Cautious Clay takes Colorado
'Deadpan Love' singer and multi-instrumentalist headlines Belly Up on Thursday
Who: Cautious Clay
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Thursday, 9 p.m.
How much: $48-$130
Tickets: Belly Up box office; bellyupaspen.com
The inventive singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Cautious Clay has written songs for John Legend, collaborated with John Mayer, remixed “Ocean Eyes” for Billie Eilish and had his song “Cold War” sampled by Taylor Swift on “London Boy.”
But as Cautious Clay (born Joshua Karpeh) has touched the upper reaches of the music industry and found himself working alongside its biggest stars, he’s stayed resolutely independent — both in attitude and in affiliation, opting not to sign with a label or any larger entity.
“I really value the connection that I make with people,” Karpeh, 29, said from his tour bus as it crossed Pennsylvania headed toward a western tour swing that comes to Colorado this week. “So I want to continue to grow at my own pace but also make sure that people know that this is me and that I can continue to be me.”
After a string of singles over the past five years, last summer he released his debut full-length album of R&B songs, the aptly named “Deadpan Love,” on which he sings and plays flute, saxophone and guitar. He’s now on a winter tour that brings Cautious Clay to Belly Up Aspen on Thursday night.
The Belly Up concert is a sleeper show of the winter season and one of those only-in-Aspen opportunities to see an artist in this small club as they are breaking out into superstardom (and unlikely to play many small rooms in the years to come). The Aspen show, Cautious Clay’s first in the mountains, is followed by two sold-out nights at the Bluebird Theater in Denver and a North American tour that runs through March.
The songs on “Deadpan Love“ are self-aware and often self-critical takes on love gone wrong or of longing for genuine connection in our distanced, increasingly virtual world, lamenting — as he once did of Tinder matches on ”Cold War“ — our ”days of the broke and shallow.“
While he’s landed sonically in the R&B and pop tradition, Karpeh points to folk singers as the models for his songwriting, singling out Neil Young and Carole King as favorites.
“I try to draw from her because I think she has a very pop sensibility,” he explained of his affinity for King.
He also points to a line like the “alligator lizards in the air” on America’s “Ventura Highway” as inspirational and aspirational for him, as he pocks his songs with bits of poetry, irony and absurdity.
“It’s a funny line to me,” he said. “It’s kind of silly but it’s also expressing something. There’s a playfulness I try to incorporate when I write.”
If he has a gift for undercutting the emo earnestness in his songs with wry humor or an eyebrow-raising turn of phrase, Karpeh said it’s because he’s trying to match the gray areas and complexities of human feeling.
“People’s emotions are too complicated to be like, ‘Oh, I’m writing only a sad song,’” he said. “It’s never that simple.’
The “Deadpan Love” tracks were mostly recorded during the locked down stretches of the pandemic in 2020 on home recording equipment while Karpeh was staying at his girlfriend’s parents’ house in Massachusetts.
Hitting the road for these winter shows with a percussionist/keyboardist, drummer and bass player, Karpeh worked on arrangements that would make them into their best possible live versions, translating hip-hop beats into live percussions and digital vocal effects into live ones.
“Everything that I do in the production world I try to translate seamlessly into my live set,” he said. “So I’ve been spending a lot of time just getting that together.”
In February, he released a “Deluxe” edition of the album that includes 22 tracks and alternate takes that complement the original corpus of “Deadpan Love.“ It includes essential-sounding additions like the thumping ”Rapture in Blue,” which Karpeh said has been one of the highlights of recent live sets.
As Karpeh’s adaptable and adventurous style on flute, sax and guitar suggests, he entered pop music with a jazz background and packs his bands with trained jazz players. While he may pursue a jazz-centric side project in the near future (one is in the works) he finds for now his jazzier impulses have found a home in his concerts.
“In a lot of cases, I find myself wanting to scratch that itch in a lot of ways,” he said of playing jazz. ”And I feel like I do that through my live shows.“