Cautious Clay | "Swim Home"
Not too long ago, Joshua Karpeh’s music career was more of a pipe dream than a permanent vocation. After graduating from George Washington University, the now-26-year old singer worked as a real estate agent and in advertising before making it big as a singer and producer. His self-produced breakout hit “Cold War”—initially released under his stage name Cautious Clay on SoundCloud—has been featured in an episode of Issa Rae’s Insecure and in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart.
I chat with the soft-spoken singer as he prepares to head up north to perform at Outside Lands, his latest stop on the festival circuit, which has also included sets at Governors Ball and Lollapalooza. Though he hasn’t even begun the tour for his newest EP, Table of Context, Cautious Clay fans don’t need to wait long for new music: his newest song “Swim Home”, co-written and co-produced by John Mayer drops August 8th and will be featured on the upcoming season of Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why.
Check out Flaunt’s talk with Cautious Clay below, and buy tickets to his upcoming tour here.
I feel like you’ve lived the classic millennial post-grad life of doing a bunch of different jobs—real estate, advertising—while pursuing a creative side hustle.
Was music always your primary goal?
Yeah, it was pretty important to me. I never knew how it would pan out, but it was always really important to me. I always knew it was something I was good at, but there’s a lot that I didn’t know. It was always something that I felt like I could do in some capacity.
You’ve been doing music on your own for years—what has it been like to receive mainstream success?
It’s been pretty cool. I feel like I have a lot of different people who are fucking with me, which is cool, and I think it’s taken some interesting turns. I think, more than anything, it’s been very eye-opening to how the industry works and what people gravitate themselves toward, ‘cause I kinda came from, I don’t want to say obscurity, but I didn’t know what everything was about, so I feel like it’s given me a little more insight into the highest of echelons and the lowest of echelons.
Was there a moment that you had where you thought, Oh, I’ve made it now?
No, not really.
Kind of just transitioned?
Yeah, transitioned pretty smoothly. People have always been like, “Oh super fast?” but it doesn’t really feel fast. It’s been almost two years since “Cold War” came out, so it’s been a journey and I’ve kind of just been putting music out. I’ve seen, like you’re saying, some mainstream success, but also pretty largely a grassroots type of thing. I’ve been playing a lot of shows and kind of building that story around it, but I don’t think there was a particular time.
How did you transition from playing the flute to singing and producing your own music?
That was like from the age of seven all the way til like 16 or 17, so like it was sorta just curiosity that I had about music for a long time. I feel like a lot of the ways I linked myself to being so musical is [inspired by] movies, and art, and traveling, and random stuff like that. That’s always been my catalyst for trying shit out. I started making beats because I wanted to do stuff with rappers, and that led one thing to another. My first experience with producing professionally, I made these beats for this Korean rapper named E Sens—that was just through SoundCloud—and then eventually I traveled to Korea. That was an initial sign for me, like okay, there’s something to do with that. It was over the course of 10, 11 years that I transitioned from the flute to making beats, and writing and all that other stuff.
As someone who has traditionally self-produced, what was it like working with such a huge name like John Mayer?
It was actually really pretty easy, pretty straightforward. I think we’re very similar in how we see writing. He’s a very emotionally creative person, and I feel like so am I. We started off just talking online and didn’t know anything about each other, obviously, but then we went in the studio and the first song that we made is [“Swim Home”]. It’s kind of crazy that we had that structure and I totally understood the way that it needed to go for me, and he totally understood where I was coming from. None of it ever felt forced like, oh this is a huge artist, why would he work with me? You could ask yourself that all the time but at the same time I felt like there was a real synergy to how we create. It was probably one of the most even collaborations we could have expected from that.
So what is that creative process that you share with John Mayer?
I think mostly in the melodic elements and the lyrical element. I did all the melody stuff for the verses and the chorus, and he made this guitar structure that’s in the song, and it just felt perfect. He suggested lyrics like “kamikaze” and I had my own lyric choices, and it riffed in a really cool way where it didn’t feel like I didn’t like his lyric choices, and if I didn’t like his ideas, I wasn’t afraid to just be like, “that isn’t me,” or vice versa. He was very personable in the studio, like in a creative way, and I think that’s a rare thing to have, especially with an artist who is of his stature, where he can take criticism or he can give real input.
Do you have any good stories from your time working on “Swim Home”?
[Laughs] Yeah, I mean he told me a lot about his experiences with relationships and all the things that he went through, and how he distanced himself from being such a public figure in that way, because he as an artist is obviously a lot already. I think that, in many ways, who he has become is an artist for the sake of being a creative artist. I don’t know, I’m trying to think of a funny story, but it was all just shooting the shit. Like I was saying, that lyric is so poignant to me, and the hook of the song. That time was fast—it all went very fast, but he had his little MPC out and was just [miming] hitting sounds, and I was just riffing, and it just kinda happened. He asked me later on to go on his show, so I was the second guest on this show that he has on IG. It was cool.
You’ve also been getting major recognition on the festival circuit lately. How has it been playing sets for huge crowds who know your music?
It’s cool. It’s really great. I think I like playing my own shows, though, more. There are definitely people in the crowd who know songs other than “Cold War," but for me it’s very foundational to what I do to have the people who are coming just to see me. But I think that this is cool because next year I’ll be able to play shows that are bigger. I think there’s something to be said to playing to huge crowds of people who don’t know who you are, and then they still fuck with it.
I love that Instagram DM you posted asking “What makes your clay so cautious?”
[Laughs] Oh yeah.
So it kind of begs the question: why the name Cautious Clay?
I really like words, and I like language a lot, and I think it’s just really a funny way of expressing things. There’s always very non-mundane ways of saying mundane things, so I just thought that it sounded cool to be honest with you. I did get the reference of Muhammad Ali, but that wasn’t the original reason that I went with the name. I’m a pretty chill guy, I can definitely get riled up about shit, but for the most part I’m just pretty even keeled, but I’m very particular about what I do too, especially when it comes to music, so I felt like cautious sounded better than particular.
Or Particular Priscilla, or Particular Patrick, okay, that’s pretty weird [laughs].
I was watching Booksmart and when I heard “Cold War” on the soundtrack I was so excited, so I can only imagine how pumped you must be about it.
Yeah, it was cool. Olivia Wilde is really sweet, she was telling me personally, she was like, “That was my shit,” and I was like oh yeah, amazing! She told me that she was looking for ways to put the song into it, which was really nice.
What’s it been like to see your songs illustrate stories onscreen? Did you ever think of them in that way?
It’s so funny, I really do sometimes! I didn’t think of it in the way that it was portrayed, but movies and music are really important to me. I feel like I’ve always been such a visual learner, like I hated reading as a kid, I just didn’t like it, but I love words. There are just so many interesting ways to make something feel dreamy, a song even feels like a dream sequence in how it’s produced. I definitely think of it that way, I think it’s just how you decide to create space with how you’re producing, or how you’re writing, what melodies you choose to approach.
Are there any particular movies or songs that you think are really foundational to who you are as an artist?
I really love a lot of different movies, but I really love Requiem for a Dream, The Usual Suspects, a lot of Tarantino stuff. I love, love, love, love Django, Pulp Fiction, ‘cause I love how it’s almost like the songs don’t really always reflect the situation, but they also do at the same time. There’s this synergy between them even if it’s not in the same time period, it just feels right, which I really appreciate.
I know you’ve got your tour coming up this fall, but what else can we expect from you?
Working on the album. I have a title, but I’m working it a little bit. I have some random singles dropping in the next month or so before tour. We’re just gonna go pretty hard with this tour I think, too. But then the album will probably be ready by like top of the year—February-ish? Yeah, January, February. And then we’ll just be doing that. It’s gonna be a good mixture of a lot of different sounds that we’ve kind of already done, but then there’s like more structure to a lot of the songs. There’s still going to be a lot of the indie-ish stuff that I do intermixed, but there’s definitely more R&B bangers on there, and that type of thing.
What moment in your career are you most proud of?
Aw man…I would say…probably would have to be putting out my first body of work. It was my first EP, ideas that I had just started to toy with as a songwriter and producer. Putting that out and all of the benefits that have come with that.
What moment in your career is your mom most proud of?
I can’t really speak for her, but probably [laughs] hearing my music on satellite radio. Yeah, that’s what I would assume. She tells me every time, she texts me. It’s so funny, she’s like, “I heard it again!” I’m like, "aw, thanks mom.
That’s like the music mom equivalent of newspaper clippings.
Who is your dream collaboration be it singing or producing?
Probably André 3000.
You could do a flute duet.
I know, I know! Straight up. That’d be crazy. I love that guy, he’s probably one of the best all-around artists in my book for sure. I don’t even think he really gets enough credit just as a rapper. He’s incredible.
August 9-11 San Francisco, CA Outside Lands
September 20-22 Las Vegas, NV Life is Beautiful
October 24 Cologne, Germany Yuca
October 25 Paris, France Boule Noire
October 26 Antwerp, Belgium Trix
October 28 Berlin, Germany Kantine
October 30 Copenhagen, Denmark Hotel Cecil
November 1 The Hague, Netherlands Crossing Borders Festival
November 2 Amsterdam, Netherlands Bitterzoet
November 4 Brighton, U.K. Green Door Store
November 5 London, U.K. Village Underground
November 6 Manchester, U.K. YES
November 8 Dublin, Ireland The Soundhouse
November 9 Reykjavik, Iceland Iceland Airwaves
November 13 New Orleans, LA Parish at House of Blues
November 14 Houston, TX Bronze Peacock at House of Blues
November 15 Austin, TX Scoot Inn
November 16 Dallas, TX Granada Theater
November 19 Phoenix, AZ Crescent Ballroom
November 20 Los Angeles, CA The Fonda Theatre
November 21 Santa Ana, CA The Observatory
November 22 San Diego, CA House of Blues
November 25 Vancouver, BC Commodore Ballroom
November 26 Portland, OR Wonder Ballroom
November 27 Seattle, WA The Showbox
November 29 Salt Lake City, UT Kilby Court
November 30 Denver, CO Marquis Theater
December 1 Kansas City, MO Riot Room
December 2 Minneapolis, MN Fine Line Music Cafe
December 3 Milwaukee, WI Turner Hall Ballroom
December 5 Chicago, IL Bottom Lounge
December 6 Grand Rapids, MI The Stache
December 8 Toronto, ON Phoenix Concert Theatre
December 9 Brooklyn, NY Brooklyn Steel
December 11 Boston, MA Paradise Rock Club
December 12 Hamden, CT Space Ballroom
December 13 Washington, DC 9:30 Club
December 14 Philadelphia, PA Union Transfer