In Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Defacement (The Death Of Michael Stewart), a black figure representing the graffiti artist referenced in the artwork’s title stands between two cartoonish police officers, truncheons raised, eyes wide and, in the case of one, teeth bared. The painting depicts the arrest that would lead to Stewart’s death – the 25-year-old later died with bruises and injuries on his body that suggested he had been beaten and choked or strangled.
The painting is the centrepiece of an exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum and, on a sticky night in July, a gentle flow of people file into the hushed bowels of the gallery to witness Cautious Clay play a short set to mark the display. Earlier in the day, some nine miles away in Brooklyn, a stark reminder of both the cruelty and injustice of police brutality, and of the haven of privilege, is served.
“I didn’t realise that was the day before the anniversary of when Eric Garner was killed or the guy who killed him was set free,” says Josh Karpeh, the man behind the Cautious Clay moniker, in a Crown Heights coffee shop a couple of days later. He’s referring to the fact that, on the same day as the gallery show, the US attorney had ordered the case against the officers involved in Garner’s death be dropped. He and his band were given a tour of the exhibition by curator Chaédria LaBouvier before performing and that knowledge shone a new light on Basquiat’s work. “It was quite intense and really crazy to see those parallels.”
Karpeh’s music might not be an immediately obvious accompaniment to the protest and politics in Basquiat’s work, with him often focusing on more personal subjects. But, just like the artist did, he explores ideas of identity while making nods to a genre that crops up in some of the art world icon’s pieces. “What I thought was really interesting in a lot of his pieces was that he had a lot of different references to jazz,” Karpeh explains, breaking off chunks of a cookie as he does. “A lot of jazz has influenced me and Basquiat references the Cherokee [in Charles The First], which is the bridge between jazz and modern interpretations of that.”
The Ohio-born musician studied Jazz Studies at George Washington University in Washington D.C. before moving to New York, but has been playing various instruments since he was a child. He picked up flute after watching Aladdin, then progressed to saxophone and played in his school’s jazz band. He came late to the guitar because, as a left-hander, he struggled with the specific way he needed to play. At 26, he’s also a child of the shuffle age, saying he grew up finding his favourite music – variously Lil Bow Wow, Green Day, Creed – on iTunes and Limewire, which explains the subtle eclecticism (hints of R&B, soul, jazz, indie, and more) cosying up next to each other in his music.
New York might be a city many people come to in search of becoming stars, but Karpeh ended up here when he took a job in real estate. “I was like, ‘I really do like music, I guess I’ll try this out,’” he explains of how Cautious Clay began. “I guess a year later I had enough [songs] to feel comfortable with what I had.”
The first song he released, back in 2017, was ‘Cold War’, a lush mix of smooth synths, jangling percussion, and Karpeh’s silvery vocals. It almost immediately brought him a ton of attention. To this day, it’s still doing unexpected things – most recently, Taylor Swift sampled its rhythm on ‘London Boy’. “When I released ‘Cold War’ I had no idea it would be what it is,” he says matter-of-factly before ‘Lover’ is even announced to the world. Still, he’s confident his career won’t be defined by one track. “It was the first song I ever released so it had its own life, but I know I’m gonna have better songs, other songs. I don’t ever try and place too much weight on one idea ‘cos it disrupts the journey in making something that changes people and inspires people.”
Over the last two years and via three EPs (including March’s ‘Table Of Context’), Karpeh says his life has changed a lot. He no longer works in real estate and is able to focus on his music. He’s happier, although notes that there are “a lot more mood swings” where he wonders what he’s doing. And there are now more eyes on him than ever. “My life has become somewhat of a spectacle for people, which is weird for me” he says. “But that’s what I signed up for.” One of the most striking moments during his Guggenheim set comes during ‘Stolen Moments’ when he sings: “I’m so afraid of intimacy”. In itself, it’s quite an intimate confession to make to a room full of strangers, perhaps made even more so by the stillness of the museum’s atmosphere.
“I have no idea yet,” he replies with a smile when asked if he’s comfortable with the idea of sharing personal moments with however many people in the world decide to tune in. “I’m feeling it out. I think it’s inevitable that I do [share more] ‘cos I have a lot of fans that are super interested in what I’m up to at all times. It’s certainly a lesser percentage – most people fuck with the music, which is fine. I’m happy with that, but I’m figuring it out.”
While Karpeh is sussing out how much he wants to put out there, he’s been drip-feeding fans with new material. Last month saw the release of John Mayer co-write ‘Swim Home’, as featured on the soundtrack for 13 Reasons Why season 3, while today (September 13) he shares the urgent-but-fun ‘Erase’. He describes the latter, which finds him commanding “Erase my social” over rattling beats, as “a little more hard-hitting”. “It’s about living your truth a little bit and not necessarily letting social media control every part of your life,” he explains. “It’s such a beautiful thing that we can all engage with and share, but it’s important that people really invest the time they have with the people they’re around.”
There’s plenty more to come, too. The musician is currently wrapping up his debut album, which he estimates will be out in “January or February” next year. He’s not quite got the concept nailed at present, but the sound is definitely down. “There’s a little bit of New Order-y stuff, elements of a lot of stuff I really like from Outkast,” he says. “It’s a little bit jazzy but a little bit poppy and interweaving those things.”
Until then (and beyond) Karpeh’s ambitions are humble – to keep things “consistent”. “The rooms are getting bigger, people are still engaging so who knows [what’s going to happen], you know?” he says casually. “I’m just keeping going.”