Two years ago, in May 2017, Josh Karpeh was a property leasing agent and a marketer. The George Washington University graduate had already gotten fired from one real estate job and wasn’t happy in his current one. Good thing, then, that he had a budding music career on the side. The electronic soul producer and classically trained flautist and multi-instrumentalist, who picked up the name Cautious Clay, had even made a fan out of a then-unknown Billie Eilish in 2015 after remixing her song “Ocean Eyes.”
The experience opened up doors for him. But it was an offer made to Karpeh, now 26, from half a world away that finally broke the seal and let him quit the uninspiring day job. South Korean hip-hop label Beasts and Natives Alike reached out to him by email and invited him to work with some of its artists, he explains on a Friday afternoon while riding a train in his home base of New York City.
“I had been working on my own music, but I was more of just a beat producer at the time,” Cautious Clay says. “It was sort of like my gateway to being like, ‘Oh, wow, I can get paid to do this in a cool way.’”
And to think he almost let the opportunity slip through his fingers. The label, which had discovered him through his own Soundcloud mixes, emailed with an invitation to fly to South Korea, but he didn’t respond because he didn’t think the offer was real. Around the same time, his manager was having conversations with South Korean music industry officials, and when he asked whom he should connect with on his own trip, he was given the name of the man who had reached out to Cautious Clay.
“That was just a crazy opportunity that I got,” he says. “I’d been working in real estate for two years, and I was very unhappy.”
There was no one event that convinced Cautious Clay to quit his day job, but the first of his trips to South Korea reinforced his love for making music and convinced him to find a way to make a career of it. An additional couple of years of collaboration with South Korean musicians just yielded in The Stranger, an album by E Sens, which Cautious Clay executive-produced.
While he’s released three EPs since 2018, working with the South Korean label was his first paid music industry job.
Cautious Clay is now working on his own full-length debut, hoping to release it in 2020. It will undoubtedly come with more fanfare than most debuts thanks to the acclaim of his three EPs: 2018’s Blood Type and Resonance, and Table of Context, which he released in March. The album will be preceded by a standalone single in the fall.
Today, he released “Swim Home,” a song from the soundtrack to the forthcoming third season of Netflix show 13 Reasons Why. He wrote the song with one of his best-known fans—John Mayer—seven months ago after Mayer followed him on Instagram and sent him a message, suggesting they find time to collaborate.
“The first time we met up, we wrote the song,” Cautious Clay says. “He’s a very creative person, I’m a very creative person, and so it just came together in a really cool way. There were a couple other songs we did that day, but ultimately, I found that was the strongest one we did, and it felt like a really interesting combination of our styles. … It will be part of Table of Context, as well … which is sort of why we’ve also been waiting to put vinyl out.”
There are no plans for Mayer to make a surprise appearance at Outside Lands this weekend with Karpeh, though the musician remembers that Mayer is playing in New York later tonight, and the two plan to meet up again.
Cautious Clay’s style, which swirls together elements of R&B, electronica, hip-hop, pop and jazz is one of the things that attracted Mayer and many others. Over the three EPs, he’s played numerous instruments, most notably the flute, which he learned to play by choice while growing up with his mom in Cleveland.
His life could have gone in any number of directions. Besides music, he ran track, was a pole-vaulter and tried his hand at sailing. In college he graduated with a degree in jazz studies but also studied international affairs. He at times saw himself studying human movement or anthropology.
“I thought I would do something in diplomacy at some point,” he says. “I always really loved interacting with people and being a part of a community and having some sort of leadership role in that sense. But, I don’t know where I’d necessarily be.”
At the same time he was falling in love with remixing beats and learning new instruments. Besides the flute, he plays guitar, saxophone, bass, keyboard and drums. The uncertainty he felt back then influenced his music, especially the latest LP.
Table of Context is about seeing the difference between one’s purpose and his happiness, and deciding to chase after happiness. It’s a personal collection of songs that very much parallels his decision to choose music over his other studies and a day job. Finding personal happiness is also important, the message implies.
“The funny thing about the whole purpose versus happiness thing is they’re inextricably related … but at the same time, it’s important to just think about it separately,” he says. “‘I am happy, right?’ Some of it is reflective idea. Someone will be a cop because their dad is a cop, or they’ll work in finance because it’s job security. People have reasons where they think it’s their purpose.”
Cautious Clay may be bending his purpose close to his happiness. He didn’t study business in school, but he’s chosen to run his entire business side of his operation with just one other person—not for a lack of label offers. He even arranged his own distribution deal.
“The merch aspect is held by me and Jeremy, my manager,” he says while a high-pitched whistle signifies that his train is now underground, with the reception quickly dying. “He does a lot of the logistical work, and we discuss creative stuff on the music and the visual. On the music and the visual aspect of everything is more just me, and I have a full-time designer that I work with a lot.”
With that, the phone connection dies a screechy, painful death.
Two days later, Karpeh answers his phone from his home in Brooklyn, a co-op that he shares with a dozen others. It’s 11 a.m. on Sunday, and he’s already participated in a house management meeting. Now he’s ready to talk about his first Outside Lands performance and his musical influences, who include his Bay Area jazz bassist uncle Kai Eckhardt, best known for his work with John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham, and with his band Garaj Majal. He hadn’t thought about it until just now, but local music fans should look for Eckhardt to make an appearance at Cautious Clay’s Outside Lands set.
Another one of Karpeh’s inspirations is fellow flautist André 3000, who has begun showing up in random public places over the summer for impromptu performances.
“He’s always been an inspiration in general; André has created some of the most incredible music for me.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.