“You can’t waste time doing something you don’t like because it’s just not gonna be great in the long run,” says the ambitious Cautious Clay. “It’s better to be a little broke and happy than to be flushed with cash and super unhappy.” And so, in 2017, he quit his job in advertising to officially pursue a career in music. Since then, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist has released three EPs and accumulated several hundred million streams across platforms. His music has also been featured in shows such as HBO’s Insecure and Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.
If the name Cautious Clay isn’t ringing any bells, maybe you know some of the artists he has written and produced for: Alina Baraz, Khalid, John Legend, Quinn XCII, the list goes on. Anyone sound familiar? He has also collaborated with several artists including UMI, Petit Biscuit, and AlunaGeorge.
Although he did not start writing and producing music until he was in college, Clay has been passionate about music and playing instruments his entire life. He is formally trained on the flute but also plays the saxophone, as well as a bit of guitar, drums, piano, and other instruments “just to get by.”
Thanks to SoundCloud, Clay grew fascinated with music production and spent a significant chunk of his time in college refining his skills and continuously creating. “Cautious Clay was actually a DJ project before I started singing,” he shares. “I was a SoundCloud producer making beats and remixes in college, and then I kind of discovered that I was mixing. Then from there, I just started recording my voice, and now we’re here.”
While working towards a degree in international affairs at The George Washington University, Clay became really involved in the D.C. music scene. “I knew I wanted to pursue music in some way,” he says. “I didn’t know how, but when I first got this gig playing saxophone in a reggae band in college, I knew that I at least wanted to do it on the side.”
After graduating college, Clay worked two jobs, first as a real estate agent, then as an advertiser. “It was terrible,” he assures, “but that sort of funded the start of what Cautious Clay would become.”
In September 2017, months after quitting his day job, Clay released his debut single “Cold War” on SoundCloud. The melancholic R&B tune quickly caught the attention of many blogs and was eventually picked up by Hype Machine, where it sat at number one on their charts for two months straight. When the track was eventually uploaded to Spotify, the hype only continued. In 2019, it was even sampled by Taylor Swift in her song “London Boy” from her seventh studio album, Lover.
In the months following his debut release, Clay put out two more singles, “Joshua Tree” and “Juliet + Caesar,” before finally dropping his first full project Blood Type in February of 2018. The seven-track EP pulls from his “experience working as a real estate agent and not liking it, but also kind of being in a relationship that [he] didn’t really know was sustainable or not.”
Finding himself in a pretty rough situation and feeling absolutely lost in life, Clay came up with the ingenious concept for Blood Type. “The title Blood Type in and of itself is like another word for identity. So, my identity, or my blood type, is who I am.”
In October, Clay dropped his first solo release of the year, “Agreeable,” serving as the first single off his forthcoming debut album. His latest single “Dying in the Subtlety” will also be included in the album, which is due sometime in early 2021.
Tell me about your creative process. Do you usually write lyrics first and then make the beat, or do you make the beat first and then write lyrics?
I guess it’s a little bit of everything. I don’t really have one formula. I just kind of make shit all the time, and sometimes it’s better than other times. For example, there are certain songs, like “Stolen Moments” – that was sort of a freestyle, so I sat down, had the guitar parts, worked it out in my head, played them really rough, and then sang all the parts in like two or three hours. I was just kind of freestyling until I felt like every part made sense. Then, I had my guitar player lay down the guitar better than I did, and at that point, the song was more or less finished. I mean, that was over probably like a month, but the song itself was done in like a day, and then I just made it better. Then there are other songs that take more time, not because they’re harder to write, but because they sort of come like a burst of inspiration around certain ideas. I’ve been in that mindset recently because everyone’s just been stuck at home, so I’ve just been making a ton of shit, and it feels good. But I’m very aware of my own process, and a lot of times, I’ll just sit down, freestyle some ideas, and that’s what it is. Or sometimes, I’ll write a poem and then half of that poem becomes a song. Or I’ll have beats lying around I really like that I’ll just write to. Or I’ll make a new beat and everything from scratch, so there are multiple ways. That’s why I wanted to produce in the first place – I wanted to be able to have the agency and the ability to do anything without anyone. I don’t want to be asking people for beats. I can just do it all myself when I need to.
What music do you like to listen to? Is it similar to the kind of music you make, or not?
I would say some of it is similar and some is different. A lot of times, I’ll listen to music that’s different, get inspired, and then create with that lens in some way. I try to be informed by a variety of things, but I would say I like rhythmic stuff. I’ve been a really big jazz head since I was probably 16, but I don’t make jazz music.
How did you come up with the name Cautious Clay?
I guess I was always particular about my music, so I felt like because I was so particular– it’s like, Cautious Clay sounds better than Particular Clay. I also just felt like it made sense with how I was as an artist and a writer. I’ve always been very particular about how I want things to sound and feel, emotionally, when I write and produce.
Do you enjoy singing or producing more?
I like both pretty equally, to be honest, but I like singing because it takes less time. I probably spent, collectively, an entire year learning how to produce, and I’ve been producing for like seven or eight years. If you were to calculate every hour I just sat at a computer, it’d be pretty sad.
What are some of your goals as an artist?
I guess my main goal is to put out music that pushes me further as a creative. There are some songs that I really wanna shoot videos for, but I’m not sure how I would be able to do that considering the situation, so I’m hoping that I can do that. Also, just creating something that I feel like is a new direction for me, but that also feels genuine. That’s my main goal for this year. I’ve been writing treatments for videos since the beginning of my artist career as Cautious Clay, but I’ve never fully directed a video, so that’s also a goal of mine – to get into directing a little bit more.
Who have been your biggest inspirations?
I am really inspired by artists who can do a lot of things really well. I really like Childish Gambino. I also really like Quincy Jones. Also, Bo Jackson is pretty dope, but he’s, like, a football player and a baseball player. I just think it’s cool when people do multiple things, and they’re not doing it because they’re trying to prove anything; they’re just doing it because that’s what they like.
What is your favorite song on the album?
I think it would probably be “Stolen Moments.”
Which of your songs is your favorite or most special to you?
I guess “French Riviera” is a really special one for me just because I’m a person of color, and it’s sort of speaking to my experiences there and how I feel about my own life and the things that I’ve gone through.
How have you evolved as an artist since releasing your first EP, RESONANCE, in 2018?
I think I’m a little bit more aware of what’s around me, but not in a bad way. I think that I’m just now in a scenario where I know what I can do, and I’m sort of trying to continue to push myself without necessarily feeling stale. I think, being an artist, the worst thing you can do is get in your own way by making music overly complicated or overly pop-y or overly anything. You just have to make something that speaks to you as an artist and that people can expect – but also won’t expect – and fully embrace that side of what you do. Every time someone’s like, “Oh, they totally changed” or whatever, and it’s not a good thing, I feel like it’s because people just lose their way artistically. So, I’ve always just kept a level head and tried to not get consumed by tons of other things, but always being aware of other things.
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