An unforgettable band name rarely guarantees musical success. Otherwise Grandpa’s Become A Fungus would have already sold millions of records and The Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza would have a list of awards longer than its name.
But combine that memorable moniker with a mountain of musical brilliance? Watch out. And fortunately for music lovers throughout the universe, Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano – memorably known as Johnnyswim – have been blessed with a Rockies’ worth of talent.
The husband-and-wife duo recently released their latest EP “Heart Beats” to critical acclaim from Billboard, Huffington Post and Paste, among others. The stellar new effort follows a pair of outstanding EPs, their 2008 eponymous debut and 2012's “Home, Vol. 1.”
Now based in Los Angeles, the duo met in Nashville but didn’t begin a songwriting partnership until some four years later in 2006 when Sudano came to one of Ramirez’ shows. They clicked together creatively, musically, and personally, and eventually married.
That Johnnyswim would deliver on their exceptional musical promise was a virtual certainty, given their respective pop music history. Sudano was exposed to music from an early age as the daughter of singer, songwriter, producer, arranger, and label owner Bruce Sudano and late pop diva Donna Summer.
Combine that with the fact that Ramirez studied music at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in his native Florida, and it doesn’t take much to figure out the source of Johnnyswim's sharp, accessible songwriting and easy blend of pop, folk, soul, and blues.
The gifted couple was kind enough to chat with me recently about their extraordinary new record and musical life as man and wife. Attempting to describe Johnnyswim’s music invariably leads listeners to unerringly portray it as “beguiling” and “infectious,” a sound that Sudano and Ramirez have perfected over their first three albums.
“We wanted to be able to develop ourselves as new artists,” explained Sudano. “Literally, we had one meeting with a producer and he was like, ‘Oh, like Sonny and Cher?’ And we were like, ‘No, just to do a thing together.’”
“A lot of producers and writers that we worked with had a bit of a hard time figuring out what to do with us and figuring out what to do with our inspiration in our sound. Because we can lean a little folk sometimes – and sometimes we lean a little bit more soul. But we’re not solely one of those things.”
“We wanted to do things on our own so that we could really figure out what our sound would be without somebody telling us. The thing that we learned was to be okay with the process of that and to trust our gut on things.”
“Along with what Amanda just said,” offered Ramirez, “one thing we learned from our first EP – the most important thing – is just that we trust ourselves a little more. We’re less and less trying to mold ourselves into other people’s expectations of us. And we’re more and more trusting what we want to hear and going for the sound that we want as opposed to what we think will be acceptable, what we think will be popular.”
If the six powerful tracks on “Heart Beats” are any indication, the duo’s trust was certainly well placed. Not surprisingly, Sudano acknowledged that the ordinarily arduous song-selection process was relatively effortless for the new record.
“It was because some of the songs came from a previous EP and we kind of remixed them or we changed them a little bit. But we had a few that we’ve played out for a couple of years at shows and stuff like that. So we knew what connected with people. And the other three were just ones that had been kind of at a 'low level fever,' you know? They’ve been living in us for a while and those were fun to get out.”
“It’s like when you’re somebody who cooks for people, when you’re making a dinner and a menu. You’re looking for when it can use a little bit of texture here or whatever. And so it was easier to fill in those other songs since we had those first three that we knew that people loved when we played them out.”
After listening to “Annie,” one of the dazzling remixed tunes from “Heart Beats,” it was hard to imagine it as anything other than the remarkable acoustic ballad that appears on the new record.
“‘Annie’ itself has been quite a journey,” confessed Ramirez, “because I started writing that song about five years ago. All I had was the one line, the opening line, ‘The carpet still holds the shape of your feet the last time I saw you when you walked away from me, Annie.’”
“It’s been fun to see its growth. I rewrote that song three or four times. And the time I wrote it with Amanda and our writing partner, that’s the version we hear now. That’s a fun one to still have along with us. It’s almost like a kid who’s grown up.”
Whether they’re “grown-ups” or “newborns,” the six luminous melodies on “Heart Beats” epitomize Johnnyswim’s diverse brilliance. And it’s obvious that Sudano and Ramirez are very comfortable in their role as genre benders.
“I'm glad you say that,” agreed Ramirez, “because we listen to a lot of stuff. Amanda’s parents obviously being such a strong musical background, they encouraged her to listen to a lot of different things. She obviously didn’t just listen to pop. She was listening to songwriters and R&B.”
“And I grew up on Cuban music and ended up falling in love with Dave Matthews Band and later falling in love with R&B music and old school soul. The things we love are a bit of a melting pot anyway. So we want to make sure we can play all the kinds of stuff we like as well.”
The twosome’s comfort with each other goes far beyond their shared love of music. Their astonishing vocal talents fit together like the proverbial hand in glove, making for some mind-boggling harmonies – which can make for some interesting challenges.
“Well yeah,” explained Sudano. “Especially live because sometimes when we’re playing live, we honestly can’t tell whose voices are whose. Sometimes things are so close. When you sing live you can have a little bit more fun and sing different things than you normally do. That’s where I find it being the most challenging is when I'm sitting there going, ‘Was that you or was that me (laughing)?’”
Fortunately for the dynamic couple, it really doesn’t matter who it is – the vocals are beyond belief. And fortunately for music fans, “Heart Beats” makes the most of their staggering musical abilities by crafting the songs as vocal-driven masterworks.
“You know, it’s funny. In the recording sessions, we start almost every song with just acoustic guitar and vocals. We begin recording the songs the same way we write the songs. Almost every song we started just with acoustic guitar and vocals, occasionally piano and vocals. But we actually try to keep that even in the recording.”
“And I guess they say necessity is the mother of all invention, we’ve recorded all those songs in our little guest room. It’s hard to even call it a guest room because it’s hard to fit a guest in there (laughing). But we record them all in our little apartment in L.A. We’ll catch little sounds.”
“Our neighbor upstairs is a world class violinist and just for the payment of lunch, he’ll come spend three or four hours tracking violins. And we’ve got a lot of super talented friends that just come by and love creating music with us. It’s funny. Even looking back, it’s become less about, ‘What do we really, really want on this album?’ and more of, ‘Who do we know that’s amazing (laughing)?’ and it seemed to work out.”
Given the quality of the cuts on the new record, we can only hope that Ramirez and Sudano use the same strategy for their next ten records. The duo has an astounding innate ability to convey an affecting story, whether it’s a lovely ballad (“Annie”) or an upbeat melody (“Heart Beats”). Sudano talked about the differences in writing between the two.
“When you write music at home and you’re just hanging out a lot, it’s easy to write what I would call ‘little ditties.’ Usually those tend to be mid-tempo and you can make it as dramatic as you want. So I guess in that way, sometimes ballads are easier to get an emotion across.”
“But ‘Heart Beats’ for example, wasn’t at all difficult to get out. The feeling of that song was ‘going through a rough time in life, having to escape and then realizing the strength that you need is available to you when you need it.’ But it feels like a vetting out of scenes of it. So that one wasn’t difficult to kind of get out, even though it’s up-tempo.”
“It’s really about the emotion in the story. Our favorite thing is when somebody says, ‘You know, that’s exactly how I’ve been feeling. I couldn’t put it to words but you did.’ It’s usually about the emotion and capturing the moment and as long as we capture that, we’re pretty happy.”
From the sounds of the gleaming new album, fans of exceptional song should be very grateful that the twosome’s respective parents were unqualified models of inspired music. Ramirez spent years studying music, learning the theoretical as well as the creative aspects.
“I grew up playing classical violin,” he explained. “I think what affected me as much as actually learning music is the environment that’s created by putting musicians together, lovers of art together.”
“I started playing guitar and writing songs because I was around other lovers of music and I saw them express their love of music in songwriting. It went well beyond violin. Now I end up wishing I played a little bit more of the violin than I do, but sticking with the songwriting.”
“But early in the days when you’re obsessed with theory and you’re really looking to start writing songs, you want there to be 75 chords to every song. And you need everything to have a minor inversion. You do stuff starting with theory and then you hope it feels good.”
“Then you realize that you don’t really accomplish the emotion you’re looking for, the feeling you want by adding all the theory behind it. Now theory is almost like a bullet that I have, something I can use as a musician, something that can help with production.”
“It’s almost ironic now that ‘Heart Beats’ has four chords, period. And it’s very conscious and it’s very on purpose. You make up for it with tempos and stuff. But it’s very on purpose and it’s the opposite of being obsessed with theory and having to have all these chords, realizing that in order to really get to the heart of a song, you don’t have to put 35 chords in it.”
Sudano may not have studied music theory to the extent that Ramirez did, but having parents that were intricately familiar with the ins and outs of songwriting, producing, and arranging provided her with a unique education.
“My parents specifically wanted us to do something that we felt passionate about, number one. My mom was definitely creative, whether it was designing a room or moving furniture just to make it look different or cooking or acting. Creativity was high on the list.”
“My dad was my ‘dealer’ as far as music was concerned. ‘Hey Dad, I heard this guy Otis Redding. I've never heard of him before.’ And he’d be like, ‘Oh, of course.’ And an hour later I would have every Otis Redding record ever created. Or if there was somebody I didn’t know about or somebody that he saw that I liked, he would go get me a bunch of records by that person. So he was super influential for just my music education.”
“And I think once you dive into it and you find out how much music inspires you, it’s hard not to want to have that in your life in some way professionally. It’s because it was the thing that I loved the most. I always felt there were so many things I love and there’s so many things that I can see myself having fun with in the future. But I couldn’t – I wouldn’t be happy with myself had I not pursued my first love first.”
For the sake of melodious brilliance, let’s just hope that Johnnyswim’s love affair with music never ends…
You can still catch Johnnyswim on tour. Here are the remaining dates through the end of 2013:
Aug. 20 Salt Lake City, Utah Red Butte Garden Amphitheater
Sep. 21 Nashville, Tenn. Lipscomb University
Sep. 26 Greensboro, N.C. 17 Days Festival
Sep. 27 Knoxville, Tenn. University of Tennessee
Oct. 3 Augusta, Ga. Westobou Festival
Oct. 11 Miami, Fla. The Fillmore*
Oct. 12 Tampa, Fla. The Ritz Ybor*
Oct. 17 Charlotte, N.C. The Fillmore*
Nov. 17 Uncasville, Conn. Mohegan Sun, Wolf Den