Cautious Clay—the artist alias of Cleveland-born singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Josh Karpeh, draws from R&B, hip hop, and left-field indie pop. In the three years since the release of his breakout debut single Cold War, the song has racked up tens of millions of streams, soundtracked Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, and been interpolated by Taylor Swift & Jack Antonoff on the song London Boy. He has worked with a growing number of collaborators, putting in time with John Legend, John Mayer, Ellie Goulding, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The EP that followed, 2018’s Blood Type was also a huge success, highlighting his DIY ingenuity, where as the sole creator behind every aspect of his music, he was able to write, record, and release on his own terms.
Now, Karpeh is releasing his debut album as Cautious Clay. Deadpan Love is an album about balance: between others and one’s self, between intransigence and compromise, between sarcasm and sincerity. Its title, Karpeh says, refers to the inner sensitivity that often lies behind a person’s tough exterior. “It’s about having an outer layer that’s tougher, this deadpan or blank state, and an inner layer of compassion, where you’re open to being there for the people you care about. It’s the idea of two opposites coming together to make something better.”
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, compassion was a virtue instilled in Karpeh from a young age. “My family has always been open-minded, but at school that open-mindedness wasn’t widely shared,” he says. “People would make fun of you for being a certain way.” When he was a kid, Karpeh’s parents would play classic R&B, soul, and folk around the house, from Minnie Ripperton and Teddy Pendergrass to Nick Drake. Karpeh’s own eclectic takes were best captured by the first CDs he ever bought: Creed, the Isley Brothers, Lil Bow Wow. “A little bit of trash, a little bit of taste, a little bit of being a child,” he jokes.
His teenage years saw him attend an all-boys’ Catholic high school, where he felt stifled by the conservative environment and the parameters people tried to place around him. “Being a person of color, you get pigeonholed,” he says. “The black kids thought I wasn’t black enough, and the white kids thought I was trying to be white. There was a constant battle in my identity that defined me as a person. It’s what I ended up writing about, and what inspired me musically.” He threw himself into music, learning saxophone and playing in the school jazz band, as well as jazz groups and rock bands around town.
During a semester studying abroad in London, he ended up in sessions with artists like MNEK and Zak Abel. He found a fan in Billie Eilish’s brother and producer Finneas O’Connell, who hit up Karpeh while Eilish was still unsigned, asking him to remix the future star’s breakthrough single Ocean Eyes. Karpeh was able to quit his day job to focus on music full-time—writing his own songs and touring around the country. His next two EPs, 2018’s Resonance and 2019’s Table of Context, showed his willingness to explore new ideas in his sound. “Artistically, I was beginning to feel more confident in expressing these feelings in a way that was my own,” he says. Cold War blew up practically overnight.
He cites Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds as a big inspiration, as well as the work of E. E. Cummings and Toni Morrison. “They wrote in a way that was abstract, which was interesting to me.”
Deadpan Love is a culmination of this growth and sees him confidently owning his sound. The single Roots, co-written and co-produced with Dan Nigro and Jim-E-Stack, sees him ruminate on the deep roots shared between people who are close. Songs like Dying in the Subtlety illustrate his expanded vocal style, inspired by ’80s pop stars like Tears for Fears and Peter Gabriel. Whoa and Shook see Karpeh co-write with Adele collaborator Tobias Jesso Jr. Other songs take a more autobiographical slant, like the piano ballad Spinner, recorded during quarantine, which ruminates on the nature of being an artist. As he explains it, “Being an artist the past few years made me realize how emotionally taxing it can be putting yourself out there non-stop”.
Beneath a veneer of cynicism, Cautious Clay’s music is hopeful and optimistic, as he puts it, “positivity and hope, but with a realistic spin”. The artist’s exclusive playlist for LEO, Early Spring in the Afternoon, encapsulates that mood perfectly. Below, he breaks down his song choices.
Deadpan Love is set for release June 25th independently via The Orchard. His new single, Karma & Friends, debuts today alongside a video starring Kenyan comedian Elsa Majimbo.
EARLY SPRING IN THE AFTERNOON
Olivier Nelson – “Theme From Mr. Broadway”
“I love the turnaround on the melody because the melody goes to 4/4 but the drums stay in 3/4, which is such a fun musical device.”
Koop – “Summer Sun”
“This song is amazing, I love Little Dragon, so when I heard their main vocalist’s voice on this record it brought so much nostalgia and happiness.”
Hether – “Morning Bells”
“I’m really into this artist. The whole album is amazing. I really just enjoyed this tune a lot.”
Charlotte Gainsbourg – “Deadly Valentine”
“I have had the pleasure of working with Charlotte on a few occasions, and I was definitely a fan of this song. The rhythm and melody on it is so inventive and classic at the same time.”
Rejjie Snow, MF DOOM, Cam Obi – “Cookie Chips”
“I love MF DOOM and Rejjie Snow, so hearing this was a very immediate “add” for me. The beat also has a real live quality to it which suits everything else really well.”
Franco Luambo Makiadi – “Tokabola Sentiment”
“I started listening to this band fairly recently and something about this song just puts me in a trance. It slowly evolves as you listen, and I love that.”
Laura Nyro – “Stoned Soul Picnic”
“My mom used to play this song growing up, and I stumbled on it again recently and immediately had to save it. It was one of the many records my mom owned and would play often.”
Donald Byrd – “(Fallin’ Like) Dominoes”
“Donald Byrd is a jazz trumpet legend but he also sang and played funk music so I had to put one of his funk classics on this playlist. The string arrangements are beautiful and the vocal delivery is still fresh to this day.”
Chris Kyle – “Summer Nights”
“This is one of my favorite records by my good friend and bandmate Chris Kyle. I love the guitar part that finishes on beat 1 of the next phrase. The mix is also super sludgy and muddy which is a nice contrast on this playlist.”
Jimi Hendrix – “Midnight”
“Love this Hendrix record, it really showcases his creativity and inventiveness on this deep cut from his catalogue. I used to play this song a lot in high school.”