SXSW 2019 Interview: Cautious Clay Is Independently Defining His Own Sound

After 12 shows, Josh Karpeh A.K.A. Cautious Clay, has almost finished the marathon that is his SXSW 2019. Speaking a few weeks before the release of his latest EP, Table of Context, he is in promo mode. We meet at the Convention Center where I see he’s finishing up a video of him playing guitar on a balcony against a cloudy Austin backdrop.

Josh is a calm and personable guy. For someone who has received so much attention since ‘Cold War’ broke him into the public domain in September 2017 (over 23 million Spotify streams to date) and the Blood Type EP after that, he’s not ruffled. The sound is Josh’s own take on R&B with a side of rock and jazz, and it’s clear that he’s focused on the potential he’s yet to unleash.

From seeing his sold out show at Baby’s All Right In Brooklyn a year ago where he electrified the crowd, to catching an outdoor set at Cheer Up Charlie’s a few days before we meet, Josh is a true performer. A multi-instrumentalist (guitar, sax and flute among others) vocalist and producer, he plays with a band but maintains your sole attention. It’s not hard to imagine him playing festival stages with ease. You get the sense that even with so much early success, this is the very beginning of what’s to come.

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You play with a band for live shows, but it almost sounds like everything is just you, if that makes sense?  

I definitely record mostly on my own. I bring people in where necessary and like to curate a sound. I feel like that’s mostly what smart producers will do, it’s not just putting beats together and making it slap, you know? To create a sound and environment where it feels succinct I think it just requires that ability to arrange, that’s always been a fascinating part of music to me.

Do you ever feel siloed or lonely because you do so much by yourself?

Definitely I feel that way. It’s partially why I’m still in my current living situation; I have about 12 roommates in 9 bedrooms in a big house in Crown Heights.

You play shows at all types venues. How do you create that intimate feeling in each of these spaces, no matter the size or context?

It’s started to get a lot easier, especially now that I’m doing it in this type of environment where no one even has soundchecks. I feel like this experience at SXSW puts that last notch in my performative understanding. I certainly had the ability to play these instruments, and the ability to sing, but the performative element just comes once you can really feel the music. It sounds stupid, but if you’re not feeling the music, you’re like, “How do I look right now? What is that guy looking in the corner?” If you’re not thinking about the music, it really takes away from the performance.

You did NPR’s Tiny Desk as last year which is a huge honour. How was the experience?

That was really fun. Big shout out to Bob Boilen, he’s been a big champion for a while. He came to my first show in DC and just asked me immediately to do it. It’s super raw. I didn’t realize I’d literally be at a desk!

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Your sound is very fluid, and you’ve got lots of different talents and influences. I feel like there was more of a rock influence on Blood Type and your newer music is moving further towards R&B. Is that a conscious shift?

Interesting, I think it was and it wasn’t. I wanted to maintain my sound and experiment. There are definitely songs on this next project like, ‘Sidewinder’, has a shuffle type beat, which isn’t necessarily typical in R&B, but my voice brings that different element to it. There’s a little bit of a grunge influence in songs like ‘Something for Nothing’ as well. It’s all music that I feel represents me in any of those situations.

Do you feel the pressures in streaming world that we’re in, on putting out content and just giving people something to chew on, or do you tune that all out?

I try to make the best quality content I can, because I think that’s going to make it a different experience for those people who are listening the way they listen. You can have a lot of people who stream really well but they have very passive listeners. Being able to sell out my first tour is just such a crazy thought, because I don’t stream badly, but I don’t stream as well as some others. I think the people who listen, they’re really listening, which means so much and it’s so cool that they can show up to my shows. I really put a lot of time into that.

You’ve said in a previous interview you’re happy to stay unsigned unless the right type of partnership came along. We have strong examples of independent artists, so do you feel like labels don’t have a role in the traditional sense anymore, or is there still something to be said for labels taking you the extra step?

I think it could be helpful. I’m just in a situation where I don’t know what exactly they’d be doing because I’ve done so much until now. There’s still quite a bit of work to do and creativity for me to express. I think if I was going to bring on a label partner, I would want to be a big business on my own beforehand.

Your success is relatively recent, with ‘Cold War’ blowing up in late 2017. Do you ever feel like people expect so much of you, and you’re trying to catch up to their expectations?

There’s still a lot of people who haven’t seen me live, and the people who have seen me live, that’s an experience. I don’t have to live and die by a song. I can create my art and maybe one song will blow up, maybe it won’t. But there’s still going to be this consistency and a quality that I’m making.

Have you had anyone reach out to you that you’ve been like, “I can’t believe they want to work with me”?

That was the feeling I got when John Mayer reached out. That was crazy. We work a lot together now too, we have very similar melodic sensibilities. I wasn’t even a John Mayer fan like that but he had a really sick Jazz trio back in the early 2000s and I listened to them, that’s how I respected him as a guitar player. But he started following me on Instagram one day because his friend apparently went to my LA show and it went from there.

Your live shows really do sell you.

I feel like that’s how I distinguish myself. I just played a show with Miguel the other day on jazz flute. That was super random.

Yes I saw the videos! He looked at you with so much love.

Yeah I know; “Get somebody to look at you like Miguel looks at him”. It was pretty fucking wild. The creative director was saying that they wanted flute on their project, and I was like, “Sure I’ll do it”, like why not? They were just really excited about that, and it worked out great! We didn’t really have any time to rehearse either.

Finally, what is success to you?

I would say success to me is happiness. But also I would say its creating music that lives beyond me, and continues to be important culturally.

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