Discussing Music As A Boy's Club, Being An Underdog, and UK Punk with Cuffed Up's Sapphire Jewell
Cuffed Up | LA
Cuffed Up’s Sapphire Jewell was the worst guitar player in college.
“I was just terrible,” she tells me with a laugh as we catch up over a Zoom call on a rainy Wednesday evening. Well, rainy for me in London at least. She’s thousands of miles away in the LA apartment she shares with her boyfriend, where a warm light is flooding the room. “All the other kids were like totally prepared, and knew a ton of the stuff and I was clueless,” she explains with a grin. “For the first two and a half years I’m pretty sure everyone was like ‘what is she doing here?!’ But I turned it around”.
If turning it around means joining indie-punk quartet Cuffed Up, getting booked for SXSW and catching the attention of one of the UK’s best independent labels then sure, 'turned around' might be an understatement.
It’s been a wild couple years for the group, who released their self-titled debut EP at the start of last year in the US and today get a well-deserved re-release in the UK & Europe following their signing to Hassle Records. As a self-described underdog she puts their success down to sticking at it. “Part of the reason people are successful,” she muses, “is because other people just give up. So you just can’t stop”.
“Part of the reason people are successful is because other people just give up. So you just can’t stop.”
While all her (eventual) practice may have now paid off, what she thinks was really lacking when getting started was a role model. “What the world needs is just a bunch more female guitarists, “like, of all different kinds. When I was growing up and playing there just really weren’t that many”. On possibly being one herself she lets out a laugh, “I would love to be, but I feel like it’s a huge responsibility… I want to, I guess, stand for women who aspire to be really good at guitar”.
Now a firm believer in practicing it seems, she’s spent the pandemic learning new techniques on YouTube, but still struggles with the way girls are continually represented. “Almost every time I watch a video and I’m trying to learn something new, it’s a dude teaching something and he’ll just drop in some objectifying thing about women”.
When asked for an example she barely pauses, “I was watching this guitar technique… and this dude’s teaching it and I’m like... ‘I like this, this guy’s got some charisma, I like watching him and
learning from him and then,” she emphasises with exasperation, “all of a sudden he just flashes an image of women in thongs. They’re basically naked and it’s their backside, they’re looking over their shoulder and it’s super sexualised, and it flashes back to him and he’s like ‘you’re welcome guys!’. Obviously I’m not the intended audience, it’s purely a boys club”.
It’s not just in lessons she’s found this, reeling off another example about an amp simulator. “I was watching a product review and one dude, this gross older guy [was] like, ‘do you have a small apartment? Is your wife a bitch?... then this is for you’, and I’m like, ‘why are women who have anything to do with music always a bitch or annoying? Why are women just considered a nuisance when it comes to music?” It’s a frustratingly familiar story, but with a recent study suggesting 50% of new guitar players are women, there’s hope at the end of the tunnel.
"Why are women who have anything to do with music always a bitch or annoying? Why are women just considered a nuisance when it comes to music?"
What’s lovely about hearing Sapphire talk, even if on exasperating subjects, is her clear love of playing and the excitement she possesses for trying new things with the band. To Sapphire, who’s played in plenty of bands growing up, what makes Cuffed Up special is the freedom it allows her. “I felt like I could be myself, every part of myself, and also, it was fun. I think it must have been after our first two shows that I was like ‘OK, I’ll keep doing this’”. She waxes lyrical about experimenting with their music, using feedback for the first time and tackling guitar solos. "It's so exposed, but I was like 'I'm going to go for it, I'm going to do a guitar solo', and with each [song] I was just trying to use a new technique to make it interesting".
Heavily inspired by the gritty, post-punk sound emerging out of the UK, she lists off IDLES and Shame as big inspirations. “It’s just more rock,” she enthuses, “a lot of the American bands have a pop sheen to them or else it’s super indie vibes, and I feel like a lot of the English bands that I like hit a little harder, it’s just more visceral, and I think they’re willing to go a little deeper… sometimes I just want something that’s gonna make me want to fight!”
"Sometimes I just want something that’s gonna make me want to fight!"
With a grinding guitar sound in the grunge-coated vein of Sonic Youth and a demanding edge to the vocal delivery split between Sapphire and bandmate Ralph Torrefranca, there’s a captivating urgency to their music that’s hard to shake. There's a shyness to her, wary of admitting how talented a musician she is, but on a listen to their record it's something very hard to deny. Embracing punk ferocity, interlaced with political references and confessional lyricism, their debut is a taste of a band with a whole lot to prove - and they’re only just getting started.
Go listen to Cuffed Up here
Purchase the physical release out via Hassle Records here
Cuffed Up are:
Sapphire Jewell - Guitar/Vocals
Ralph Torrefranca - Guitar/Vocals
Joe Liptock - Drums
Vic Ordonez - Bass