Deadpan, Yet Full of Love: Cautious Clay on His Creative Process, Inspiration, and More

Deputy Arts Editor Natalie Manley and Arts contributor Samuel Cody sat down with Cautious Clay to talk about his upcoming tour, most recent album, musical inspiration, hobbies, and background.


Cautious Clay

The cover of Cautious Clay’s first full-length album, “Deadpan Love.”

By Natalie Manley

Hailing from Cleveland, OH and currently residing in Brooklyn, NY, Joshua Karpeh, who is professionally known as Cautious Clay, kicked off his second world tour, titled “Karma and Friends” in Chicago at the House of Blues last week. Karpeh, who has collaborated with John Mayer and John Legend and has been sampled by Taylor Swift, is best known for his emotive, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, unique production choices, and flute and saxophone features in his music. Deputy Arts Editor Natalie Manley and Arts contributor Samuel Cody sat down with Karpeh to talk about his upcoming tour, most recent album, musical inspiration, hobbies, and background.

Natalie Manley: What is it like being on tour again, especially after such a long hiatus? How do you hope the shows go? What are you most excited about?

Cautious Clay: I’m really excited about this tour because we’ve put a lot of work into it. It’s going to be a new iteration of things I’ve already done in a lot of ways. We’ve added a band member and it’s become a little bit more of a thing than maybe it was. Now that things are back, I’m just excited to feel the same energy I felt when I last went on tour. There’s an energy I feel like I have when I’m on tour versus when I’m making music and I think that when I’m on tour I can be the musician that I am naturally, in a way. When I’m singing and producing a song, I feel like it’s very different from what it’s like to be on the road and performing on the road; they’re two separate parts of my brain. I guess I’m just excited to reconnect with that and to see people and connect with them.

Samuel Cody: You started your tour in Chicago, and that same night, Deadpan Love (Deluxe) came out…was that on purpose or just a coincidence?

CC: That was sort of supposed to happen a little earlier, but there ended up being a timing issue with getting a couple of my songs finished. I didn’t have the right amount of time for them because I was working on another thing, but I guess it sort of was on purpose. We definitely wanted to put it out before I went on tour, so at least it’s good that it dropped at the start of the tour.

NM: Is there anything that you want to say to fans about Deadpan Love (Deluxe) or what they can expect from your upcoming tour?

CC: Yeah, I have a whole new lighting system, and it’s different for sure from my last tour, and so I’m kind of excited that it’s going to be a whole different look and a whole different feel, but at the same time it’s complementary to “Karma and Friends” and the Deadpan Love album I put out—I’m just excited to show fans that. We also have a new member of our band who’s just an incredible pianist and percussionist, so that’s going to be very good and helpful. I also think that I’m just excited to have even more of a show in a lot of ways than maybe what people are expecting. It’s a little bit more than what it was like the last time my fans might have seen me.

NM: Why did you decide on the name “Karma and Friends” for your tour?

CC: I think it sounded cool, and it was also going to be the title of my album, and then I changed the name to Deadpan Love for another reason. “Karma and Friends,” in a lot of ways, very much encapsulates the type of energy and the kinds of people I want to surround myself with (as in, my friends and the people on tour with me), and I firmly believe that the people you surround yourself with oftentimes determine your karma. If you surround yourself with good people, they’re gonna support you and be good for your physical and mental health. It just felt like more of an appropriate title for a tour than the “Deadpan Love Tour”. It more so encapsulated the elements of why I make music and how I make music. I wanted to have a name that felt like it matched the people who I was working with and the way I approach music with a band. [My music] is not just me, it’s a band.

SC: What inspired Deadpan Love?

CC: I try to feel very connected to people and connect with people in a genuine way. I'm a very earnest person, but I’m also not. I don’t bullshit. I’m very straightforward about how I feel, especially in conjunction with who I surround myself with. That’s why I thought “Karma and Friends” would be a good title for [the album] at first, but Deadpan Love is a juxtaposition—those two words feel like the yin and yang to who I am as a person. [“Deadpan” refers to how] I’m not always positive, how, in a lot of ways I’m very nihilistic. I’m frustrated with so many things in our society, and it honestly makes me feel hopeless, but at the same time, “love” represents the compassionate, empathetic side of me that is hopeful. [It reflects] how I still try to put my best foot forward even when everything around me is falling apart. So, I feel like it’s the connectivity of those two ideas, “deadpan” and “love,” that formulate my perspective on the world, and that’s what I wanted to put out there as an album—just the complexity of those feelings. I know a lot of people share those feelings, and for me, music is a shared experience.

NM: Following that, can you talk a little bit more about your creative process and where your inspiration comes from?

CC: My creative process is definitely very open-ended. I never cut myself off from different ways of thinking about music. I approach songwriting by thinking about ways to describe life and describe what I’m going through in a creative way. That just kind of comes with whatever’s in my brain. I think the experiences that people have are very limited; there’s only a certain scope of experiences that people have: Everyone talks about love, everyone talks about their emotions, everyone talks about inequality, or ideas around capitalism, or anything that could potentially be a human experience. But I think in my writing, I try to think of creative ways to approach those issues and I never want to tell people how to live their life. I think that’s a very important distinction because a lot of people that I like lyrically [aren’t mindful of that]. The difference between J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar for example is that J. Cole will talk about how he’s better than someone, versus, Kendrick Lamar will talk about a specific experience and how it might relate to everyone else’s experience. It’s not just that “inequality is bad.” Of course inequality is bad, but how can we talk about it in an artistic way and steer a horse to water? So, I try to use similar styles in my writing and almost make it conversational at points, or make it sort of direct and poetic. A good example is my song “Dying in the Subtlety”: it’s about [noticing] the nuances of a relationship with someone or something, but also not feeling comfortable enough to talk about them openly, so those subtleties get lost in the lack of communication and conversation.

SC: Who, or what, are your biggest influences musically?

CC: I very much draw inspiration from a lot of soul and yacht rock from the ’70s. I really love The Commodores…In a lot of ways, I try to make music that I feel like has a musical element to it—that has a unique approach from a production standpoint—but that also draws from somewhat of a conventional song structure. I use interesting production choices or drum sounds or synthesizers to help make [my songs] feel interesting and unique in a [world] where music can feel sort of [the same]. I think there’s a lot of good music happening right now, but I definitely try to draw inspiration from [earlier periods]. In the ’70s, instrumentation and arrangement [were] a lot more of an important consideration when making music and I think today it’s not necessarily rewarded as much. That’s not a bad thing, but it just means that those things are no longer at the top of people’s minds when they’re thinking about how they’re going to write a song. So, I definitely try to draw from that [instrumentation] element of production. [I’m thinking]…How can we make the guitar sound this way? Maybe we should do this…How can we make a synthesizer sound that compliments a melody that I’m singing? All of those elements come into my song structure and production and the nuances of it, and I definitely draw inspiration from all over I think. In the context of my writing, I mostly draw from movies and TV, and from a production standpoint, it’s definitely ’70s and ’80s music, only, I’m trying to do that in a new way.

NM: R&B and Soul are huge genres right now, how do you think your music is unique from other R&B and Soul music? Would you say that you are paving your own path? What makes your music your music?

CC: I tend to focus less on the genre and more on the writing structure and how it kind of manifests. Not to say that I don’t make music that’s R&B, but I think there are also a lot of songs I release that might not fall into that category, and so I feel like that’s why I very much focus on song structure first and foremost. Music is so fluid. There are so many artists that, for example, wrote an R&B song in the ’70s and ’80s, but then someone made it a country song or a pop song. It’s really just about the writing at the end of the day, so I don’t really focus on whatever the sound of the time is, I really just focus on the writing and what’s inspiring me at the time and try to make my perspective on it different and unique with my production choices and the fact that I play a lot of instruments. I think for me, I also draw a lot of inspiration from jazz in my performances. If you’ve seen me live before, you’d know that I play the music that I play, but in some instances there are very many moments when I add more musicality [than what may have been in the original song]. That is something I think that is very important to my musical journey.

SC: You play a lot of instruments (flute, saxophone, guitar, piano, etc.), Which one is your favorite? As a follow-up to that are you the one playing all these instruments on your records?

CC: It totally depends, but I really only play flute and saxophone to a high proficiency level and then I sort of dabble in the others. I play a few songs on guitar and piano and bass in my shows, but I mostly use those instruments for production—I produce using a lot of guitar and synthesizers and bass. These are all things I can play, but I don’t always play them the best, so a lot of times I’ll have other people play these instruments as well because I think, you might as well have someone else play it if they do it better. But all the saxophone you hear on my records is me, and flute as well, though it’s not as present in my recorded music.

NM: I know that you’re classically trained, and you mentioned that flute and saxophone are your primary instruments. How do you think that background influences your music? On top of that, I also know you incorporate a lot of jazz in your music…where did that come from?

CC: It’s all very much based on how I explore music. So, I would never say that I make jazz, at all, like, nothing close to it, but I’m certainly inspired by it and its elements of improvisation and just going with the flow; it’s very important to me to do that in music, especially in a live show. Jerry Garcia and all those Deadheads wouldn’t be doing anything if it wasn’t for jazz, so improvisation is clearly very important to me. And, I very much draw from jazz in that way, in my song structure and especially in live contexts. In terms of classical, I think that classical is inextricably related to jazz because of how music evolved over time. I think of classical music in the context of jazz but with a more rigid structure. It’s still just as valid but it just came from a different place culturally. It’s interesting because a lot of the late classical music from the mid-1800’s is very much influential to jazz. Erik Satie and W.C. [Handy] and those guys made a bed for what would become jazz music today in terms of chord structure and things like that. That’s also totally inspiring. Because those genres are so old, it’s all going to inspire most music that’s coming out in some fashion, but I think, for me, [those genres] are really just contextual.

SC: So, I know that it was only a few years ago that you were working as a real estate agent after graduating with a degree in international relations from George Washington University. Can you talk about how and why you decided to leave that behind and pursue a career in music? What advice would you give artistic students who may currently be in the position you were in after or during college?

CC: To be honest with you, I have always been a music person, as far as I can remember. It just [always came] very naturally to me. So, I think [taking the leap] wasn’t as scary for me because while I was in a fortunate enough position to be making a decent amount of money at my job in sales, I knew that I couldn’t do it because it was actually scarier to be in that job. I felt like I couldn’t relate to anyone, and it felt very much like I was in a mental prison, to be a little dramatic. It just wasn’t the place that I felt the most connected to myself. I tend to operate at this kind of frequency that I knew wouldn’t really allow me to flourish in that world. And…I found a lot of drive in having taught myself how to produce music throughout college—I was a DJ and in bands and stuff—while also going to school for international affairs and graduating. I developed some sales skills and was able to get a job doing that, but, if anything, people who are wondering if they should go for it should really ask themselves why they are getting involved. If they know why, that’s important because that will be their north star for continuing to pursue music or art. I think people just have to ask themselves: Why am I getting involved in this? Am I prepared to get involved in this? And, do I have the tools that I need to get this done? We all start from different levels, some people have connections, some people have family money or know people in the industry, but the people who succeed have a thesis—they have an identity for what they want to do and how they’re going to do it, and I think that’s important. It sounds a little like some “strive for your best” kind of bullshit but I think it is important to have a good thesis for how you’re going to do it, just like any essay in college. So, I saved up money from my sales job and was playing low rent because I was living in a closet, and then I kind of just went for it based on the fact that I had made all the music by then that I was working on, and had a plan to put it out, and then it worked! I was definitely on a hype machine for a long time, back in the day, but it’s sort of just opportunity meets skill meets preparation, whatever that phrase is.

NM: One last serious question and then we’ll get to some fun stuff. Can you talk about what it’s like being an unsigned artist? Why have you decided to stay unsigned and what sort of freedoms has that given you, especially given how easy it is to put out music online now?

CC: Being unsigned is great. It’s definitely liberating because in terms of my ability to execute ideas, I can do it at any point. But I also think in some ways you can start to feel anxious about things because you're the maker of your own projects, so I have to be very diligent about executing them and figuring them out. Even if I’m inspired, I still have to [actually sit down] and do it. It’s a lot to juggle touring, and also creating, and having the foresight to just really get it done. I think being unsigned to a record label has got a lot of benefits, but there’s also a lot of work that goes into executing and making sure everybody on the team is clear on expectations and what needs to get done based on whatever expectations I set for myself. I enjoy it, it certainly has its benefits, but it’s not a big operation, we’re a small team and we make it work.

SC: How do you feel about Taylor Swift sampling your song “Cold War”? Did anything change for you after that happened?

CC: It was cool. It was really crazy. I remember the night I found out I was on tour in Scandinavia or something in 2019 and her team called my team and said, “we want to use your song on our album.” It was really that simple. And I mean, she’s obviously such an incredible, prolific artist. Love her or hate her, she’s definitely done a lot of interesting work and is a great writer, so it was cool to have her give me a shout like that and want to use my song in her album.

NM: If you could collaborate with anyone on a song, who would it be and why?

CC: Sorry, I’m not very fun but, I really like Kendrick Lamar, he’s really good. Baby Keem is really cool too, I like him. SZA is awesome. I also really like a few songs by Summer Walker as well. I think she’s very talented and raw in a lot of ways in her approach to music. I’m a fan of Celeste too. I like her.

NM: That’s awesome. And, if you could sit down and have dinner with any artist, dead or alive, who would it be and why? What would you talk to them about?

CC: Definitely Jimi Hendrix. I would like to talk to him. He just seems like a very grounded individual but is also super talented and raw. I would love to talk to him.

SC: Obviously, music makes up a vast majority of your life, but what do you do for fun outside of music?

CC: I’ve really been getting into basketball lately. It’s weird because I wasn’t always into it, but I think sometime last year I started getting very into the NBA and all of the random stuff that’s going on in that world. And I also started playing pickup basketball with some other artist friends, so it’s been cool to explore that.

SC: I also recently got into the NBA as well, so I’m curious, are you a big Cleveland fan because that’s where you’re from, or do you follow LeBron with the Lakers, or do you follow other teams?

CC: I find myself gravitating towards the teams and the people that I feel like are putting in the work and are focused on the team element. I am a LeBron fan, and I have a very funny relationship with Cleveland because that’s where I’m from and it will always hold a special place in my heart, but I don’t love how people treated LeBron when he left. I was like, okay, he can leave if he wants to, it’s whatever, but I also really love the Cavs (Cleveland Cavaliers) this year because they’re just a young team, and they’re really good and are better than people were expecting, and it seems like that franchise has put in a lot of work to rebuild…and I’m just excited for them. I think it’s good. They don’t obviously need LeBron in the way they may have felt like they did in the past. They’ve had some growing pains and I think they’re up and coming. And, I love LeBron, he’s a legend, but obviously the [Los Angeles] Lakers are not very good this year, and I think part of that is because there’s been too much focus on big stars and less focus on the chemistry of the team. That’s what I love about basketball—the chemistry of the team—it’s just like music! The best music isn’t made just because so and so did so and so with such and such artist. People always love to do songs with big artists, and they end up being terrible! I mean, not all the time, but it’s just not always a perfect match and it’s not always explainable, and I’ve loved watching that team dynamic unfold in basketball.

NM: One last question: Is there anything else you would like to say or put out there? Words of advice, a hot take, anything like that?

CC: I am excited for the [“Karma and Friends”] tour. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, and kind of a different experience than anything I’ve ever done. I feel like I’ve just matured so much as a musician and a live performer, so I’m just excited to get out and do that.

For more Cautious Clay Content, check out our recent review of the opening show of the Karma and Friends tour!