Cautious Clay Makes Music About Love in the Digital Age

Name: Cautious Clay

Age: 28

Hometown: Cleveland

Currently Lives: In a nine-bedroom brownstone in south Brooklyn, with 11 roommates.

Claim to Fame: Joshua Karpeh, who is known professionally as Cautious Clay, is a musician, songwriter and producer known for his dreamlike R&B songs about love in the digital era, when identities are carefully constructed and interactions are mediated by technology.

A classically trained flutist and saxophonist, he has collaborated with John Legend and John Mayer. When composing a song, Mr. Karpeh often starts with the melody, then writes stream-of-consciousness lyrics infused with wordplay. “I love language,” he said. “I tell dad jokes all the time just for myself, literally just for myself. I know they’re corny.”

Big Break: In 2016, Mr. Karpeh was approached by Finneas O’Connell to remix Billie Eilish’s single “Ocean Eyes.” His debut song, “Cold War,” amassed a million streams in its first month in 2017, and was featured in films and TV shows including Issa Rae’s “Insecure” and was sampled by Taylor Swift on her album “Lover.” “I feel like my music is bigger than me at this point,” Mr. Karpeh said.

Latest Project: Last month, Mr. Karpeh self-released his debut album, “Deadpan Love.” The title refers to the paradox of wanting to be sincere but putting up a front. “I feel like I am truly an earnest, compassionate person,” he said, but “not the best at expressing my feelings outside of the music I make.”

He is an unsigned indie artist, and will consider signing with a label depending on the album’s performance. Until now, he said, “I’ve tried to have as much autonomy as I could within reason.”

Next Thing: This summer, Mr. Karpeh will play at Lollapalooza and Pitchfork, before going on a 27-city American and European tour in February 2022. “I’m just excited to have fun with the arrangements,” Mr. Karpeh said, and make them “almost better live than on the recording.”

A Rich Palette: Mr. Karpeh’s sound is a fusion of R&B, hip-hop and indie pop, which he attributes to his mother’s eclectic music taste. By 2013, he listened almost exclusively to jazz and beats, giving him a unique bank of reference points. “I genuinely feel like I was an encyclopedia,” he said. “You’re only as good as the music that you’ve heard, and I just know a ton of music. There’s no other way to describe that.”

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