"My heart was so full in that moment."
Johnnyswim are a husband and wife duo, Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano Ramirez. But if that were all that defined them, this wouldn’t be much of story.
There have been plenty of couples in rock and roll: Stevie and Lindsey, John and Yoko, Page and Plant. History, if nothing else, has taught us that being in a rock and roll band is utterly destructive to people and their marriages, to say nothing of friendships or family ties. And that’s the way it has to be—or so we’re told. The business of show is a cruel, destructive force that can entice you to betray your own brother or kill your best friend. Some chalk it up the creative muse, the modern Shiva, others are naturally drawn to destructive tendencies of art. Either way, musicians are not known for their stability. And when they are, it’s never an angle that gets lauded in the music press. It’s much more interesting to read about eternal feuds, onstage meltdowns, or both.
But what if the opposite were true? What if there were a couple that exuded hope and energy through their relationship, both onstage and off? A couple so ebullient in their music and in their personal and professional lives that you could not help but be drawn to them? Right now, Johnnyswim are that couple. And they are every bit as beautiful and joyful in conversation as they are on their latest record, Diamonds.
It’s a rare day off for Amanda and Abner when we are able to speak and I felt extremely guilty for taking away some of their precious downtime and intruding into their personal space. Abner and Amanda were relaxing in a hotel room, in a city that was most likely far from their home of Los Angeles. Being in a marriage is hard, to be sure, but being in a marriage, constantly on the road, promoting songs, and managing to stay fully in love is damned near impossible.
Johnnyswim have never shied away from the impossible, though, and that type of attitude and romanticism is written all over their song titles: “Live While We’re Young”, “Pay Dearly”, “Take the World”, “You and I”. Amanda and Abner aren’t here just to entertain a few people along the way, they want to elevate the weary, bring a spark to the your ears, and make sure everyone understands just how much of a healing power music is. That kind of positivity may not make for good headlines, but it makes for a fine blend of pop, soul, and rock as only Johnnyswim can make.
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I was recently watching your performance on NPR Tiny Desk Concerts and I was struck by how your performance was permeated with joy.
Amanda: Well, we do have a lot of fun.
Where does that joy come from and how do you sustain it?
Abner: That’s a really good question, actually. First of all, I get to do what I want to do everyday, a dream I’ve had my whole life. I get to live it out with the person I love more than any other human on this planet. And singing songs that are from both of us, not songs that we wrote trying to get popular or successful because from the very beginning we’ve always measured our success in mileage. It doesn’t matter if we sell a million records tomorrow or not. If we’re not doing this until we’re 95 years old, we’ve done something wrong. We feel like we’re living the dream; these are the good old days, the days we tell our kids about. These are the days when ten fans turned into 300, then turned into a thousand. And we love each other and we love what we do.
Amanda: Yeah, we’d be kind of jerks if we weren’t happy. [laughs] We always joke that we have a newborn because we’re exhausted all the time but we couldn’t be happier. We don’t have kids, so we’re only taking what we’ve heard from other people. But it feels the same.
Your fan base is obviously growing. For 2014, how much has your career grown and how much have you two grown personally?
Amanda: We’ve definitely grown personally.
Abner: Yeah, that is for sure. One of the benchmark moments for us was in Atlanta, Georgia. We were playing a show the week of Diamonds’ release—two days after the album release, I think. There’s twelve songs on the album and we played about ten of them that night.vThe album had been out for two days and we show up to a sold out night at Smith’s Olde Bar and the crowd sang every word to every song we played. It was mind-numbingly brilliant because there was even a moment when I forgot the lyric to the next verse and everyone in the crowd sang it and I just followed them. It was amazing to see that in two days so many people could consume that much music. My heart was so full in that moment.
It’s such a passionate thing that we do. There’s no gimmickry involved. We’re proud of what we do and we want to show our kids our songs. The dream for us is living a passion-filled life that has no regard for fear, that plows ahead. And, in that moment, we realized that the songs we made had connected with at least a few hundred people in Atlanta. It was really life-changing.
Geographically, you two cover the map with where you have been and lived, but you have Southern roots. Abner, you went to Jacksonville, FL, but you meet Amanda in Nashville. Can you tell me about the impact the South has had on you as a place in your music and your life?
Abner: I grew up in Jacksonville—born and raised. It’s very Southern—almost as much Georgia-influenced as Florida-influenced. Growing up in the South, it is all about family and that’s how I was raised. And being in Nashville, that permeates the culture and the business their, as well. In Nashville, personal relationships matter more than profits. And that’s really cool, especially career-wise.
Amanda: And we’ve taken our time building our team—our management, our agent. And at this point almost all of our team are in Nashville or in the South. And it’s because of that communal aspect of life. In New York and L.A., it’s hard to find balance and Nashville just has a great way of making sure that you’re still spending time with people you love and you have real heart and soul in what you do. It’s not something that you see in a lot of places; it’s definitely a Southern thing. It really is.
A lot that attitude from the South stems from purity and truth in the music being made. I hear that, especially on Diamonds. The South, in terms of its purity, feels like an influence.
Abner: Yeah, that sounds about right. When we were going to make our album Diamonds, we had the option to make it in LA where we live, which is clearly the easy path, or in New York, where we have a lot of connections and our label resides, or in Nashville. And we’ve had studio experiences in all three places. So when it came time to make the record, it was a gut-check moment where we had to decide what was right for us. When when you go to L.A., the overarching storyline in the city is, “Let’s get famous.” When you go to New York, the overarching storyline is, “Let’s get rich.” And in Nashville, the overarching storyline is, “Let’s make something brilliant, let’s make something we’re proud of.” And that really permeates the culture in the studio. There’s a difference in each city: attitudes, motivation, etc. It’s the predominant feature of the city.
We wrote the other day with an artist who has a bunch of number ones, is a hit songwriter, in Nashville, and it felt like we were writing with an old friend. Never once did a question of authenticity come up: “That’s not popular right now,” or “That’s not hip,” or “Let’s do this because that’s what so-and-so did.” That never once came up. And it does a lot in L.A. and New York.
And I’m talking too much now. I’m sorry. [laughs]
From the outside Nashville still seems to have this stigma attached to it, but it seems like it might be the next big area in terms of truly creative music.
Abner: Oh yeah, we moved to L.A. about four and half years ago, and we always joke that Nashville got cool when we left. It was cool when we lived there but you had to do a lot of searching and convincing of other people. Now people are moving to Nashville, because we left. [laughs]
Now that you’ve been out and playing the songs live for a while now, are there songs on the record that have taken on different meanings than you first had envisioned?
Amanda: That’s definitely happened quite a lot. I don’t know that the new record has many moments like that ...
Abner: “Home”, probably.
Amanda: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. The song “Home” definitely has that quality. We actually wrote that song in our house and recorded it in our guest room. It was on the first EP we put out (Home Vol. 1). And when we wrote it we were homesick for Nashville. And we were in L.A. in a writing session and we were trying to write something “cool,” I guess. As soon as we got to L.A., we got super sick of writing sessions where we had to write “the pop thing.” And we had a day of writing where we didn’t feel inspired. And we just decided to forget all that, get some vodka out, make some drinks, and just write whatever is in our head. And we wrote “Home” because we were kind of homesick for Nashville. And now that we’re on the road all the time, we’re homesick for L.A.; we want to sleep in our beds, or have a cookout, have friends over and catch up with them. It started out about Nashville, but became more about where our actual home is now.
What about you, Abner?
Abner: Yeah, every night when I sing, “I need me some home,” I need it more than the night before. We’ve been going hard since 2005, doing this the old-fashioned way. We want fans to become believers and when they come to our show we want to turn believers into champions.
Amanda: You sound like you’re a football coach. [laughs]
Abner: Well, maybe. [laughs] So we’ve been grinding it for nine years and it has only gotten more intense. More adrenaline, more laughs, more fun, but more exhaustion, too. When I sing, “I need me some home,” I envision in my mind, my bed; my home.
In particular, I wanted to ask about the song, “Live While We’re Young”. It connects on such a cerebral and emotional level and touches on themes of getting older and losing youth while being unaware of it. Do you worry about reaching a point where you might burn out, or is everything contained in the moment for you?
Amanda: I think that’s the glory of that song. We wrote it right after we both lost family. Abner lost his dad and I lost my mom both within a couple months of each other. And we came to this appreciation for our parents, that they didn’t lose any passion until the day they died. We watched them live out their days with more passion than most humans have. We can see it as being sad because they both died in their 60s and we have regrets about how they’ll never get to meet our kids, but then you remember, that people live to be 100 and don’t have the kind of lives they have.
Abner: And they stayed together until they died. They stayed together until death do them part. My mom and dad stayed together until death do them part; Amanda’s mom and dad stayed together until death do them part. I saw my father and Amanda’s mother—people who lived so vibrantly that fear was never an obstacle that kept them from moving forward—and that song is really a tribute to them and a declaration of how we are going to live out our days; that fear won’t be an obstacle for us either. As long as there is breath in our lungs and hope in our hearts, we are as young as we need to be to carry out what we want to do in this lifetime.
I’m crazy enough to believe that Amanda and I will see every dream come true. And I believe that anyone who believes that in their heart can see wild things happen they dreamt or imagined. Not because of luck or whatever, but because life truly is good and I believe it is meant to be lived out to its fullest.
Amanda: And even if the best is behind us, it’s still worth it all. Even if this is the highest we ever get with our careers and we have to quit next year, that doesn’t take away the passion we have for life itself. The biggest part of it is just being grateful, too. Once your grateful, things are wonderful all the time. Gratitude goes a long way.
Abner: That’s it. And I think that goes back to the joy you mentioned earlier. The number one rule we have with our music, our lives, our band on the road, with each other, is gratefulness. There’s always something to be thankful for. We live in a country where we’re making a living singing songs. America is one of the few places in the world where you can make up and career and have a living doing that. And gratefulness is a fundamental aspect of how we live out our days.