When Joshua Karpeh talks to you, it’s with a wry look in his eye — like he’s in on a joke he’s keeping to himself. It’s not off-putting. If anything, it adds an air of mystery to the conversation. He’s a sincere person, but he’s well-versed in irony and he deploys it in surprising intervals. And then he deploys sincerity on his sarcasm, interrogating his own conversational states midstream. It’s something to behold.
“I think there’s this outer layer of wittiness and sarcasm to protect my inner layer of empathy and compassion,” he says from his home in Crown Heights. “But I also feel like comedy is oftentimes the most brutal and honest form of expression in culture.”
This is a tension that he tries to get at as Cautious Clay, the indie artist whose hyper-anticipated full-length debut is finally dropping after years of hype from EPs, singles and collabs. It’s been a fast rise, as he’s found himself working alongside artists like John Mayer and Alina Baraz. His music is featured on Insecure (speaking of, don’t miss this issue’s cover story) and he even netted one of NPR’s coveted Tiny Desk spots. Not bad for a guy who was working a white collar desk job as recently as 2017.
As Cautious Clay, Karpeh is deeply interested in identities and the way we craft who we are in the context of a broader culture. It’s why he titled his debut Deadpan Love, as a way of exploring the outer layers of sarcasm and his inner core of compassion. He feels it deeply.
“There’s this wittiness, which is the deadpan,” he says. “And then there’s love, which is the empathy and compassion that I feel like I also have deep inside me.”
It’s taken Karpeh most of his 28 years to get to this point, where he can start speaking about his interior wrestling match with clarity. But it’s been an illuminating — and frequently inspiring — 28 years.
Karpeh was born in Cleveland, Ohio. At first, he wanted to be an architect, but got spooked by math and geometry. He then started considering a career in music and felt like it came easy to him, but a high school guidance counselor at the all-boys Catholic school he attended informed him that there was no money in showbiz. He took that to heart and pursued a degree in international affairs.
When asked about the Catholic school experience, Karpeh doesn’t hesitate: “It was not a good experience for me at all.”
Other kids bullied him, hurled racial insults, spit in his drink, the works. “They were terrible,” he says. “I’m not pulling any punches on it. Holy Grail, Father of Mary, I don’t know, whatever it was called. That school sucked.”
It was so bad, in fact, that Karpeh says that the experience steered him away from those types of communities in general and led him to the understanding that “these people are not good people,” he says. “These are the people I want to stay away from.”
It hasn’t turned him off to religion altogether, which he says “is great if it’s a personal thing.”
“But I think if it’s going to be shoved down your throat, please see the door,” he says. “It really turned me off from the whole experience and that whole culture. I ran away far and fast.”
He ran to Washington D.C.
George Washington University was a much better experience for Karpeh, who fell in love with D.C. and the local music scene, playing in a few indie bands and producing beats on the side for friends and acquaintances who were working on hip-hop careers. He started dropping some of his beats on Soundcloud and was as surprised as anyone that his music found an audience.
At the time, Soundcloud was launching a host of influential young beat producers — many of who have gone on to become stars. KAYTRANADA, Sam Gellaitry, Medasin and more were blowing up, and Karpeh says “I was the least popular of all of them.”
“But I feel like I also was as good as them, you know what I mean?”
He was. He was so good that he attracted the attention of a then-fledgling brother/sister duo named Finneas and Billie Eilish. They liked his beats and wondered if he’d be interested in remixing their new song “Ocean Eyes.” He was, and before he knew it, he had a hit on his hands.
“It was like, ‘All right, well, this was kind of fun,’” he recalls. “‘I’m going to try this other thing and start making my own music.’” He moved from beats to writing his own songs and, eventually, his own lyrics. His first EP, Blood Type, was born.
After years of remixes and beats, it’s strange how easily Karpeh took to writing lyrics. He himself can’t totally explain it. He credits being raised by a mother with “incredible musical taste.”
“I grew up on a lot of Dionne Warwick, Joni Mitchell and Barry White,” he says. His dad introduced him to jazz with John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. Karpeh started thinking about his interior tensions with identity and context, and how to express those musically. In fact, he found he was able to express himself more honestly through music than he could any other way.
“I feel like I’m sort of closed off more about everything except for music,” he says. “Music is my one outlet that I can be like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s get weird.’”
When asked if it’s hard to get lyrically vulnerable, he brightens with recognition and says that’s the origin story behind his name. “‘Cautious Clay’ stemmed from that idea of sort of feeling like I can be vulnerable in my music, but maybe not as a person.” It’s more than a play on words. It’s a true statement of identity, and a recognition of his own methods of processing the world.
Karpeh says that he has a “repressed vibe” — something he says can be partially attributed to his experience at Catholic school — but is grateful for the way music has given him the ability to work through his own struggles. “I also sort of was a little sort of confused in some cases, just being who I was as a person,” he says. “I chose to look inside and sort of express myself through language because I felt like that was the most powerful thing I could do.”
“I can sort of express myself in a very meaningful and tasteful way,” he continues. “I feel like music made the most sense as opposed to, I don’t know, dressing up like a clown.”
“It feels like a significant thing for me,” Karpeh says.
As much as he says he struggles with being transparent when he’s not writing song lyrics, he’s very open about how excited he is about his debut. “I try not to get too precious about it,” he says, grinning. “But I’m very excited for it too. It feels like it’s time for me.”
He’s still working through that tension — trying to figure out where his layer of irony ends and the core of real empathy begins. Music is helping and, more than that, people are helping too. In fact, he’s starting to think people are the key to his own mental health. “More than money, more than material things, it’s all about the people you surround yourself with,” he says. “That, I think, determines your overall well being.”
So, yes, his music has been good for him. He hopes it’s good for others too, although he’s not overly concerned about how the music will land (“I just hope they feel it and enjoy something.”) Mostly, he’s excited about what’s gotten him to this point, and what’s next. And if he’s still got some of his own identity to figure it out along the way, well, that’s what the follow-up albums will be for.
“Everything is just constantly thrown in your face and you don’t even know what to prioritize and how to communicate in an effective way that gets things done,” he says. “Because there’s a battle every single day. There’s bad people doing bad every single day. There’s good people doing good every single day. So it’s just this constant…”
Here he trails off a little bit, the wry look replaced by an almost uncomfortable earnestness. “You have to believe in something,” he says. “You have to try.”
Editor’s note: This article originally run in the summer 2021 issue of RELEVANT.