Cautious Clay Opens Up on Debut Album 'Deadpan Love'  [Q&A]


Photo: Leeor Wild

This week music fans are being treated to one of the year's most anticipated releases, Cautious Clay's long-awaited debut album,  Deadpan Love. This release succeeds Clay's debut single by three years, and in the time that has passed, our hero has gained placements and accolades many of his peers dream about. The Brooklyn-via-Cleveland artist has worked with industry powerhouses like FINNEAS, he's written tracks with artists from John Legend to John Mayer, and had his music even sampled on a Taylor Swift record.

Collaborations aside, Clay's solo music remains his most powerful catalyst through the music realm. His three EPs have all been met with critical acclaim, and his tracks have even appeared in shows like Insecure and 13 Reasons Why. After a long wait Cautious Clay finally ascends to music's main stage this week with  Deadpan Love, a powerful display of emotion whose versatility is just as sharpened as it is understated.  

Across the record's 14 tracks, Clay voyages masterfully between genres, blurring boundary lines beyond recognition with his perfectly polished style. At moments he sounds like the lovechild between Matt Martians and Pharrell, but every track is trademarked with Clay's unique sonic register. Taking inspiration from artists like Peter Gabriel to Funkadelic, Deadpan Love is a strong debut from one of music's most promising acts.  

Prior to the release of Deadpan Love, I was fortunate enough to sit down and talk with Clay. We discussed our mutual love of ceramics, Andre 3000, and everything in-between.  

Ones To Watch: Take me through the creative experience of making Deadpan Love.  

Cautious Clay: To be honest, it was a pretty long and diverse process, and I went about it a bunch of different ways while creating Deadpan Love. Some of it was on my computer, some songs I collaborated with my band, others I collaborated with producers and writers too. I basically just assembled the songs that I liked the most over the last three to four years. I would say about 50% of it was made over the last year or so, as I had been writing songs until February of this year. Later I picked those that I felt fit the narrative that best encapsulated the things I wanted to talk about - what felt like the most emotive for the project.

I'd imagine it's strange collaborating online during a pandemic. How do you feel this process was similar/different to making Table of Context? What lessons did you learn from your last record that you're applying this time around?  

So Table of Context was a collaborative project, but I would say that it was a little less collaborative than Deadpan Love. This is probably the most collaborative thing I've ever put out. From the writing process to the production process, I was sort of overseeing it all. Thematically,  Deadpan Love has a little bit more of a relationship with my first EP, because identity and relationships are the cruces of those projects. Table of Context is more about the story of how I got to be here, but Deadpan Love shows the mental identity that I possess.  

"Deadpan" is the witty and cynical side of who I am, the frustration and absurdity of society. "Love" is the more empathetic and compassionate side of who I am. The two parts end up encompassing who I am, and that's what the album is. I spent a lot of time thinking about themes and what I wanted to cover. It's my perspective, but it's mostly about relationships and totally understanding the feeling of being misunderstood. Consumerism is touched on as well, but it's mostly an album about how I see that through the lens of Deadpan Love.

A lot of the songs that you include are more raw and vulnerable this time around. Take the song "Box of Bones," it's romantic in that it involves another person, but it's introspective too. How did you approach making inward-facing tracks?

I think that approach is really how I feel. I want to be destructive sometimes, and I think that doesn't always come across. I get frustrated and toil away with the process, so tracks like "Wildfire" lean into this destructive nature of who I am. At the end of the day I am an earnest and loving person, but sometimes I feel nihilistic as well. I do feel like there's a reason to live, and that's why I live. I see it as a puzzle, and it's not like a sad thing - it's the reality of life. I like to think about how I'm feeling, and then translate that raw emotion into something that seems matter-of-fact. I think with being an artist, sometimes you don't do what's best for you, but it's not a bad thing in the long run. I wanted to give those emotions a place, and Deadpan Love felt like the right place.  

Something that I also wanted to explore was the register of genres you have on this record. Deadpan Love is all over the place. The first half has this bright, poppy, R&B, funk, hip-hop sound, but the second half is much more downtempo and acoustic.  

It's funny you say that because that was a very conscious decision to do. I felt like the record was split in half into red and blue. It starts off hot with up-energy R&B and it slowly goes into yacht-rock 80's synthetic soft-rock kind of stuff. That was a conscious decision.  

Were you trying to take a lot of stylistic risks, or did this sound happen naturally as a result of you sitting down and making a new project?

To be honest, I wanted to take those stylistic risks, I wanted to have fun. "Wildfire" and "Strange Love’’ could not be further apart sonically, so I wanted to be able to do that as an artist. I want people to like the music I make, and if I can do both sounds well and people like it, then that's good for me. I'd rather do that than try to be only a heartthrob or rapper. It was definitely a conscious decision, sonically I'm not really interested in being a one-dimensional artist. When I was making Deadpan Love I knew there were songs that were different sounding, but that's also why track order was important to me.  

What were you listening to that inspired the gap between some of these tracks? I'm sure you've been asked a million times about your influences, but I'm curious as to which inspirations manifested  directly on  Deadpan Love.

"High Risk Travel" to me was a song that I felt was a love song, but I wanted it to feel a little bit wacky. I start it off with a door-slam, then there's a trumpet solo, and little voices that come in and out. I was definitely channeling an energy from Andre 3000's "Spread", and I really love that phonetic energy. I reference that in some ways, and even the name of the track "High Risk Travel" is all about going out to see this person, and you're in a pandemic but you're willing to see them and risk your physical and mental health because you have this crazy history.  

Songs like "Die In The Subtlety" are inspired more by this Peter Gabriel song "Sledgehammer," which I was listening to a lot when I was writing it. If you listen to the bass, it is definitely a reference, and it's cool. There are elements of Ohio Players and Funkadelic as well, so aesthetically that song was referencing a lot of soft rock and old funk and hip-hop drums as well.  

"Spinner" is more of a ballad, and I wanted to make a ballad for the album. Songs like that and "Wildfire," I just wanted to have songs that could just be songs. If I was by myself, I could play it, and that was a goal of mine. Some songs have more specific references, but others just have piano, guitar, and voice, and that's it. That exercise was a challenge to my songwriting abilities, and it was interesting to me.  

It's interesting hearing you talk about the compositions of these tracks, because I was curious about collaboration on Deadpan Love. I'd imagine everyone is going to ask you about Saba - and though I want to know more about that - I want to circle back to the band you mentioned. Were there any moments during the collaborative process that stood out to you?

I did a few songs with Saba, but "Strange Love" ended up being one that I liked. In terms of other collaborators, I worked with this guy Jasper, who is a really great piano player. He actually co-produced "Strange Love." He also helped work on "Spinner." He sent that idea over in the middle of the pandemic, and I wrote something to it in literally a day. That was a highlight for sure.  

Those horns on "Strange Love" are fucking crazy.

Thank you dude, I did the horns on that one.

Finally, what's your relationship with clay? Do you have any ceramic classes or pottery skills that the fans don't know about?

(laughs) To be honest, I wish I did, but I don't. I guess I put clay on my face before, but I don't have any real relationship with it though. I'm not readily able to express myself outside of music, with music it's the easiest way for me to express my emotions. For some reason, I feel like I can remove myself from the music I make. It feels like there’s less skin in the game. It's easy.

You can listen to Deadpan Love everywhere you can stream it.

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