KARPEH explores the past, the present, and the future. Cautious Clay, also known as Joshua Karpeh, unveiled his 15-track album as a way to explore his journey so far. He released this genre-bending, jazz, R&B, indie pop-rock project under Blue Note on August 18.
Cautious Clay can do it all. The singer-songwriter is also the producer and a multi-instrumentalist. Throughout the course of the album, Cautious appears on vocals, flute, tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, guitar, synthesizer, and bass. Few other artists can match this level of musical expertise and variety.
I wanted it to be musical for the sake of telling a story. Throughout this album, I am equating my life’s journey to an amalgamation of my family’s past life experiences, an exploration of my present, and how those pieces will influence my future.
~ Cautious Clay
KARPEH is broken down into three sections with short, vocal interludes where family members recount their history. Cautious is also joined by other talented collaborators from both the modern jazz world and beyond.
Part one is “The Past Explained.” Cautious dives into his childhood and coming-of-age experiences in Cleveland. From themes of family relations, self-reliance, and racial and cultural identity, Cautious is an adept storyteller. “102 Years of Comedy” introduces the album with an audio recording of a family member revealing he is proud of Cautious for the musician he’s become, recalling his mother taking him to music classes. The song ends with laughter eruption from Cautious and the family member, before easing into “Fishtown” — a funky track with a bright sound. Its lyrics preach what self-reliance means: “No, I don’t wanna live just to survive. We don’t gotta do this on our own.”
Next is the album’s lead single, “Ohio.” The jazzy bassline creates a nice groove as Cautious writes about growing up in the state. The brass and speaking elements of “Karpehs Don’t Flinch” set it apart from prior tracks. Relatives open up about their family history:
Your grandfather spoke seven languages fluently and was brilliant
And yet you had whites and Blacks in the United States who did not
Understand that just because you came from Africa somehow
You weren’t as sophisticated as someone
Born and raised in this country
And he just wasn’t willing to wait for people to catch up to that realization
~ “Karpehs Don’t Flinch”
“The Tide Is My Witness” is even higher in energy with an infectious, boppy sound. It also ends with an outro, this time about his grandfather’s tribe, Kru. To close the part, “Take a Half (a Feeling We Chase)” is a skit about taking psychedelic mushrooms that transitions into the album’s second part. This section, called “The Honeymoon of Exploration,” intimately deals with Cautious’ experience with psychedelics — and the self-discovery and desire for connection that came after. These five songs are all about togetherness.
“Another Half” brings an acoustic guitar backing by Julian Lage with vocals bursting with power. Then, “Repeat Myself” slows the tempo, as Cautious reflects on feeling like he is losing his mind and feeling alone. The song builds into a powerful, echoey ambiance before calming back down to wrap up the track.
In a collaboration with acclaimed Pakistani vocalist Arooj Aftab and Cautious’ uncle, bassist Kai Eckhardt, “Glass Face” is a magical listening experience. Its ethereal soundscape is full of angelic harmonies and adroit instrumentals.
The interlude, “Walls & a Roof” tells the story of relatives living in an unfinished house. The speakers’ brothers and sisters pulled money together to finish the house. The song smoothly sets up “Unfinished House,” a song about the process of self-growth while in a relationship with someone by your side. Again accompanied by Lage on guitar, this track puts Cautious’ storytelling in the spotlight.
It was like she was kin to you, these words you felt tied to
She had the brawn and the brains
You just kept dropping your crown
But like an unfinished house
She’ll see you around
And the neighbors won’t say a thing
~ “Unfinished House”
The final four tracks bring on the third part, “A Bitter & Sweet Solitude,” which centers how being alone can lead to self-improvement. Heavy in instrumentals, Cautious’ musicality shines. In “Blue Lips” (with Julian Lage) and “Tears of Fate,” Cautious’ R&B and jazz influences take the stage in songs with minimal lyrical content.
“Yesterday’s Price” welcomes big names as collaborators with saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusir. These modern jazz talents coming together is a match made in heaven for the ultimate jazz experience.
Cautious ends the album alone with “Moments Stolen.” He croons about relationship struggles so deep that perhaps, he sings, “loneliness would serve us well.” The narrative of a broken couple is poignant in its production.
I’m so afraid of intimacy
It’s nothing you could ever show me
Never cared enough to see through all my flaws
I don’t ever wanna hear you say
Working together couldn’t be ok
Hard enough to see these goals don’t come true
~ “Moments Stolen”
Cautious Clay is vulnerable in KARPEH. This rawness is why he has developed a fanbase of nearly 2 million Spotify monthly listeners: His transparency and honesty an an artist is alluring.
The artist will appear at Sound on Sound Festival on October 1 and at the Blue Note Jazz Club from November 30 through December 3. Check ticket availability on his website, and connect with him on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok.
Featured photo credit to Meron Menghistab