Cautious Clay has transformed nearly a century of family lineage into KARPEH, his next sophomore studio album. The self-titled album – Clay’s real name is Joshua Karpeh – grew out of conversations with his parents and grandparents, where his elders remember snippets of family history. The introspective artist uses audio recordings of those discussions, which are inserted into the LP, as a launching pad to consider his family’s African roots and his own upbringing in Cleveland before moving on to explore his current life in Brooklyn and what he envisions for his future.
The album also marks Clay’s first full, typically R&B, foray into jazz, a genre he drew inspiration from on his 2021 debut Deadpan Love. For this effort, Clay has enlisted a fleet of jazz musicians, including his own uncle, bassist Kai Eckhardt, for vibrant instrumentation that mixes saxophone, soprano, guitar, synthesizer and electric bass, the latter of which he performs himself. This is an appropriate gesture, given that KARPEH happens to be his first release via famed jazz label Blue Note Records.
During a conversation with HYPEBEAST, Clay reflected on his new embrace of jazz and the process of writing, composing and recording KARPEH.
Collaboration is so central to KARPEH, especially your conversations with your parents, grandparents and girlfriend. What prompted these deep conversations?
Thematically, much of the content on the album centers around my life chronologically. It’s a summary of my family’s cultural identity through the prism of two generations of grandparents. I describe how my grandparents affected my family, starting with my parents, then how my parents shaped me. Intertwined with this are my own relationships and conceptions of intimacy and ideas around loneliness.
How did you manage to transform these conversations into compositions and lyrics? What were those discussions with your family like?
I did a ton of interviews with my family members. I talked with them about different situations they were in, how they grew up, and the house my father grew up in. I would talk to them, then write about my own personal experiences and relationships and how those have developed over the years, and then boil it down to something that seems to capture the conversation.
There’s like a sketch called “Take a Half” on the album which is a fusion of my dad, my girlfriend and my aunt talking about all these different things. Listeners will probably say “what’s going on here?”, but with this I was trying to emulate what it’s like to be on a psilocybin trip and have a bunch of different voices in your head talking to you as you go through it.
Can you describe to me the chronology of the assembly of the album?
It was six days of recording, but also, of course, several years of preparation. I usually record my music in my home studio, but I went to a live recording studio to finish it all off. I brought together some of my favorite musicians to record the various pieces of instrumentation that I had prepared in advance.
You’ve been making music for almost a decade now. How does your approach to KARPEH differ from previous projects like Impassive love or your soonest Context Table And Blood group EP?
I was recording KARPEH in a very different way. For example, I don’t usually do live drum recordings. I also used some of the early compositions I created when I was a kid.
I also present it as a jazz album. It wouldn’t make much sense for my fans to be like, “Oh, this is a new Cautious Clay album” because it sounds so different from anything I’ve ever done. Working with Blue Note on this subject helped me take a different direction, and I was excited to explore this path.
“There are songs that are very R&B, but there are also things that are very much in the tradition of jazz. I wanted to be able to explore the convergence of these spaces without any unreasonable expectations.
Did you specifically want to do a jazz project or did it end up happening organically?
I had just finished making music for Godfather of Harlem, where I recorded 15 pure and simple jazz songs. It was so much fun that I thought, “Okay, I’m going to do a jazz album.” I also wanted to give it a deeper meaning. So many prototypical R&B guys end up trying to make a jazz album.
There are songs that are very R&B, but there are also things that are very much in the tradition of jazz. I wanted to be able to explore the convergence of these spaces without any unreasonable expectations.
Do you plan to integrate jazz into your future music?
This album is really a side quest for me. Jazz has always influenced my music. If you listen to some of my previous stuff, there are elements of me playing saxophone and other jazz-related sounds.
Jazz will probably influence everything I do in the future, but more so, I see this album informing the themes or contexts that I bring to the sequel. I wanted to do a jazz album, so I did, even though I don’t intend to do strictly jazz records. With that in mind, the reason jazz has always been so appealing is because it’s so limitless.
It’s normal that you worked with Blue Note for your first jazz album. What prompted you to join a label after operating independently throughout your career?
Full disclosure: I have all the leverage in the world. I’m still independent and that’s part of my story. Meeting [Blue Note president] Don Was was a very good experience for me. We understood each other on a high level and I was like, “That’s good.”
I think the perception – especially for people who aren’t an artist or in the music industry – is “oh, Cautious Clay signed a record deal”. That’s it, basically, but KARPHE IIt’s a special project and I wanted to be able to promote it in a way that I couldn’t do myself. This music is so different from my previous work that it seemed like it could reach a different audience. Signing a deal with such a respected label as Blue Note seemed like an interesting proposition. After this album, maybe I do another contract with Blue Note or become completely independent again. There are no clauses that I would need to oblige but I have a great relationship with the people there so you never know what might happen.