes. Some­times it’s just like old songs I’ll take lyrics from that fit per­fect­ly into a new sound,” he says. Some of the most bril­liant minds and cre­ative artists have done a lot of songs, demos, ideas, that prob­a­bly sound like a lot of their oth­er things, that nev­er came out.”

For Sidewinder, he appro­pri­at­ed a melody he loved from anoth­er project he wasn’t quite as sat­is­fied with. Airy to start, the rather per­son­al track apt­ly fol­lows the neg­a­tive space ethos he describes ear­li­er in our chat, his earnest croon expand­ing into a one-man cho­rus with per­cus­sive flecks and moody bass. Some­times it’s hard for me to total­ly under­stand where I’m com­ing from,” he says of its the­mat­ic con­tents. It’s that inde­ci­sive nature that I some­times feel I have.”

Though prin­ci­pal­ly a soloist, Clay’s work eth­ic has also endeared him to oth­er artists. He’s remixed, pro­duced for, or oth­er­wise fea­tured on works by artists like Alu­na­george, Bil­lie Eil­ish, Bipo­lar Sun­shine, and John May­er. Inci­den­tal­ly, these types of col­lab­o­ra­tions and com­mis­sions put him in the opti­mal mind­space to work on his own. When I’m busy, I’m mak­ing a lot of stuff even though I prob­a­bly should be exec­u­tive pro­duc­ing a record for some­one else,” he says.

While each of Clay’s curat­ed EPs have served his artis­tic inter­ests, the pres­sure to drop more projects in this fast-paced dig­i­tal music era looms large. Nowa­days, you have to put so much out to stay rel­e­vant,” he says of the expec­ta­tions. I don’t want to put out a lot of shit and pol­lute the sound.” That said, he does antic­i­pate drop­ping a prop­er full-length debut, albeit when the time is right.

It’s been a real­ly great year for me cre­at­ing and I’ve done more shows than I’ve ever done in my life,” he adds. I know exact­ly what peo­ple think of me how they kind of process what I do, but then I also know exact­ly how I want it to be. And I’m just try­ing to find both of those things possible.”

Cau­tious wears pants by Acne and neck­lace by Lisa Mai­ta

Pho­tog­ra­phy assis­tant: Tim O’Connell; groom­ing: Takuya Sug­awara.


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