You might not know who Cautious Clay is, but you’ve most likely heard his music. He’s behind the perky beat that drives Taylor Swift’s “London Boy”, the multimillion-streamed tribute to her boyfriend Joe Alwyn’s hometown, and the remix of “Ocean Eyes” – Billie Eilish’s breakthrough single – which was commissioned by her brother and co-writer, Finneas. There’s a good chance you’ve heard him in films or on TV, too. His 2018 debut “Cold War”, which melded a Frank Ocean level of introspection with gospel harmonies and slick pop production, cropped up in the soundtracks for both Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart and Issa Rae’s acclaimed comedy-drama, Insecure. The lyrics are astute, the arrangements complex: his songs are gorgeous reflections on his own shortcomings.
Born Joshua Karpeh in Cleveland, Ohio, he first picked up the flute aged seven because he loved the Disney film Aladdin, and wanted to be a snake charmer. Twenty-two years later, he’s making a career out of charming pop stars instead, offering his classically trained, multi-instrumentalist talents to John Legend, Khalid and John Mayer. Yet he’s expressed a wariness in the past of becoming reliant on “other people’s credibility” in order to make a name for himself. I’m curious: did he ever consider it could be the other way around?
“I guess that could be the case…” he says over video call. “I’m definitely trying to do things on my own terms – I want to be around for a long time.” He’s speaking from his Brooklyn apartment, not long after attending the premiere for Netflix’s new film The School for Good and Evil (starring Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron and Michelle Yeoh). With singer and actor Kiana Ledé, he contributed “Who Do You Think You Are”, a moody, Bond-style theme song with a fairytale twist. It seems like things are heading in the right direction, now.
He doesn’t celebrate his birthday until January, but the candles on his cake have already been blown out. Smoke still lingers above the cracked black icing; a blurred figure lingers in the shadows. This is the cover art for Thin Ice on the Cake, the Cleveland native’s new EP exploring mortality, relationships and nostalgia. He thinks it’ll surprise people: it’s certainly different to the tender acoustic strums and sweet falsetto of “Wildfire” (from his 2021 album Deadpan Love), or his sensual croons amid the growling bass hook and synth whirls on “Cold War”. There’s a political edge to new song “Lip Service”, about someone who thinks they’ve “got the weight of the world” on their shoulders: “You know I hate to break the news/ But the news might break itself,” he sings.
“It’s a symptom of where we’re at,” Karpeh says of the song. It wallows in the quagmire of an information overload, of feeling overwhelmed by a relentless news cycle. “I don’t think any human is meant to take in this much information at once,” he says. “There’s so much misinformation, it really is constant, and everyone wants to be the centre of attention…” Karpeh, meanwhile, balks at the expectations that come with his growing fame on “Puffer”, with lyrics about wanting to “grow, grow, grow”, and to be given the time and space to do it. “I felt like I was having to be overexposed,” he says. “But also, I was feeling pressured to be more crazy, be more out there in a way that wasn’t genuine.”
Before he turned to music full time, Karpeh was the world’s unlikeliest estate agent. It’s difficult to picture this creative soul putting on a realtor swagger, stalking offices around Washington DC and New York. Fortunately, as he admits, he was no good at it, getting fired from his first job for messing up “the administrative stuff”. Yet those jobs allowed him to pay off the student debt acquired from a stint at London’s SOAS university in 2014, when he met fellow artists including singer-songwriter Zak Abel, and producer MNEK. “It was decent money, if I was convincing enough,” he says. “I definitely didn’t enjoy it.”
Those odd paths he’s taken form a core theme for the EP. “We’re constantly having to make decisions in life that don’t have right answers,” he says. “Being pushed in a way that maybe we didn’t expect.” One such instance was Karpeh slowly revisiting the relationship he has with his father. He had what he describes as a “tumultuous” childhood. His parents divorced when he was young, and while his mum encouraged him to have a relationship with his dad, “it wasn’t clear how that was going to happen”.
We all have choices to make about people we love and hate
“I’ve definitely felt resentment towards my dad, but as I’ve grown older I’m realising it’s like, I can’t resent him forever,” he says. “I still love him and I want to have a relationship with him. He’s making an effort to be in my life.” He wonders if it’s been easier to repair those old wounds now he’s old enough to make the call himself: “In the music, I wanted to show that we all have choices we can make about people we love and hate. They can take our lives in multiple directions.”