Sitting in The Grove Hotel lobby during Treefort Music Fest I waited patiently and anxiously to chat with an artist whose music and writing style I love and respect. Cautious Clay walked in the room in a mustard yellow scarf and holiday sweater vest with a kind hello and demure demeanor that set the tone for a strikingly honest and revealing interview.
I pushed the recorder closer to make sure that every softened syllable was captured and we talked about the meaning behind some of his latest music, poetry and writing, and even a new record deal with Blue Note Records.
Thin Ice on the Cake
Being an artist in an online world can be complicated. There’s pressure to constantly be putting themselves out there in a way that Joshua Karpeh felt was disingenuous. Karpeh says that hyper visibility online just doesn’t come naturally for him. For people, who are familiar with him as Cautious Clay, the singer, songwriter and record producer, that might come as a surprise.
Karpeh’s song “Puffer” off of his 2022 EP Thin Ice on the Cake, tackles how he felt he was being pressured to be overexposed in a way that wasn’t genuine. His poetic lyricism, and captivating vocals are matched with an animated video for the song that starts off with rose tinted visuals and a puffer fish that follows Karpeh and his band on an adventure that ends in space where the puffer fish is deflated by a large spear. If Karpeh hadn’t shared the meaning of the song, it might have gone over many people’s heads, but that hasn’t stopped people from listening, and Karpeh hasn’t let that change who he is as an artist either.
Like the lyrics in “Puffer” say, “Like a flower in the sun / I just wanna grow grow grow / Broad and wide wide wide.” In order to continue to grow authentically, Karpeh says it’s important for him to check in with himself so that he doesn’t lose himself, and in the process the essence of his artistry.
The pressure to be constantly visible online isn’t unique to artists though. Many people feel the pull to be present in order to be validated, feel special or simply “the center of attention” through the eyes of their “followers.” In Karpeh’s song “Lip Service” off of the same EP he sings, “You think you got the weight of the world, But the world don’t wait for you.” and later, “You know I hate to break the news, But the news might break itself.”
Karpeh says he was talking about how frustrating it is that people want to feel special, but they don’t want to do the work to better themselves personally. The constant need to be present on social media has both made people feel like they are never good enough and constantly reach for confirmation that they are enough when engaging online.
“I just feel like there’s so much pressure to be the center of attention without necessarily understanding what the implications are,” Karpeh said. “It’s very general, but it’s also very specific in the context of the news, in the context of self importance, in the context of personal growth. I wanted to address all of those things in ‘Lip Service.’”
The entire Thin Ice on the Cake EP was thematic of the duality of the bitterness and sweetness of life. “I think we have such an unhealthy relationship with age in society and I felt like a birthday cake would be so symbolic of the sweetness of life,” Karpeh said.
The song “Type II Nostalgia” and others unpack that idea a little bit more, creating little vignettes and ideas that relate back to the theme of age, and also life.
“The idea of keeping moving forward in life or just keep living and opening yourself up to experiences without killing yourself, which is a little dark, but I just feel like I can understand why it can get to that point,” Karpeh said. “You have to create moments for yourself to look forward to.”
Poetry and songwriting
It’s this polarity in lyricism and production style that makes Karpeh’s music unmistakably distinct. His vivid writing style is inspired by poets like Ocean Vuong, E.E. Cummings and Toni Morrison and artists like Anita Baker and Joni Mitchell. Princeton University even acknowledged Karpeh’s writing prowess and invited him to teach a writing class last year.
“I got very excited [to be] in the position to talk to other people about what it means to write songs and interesting ways to write songs and interesting ways to communicate with people because I think that that’s always how I thought about music in general,” Karpeh said. He sees music as a communication tool that allows him to break down walls and be as abstract as he feels necessary for his art and he was able to share that with the class.
“I’m such a student of the game,” Karpeh said. “I love songwriting. I love art. I love so many elements of expression that I think the idea of teaching people how to express themselves is really cool and interesting.” He had such a good time, he could even see a future in teaching. “I think it’d be fun and I think I could be good at it.”
If writing musically and a potential future in teaching weren’t impressive enough, Karpeh has helped produce & sang on the theme song for the Netflix show The School For Good And Evil and produced for Issa Rae’s Insecure and more. From the outside looking in, this work seems like a full circle moment from when he first picked up the flute at age seven because he loved the Disney film Aladdin but Karpeh says even with his affinity for the Tarzan, Space Jam (The original. He says the new one is pretty bad), and Fantasia soundtracks, producing for film wasn’t something he thought was possible until much later in life.
Now, it’s something that he loves and wants to do more of. “I love the mediums of film and TV and I think it’s a beautiful thing to pair it with music,” Karpeh said.
Karpeh was naturally good at the flute which he has been playing for 22 years and has since learned to play the saxophone. He has also taught himself to play drums, keys and guitar, but music wasn’t something that he wanted to pursue for a long time either.
“I didn’t know if it was possible,” Karpeh said. “I just kind of kept doing it because I loved it.”
A jazz album
And all of us who have been touched by his music are so glad he did but more than that, his artistry is continuously expanding including working with Blue Note Records on an upcoming Jazz centric album. Blue Note Records has represented jazz greats like Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and more.
Karpeh’s grandfather was a Liberian percussionist and his grandfather on his dad’s side was an engineer and also a trumpet player. He says he wants to follow the story of his family through this new musical process.
“My family, the roots of who I am as an artist, very much stemmed from this music,” Karpeh said. “While neither of my parents were musicians, both of their parents were musicians and a lot of the music that they were listening to and creating is obviously very much African American music, but it’s also from the diaspora.
He couldn’t tell us much else about the new label signing other than it is a really exciting chapter for him.
UPDATE: Listen to the first single, “Ohio” off of the next Cautious Clay offering: a jazz album.