Since Josh Karpeh – otherwise known as Cautious Clay – graduated from GW in 2015, he’s collaborated with artists like John Mayer and had one of his songs sampled on a Taylor Swift album.
Karpeh, who has produced three EPs and an album over the course of his career so far, said his passion for music started when he was a teenager and took off when he taught himself to mix and produce music as a student at GW. Now based in Brooklyn, Karpeh is gearing up to tour across the United States and abroad in 2022, including a stop at the 9:30 Club in Northwest D.C.
I spoke with Karpeh about his experiences as a student at GW and how his career as a musician has taken off since his time in Foggy Bottom.
Here are some highlights from our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity:
What brought you to GW?
Josh Karpeh, a.k.a. Cautious Clay: They gave a lot of support, a little bit of money, which was cool. But I also got into the Elliott School, which at the time was a really prestigious international affairs school and I thought I wanted to do geography and travel the world and stuff. I thought that’d be a cool thing at the time. And I didn’t think music was possible. So honestly, music school just sounded like a huge waste of money to pay $50,000 to $80,000 a year, just to do something that doesn’t pay you that much. And so I ended up going to GW because I was like, “Cool, at least I’ll have a degree that could get me whatever.”
I’ve read online that you learned to mix music at GW. Can you tell me more about that?
JK: I was at GW DJing and doing a bunch of stuff. There’s this bar called Above the Bayou, which I don’t even know if it exists anymore, but it was off of Pennsylvania Avenue, like right up near West… what was the place right above Foggy Bottom?
JK: Yeah, I used to live in West End and DJ at that spot, and we’d have a lot of parties and stuff up there. I had a little collective called Proper Vibes back in the day and we would throw them with just this guy Rob Smoke’s band. It was just a collective of artists and friends and stuff and we would throw parties. But then I also would mix my own music and put them out on those remixes and test it out when I was playing the sets. That’s kind of how I learned to mix was just hearing it out live. But then also hearing it in my, I had these really cheap speakers that I learned to mix on, these $20 Logitech speakers. That’s really how it all started with the mixing because I would DJ, but then I also started making my beats and would try to work it into my sets and things like that. So yeah that was at GW.
That’s really cool. What was the feedback, like with the first mixes you were making and playing live?
JK: I mean, it was cool. I always did something a little different, because I was a saxophone player. So I would also play saxophone while I DJed, which I don’t really do anymore. But sometimes, I definitely DJ on occasion. It was definitely a little different than most DJs because I would play my saxophone on certain sections of it. And that’s when I really started to experiment with the idea of doing more live stuff for myself. Because I was also at the same time in this band called Lucky Dove which was a local band in that we did little tours of the East Coast. But a lot of the people who started it went to GW as well. So there was this whole scene around it and I kind of got involved from the jazz jam sessions that would happen in the basement of, oh shit, another place I can’t remember right across from Gelman, like the basement of Phillips Hall. And that’s how I met a lot of the people that ended up being in that band. And yeah, it was cool. I really valued that experience. Because it was my first time ever gigging as a musician.
I’ve read articles describing your music style in different ways. How would you describe your music style in your own words?
JK: I don’t know. Kind of lush I guess? Lush and dynamic music. That’s probably the easiest way to describe it. Because I dabble in a lot of instrumentation and things. So yeah, lush and dynamic pop/soul music.
What inspired the name Cautious Clay?
JK: To be honest, it’s hard for me to explain a lot of things about myself. And I guess, in a lot of ways, I’m cautious about everything in my life because I just don’t always know who I can trust. It’s kind of a funny way of saying music is the easiest way for me to express my emotions and be myself. It’s a very meditative act for me and I’ve always heard people saying, “Oh, you know, meditation is important.” And for some people it is, but it’s more about finding something that’s meditative. For people that can be very different, you know, walking across the street, being like, “Oh, yes, I’m aware of my feet and my feet are walking. I’m not thinking about anything else right now.”
Who are your musical inspirations and influences?
JK: I was huge into Outkast and Andre 3000. Red Hot Chili Peppers. I loved them as a kid for sure. What else? Joni Mitchell, Carmen McRae. It’s a huge list, but I think there’s a larger number of jazz musicians as well Ornette Coleman and Quincy Jones. I love the Commodores and George Benson.
Do you have any specific moments that stood out like, “Wow I really made it,” or others that marked success for you? Or are you just taking it all in?
JK: Yeah, I tend to just take it all in because I don’t like to label success in a way that feels like it’s weighted on any particular person. So I mean, honestly, I don’t know. I guess I certainly felt a lot of gratitude when I realized that I probably won’t have to work a normal day job ever again. I think that was a pretty big moment for me.