Toronto singer RALPH on the Cher quote that inspired her record label and her plans to advocate for women and girls

By Heather Cichowski

Toronto musician RALPH has had an incredible last few years, and it culminated in the pop darling receiving a JUNO nomination for Dance Recording of the Year for "Gravity."

The 2020 Junos might have have been cancelled in light of the coronavirus pandemic, with no alternate date rescheduled at the time of writing, but there are still lots of big plans for RALPH.

She spoke with HELLO! Canada while travelling back from Texas following the wrap of her "Songs By" tour. The electronic star told us about her family of folk musicians,

HELLO! Canada: Would you say that your parents influenced your musical taste and your aesthetic now?

RALPH: For sure, because music plays a really big part in my family. My dad’s side of the family is all Toronto-based. My aunt plays the fiddle. She has played the fiddle for, like, 30 years. She is an amazing player and she is quite well known in her genre.

My uncle plays and my dad plays the mandolin. My cousin was a sax player and my bother was in a band for a really long time. We have a lot of music and film [people] in my family so when I would go up to our family farm up north, that my dad's side of the family shares, we would always have music or records playing. Always. Like when we were cooking. My dad and his family started collecting vinyls when they were in their teens and twenties and it's all up at the farm now. So I just grew up listening to what my dad listened to and I think that played a huge part in my music.

A lot of your songs are autobiographical and you've spoken about giving your exes a heads up with song releases. Did you always want to connect with fans through your experiences?

When I hear a song that I feel that I can relate to, that would really attract me to a song over and over again. So, when I am writing my music, I try to think of my life and a part that I feel could be a song out of it.

It's support, I guess, just hearing people react to the song, and see the weight to the moments that I’ve gone through. It makes me feel like my writing is valuable. I’m contributing something to someone’s life, which is a crazy, wonderful thought.

A lot of artists describe the writing process as being a cathartic experience. Do you find that?

Yeah, absolutely.

And the same thing with playing?

I mean, yeah. When you play it, it's a little different because it's more like muscle memory almost. If it's not a particularly raw experience I think that you still have joy in those moments and you can still tap into those feelings, but they're not quite as raw, whereas if you're writing songs and you're shaping those feelings in the moment, it can be really, really challenging and incredibly, yeah, cathartic because you just don't know what else to do when you’re experiencing immense sadness, anger or joy.

It's a way you can channel your feelings by trying to claim it and use the right words to explain it. It's a really exciting and challenging process because I'm so picky about finding the right words because I won't settle. I'm like, 'That's it, yeah, that's right.'

Do you write a diary as well?

[Laughs] I'm so bad. I'm not a diary person. I wanted to be one so bad when I was a kid because all my friends had them. I had a diary and I still have it. I found it. You know, like fake denim and covered with stickers that say things like 'girl power.'

And every entry is so funny because the entries are like a year apart, and every time I start a new entry they’re like, 'Hey Dear Diary, Whoops, I'm so sorry, I guess I've been bad.' Obviously I just didn't have the follow-through to be a diarist even if that's what I thought that's what it meant to be a pre-teen. I could not do it.

Even when it comes to songwriting, I just update little notes on my phone. Then when I'm in the studio I'll commit to actually writing it. But, I'm very bad with just like sitting down. I can take, like, three hours to write a thought down.

Do you prefer to just write something down when the thought strikes?

Exactly. I don't think I could be that person who is like 'Excuse me while I take an hour from this day to write in my diary.' I'm really bad with…overly forced feelings in a moment. Like if I was in a studio session and I wasn't feeling anything, it would be hard for me to write a song.

I've had those moments where I have gone to the studio and they're like 'what do you want to write about?’ and I'm like 'I don't know. I don't know right now.’

It's weird. It doesn't happen often but there have been moments where I'm like, 'I don't know.' [Laughs] It's a very different kind of experience.

In those moments, do you find it's best to step away and come back later?

Yeah. I always have song ideas built in my phone so if there’s nothing I’m really feeling in that moment I can kind of reference those and use those little ideas that I have written. I can be like, ‘Well, you know what, there was this song that I was thinking about’ and I can go from that.

But sometimes, I'm someone who really likes an organic creation, I suppose, and when you're forcing that creativity, like, I don't think that's just the product, for me personally at least.

So, in the past when I've been frustrated and I'm trying to pump out a song and it's not coming out the way I want it to, I'll be like, 'Let's go for a walk, let's go get coffee.'

I remember doing songwriting camp with SOCAN in Nicaragua and it was like the most idyllic, beautiful landscape and every day was so productive and bountiful.

One day we were writing in this little basement with no natural light and I was writing with Rose Cousins and this big producer, Scott Effman, and we were just hitting a wall. We weren't being very productive and I was just like, 'You know what, let's just go swimming in the ocean. We'll have a drink and come back and see what happens.'

Sometimes you have to just stop pushing yourself to be amazing and just see what happens. And I think it will happen in that moment. And either way, you've had no results, you know?

Photo: © Joe Bulawan

You wanted to launch a label, Rich Man Records, to support up-and-coming Canadian artists.

Yeah, and I think another part of launching my label was that Laurie [Lee Boutet], my manager and business partner, she's really a businesswoman in music in Toronto and London, and although I'm an artist, I'm also a singer and songwriter, and I am also someone who does costumes and is in charge styling, and I really love working with branding and artist development, aesthetically speaking.

So, for us I think we were like what we do it's a really volatile world, there's no reliability to being a musical artist. Who knows where we'll be in three years from now, you know? We were just thinking about other ways to almost expand what we do to protect ourselves and create other potential facets for us to put our energy toward and maybe create like more financial cushioning.

Considering that we have so many other things that we love to do and that we're good at, plus, we love the idea of having a label where we can almost step out of our box of artist and artist manager and do other things. Like, I really want to song-write with other artists. I want to help them develop their brands. I want to help them out with photographers, videographers that we love and support in Toronto.

We want to create a community to help up-and-coming artists to feel that they have support and creative outlets because it took a while to build up those ourselves and now we have a really good crew that we work with ourselves and we kind of wanted to help those people get hired, too. I guess create a family where we all scratch each other's backs.

It's a fun opportunity to be more than just an artist and more than just a manager.

Is it expressing creativity in another way?

Exactly, like what me and Laurie do with RALPH, we do everything. I mean we have people who help us for sure, but when it comes to the aesthetic, me and Laurie really do it all. We forged so much. And I want to do that as well with other artists.

I love creating art. For me, style is such a huge part of what I do and I want to help other people develop what.

Photo: © Joe Bulawan

You said the name of Rich Man Records is in reference to the famous Cher quote. Was that the original name you had?

No, when we were thinking of names we had another couple of options and we actually had one that we really loved that had a lot of personal weight for me. And there was another record label in Germany that had the same name, and it was going to cause too much conflict.

So I was really bummed because I thought that we had found the name and then we realized we couldn't I was like, 'Ugh, we have to do something else that feels as good for me.' And I got all bummed all out.

And then I was trying to think of the artists who I admire that are powerful women in music who have just been, like, ruling the music industry for years. And I'm like Madonna, Cher, and Cher had so many good quotes.

I had listed her quotes because I had this little calendar of female quotes and Cher had a couple on there. So I was just thinking about the one where her mom said, 'When are you going to marry a rich man?' And she said, 'I am a rich man.'

And I know how the music industry has been quite dominated by men, and I don't, I think it has gotten misconstrued a little bit. I'm not trying to talk… it's just a fact that people can acknowledge, including the men in the industry.

It's just a male-dominated industry and I just thought that it would be a little funny and a little tongue-and-cheek to have a company run by two women called Rich Man Records, and it’s also a Cher quote. It's a little bit of a pun. Here are two women trying to do a thing, and it's not meant to be a jab.

If anything, I hope that the men in the industry would think it was funny and that they would be intrigued by it.

Thinking back to when you started in the music industry and now. Is there anything you look back on and think differently about? Or have you always had such a strong aesthetic?

I don't think there is anything I look back on now and and think like, 'Oh, my God. What was I thinking?' or 'This song is horrible' or 'How could I have said that in an interview?'

I don't think there's anything that I’ve horrified by, which is great. I think if anything, I am happy with the evolution of my sound and I'm really happy that…When I first started writing I was really nervous to work with the writers and I wanted to work by myself. And I think I was just like in my mind, 'They're going to try and control my sound.'

And I work with a lot of the same writers now and they're wonderful. They know how I write, and I think you let yourself evolve a little bit when you work with other people. You kind of let yourself be a little more open to collaboration and try new things. But I am really happy now and even for my EP, the self-titled EP [RALPH, 2017]. Some people can lose themselves a little bit and be like 'I have to write a commercial radio hit' and then you listen to it and [are like] 'Oh, it doesn't feel like me anymore.'

I've never listened to a song that I put out and said, 'Oh that doesn't feel like me. I really regret doing that.' I still hear myself and I still hear the way I've always wanted to write, and I still have the opportunity to write. That has been important to me the entire process. That's my core stuff.

To be honest, I think I have too many fans that have come to understand who I am as an artist and how I write, and if I change that I would have a lot of fans who would feel let down.

Can you tell us about your Body Party event in The Beaches in Toronto?

My roommate and one of my best friends, Maddie, and I were thinking one night about the rules being changed in America about pro-choice. We were like, we all just felt this immense feeling. I was speaking to female friends and we all just had the same feeling. This anger in our chests, and we were like, 'What can we do? What can we do to really help this?'

When you're watching something unravelling and you feel really, really helpless... so Maddie and I were like 'Money, that's what we need to do. We need to figure out a way to make money because I think that’s something that can actually… to raise money for organizations to help women in America find places to deal with anything that they need do.' We wanted to channel those feeling of being angry into being helpful.

So we looked into some things because we weren’t sure whether we should pick one clinic in Alabama, or... We ended up going with one that distributes to abortion clinics across America.

We wanted [the event] to be a female-dominant line-up just because it felt more, it just felt more right for the cause. And we reached out to a bunch of different artists. And the feedback we got was just so positive and so many people were like, 'Thank you so much for thinking about this. We are so down.' Even people who were in the middle of touring. And it was just so amazing.

Photo: © Joe Bulawan

And even the vendors. There were so many vendors who reached out to us afterwards and were like 'How can we be a part of this? We want to donate.' It was just so beautiful. And the hall offered it to us for free, which was such a beautiful gesture.

And at first we were like, 'Can we sell all these tickets?' And they sold out. And there was a line down the street. And we couldn't even have everyone inside. It was sold out, which was so amazing. I think we ended up raising $18,000 in total which is incredible and more than we thought we would.

I love that the night was positive. It wasn’t severe. It wasn't preachy. We wanted it to be a really positive, fun night and create awareness. It was hugely inspiring for us to see all these people around us who wanted to help out who were like, 'Let's do this and let's do this.' I’m so grateful to my friends who ran it with me.

Is Body Party something you hope to do again?

We had a lot of people who reached out to us and said 'We love the idea of Body Party, we would love to do a Body Party, in like Trenton, Ontario. Or do one in Montreal.' The concept of Body Party, that it would be taken on by women in America or Canada, that is beautiful. I love, love that. I think there was one that actually happened in London, Ontario.

We want it to keep living and we want it to live beyond the confines of an event.

We were even thinking about doing a little zine. Not always the same thing [to highlight] that Body Party is a celebration of a concept. It's a celebration of freedom, of ownership and power. So we were thinking about doing a sexual health zine.

A sexual health zine could be educational and a way to convey things in a non-aggressive, cool and fun, stylized way. To talk about things that some people don't have access to, like sexual health, especially nowadays with sexual health education cuts. So we would want those zines to be available to students. It's just an idea but we don't think that Body Party is dead.

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