Joshua Karpeh is inside an apartment building that is both not his own nor houses anyone he actually knows. He’s there to get a meeting with a leasing agent or manager after spending his morning—in a state of ever-evaporating interest—flipping through a stack of business cards and dialing the numbers printed on them—ten—twenty—forty—sixty-times—fishing for calls and occasionally faking them when no-one would bite. On this particular day—after logging his calls—Karpeh has realized he hasn’t hooked quite enough fish and has stepped-out into the grid-maze of New York knocking on doors—ten—twenty—forty—sixty-times—looking to snag a meeting with anyone available. And when that five-o’clock whistle finally blows, Karpeh trades his suit and tie and phone and business cards for an entirely different ensemble: a guitar, an amp, a pair of headphones, a haphazard tangle of pedals. Inside his Brooklyn apartment Karpeh settles into the emotive thrums and soulful instrumentation of Cautious Clay.
That was a little over a year ago, back when Karpeh was still working real estate and then advertising, straddling the doldrums of a nine-to-five while obsessively tending to his creative passions.
“I just kind of always felt like ‘Damn, I gotta do something else at some point. Like there’s no way I’ll be able to just do real estate for ten, twenty, thirty years.’ It was just like—I was trying to get a job that would get me pay basically so I could do what I wanted,” Karpeh says, a heavy tiredness in his voice as if the memory alone is as taxing as when he lived it.
On his recently released EP Blood Type he sings about cold calls and taking the “safe route,” spitting with a bit of bite: “3 credit cards, 2 jobs / And no health care / Fuck what they say / They living in fear / Expectations set high / The move was clear.“
Clear enough that Karpeh quit his day job after two years and devoted all his energies into his debut as Cautious Clay, releasing his first song “Cold War” and following-up the hype with Blood Type in spring 2018. From hoofing it door-to-door salesman style, to finding himself at SoHo House for Khalid’s Grammy party, a surreality has layered itself over his life ever since he started making music full-time. And yet, Karpeh manages to still hold onto a pragmatic and sobering sense of his goals as an artist—and his own self—amidst it all.
And that’s because much of what’s going on inside Karpeh—or for that matter, the Brooklyn apartment where he used to piece together his music after work—and still does—hasn’t changed. He’s been doing this for years. But externally? Karpeh is touring alongside Alina Baraz, he’s playing the Tiny Desk, recording with John Mayer—over the phone he pauses often, trying to find the right words to explicate his recent experiences under the limelight. He doesn’t find many. But while the present is still a bit of an enigma to Karpeh, he has no trouble detailing the roads and reasons that have led him here. And the person he likes to hone in on is his mom: a woman who supported every pursuit, whether it was an ingrained passion or fleeting interest. She’s the one he went to when—after becoming so enamored with the flute melody of a song he’d heard—he voiced his desire to learn how to play the instrument. From sports to sailing, Karpeh was given the freedom to do whatever he desired.
Unbothered and unbound. Karpeh’s years of kindling that kind of self-confidence are apparent not only in the way he talks about his music but in the textures of his soundscapes and vocals themselves. His chosen moniker Cautious Clay is itself tailored to fit his creative process, describing it as “super thoughtful and particular” but also “very raw” in terms of the emotions and sounds he tries to create. His EP Blood Type is nothing short of an ambitious attempt to translate his personal experiences with love and identity into something cuttingly sonic.
“It feels manicured but also kind of like unabashedly myself. And it’s not like trying to get into a certain particular vibe to like fit a framework of like a trend or an identity anything else but myself. I feel like I can do whatever I want in that realm.”
And in that realm, Karpeh is a writer, singer, and producer of all his own stunts. A veritable triple-threat. One of the final pieces to be added to his repertoire was his vocals—that warm, sonorous wail or stream-of-conscious murmuring that is as much a part of the instrumentation of his songs as it is a deliverer of his poetic lyricism. His first “stab” at it was on a Toro Y Moi remix of “So Many Details,” and the culmination of that practice ended up on “Cold War.” In terms of writing and producing, Karpeh has done as much for others as he has for Cautious Clay; and when it comes to his own projects, he has a penchant for an unfiltered, open-the-faucet-and-let-it-run style of songwriting.
Which makes sense coming from an artist who—in the course of a single show—might be holding a flute, saxophone, or guitar at any one time. Blood Type is chock-full of little moments elongated into big favorites by the sheer breadth of their instrumentation. That blistering saxophone-howl that cuts through the cascade of Karpeh’s layered cries at the end of “Joshua Tree”; moody acoustic strums drifting just out-of-sight on “Stolen Moments”; a groovy thrumming of percussion and sax-work that frames the gospel-like cries on “Cold War”; Cautious Clay wields a mind-bogglingly precise intention in emotion through his sound.
“It’s just been trial and error. I think it was just really my obsession with creating that has gotten me to be here. I just love to do it, it’s like a puzzle every time. I’ve just always looked at music mostly as a tool and then like the tool to create something new. And I mean I enjoy listening to it as well—like I’m so particular about what I look too and what I like it for and that’s the fun part and so I think my brain has just always been geared toward just like being a creator. Even since—as a kid I just always like—I would like look—I’d hear something and I’d be like, ‘Oh man like it’d be so cool if they did that.’ You know, I’d be thinking that even if I didn’t know how to do it. It always in my brain.”
There’s a bit of an auteur peeking out from behind Cautious Clay—its creator a man obsessed with the inner-workings, structure, and functions of the music he creates. Karpeh might’ve despised the classical training that came with learning how to play the flute but some analytical and pragmatic sense seems to have stuck with him nevertheless. Another EP on the way, on the cusp of a North American tour, an appearance at the 2019 Governors Ball music festival in New York—and he’s into creating videos now too—Karpeh is a man in constant creative motion, grabbing at any and all tools he can use to keep the engine going.
Unbothered and unbound, Cautious Clay has moved on from the introspections of personal relationships he engaged with on his last EP and is not onto exploring the reasons and motivations behind the choices people make. His new single “Reasons” takes on a more concussive mixture of heady-electrics and sampling—and while it was a collaboration on the song’s production with Daytrip and Hudson Mohawke—Karpeh remains active in all aspects of Cautious Clay down to the graphics and design of the single’s cover art. He’s also not signed to any record label yet but not for lack of offerings, Karpeh just isn’t in a rush. As he sings on “Reasons” against a blaring of trumpets and euphonious croons: “I’m going solo / An’ I’m moving slowly / All I care is how I feel / Can’t wait to be honest in what’s real.”
And that honesty is his guiding light. No matter how surreal or strange or even scary his newfound semi-fame might be, it doesn’t come close to the alienation he felt when was working that nine-to-five—a place he always felt like a stranger surrounded by strangers. Cautious Clay, and by extension Joseph Karpeh, is now in his element—and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can drag him out of it.