Last year, we received an anthemic ballad via Submithub that sounded like it was crafted to upset the system with its unruly, yet memorable chorus. I’m talking about “Erase” by U.S. based artist Cautious Clay (aka Joshua Karpeh), and that marked my first encounter with his distinct brand of Alt R&B. It’s this genuine and garden-fresh sound that has culminated to multiple tours in different countries, collaborations with artists such as John Mayer, Hudson Mohawk and Still Woozy – plus, ending up on Taylor Swift’s 2019 album Lover. Even though these are precious moments in his career, Josh states that these aren’t the events he wants to be particularly lauded for as the creation of authentic music that speaks to the time holds the greatest importance.
In his early 20s, he left a decent New York City-based real estate job to pursue music during a time he knew very little about the industry, and that kind of fortitude also permeates through his thought-provoking songwriting with “Agreeable” (his latest single) acting as a shining example. In our video call, Cautious Clay and I talked about the meaning behind the track, the possibility of him becoming mainstream, the upcoming album, and much more.
Throughout your youth, you played in various bands and also took the time to study music. Although it seems as if you took a long while to fully dive in and pursue music as a career. What was holding you back initially?
I guess it would’ve been the fact that I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know exactly what it would take for me to get to that next level. I was hesitant to pursue it because I didn’t know how to pursue it. And because I didn’t have a ton of money at the time, I was constantly afraid of not being able to survive and thought I should get a job.
What would you say have been some of the milestones that have made the journey with music all the more worthwhile for you?
So when I first put my music out I was working a day job and I remember JBL wanted to license my music. Haha that was also the first time I heard what licensing was too and that provided me with enough money for me to quit my day job. That was a huge moment and I thought, “holy shit I can get paid for making the shit that I like”. It wasn’t a huge public moment but that was when I realized that some of the stuff I heard like “being a creative is a joke, your parents won’t take you seriously, you’re not doing anything hard” is complete BS. I felt like what I was doing was valid, and that making beats is something I could take seriously.
That was number one… When I put out Blood Type is another moment. That put me on the map as an artist and many people still go back to that project which is cool. There was a lot more motivation to continue pushing and developing my sound after that. Honestly, when it comes to the crazy shit that happens I don’t have a grand plan all the time, I leave myself open to different things. That’s kinda where my head is at, and on top of that, I make the music I genuinely wanna make and my fans can tell.
Do you ever see your career reach a level of mainstream mass appeal? And how would you feel about that level of fame?
Haha I think it could. I guess it depends though you know since I’d have to start playing ‘the game’, having a big ass song on Tik Tok and stuff like that. And if that happened I would feel great but over the years I’d probably make fun of it as I know I’m worth more than a single song. What’s also tough is that you can’t control how people decide to interact with your work. Most people know me through my music and everything else I guess is secondary, and don’t know how it would manifest itself if I became a mega huge artist. I have a team that really wants me to succeed and for sure it’d be great to get bigger. At the same time, I don’t know how that would happen other than having a massive hit. In the upcoming album, there are going to be tracks that are going to blow up but I didn’t make them for the soul purpose of them being big songs.
Some may be surprised about this but, first your couple of uploads during the 'Soundcloud era' were predominantly Electronic and House orientated. What inspired the move to a more Indie/Bedroom Pop kind sound with personal lyricism?
I was inspired by writing. I wanted to challenge myself to pursue music in the context of writing and poetry. I love writing and poetry but I had never explored that since I’d just make beats. It definitely was a natural progression for me as an artist too. Regarding the elements of production I began considering the kind of compressors and vocal fx I’d use on my voice, how I’d make changes to the beat to fit the context of what I’m talking about – it opened me up to other possibilities to make a great song. If I wanted to I can still just make a fire beat, though I’m less concerned about that and do it when I feel like it. I’m concerned about the delivery of the message and the vocals and the different ways I could go about doing it. Overall the transition made me a smarter producer.
Apart from your introspective lyricism, a common theme throughout your songwriting is critiques of our times - most noticeably on "Erase" and "Cold War" in relation to social media. The outro of "Erase" even ends off with the line "Erase my soul"... Why do you personally feel it's necessary to frequently (and subtly) bring up some of the issues which plague our society within your songwriting?
It’s what I care about. I care about equality, I care about improving our realities. I talk about things that have affected my life and I feel inspired to talk about those kinda things. I would find it absurd if I made shit in order to sell records, and I’m not saying that I’m unable to but I can’t JUST do that. The shit I make has gotta be nourishing to me and the people around me. I want to talk about important things in our society without being corny, in a way that is a true reflection and speaks to the time. If I’m gonna have a smash, I want that shit to be iconic – not just go platinum or something that has a nice jingle to it.
The chorus of your latest release "Agreeable" is SO catchy, and I could easily relate to the verses! Please tell us more about what the track is actually about, and the headspace you were in whilst writing it.
I was thinking about how crazy it is that we’re in a time where it’s difficult for people to agree on anything in the context of how things are politically in the U.S. The track also is about conversations with yourself and being indecisive, or conversations with your friends and not being able to express something in the way you intended. It’s almost like a contradiction. “What I want falls shorter than perfect but better than earnest”. Like, that’s not even possible and people find it tough to communicate in a way that’s congruent and realistic. The headspace I was in is like when you’re having self-doubt but you also have confidence at the same time which shows a bit of a disconnect.
How does the charming music video capture the message and the mood of the track?
The music video represents the different personalities I have that can sometimes either work together or kinda work against each other. There are these little iterations of myself that are constantly having thoughts, they look like emoji looking characters and they are at conflict sometimes and the video displays that in a more creative way.
How is your creative process different when you're collaborating compared to working on music alone in a secluded space?
It depends on who I’m working with and what I’m there to do. Like if I’m producing, writing, or doing vocals the process will vary though I’m mainly concerned about contributing the best I can towards what we’re working on that day.
What kind of images would be on the mood board of the upcoming release next year? You've beeeeeeen teasing about it on social media and some more insight would be appreciated:)
I guess the mood board would have a mask of some sort. There’d also be a tear and something sweet… Like a cherry pie haha. I think the mask represents multiple faces and different personalities while the tear represents emotion, and then there’s the pie representing the sweetness of what I make.
Has anyone ever told you that your speaking voice sound *very similar* to that of Kid Cudi's?
Well, you know what; people have said that I have a very similar singing voice to Kid Cudi – which is quite the compliment. Funnily enough, we’re both from the same town too, and even though I never had a ‘Cudi phase’ I liked what he was doing for sure. Growing up I was more inspired by artists like DMX, Busta Rhymes, and OutKast though.
Words you would put on a billboard?
Oh, off the top of my head I would say “It will end in tears”. Something like that - who knows maybe that’ll be the name for the new album.
Okay so, 1) An artist/band you’d love to have a D.M.C (deep meaningful conversion) with 2) An artist you think would be rad to party with 3) An artist you would love to spend a week within the studio. You’re welcome to select from artists who are dead/retired.
A long deep conversation I’d love to have with Nina Simone definitely.
I would party with Rick James. It’s dope that he’s super musical and fucking wild man.
And in the studio… Herbie Hancock for sure. If I were to pick from an artist in our time, I’d say Kendrick Lamar or even Andre 3000. That would be fun!