The singer sat down with Popdust to talk about his upcoming debut album
It's easy to connect with Cautious Clay's music.
Texturized and diaphanous, it can snap with precision alongside quippy surf-rock guitars ("Cheesin") or float effortlessly above reverberating R&B instrumentals ("Sidewinder").
It's clear from the first few moments talking with him that 27-year-old Josh Karpeh is completely unaware of how talented he is. Just three years ago, Karpeh worked in real estate and loosely balanced his creative pursuits with his day job. But as of 2020, he's been praised by The New Yorker, credited and sampled by Taylor Swift, contributed music to the Insecure soundtrack, and maintained a steady creative relationship with John Mayer, all while he averages around two-million monthly listeners on Spotify.
Even with these accolades, Karpeh won't go as far as to say that he's made it. "I'm hopeful," he told me.
His two latest singles, "Agreeable" and "Dying in the Subtlety," which dropped spontaneously on Wednesday, are the most concise tracks in Karpeh's discography thus far. Both tracks are groovy and tightly synchronized, relying less on the polymath's signature lush R&B layering and more on slick guitar work.
The music video for "Dying in the Subtlety" even finds Karpeh shredding a quick solo like a bonafide rockstar. Both tracks are also his most focused and most pronounced in their statements. "If you're taking my side, I don't wanna know why," he croons on "Agreeable."
In an age of unlimited access to information, "Agreeable" lightly toys with the balancing act that comes with being well informed and too informed with the wrong information, and Karpeh describes "Dying in the Subtlety" as a frustrated "meditation" on misunderstandings of strangers, a dilemma that is no doubt exacerbated by our current political climate.
"It's like when you meet your friend's parents, and then you're walking on eggshells because you don't know what the social dynamics of the situation are," said the 27-year-old. "I think it stresses a lot of people out. Being in an environment where you can't get a read on someone. But being in discomfort is a part of growth, I've learned to deal with it just by making music."
Popdust: Agreeable" seems to really speak on this balancing act that comes with being well informed and overly informed. Tell me a little bit more about what it means for you to be in-the-know in 2020.
CC: It really just comes down to empathy and being able to listen and not take things personally. Information is so flooded and unreliable now. So it's all about leading with compassion.
I'm not saying that in an ignorant way–like that if someone says something f**ked up to you, you should just turn the other cheek–that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that people need to collectively have more compassion.
There are so many needles to thread in the context of humanity right now, socially. Nothing's gonna get done unless there is a reckoning with people's ability to be compassionate and open. Otherwise, it's kinda at a standstill.
Lyrics like "If you're on my side, I don't wanna know why" stick out especially. What is your limit when it comes to absorbing information or engaging in those hard conversations? Because there isn't a lot of compassion a lot of the time.
It's a utility thing. The information that I want to intake should have some sort of utility to bettering society and humanity, and that's where I draw the line. If it's a truly informative and enriching discussion, with no one flouting their judgment, then there is an earnest conversation to be had. That's just where I draw the line personally.
Cautious Clay - Dying in the Subtlety www.youtube.com
These sentiments all kinda line up with what I've come to see from you as an artist in that your energy seems freeform. You kinda do what you want. You roll out records how you want–like you just dropped your new single on a Wednesday, which I feel is unusual.
I really do try to be on my own and freeform. There definitely wasn't a concrete reason for that, I kinda just thought Wednesday would be a nice [release date]. I just try not to overthink it. It's pretty much up to me.
It sounds like you're learning a lot really quickly. Both of these singles are so laden with specific themes. Is the rest of your debut album as thematic?
As an artist and a musician, I think that my identity is strongly linked to relationships and personal development, and self-care. The main lesson that I'm sort of trying to convey with this album is dealing with the aspect of cautious optimism.
I'm not lacking hope, but you can't give up. I think we have to bring each other up and bring that type of energy to the forefront of culture. That's my goal with this album.
I'm curious if there was a moment then when you realized: "I gotta bring a different energy with this one."
I don't know. I've always tried to come differently in some ways as Cautious Clay. I kinda always knew that I'd go in this direction, but I didn't know necessarily how it would sound.
You've released a bunch of projects up to this point though, what made you decide that this next one should be your debut?
I always wanted to put out a full length but I wouldn't put this out if I didn't have anything to say. I could just put out bangers or whatever, but I also want them to be meaningful. There's so much music that sounds good today but that doesn't have a nourishing quality to it, and that's kinda my M.O., so I feel like there's no better time than right now.
Dying in the Subtlety