Balancing Chaos and Caution: A Conversation with Cautious Clay

Cautious Clay © Leeor Wild
Cautious Clay © Leeor Wild
Brooklyn-based musician Cautious Clay finds the harmony between his maximalist production tendencies and his minimalist, intimate approach to vocals and lyrical honesty on soon-to-be-released debut album, ‘DEADPAN LOVE’.
Stream: ‘Wildfire’ – Cautious Clay




Brooklyn-based singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Cautious Clay has been on quite the ride over the past couple years. Collaborating with the biggest names in the business like Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, John Legend and John Mayer, he has released three EP’s; TABLE OF CONTEXT, RESONANCE and his debut, BLOOD TYPE. You’ve heard his breakout song “Cold War” in Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart,” and more recently, “Reaching (ft. Alex Isely)” in the Season 4 premiere of Issa Rae’s “Insecure.”

Deadpan Love - Cautious Clay © Leeor Wild
DEADPAN LOVE – Cautious Clay

Start counting down the days. Cautious Clay’s highly-anticipated debut album DEADPAN LOVE will drop on June 25th via Sony Music’s The Orchard. Drawing from R&B, hip hop, and leftfield indie pop, DEADPAN LOVE displays the eclectic brilliance of Cautious Clay’s sound. He finds the harmony between his maximalist production tendencies and his minimalist, intimate approach to vocals and lyrical honesty.

“This entire album is dealing with situations that go deep into my own identity but then also the relationships that hold that together. There are songs about love and songs about self-affirmation. The overall sentiment is just an extension of my identity and how I navigate that knowing that the relationships that I have are truly what keep me grounded.”

With nods to the ’80s and ’90s, tracks like “Shook,” “Karma and Friends,” “Agreeable,” and “Dying in the Subtlety” reference artists like New Jack Swing and Peter Gabriel with a sometimes subtle and always soulful nuance that is uniquely fresh. “Box of Bones” explores emotions in the body and physicality of perception matching concepts with a sonic interiority. It feels like you’ve stepped inside the echo chambers of the mind. Some of the 14 tracks spotlight Clay’s expected phat beats, but the debut record also introduces softer, simpler moments like the stripped-down piano ballad “Spinner.” At its core, the record is about balance and flaunts Clay as holistic musician ⏤ not just a guy who can make some phat beats.

DEADPAN LOVE is a melding of Cautious Clay’s chaotic, satirical and whitty exterior with his most earnest and vulnerable interior spun into gold.

Atwood Magazine got the chance to chat with Cautious Clay about his upcoming debut album, the differences between the art and the artist, the things that inspire him beyond music, and what makes being a part of the music industry worth it. Read on to learn more about what you can expect on DEADPAN LOVE and stream the four already released singles off the record, “Agreeable,” “Dying in the Subtly,” “Roots,” and “Karma and Friends” now.

DEADPAN LOVE is dealing with situations that go deep into my own identity but then also the relationships that hold that together. There are songs about love and songs about self-affirmation. The overall sentiment is just an extension of my identity and how I navigate that and knowing that the relationships that I have are truly what keep me grounded…

A CONVERSATION WITH CAUTIOUS CLAY

Deadpan Love - Cautious Clay © Leeor Wild

Atwood Magazine: Hey Cautious Clay, how’s it going? Thanks for chatting with me today.

Cautious Clay: Hey, yeah. It’s going okay. I got some glass in my foot.

Ouch, are you moving?

Cautious Clay: Yeah, I am. It’s small and I can’t find it.

I’m sorry to hear that. I’m really looking forward to your new album. Can you talk a little bit about the concept behind it? Breakdown for me what DEADPAN LOVE means or represents?

Cautious Clay: Yeah, so I feel like DEADPAN LOVE is really just my perspective on things around me, my relationships, the things that I value. It’s an overall observation on how I live my life and exploration into that. And the name is stemming from the two sides of my identity. The stuff I reflected on over the last year or so. So it’s two sides of the same coin. Deadpan being my wittiness, my sort of sarcasm and grit and my external identity. And then I think my internal identity, the true core of my soul is really encompassed in empathy and an overall compassion and empathy that is at my true heart.

I was reading somewhere that you were either inspired by or interested in the moral alignment chart and the concept of chaotic good. And I'm wondering how that plays into this new album.

Cautious Clay: Yeah. Definitely. I think it plays into the album in a lot of ways. It’s like looking inward and not criticizing but observing and just stating those thoughts. Most readily, I’d say it’s apparent in my song “Strange Love.” It’s a discussion between myself and another person or maybe I’m talking to myself a little bit. But lyrically in the first part I’m talking about what makes me insecure. This entire album is dealing with situations that go deep into my own identity but then also the relationships that hold that together. There are songs about love and songs about self-affirmation. The overall sentiment is just an extension of my identity and how I navigate that and knowing that the relationships that I have are truly what keep me grounded and keep me as my best self.

So some of the songs on this album are reflections on moments you've had or your relationships or love or things you've gone through but also there's this element of you working through or analyzing something for yourself. Is that true?

Cautious Clay: Yeah, exactly. “Strange Love” is me thinking about people’s identities and the things that they value aren’t even based on what they actually like. Sometimes I worry about things like, “Oh, do I really enjoy this, or is it just because someone told me that it was good?? How much of my idea is really a thought that I possess? So I think that’s what “Strange Love” is.

I read that when you were explaining the song “Spinner” you mentioned that “being an artist the past few years has made you realize how emotionally taxing it can be to put yourself out there nonstop.” I appreciate the honesty in that sentiment. And I'm curious, what are the moments that make being an artist worth it?

Cautious Clay: I think when people connect to my music and they appreciate it. I think that is honestly something huge. Expressing myself this way is the most enjoyable way for me to express myself. With Cautious Clay, it’s so similar to who I really am as a person. It would feel like an injustice if I wasn’t trying to truly express something that was going down in my head or going down in my life. The most rewarding thing is that I can just have an outlet to express myself, and people can relate to it and share it and engage with it.

Cautious Clay © Leeor Wild
Cautious Clay © Leeor Wild

One of the tracks that stands out on the album is “Why Is Your Clay So Cautious.” It's only 30 seconds long and it’s also the first track where you're overtly commenting on your name. So can you talk a little bit about the story behind this track?

Cautious Clay: Yeah. So I actually was in an Uber pool maybe two years ago. There was this couple in the back who was talking to the driver. And they start this conversation about Cassius Clay, who was Mohammed Ali. This couple didn’t know much about him. And the driver started telling these stories about him. Going into the reason that he changed his name and went about going against the grain. So I wanted to start recording that conversation. It was so interesting. And so I recorded it. And it’s basically just a 30-second snippet of that conversation that this couple was having with the Uber driver in the car. And I basically bleep out Cassius Clay so that they could be talking about anyone. But the other part of it is that there’s a lot of people who ask me [what the meaning of my name is]. Random people message me about it. I thought it’d be funny, because it’s building on this assumption that there’s some deeper meaning behind Cautious Clay and there really isn’t. I’m Josh Karpeh. Cautious Clay is just a name and it can change just like Mohammed Ali changed his name [laughs]. It’s just a little bit of a gag.

Would you say that you're a cautious person in life?

Cautious Clay: I am. Yeah, I’m not always the most adventurous person, and I guess when it comes to trying new things and doing something crazy that feels different, it’s not for me. And it’s something I’m aware of. I’m not like conservative [laughs], like in my outlook on life. I think people should be able to do essentially whatever they want, without hurting other people in that process. But in my personal life, I always have had a hard time expressing my emotions, and so it’s something that I always deal with. In pretty much every relationship I’ve had it’s hard for me to open up about what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. So I think that could also really be why I related so much to the name Cautious. I do have a hard time being emotional outside of my music. That’s my outlet for it.

So I know you play a ton of instruments. Is there any specific instrument that you pull out when you're ready to write a song? Is there a specific instrument that helps you pull inspiration?

Cautious Clay: I am by far the best at flute and saxophone. But I don’t normally write with those instruments usually. I’d say most of the time, I start off a song in the context of the production of it. I make a beat or I’ll play a key sound that I really like and I’ll build the song off of that. Otherwise, I think it’d either be piano or guitar really, that’s like, how I approach writing and in a lot more of a simpler way. Because I’m not obviously any type of virtuoso on either of those instruments. But I think that I am certainly a melodic person. And I will base a lot of my musical ideas off of melodies first and then work around that with whatever instrument feels right.

Your lyrics are super direct, but people are so able to resonate with them. What's your lyrical process?

Cautious Clay: It really is like a puzzle, or, sometimes it’s just like a freestyle and I won’t write the lyrics down until after I finish the song. Sometimes I will literally just sit there until I think of something or I’ll sing a melody and then I’ll end up saying something when I sing that melody. I’m like, “That sounds good. Maybe I’ll just change the phrasing here, or like the tense.” Then I’ll start to listen back to what I’ve already said and I’ll try to continue to relate what I’ve said already to what I think the theme of the song is about. Oftentimes is like a very linear puzzle like you’re putting the pieces together over time and then you reflect on the foundation and then it collectivizes into what becomes the song.

Cautious Clay © Leeor Wild
Cautious Clay © Leeor Wild

I know that you didn't always use your voice in your music. What was that transition like? And how did it change your artistry?

Cautious Clay: It definitely made me a better producer, because I think I used to overproduce. I would make beats and just do all of the sounds I possibly could. The last iteration of that was probably my Ocean Eyes Remix of Billie Eilish’s song. You can certainly hear there’s a lot going on. When I started to really work with vocals I found a way to compliment. I wanted things to be going on in the beat, but I also didn’t want the beat to overwhelm the vocals. And it really just became a scenario of understanding what was best for the song and what would make the song feel like it could take it. Obviously, I knew I could make a phat beat, but it doesn’t always need a phat beat. So I quickly understood that from the very get-go of my songwriting artist career as Cautious Clay as people know it now. I think that sort of awareness has benefited my ability to continue to evolve and make more dimensions in my music. I got my start being more of a maximalist as a producer. And then I became aware that, can be a maximalist, but I can also be a minimalist based on what the song needs. It just made my outlook a little more comprehensive.

That's really interesting. Okay, I've just got one more question for you. What are you inspired by that isn't in the realm of music?

Cautious Clay: I’m inspired by the human body and medicine. I think it’s actually really cool. I’m obviously a little biased because my girlfriend’s in medical school. But hearing her talk about certain elements of medicine is pretty interesting to me. But [laughs], everything in the body works together. All the ingredients of whatever makes you a human are just really fascinating to me. It relates to cooking for me too because the perfect ingredients come together to make this beautiful thing. And I think that’s also why production fascinated me from the get-go in my musical process as well. I think things like cooking and medicine and the human form inspire me. I think it is just interesting to consider.

Thanks so much for chatting, Cautious Clay.

Cautious Clay: Thank you.

In my personal life, I always have had a hard time expressing my emotions, and so it’s something that I always deal with. In pretty much every relationship I’ve had it’s hard for me to open up about what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. So I think that could also really be why I related so much to the name Cautious. I do have a hard time being emotional outside of my music. That’s my outlet for it.

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