It was the summer of 2018. The City Girls had just arrived on the scene, Ghost and Tasha had just buried Reina and LeBron James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. During that summer, Culture Editor Ryan Shepard and Cautious Clay linked up for a brief interview before the All Things Go Fall Classic. Since then, it’s safe to say a lot has changed. The Cleveland native has been extremely busy working with John Mayer, touring the country and much more. With the world at somewhat of a standstill, the two linked up again to talk about his new music, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and what it means to be realistically optimistic.
It’s funny how things come full circle. You were the first person I interviewed with Def Pen back in 2018. To this day, I still remember sitting at the kitchen table in my Atlanta apartment while writing down the questions I wanted to ask you. At that point, you were starting to break through with the “Cold War” video and you were about to perform at All Things Go alongside Billie Eilish and Jessie Reyez. Two years later, we meet again. What has been the biggest change in your life since then?
To be honest with you, I feel like my whole perspective around the music industry has shifted a little bit. It’s changed in the context of having the urge to continue to do what I do. Maybe, it hasn’t changed. Foundationally, things have just made more sense to me. I’ve always had instincts to do my own thing, but I’ve become more confident in the decisions that I make as I go down this path I’m on.
That is so refreshing to hear because I think that’s something that everyone can relate to in some way. When we first talked, I wasn’t really a journalist or a writer. I was a college student with a whole lot of bills, not sure what my post-college plans would be or how I’d maintain my social life, but as I’ve gone down this road of journalism I’ve become more confident. I hope someone reading this is having the same type of journey.
Another thing that has happened since we last talked is the evolution of Insecure. When we last talked, “Cold War” was being featured on Insecure‘s third season. The show just wrapped up its fourth season and here we are. “Reaching” with Alex Isley is on the show’s fourth season soundtrack. First, how has your relationship with the show evolved? Second, how does it feel to watch a show and then suddenly hear your voice in the background?
Honestly, I feel gratified. I feel very legitimized by the concept that I can just kind of do what I love to do. There are a lot of different TV shows and movies that have been featuring me but in a very consistent way. If anything, it just made me say, “Wow! I’m making my own music, but somehow it is working in other mediums and I don’t have to cater to any type of sound that people are working for.”
Expanding on the topic of television, I recently saw you tweet about I May Destroy You. With many of us spending more time inside than usual, what movies, shows or albums have you been checking out over the last few months?
I really, really love that show. I will probably watch the last episode of the first season later today. I May Destroy You has been a big one for me. I really like Ozark as well. I love conceptual, good writing in film and TV. I think there’s so much synergy between writing good music and writing good movies and TV. So much of it is about timing and so much of it is about awareness around the implications of what you’re trying to portray. I think that’s why watching that show, in particular, was just so incredible because it was very serious but also a little bit positive and self-aware. It was just very well written in the way that it conveys emotions. I think that’s a really big point for me when I’m writing my music. It’s also important when I’m absorbing things that might be tough subjects, but I just want to address them in a way that feels palatable.
The point you made about the synergy between music, film and television is so important. Music is also pivotal to enjoying a series or a movie. Recently, I was having a brief conversation with my brother about Power because he teases me about sticking with the show for so long. While we were talking, I was telling him that part of the reason I enjoyed the first two seasons the most was the music selection and the timing in which it was used. It’s just interesting how intertwined the two can become. Is there a show or movie you would want to be the music supervisor for?
Yeah, I mean I really enjoyed the soundtrack for I May Destroy You. I enjoyed it because it was just so appropriate in a lot of ways. I actually did watch a movie recently that made me think, “Wow, this is so fun because you just get to pick songs that are really good.” I guess that’s the hard part because the stuff that I enjoy oftentimes has really good music. There are shows that I would love to be a part of, but it’s not like they did a bad job. You know what I mean?
On the opposite end, if the music isn’t right for a particular scene, it almost feels kind of stupid. It makes it feel stupid, so it does affect the scene. You can obviously have good writing and bad music, but let me think about that. I can’t particularly remember the music in Ozark. I really like that show. I think that they probably had a good perspective on it, but I think they would probably be looking for something that was more background oriented as opposed to singular songs that were really good. I think it’s also about just doing what’s best for the art and the medium.
I would say my answer would have to be…sh*t. I guess my answer would have to be—Sex Education is also a good show. Maybe, that would be it.
Sex Education is also one of my favorite shows. I would probably say it’s my third after Atlanta and The Society. Changing things up a bit, I did want to revisit something that has been a recurring theme or part of your career, Washington, D.C. I ask because I am in the city right now. You went to college here. Right after we talked in 2018, you performed at Union Market in Washington, D.C. at All Things Go. You also performed at Tiny Desk soon thereafter.
I, like many people, love Tiny Desk because it allows artists to showcase a different side of their artistry. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to see a Tiny Desk show in person. For those of us who love the series but have never been, what do you think it is about the Tiny Desk experience that makes it unique?
I don’t know. The location is funny because the desk isn’t really that tiny. It’s funny because it’s pretty large on set. Yeah, I think it’s the fact that it is actually a desk. When people go there, it doesn’t feel overwhelming. The environment is not intimidating. It didn’t feel super intimidating being in that room and I think a lot of artists might share that same opinion. What comes with that is a performance that feels way more intimate because you say, “Hey, I’m in this random a** space, but we have these great musicians, people we’re working with.” Yeah, I just think all of that makes it feel a little bit less intimidating, for me at least.
During this period, we haven’t been able to go to concerts or be in crowds necessarily. Is there anything you feel like you’re missing by not getting that experience or is just giving you more time to work on things that you may not have had the time to otherwise?
I miss it. I really do. Even when I was shooting a video for the song I was working on, I was kind of missing that live element because so much of what I do or have done in the last two years has been live. The energy that comes with performing live is also something I really enjoy. With my band and how everything was set up, it was a part of my life I enjoyed. Initially, it wasn’t the only reason I was making music, so from a band perspective, I have other things that I’m doing. However, performing was an element of my artistic identity. I performed a lot even before Cautious Clay. Now, I’m performing more in the context of like Zoom sessions and other non-live situations. It’s alright, but it doesn’t make up for it.
When you’re performing through Zoom or other online platforms, does it feel like you’re shooting a music video or does it feel like you’re in your room having a jam session?
It depends because sometimes the live streams are a lot more messy than I’d like them to be and then other times they’re a lot more well put together. It really just depends on the preparation and the connection. I think the possibility that you may lose connection while performing gives me more anxiety. When I’m performing, I don’t want to have to worry about the technicalities of it, but I think they’ve gotten a lot better. I have some live sessions that are coming up that I am excited for because I know the preparation we’re putting into it has been good.
As a fan, I definitely agree. The pandemic has allowed me to see all of my favorite artists from the comfort of my apartment, but there were a few technical difficulties at the beginning that have been smoothed out. Your shows have been good. H.E.R. has been great on Instagram Live. Aminé’s YouTube show was great I saw 6LACK perform on what looked like a billboard in Atlanta. It was this innovative, extravagant thing that I don’t think anyone would have done six months ago, but now it’s normal.
Referring back to a few things that have happened in your life over the last two years. You connected with John Mayer. How did you guys connect and what has your relationship been like with him?
John is definitely a good friend and mentor in a lot of ways. He’s also just a good, decent person. We’ve had a lot of discussions around music styles that we like, different production ideas, etc. To be honest, I kind of look at him as sort of a person that I can bounce ideas off of or talk about my own ideas that I’m working through from a creative standpoint. I get to sit down with him. We’ve talked about ideas that he’s working on, upcoming projects, etc. I feel like he’s very much a peer, but he’s also a mentor in a lot of ways because of his experience. I feel like our relationship has grown because a lot of the discussions we have are not always in front of people. I definitely consider him a friend and someone I can be real with.
Adding on to that, someone else who you’ve worked with since we last spoke is Husdon Mohawke. You worked with on “Reasons” from Table of Context. One of the things I enjoyed about that song is that it has this Soca influence that is different than anything I’ve heard you do before. At this point in your career, what other genres would you consider experimenting with?
I think the drum sounds I’m going for are a little bit more natural. I’m experimenting with 80’s synths and things like that. I’m really into that kind of sound as well. I’m writing using my own particular writing style in the context of some more smooth, soft rock sounds mixed with organic drums. Then, I also enjoy early R&B and 90’s R&B as well. I think those two kinds of scapes are inspirational to my writing. Then, Hip-Hop is always sort of an element of my rhythmic sensibility and writing style that I try to occupy. I think I’m inspired by things that have a groove element to them, but it’s a pocket that maybe isn’t necessarily what you’re expecting.
On my song “Agreeable,” I’m almost rapping, but I’m not because I’m singing. The rhythm is on the offbeat while the drums are kind of just going steady and straight. I like to have things that feel like they work together, but aren’t necessarily expected within the context. I think that’s also why Soca is appealing to me, so much of the rhythm is implied. It’s not like you have to hear every single eighth note. I like to use my voice as an element of that rhythm. I think that just makes it tighter when you’re thinking about it from a writing standpoint or production.
“I consider myself someone who’s an optimist, but also a realist.”
I recently had a conversation with another artist. He’s an R&B singer and he said that he dabbled in rapping before singing. When I think about some of my favorite artists, a lot of them didn’t start out with the genre that many fans would put them in. If you weren’t primarily singing, what avenue of music would you probably go down?
That’s a good question. To be honest, I don’t feel like I could actually rap. I don’t think I would do that. It would just take a lot of time for me to figure out how to do that in a way that would work. I could probably do it, but I would never do the Five Fingers with Sway. Yeah, that’s not me. I would probably be more involved in production, holistic production. I definitely consider myself a closer. When it comes to finishing music, I feel like that’s where I thrive. I could probably be a producer of sorts. I could be a vocal producer or an overall producer that plays instruments and gets the arrangements right. I think that’s partially why Quincy Jones has always been inspiring to me because he’s able to understand music holistically. Obviously, he can play the piano and do all these sorts of things, but I try to emulate him as a producer. Yes, I can make a beat. That’s super easy, but I think about what I want to do for a song holistically because styles change over time. Yes, I can make a beat, but how exactly do I want to work around the lyrics or make other styles choices to make it a classic and something that will stand the test of time? So, I think there are elements of production that can be considered in that context.
I just wanted to go back to “Reasons” quickly because the lyrics of that song made me think of your newest song, “Agreeable.” When I was listening to “Reasons,” I heard you talk about doing things at your own expense that help others around you feel happier or more comfortable. When I heard “Agreeable,” it was slightly different, but I heard you express a similar sentiment. What events in your life triggered the creative process for that song?
It’s inspired by just my own thought process behind being an artist. I feel like so much of that the job of an artist is to reflect culture in a very open-ended space. There are so many different places you can take this. There are so many different ways you can take it, but I feel like I’m not able to do anything in the context of the world. I try to make music as a way to answer a lot of those questions for myself. I consider myself someone who’s an optimist, but also a realist. I think the lyrical content of “Agreeable” being similar to “Reasons” is consistent with my personal outlook on the world. It’s like me saying, “Hey, sh*t is f*cked up all over the world, but we can also do better.” At the end of the day, we have to all try to do better because otherwise, we might as well all take a bullet to the head right now. It’s tough especially for marginalized communities and people who don’t have a voice. I want to reason out these ideas and perspectives almost in an academic way. In a real way, nobody’s agreeing right now. Nobody’s able to come up with solutions because they’re not even at a place where they’re able to have a meaningful discussion. Particularly on a conservative tip, we’re just so far from having a discussion on real issues. That part makes me feel hopeless. At the same time, I feel like having these discussions and reflections amongst people who are reasonable is still an important thing that we need to.
I think that’s very real because it’s difficult to have conversations about real things, especially where we are as a country.
Yeah, man. It’s so hard. It’s so hard. I can’t believe half of the sh*t that people care about sometimes, but you know I’m just playing the game.
With everything that’s going in the world, what people in your life or aspects of your life help you remain optimistic?
I would say, my Mom. My Mom definitely helps me. Also, I like to laugh. I like to remember how many different people are positive too. There are a lot of positive forces out there that might not necessarily have the same type of cultural voice, but they do have a cultural voice. It’s just not a massive voice. I know there are people out there that share the same or similar opinions as me and there is a decent community that exists. That gives me hope. I think there are a lot of people out there that are saying good things.
Ending on a positive note, here is my last question. As we move into next year, what things are you most looking forward to and what things are you are most thankful for?
I’m excited to just put out more meaningful music. I’m also excited for some of these videos that I’m working on to take shape. I’m also just excited to share some of the ideas I have for my album. Also, I’m really hoping that conversations begin to happen within the context of creativity and human rights. I’m excited to put out this album because I’ve been working on it for so long. I’m excited to share what I’ve been working on.