Cuffed Up and The Joy Formidable Are Fighting the Good Fight

Ralph Torrefranca and Ritzy Bryan talk touring, self-recording, and more.

Ralph Torrefranca is the vocalist and guitarist for the LA-based band Cuffed Up; Ritzy Bryan is the vocalist and guitarist for the Welsh band, The Joy Formidable. Last year, Cuffed Up went out on tour with The Joy Formidable, and now their long-awaited debut album, All You Got, is finally being released tomorrow by Hit the North Records. So to celebrate, the two artists caught up about touring, DIY production, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Ralph Torrefranca: When we were trying to figure out what we wanted to talk about today, the number one thing that came to my mind was the fact that both of our bands are not on major labels. We’re independent bands trying to basically survive in the music industry. We were obviously very lucky to have been on tour with you guys, and been able to experience it from the road. I think that the biggest thing I saw was that y’all were really trying to not only just stay afloat on the tip of trying to afford the tour, but also you were mentally trying to keep yourself in a good place while all this stuff happened on tour — we had van troubles, and you guys had some van troubles. [Laughs.] 

Ritzy Bryan: [Laughs.] Always.

Ralph: But it was really great, [as] a band that’s still relatively new, to see a band that I’ve been listening to honestly since college still fighting the good fight. So the biggest thing that popped in my head was the question of: as an independent band on the road, what does it take to survive in the modern era right now? What do you think that you’ve been doing to acclimate to that? Obviously, you have the Joy Formidable Club on your website, and you’ve built a big community there. Has that been an important part of the process?

Ritzy: Yeah, it’s been a huge part. We set up the club — I think it was about 2018, so it predated the whole lockdown. When everything stopped with touring, it was huge support system — not just on a financial level, but on a creative level all the way through. Which was kind of the reason that we wanted to set it up in the first place. We just found that the amount of creativity and music that was being produced needed its own place to live. Depending on who your partners are, sometimes the more traditional version of releasing music can be a little bit slower and more considered than how we wanted to share sometimes… So having a place where the creativity is separate from a whole record or even an EP — you know, it can be weekly, monthly, whatever feels right — was [great]. And then obviously as soon as all the touring ground to a halt…

Ralph: Kind of good timing. 

Ritzy: Oh, it was fantastic — in terms of our sanity, in terms of feeling like we could still connect with people. Having that outlet was absolutely huge for us. It’s been a big part of our journey. But it can take different forms, can’t it? Because you guys are about to release a record — your first record, right? 

Ralph: Yeah, I like to say it’s our debut album, five years in the making. [Laughs.]

Ritzy: [Laughs.] That’s great. Whatever time it takes, it takes, right? If anything, it shows that it’s not something that you just shit out. It takes thought and consideration. I think that’s a huge part of it, understanding that it isn’t just something that is created in a couple of minutes. It has value in lots of different ways. 

Ralph: Yeah. The value of art, I think, has become a really big talking point for everyone right now, because art has translated into — you could call it a bad word or a good word, but — “content.” So trying to find that line of maintaining the artistry and the importance of the actual art, versus how it’s being released and how it’s being marketed… It’s a very fine line right now. Going on tour with you guys really influenced us getting into making the album. Because before the tour, we lost our manager, we lost our agent, and one of our key founding members left the band. We were in this really tough spot where we were about to go on tour, and we were like, “Is the universe telling us that it’s over?” And obviously, after a bunch of conversations, we decided to double down and be like, “No, we’re going to keep doing this.” Then luckily, we met Christina [Apostolopoulos, vocalist/guitarist] and Christina joined the band right before we went on tour. And we went on tour and we had the best time with you guys. 

The biggest takeaway we had was that you guys produced your own record. We were even taking notes about, like, how you guys were recording the drums compared to how y’all did the drums on the first record, and the fun that y’all were having trying to figure out how to record at home, how to do everything on your own. So by the time we got back, I literally was like, “OK, let’s just make the record. Let’s just write the record.” We wrote for a month, and then when we had the whole album written, we were like, “What do we do next?” And then my mind went back to conversations I had with you guys, and I was like, “I wanna do what Joy Formidable did, and I’m just going to do this myself. I think this is our path.” I decided to take on the mantle of being a producer and engineer because of the inspiration we had from being on tour with you guys, and finding out that you guys did your own record. I had to do some research, and you guys have basically produced all the records you’ve ever put out — or at least have been producers involved in the process — right? 

Ritzy: Yeah. I think we got some things out of our system — there were a few people that we really wanted to work with, and those were exciting little chapters, I suppose, in the making some of the records. But, yeah, for quite a lot of the records, I think we’ve just had such a clear vision for what it is that we wanted to create, so it’s been a very natural evolution for us. I think the secret sauce for it all is the relationship you have between each other. Which is obviously most permanent and important relationship anyway, because other members of the team will come and go. The thing that should be fairly solid is your actual band or your writing partner. Actually putting the energy and the focus into that — as long as you’re loving on that plenty — that with the music side by side should be the ultimate thing that you’re putting love and attention into. Because the rest is all very wobbly. I mean, we’re friends with a lot of our past managers and agents still now. But friendship’s one thing and a working relationship is another thing.

Ralph: Yeah.

Ritzy: We’ve definitely seen what they would call the “personnel” change throughout the ages. [Laughs.] But as long you feel you’ve carried yourself without regret… And you may be just on different journeys! But I’ve never felt like that is a factor in whether or not I’m going to make music, or if I’m going to go on tour, or release something. If anything, it can make you even more tenacious and stubborn that you are going to fucking do something. 

Ralph: Yeah. Which I think the result is this record that we’re putting out — it’s us being stubborn. [Laughs.]

Ritzy: [Laughs.] Bring it on. 

Ralph: Me and Joe Liptok — the drummer of our band — we had this conversation where, if we weren’t playing in a band, where would we be in 20 or 30 years? We both looked at each other and were like, “We’d still be playing in a band.” We’d be playing at the Elks Lodge or the lobby of a motel or something. There’s something about playing and creating music that is literally a part of our DNA that we can’t ever give up, because that would be basically giving up a part of yourself at that point. 

Ritzy: I know we were talking about what does it take? Well, it is what each of you individually bring to things, those strengths and weaknesses. I think that’s the main thing, especially at the moment — artists are having to juggle a lot of different roles, having to excel at things that are way outside of just making music.

Ralph: Making your own content.

Ritzy: It’s like almost having to have a fantastic financial brain as well, which on some biological level doesn’t always go with the creative end. [Laughs.] 

Ralph: [Laughs.] Historically, no, not really.

Ritzy: Right. We’re having to evolve fast in some of those things. But I think the root of being — and when I use the word “successful,” that can mean whatever you fucking want it to. But in terms of what you view as success, I think all of you bringing something unique — that’s the great team. Sometimes I look at books about tech and startups and things like that, and what they’re describing in terms of this mix of a team, I’m like, That’s just a band

Ralph: Yeah, it is a band!

Ritzy: And understanding how the business works… It changes fast. 

Ralph: Yeah. I have this joke that every time you wake up in the morning, the music business has changed. And then the sad part is, it’s not a joke. [Laughs.] It’s for real. When I started in the music business 17 years ago, it was so different. We were coming from a Myspace era where it was funneled into one place, but it felt more like the Wild West. There was more opportunity for bands to be discovered and then put on a trajectory into a system that had gotten fed with a lot of money. Because there was still money being thrown around at that point, and more people taking investment in the risk of a band no one’s ever heard of and trying to build them up from the ground up. When you think of the Arctic Monkeys and them being found on Myspace — no one knew who they were. They were just a bunch of kids. But nowadays, an A&R wouldn’t even look at that band because they would say, “Oh, they don’t have any social media presence. They’re not they’re not blowing up on TikTok.” The give and take of where we’re at as an industry right now is that people could build their own businesses and put out music without any gatekeepers. The plus side of what’s been happening is that we could keep our own fate in our hands, basically. 

Ritzy: Yeah. It’s certainly interesting the way that, like you said, there’s obviously lots of platforms now for artists to be discovered. So there’s eyeballs. The takeaway for me is just to encourage people to understand how parts of the music industry work. If you really want to support artists that maybe have that kind of creativity, and they have things to say in it, an originality — how do you help them develop that properly? And with music being the the center of it, instead of it having to be algorithmically positioned?

Ralph: Someone had a theory about this that I watched recently — I don’t necessarily 100% agree on it, but there is some truth, and it’s the fact that they think that songwriting has gotten worse because musicians have to juggle so many things. They’re getting spread too thin to even work on the actual craft of songwriting. And that’s truthful for independent artists. If someone is signed to a publishing company or something, and they have money so they could work on the music every day, that’s different. But for the independent bands and artists who are, like, baristas or who are working for marketing agencies — taking these odd jobs — they’re not able to work on the craft as much as they want, because they’re busy having to market the songs that are coming out, and holding down a job, and then trying to find a balance between all of it. It’s tough for me — again, we don’t have a manager, we don’t have an agent. We’re lucky to have a label partner that we’ve been working with, Hit The North, who are amazing. But apart from that, we’re doing everything. So, I don’t know the last time I wrote a song. I don’t think that I’m the only one in this boat. It’s hard to balance everything.

Ritzy: Yeah. You can end up being stretched very thin. How do you balance that kind of pressure, where you’re trying to kind of maintain a certain amount of promotion and content without having those more quiet moments of refining and writing? It’s definitely not an easy time for artists at the moment. 

Ralph: It’s pretty difficult right now. I find solace in script writing — I’m also a filmmaker. It shifts my mind in such a different way that maybe I wouldn’t be getting from everything else that I’m doing right now. That also flows into us being able to film music videos and come up with some really creative, fun stuff. Have you had fun filming music videos? 

Ritzy: Yeah, always. It’s naturally one of my favorite parts. We look back and we laugh quite a lot — sometimes they’ve been some of the hardest moments. [Laughs.] But I love the concept of adding that visual world to the music. It’s always felt like a lot of our music has often come from a piece of art, or a piece of art has followed it kind of quickly. It feels like it has color and imagery. So to be able to realize it… I guess sometimes there’s frustration that the thing that you want to create is quite difficult. But I do think that sometimes restriction actually brings some fantastic creativity as well. I think those are the things that you’ve got to sink into. You’ve got to enjoy all those creative moments. I think especially now with all the different skill sets and the heads that you have to wear as an independent artist, if you allow too many of those things to get in the way where you aren’t just enjoying yourself with your music and with the visual side, and whatever it is that gives you fucking hits of dopamine — you gotta kind of straighten out that side. There’s obviously a very real conversation that needs to happen about fair pay for musicians and making a living, and in educating people about what they need to do to properly support an artist. But I think most of our time and energy also needs to be in connecting and resonating with the whole fucking reason you got into music. What is it that moved you into wanting to make music in the first place? Because none of that other stuff’s fun anyway. I mean, does anybody honestly find social media fun? [Laughs.] I mean, I love little the moments of connection and stuff like that…

Ralph: When it becomes a constant machine, that’s when it starts to take away from the actual human touch, the little moments that you do get with some of your fans. Which is important. When we do music videos, I always try to remind myself, This is part of the process that you should be enjoying. Because you’re not having to make music videos every single time — you only have a couple chances to. We told our label we wanted to do one for every single song, and they were like, “Well, we only have this budget.” And I was like, “Let’s lean into technology!” Right before we started figuring out what we were gonna do, I bought an iPhone 15 Pro, and I was like, “This shoots in pro res — you could color it and make it look like a cinema camera.” And so the majority of the videos that have been coming out from this record are shot on my phone. I taught myself how to color and edit — again, it’s adding on to everything that an artist needs to do. But it’s so worth it. 

Ritzy: That’s the beauty now of technology, isn’t it? I’m the same — I’ve done a little course on Final Cut and stuff like that. But I can dive into that sort of shit. You know, it’s not marketing, so it’s fine. [Laughs.] 

Ralph: Yeah, it’s creative. 

Ritzy: The ability now with technology, instead of something that would have taken a huge amount of time, you can still do something that’s really unique and original.

Ralph: Yeah. And for theoretically next to nothing, apart from owning a phone that you needed anyway. So it’s good. Although, I will say, at the top of last year when I decided that I was going to produce the record, we had to invest in some gear. We borrowed a lot of gear — shout out to our friend Adam Baker — but I invested so much money into plugins. And then I went to what I call YouTube University and just started teaching myself, and making mistakes. Some mistakes made the back end of it a little bit more difficult — it was a process that took a long time, but I knew it was going to take a long time. The investment of it was so rewarding, because when the songs are out and people are saying, “Oh, I love the mix on that song, I love the way the drums sound,” I’m like, “Man, if only you knew where that started and how much of a struggle it was.” [Laughs.] It was bonkers to see the trajectory of that. I was so proud when I heard that you guys had done your own record, too. Finally seeing it from your side, and experiencing how much work and time and effort it takes to put a piece of art into existence — it’s pretty amazing. It made me respect you guys even more, just being in the thick of it and seeing what it takes to make a record.

Ritzy: It’s definitely not the faint-hearted, is it? [Laughs.]

Ralph: I want to tell you this, too: there would be no Cuffed Up without The Joy Formidable. I’m not blowing hot air or anything. When I was in college, I was doing acoustic folk music, and at some point I kind of hung up my acoustic guitar and was like, I don’t know if I can do this anymore. And then I heard The Big Roar, and I was like, Why am I not playing rock music? What am I doing? I went and bought an electric guitar and started writing. I had to go through so many failed bands to get to Cuffed Up, but that was the impetus of it, that record. So for an independent baby band that is just trying to find opportunities to be able to go on the road and share our music, it means a lot that you guys brought us on tour and decided that we would be a good fit. And it really was a good fit! We had such a great time on that tour.

Ritzy: I’m so happy. Even though you said that your trust in whether or not you should be doing this gets tested, I’m really glad that you’ve got this album coming out. I can’t wait to hear it. 

Ralph: We’re thankful that we get to do this, and I’m thankful that you guys are still doing it. In this current era of the music industry, I think the biggest important thing is to be able to support each other, because we all need each other. 

Ritzy: I think that is going to be the crux of of everything, to be honest. It’s going to be the solidarity and the encouragement from band to band, and collaborations and looking after each other. Because we’re the ones who realize the challenges.

Cuffed Up is a three-piece rock band from LA. Their debut record, All You Got, is out April 5 on Hit the North Records.