Cautious Clay has always prided himself on being an "optimistic nihilist." He examines large concepts and tough situations through his music to showcase this perspective, and that, he says, is something fans should look forward to in his forthcoming album.
The singer/songwriter, born Joshua Kareph, has used his time in quarantine to dig deep, reflect and produce an entirely new project that he describes as a partial ode to his original fans, who will be able to recognize some of the tracks from his earlier years.
Cautious Clay's first single to premiere is "Agreeable," which subverts its own title theme to paint a picture of people with different opinions working to undermine each other. On it, we get a Cautious Clay classic with reflective lyrics being juxtaposed against an upbeat tone, as well as his soulful, honest vocals flooding every line.
"'Agreeable' is both a reflection on how compromise is a part of our daily lives and how the compromises we make, both big and small, can have an effect on personal growth," the singer says. "It is also a satirical look at our current media landscape and the divisive rhetoric certain outlets and people employ in order to argue their points of view."
The music video features several different versions of Cautious Clay, but as small, animated figurines. These "Lil Clays" are a way for him to look at his identity in an abstract form — a commodified figure that everyone can love and enjoy without it being the artist himself.
The single follows Josh's recent COVID-19 Relief Fund collaborative release "Cheesin" with Remi Wolf, Still Woozy, Sophie Meiers, Claud, Melanie Faye and HXNS, as well as the Alex Isley-assisted "Reaching," which was featured on the season four premiere of Issa Rae's hit show Insecure.
PAPER caught up with Cautious Clay to talk about his new single, accompanying visual and what separates the performer from the person.
How have you been in quarantine?
Obviously, March is when everything started and I live in New York City, but had quickly left the city before it started. I went to Massachusetts and had been in Massachusetts for almost four months with my girlfriend and her family. We were just bopping around there for a while. I'd been working on this album, but hadn't experienced a lot of the craziness that was going on in New York for the beginning of [COVID-19]. But I've been well, yeah. I think this experience will definitely be a very paradigm-shifting time, [but] I don't think my perspective on things has changed a whole lot.
You're a Cleveland native. How did you make the transition to NYC?
It was honestly a pretty slow transition. I had been going to New York City a lot growing up because my aunt and uncle lived in the city, so I was sort of familiar. Living in Brooklyn is different than Manhattan, or even visiting in general is different than living somewhere. I lived in D.C. for about five years [and went to college there] before I even lived in NYC, so that was the main transition I had going into living in New York, versus living in Cleveland. I feel like I warmed up to a larger city, coming from Cleveland.
Do you have a fixed creative process for making music?
It's always going to be different, but a lot of times I get inspiration from living my life and talking to people about shows or movies or poems. Next thing you know, two weeks later I'll reference it and that reference turns into a new idea, whether that's a sonic palette — like I was listening to Bobby Brown and Tears for Fears and what if you decided to put those two artists together and make a song? Or if it's something as simple as a phrase by Ralph Waldo Emerson. So it can be as abstract as a poem or as concrete as the audio EQing and all the production that goes into it. I produce all my music as well, so that's always going to be inextricably linked to my process. It's just a ton of different voice notes and writing that I do in combination with beat ideas and guitar licks and things that inspired me.
You started playing the flute when you were seven years old, but then chose to pursue real estate. Why did you make the leap back into music?
My initial inclination around music was that it would never really support my passion that I had for it. I wanted to invest in it, but I never thought I could make a living doing it. From a very young age, I had a lot of different conflicting opinions from people and then my parents. My mom was very supportive, but I didn't always have that type of perspective. Real estate just felt OK, like "I could get a job here." I'd played in a couple of different bands growing up and had always been peripherally involved in music. As I got older, I was in different bands and class projects, but it would eventually blossom into what I'm doing now. I never thought people would really fuck with my music. I'd been making music, but it was never my own music. It wasn't until I could literally do everything on my own that things took off. I was 23-24 at the time and I had the song "Cold War" on the project called Blood Type, all of which I made on my own. I don't think I ever felt like I could rely on anyone. And because I couldn't rely on anyone, it hindered my idea that, "Oh you could make money doing this." Real estate was the thing I could make money doing.
"So many people who have different religious beliefs or social beliefs or economic beliefs don't align, and wouldn't it be great if people could just talk about it?"
What inspired your new song, "Agreeable"?
My overall inspiration for "Agreeable" was born around this idea that no one can really agree on anything and taking a sarcastic approach to the very idea of what people are discussing and going through. That's what the identity or the perspective around the song has evolved into. Initially it was like, there's this unrealistic expectation that people often have. It's almost like fighting between idealism vs. realism in this world. So many people who have different religious beliefs or social beliefs or economic beliefs don't align, and wouldn't it be great if people could just talk about it? But lyrically, it's poking fun at that because we're so far removed from discussing things at this point that it's almost like a satire.
On "Agreeable" you sing, "If you're taking my side, I don't wanna know why/ I don't wanna know why, arms open and wide." It seems like you're saying that you're open to support where you can get it, no questions asked. Have you found that it's better to just accept the support than to question those who give it to you?
Absolutely, you never want to feel too proud in any of these scenarios. You have to be able to be willing to accept support and generosity. As long as it's real and the motives are not –– I mean they're always going to be clouded in some way, but I think it's just like having this earnest approach to how you look at the support. I struggle with that all the time because I like to have a lot of creative control. If I'm going to give any other type of creative control to somebody, it has to be either someone I trust or I feel like is qualified based on where they're coming from. I have no problem with having someone prove themselves, but you have to prove yourself. You have to show the reasons why you're doing what you're doing.
How'd you decide on the treatment for the video and Lil Clay?
The identity around that little person is an abstract version of what "Agreeable" is about. It's almost looking at reality vs. ideology or what people think something might be. Like, "Hey, it's myself," but it's also a different version of myself in the abstract. That's sort of what Lil Clay is supposed to be in this context. It's obviously a commodified little figure that we can all love and enjoy, but it's not actually me.
How does "Agreeable" reflect the rest of your new album?
There's a lot of songs on this project that my really early fans are aware of because a lot of them started on guitar a couple years ago. It's cool that I can finally move these into a place where they feel done. It's a very honest reflection of where I am as an artist, right now. I am really excited about it because I haven't spent this much time making music. Usually I was working and I had to crunch time throw some stuff together. Even on my last project, Table Of Context, I was touring constantly in between writing so I feel like I finally had some time to myself and not feel like I was constantly on the road. It's quite a relief, to say the least, that I'm going to actually have this out.
Will it be similar in tone to your other projects?
The tone of this project is certainly a progression for me in terms of certain songs, like my vocal delivery. Maybe not on "Agreeable," but the second single's definitely a step in a different direction for me. Vocally, I'm trying a couple of new things. I'm also trying to expand my palate with concepts. There's one skit on the album, which is fun. From an overarching perspective, the themes of the album are very much harkening back to some of my early stuff around personal identity and how you grow with yourself and a world that's constantly over commodifying everything, but in a subtle way. My way of communicating is subtly, so that's part of it. I think wordplay, obviously, my name being Cautious Clay, is going to always be a really important part of my lyrics — a little bit of sarcasm, but also openness and positivity. I think of it as optimistic nihilism, almost, in my approach to writing.
"I think of it as optimistic nihilism, almost, in my approach to writing."
Let's talk about your song, "Cold War." How did it feel when you found out both Olivia Wilde and Issa Rae wanted the track for Booksmart and Insecure, respectively?
Honestly, that is still mind-blowing to me because those are two beautiful, amazing, hardworking ladies and I was really honored that they would want to have my song in their respective mediums. But I also felt like, "Shit, they're completely different types of people and different types of media that they're putting out." There's so many different ways that I feel like that song has evolved and continues to evolve three years later. Even Hailey Bieber will constantly screenshot it in her stories. The song definitely has its own life and continues to have its own life. And, obviously, it's a defining part of who I am as an artist, but I think a lot of people also realize it's not all that I have to say. So it's cool that I can keep evolving and growing and people can appreciate it in all of its different forms.
That song resonates really well in a lot of different situations. What made you want to tackle the nuances of modern dating?
I had been in a very long relationship through college into real life, and had some personal experiences in that relationship and also outside of that relationship that made me really curious and sort of inspired by my own generation and experiences that a lot of people and my friends have had in their own dating lives or friendships in general. I hadn't really even downloaded Tinder. I used Hinge before, but I think swiping culture and this immediate access culture that we have, for better or for worse, is an interesting thing to talk about.
You've written songs with a number of artists, namely Taylor Swift, John Mayer and John Legend. Do you plan on adding anything else to your resume?
I'm actually working on a podcast at this point, like a fictional podcast. But that's up in the air. I have a couple of writing partners who are really incredible, one of which is this guy named Logan Hill. He wrote a bunch of Mad Men stuff and interviewed a bunch of people. I also have my own publishing company and record label, so that's a side thing, as well.I'm just always trying to involve myself in other aspects of the creative process. There's a lot to say, but a lot of the other things are in the works.
Is there anything that separates Joshua Karpeh from Cautious Clay?
Myself and the stage name are one in the same because I have other songs and other project ideas all the time, but I think that I'm Josh and Josh is also Cautious Clay. It's hard to separate them, but I also feel like if you're looking at it like a funnel or a web it'd be Josh at the top and then it'd also be Cautious Clay, but right below Josh. Josh is also other things, but I think Cautious Clay is definitely Josh.
Stream "Agreeable" by Cautious Clay, below.
Photo courtesy of Leeor Wild