Cautious Clay is Cleveland, Ohio’s latest big musical export, and he only quit his day job 18 months ago. In fact, until the release of his debut EP Blood Type last February, the multi-instrumentalist R&B sensation—born Joshua Karpeh—only had two singles in his oeuvre, the brilliant “Cold War” and “Joshua Tree.” Now Clay is following up Blood Type with a third, equally hypnotizing single, titled “Honest Enough.”
“Honest Enough” is a slow, ethereal R&B tune with beats and harmonies that fool you into thinking it’s a sexy slow jam. But Clay’s lyrics divert you onto a different course. “The song is about a situation in which you’re with someone and you’re having issues but you’re not necessarily willing to be fully honest about them,” he tells me. “It’s almost tongue in cheek because you know it’s honest enough to get by, but it’s not necessarily healthy. You’re maintaining things even though they’re not good for you. It’s toxic.”
It’s not the first time Clay has riffed on the merry-go-round nature of modern dating and how the whole thing lacks a sense of transparency. On “Cold War,” he sings, “because you only swipe right if you fuck for follows, welcome to the days of the broke and shallow.”
I ask Clay if he thinks modern dating is changing how we relate to one another: “100%. I definitely feel that way. And I think it’s the same with everything. Look at music or food—everything has to be so quick. It’s so easily accessible that people don’t invest in quality things.” Clay’s cautionary perspective reflects his stage name. “I think that’s where I got it from,” he explains. “I’m always very conscious and very thought-driven. I take my time when making decisions.”
Clay says growing up in the Midwest taught him valuable lessons about what people actually listen to. “I can identify with how people who aren’t in the music industry listen to music,” he says. “It’s much more flavorsome experience.”
As a kid, Clay was hardly averse to music; he played a few instruments and used to play in friends’ bands. But despite Cleveland having what he describes as “pockets of creativity,” and classical and jazz programs, he says most people move out to LA or New York if they want to make it big. After inching closer to the East Coast to attend George Washington University, Clay began playing around with SoundCloud, uploading remixes and becoming embedded in a community of burgeoning artists like himself.
When he was offered a real estate job in New York City, it was a couple of SoundCloud artists who helped him settle in. Fast-forward nearly four years and Clay’s finishing up his new album, Table of Content. “I can’t say too much because I’m still trying to wrap it,” he explains. Dropping hints of a few interesting collaborators (Clay has previously worked with AlunaGeorge and Hudson Mohawke), he says his tone and lyrics are still what you’d expect. “But the production elements are a bit darker and more stripped down, and it’s more vocally produced,” he adds. Clay is likely on the brink of a major breakout, and the way he talks about what’s in the pipeline is nothing but promising.