Within the past two years, Clay’s music has braved the SoundCloud waves right onto TV screens and silver screens. His 2017 single “Cold War,” with its sparse yet magnetic melodies and heart-baring lyrics, was featured on both HBO’s “Insecure” and this year’s coming-of-age film “Booksmart.” Clay even received a songwriting credit on Taylor Swift’s latest album, “Lover,” whose song “London Boy” samples “Cold War.”
But long before Clay collaborated with John Mayer — a vocal sibling, as the two share a similar smokiness to their singing — and long before playing a recent sold-out show in D.C., he was practicing the flute, from a young age. Later, he picked up the saxophone.
The 26-year-old Cleveland native, born Joshua Karpeh, then started making beats, and growing as a producer while at GWU. He graduated in 2015, eventually moving to Brooklyn, where he is based. A passion for real estate never ignited, so Clay quit his job to pursue music full time.
Clay’s self-released 2018 debut EP, “Blood Type,” was a yielding, electronic-based primordial soup of resilient jazz, wistful rock and breezy R&B. His music would start to take on life and more risk in “Resonance,” and now, with the EP “Table of Context,” Clay’s sound is finding a home on more solid but still exploratory ground.
During his 9:30 Club show, Clay followed a similar trajectory, where the start of the night felt less assured but then underwent an evolution. He opened with “Sidewinder,” off his latest EP, and its slightly moody, midtempo feel, led by Clay’s raspy vocals, set the tone for much of the performance. Yet what sounds multilayered and buoyant in headphones came out flat onstage, even with the live band. A saxophone part in “French Riviera” should have added more movement and color, but instead felt matte and horizontal.
A glittering moment did arrive when Clay introduced a new song: “Karma and Friends.” An earlier snippet exists on his Facebook page, but the version he played onstage sparkled with an opulent violin intro. His voice took on a honeyed timbre, which created much-needed tension with such biting lyrics as “I’m not so impressed, my love. I know what you’re after.” It was a promising moment, and it was a reminder that Clay has come a long way.