[8 September 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
26 March 2010
Winter shrouds Manhattan with a cellophane cloak. The spring solstice has passed but gusts of wind and grey skies suggest otherwise. Atop the Highline, an elevated park in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, the starkness of the city scape belies a very celebratory occasion for Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano-Ramirez. The Los Angeles-based duo, who are known to an ever-growing number of fans as Johnnyswim, made their New York City debut a mere 15 hours ago.
Sharing a bill with independent artists like Res, Russell Taylor, and Maya Azucena at the Nona Hendryx-produced “UnFiltered” concert series, Johnnyswim stood before a crowd of Gothamites for the very first time. At a venue where reggae, hip hop, and samba rhythms often seep through the walls onto West Houston Street, Johnnyswim suspended the very notion of genre with just an acoustic guitar and two voices singing in harmony. With a little soul, a little folk, and a drop of chanson immeshed in a pop framework, Abner and Amanda held the audience rapt during their 25-minute set.
The lingering embrace of the audience makes this unseasonably cold morning a little less bone-chilling. Sitting with their luggage for an impromptu photo session overlooking 10th Avenue, they are the defining image of 21st century troubadours. The journey that will take them cross-country multiple times over the next 12 months is only just beginning.
Before Abner and Amanda became Johnnyswim, each of them had been pursuing careers in music with various degrees of success. They first met face to face at a coffee shop in Nashville through a mutual friend. “I was working on stuff in New York,” Amanda explains. “Abner invited me to his show. I went to his show and said, ‘I want to write with you. Let’s write.’ He said, ‘I don’t really want to do it anymore. I kind of got burnt out.’” Abner adds about the exchange, “All I heard was, ‘When do you want to get together?’ Let’s do that. I have to bring a guitar? Sure!”
After a few writing sessions, the two completed a song that Abner had previously begun called “Letting Go”. The song’s sweet refrain (“You say you love me”) showcased how seamlessly their individual voices intertwined, the different textures imbuing the words with an exquisite tonality. Their partnership would soon yield a crop of equally compelling melodies.
By 2007, Abner and Amanda were ready to record. Akin to a “Kickstarter” fundraising campaign, a number of individuals rallied to support Johnnyswim’s first studio effort. Nashville’s thriving music scene also provided no shortage of musicians willing to flesh out the duo’s compositions. Released in 2008, 1-4 contained a quartet of their strongest songs. “It took us a long time,” says Abner about the E.P. “It took over a year to record four songs because we were pulling so many favors. We have a friend who owns a studio. It was mostly friend musicians and friends of the producer, because we were doing it cheap. I played acoustic. It was all kind of in-house.”
1-4 opened with “Away I Go”, a song that became (and has remained) a staple of Johnnyswim’s repertoire. A striking, two-second crescendo of strings announced the cut, preparing listeners for an experience that only Nashville audiences had heard up until that time. Punctuating what Joni Mitchell might call “chords of inquiry” with “ooh-whoa-oh”, Johnnyswim furnished an introduction on 1-4 that captured the duo’s flavorful mix of pop and soul.
Whereas “Away I Go” crystallized the exuberance of newfound love, “Why’d You Do It” explored its flip side. “My sister broke up with her now-husband,” Amanda shares about the genesis for the song. “They’d been dating two years and she broke up with him. We were all mad at her. ‘What are you doing?’ She was like, ‘I just have to figure it out.’ We wrote it about that whole situation.” A profound adage manifested as they rendered the story through song, “You never lose what you never give.” Abner shares the sentiment behind the words. “In the bridge, we expose that fear of giving yourself away to somebody. There’s a certain ‘safety’ in staying guarded. It’s a very conscious thought when you’re hurt by someone and you think, Maybe I should never give my heart because I’m never going to love like that again. It’s like an investment. When you give, you get exponentially more back.”
Upon the release of 1-4 Johnnyswim unveiled the EP’s four songs around Nashville, incorporating choice covers and additional unrecorded material in their appearances. By the time 1-4 appeared on iTunes, Johnnyswim was already planning a follow-up. The desire to grow and progress reflects their overall philosophy about songwriting. Amanda explains, “There’s like a little carrot over there—that’s the song we haven’t written yet. Let’s go towards the carrot.”
After trailing the carrot for a year, Johnnyswim have fashioned a heart-stopping melody that audiences will soon claim as the definitive Johnnyswim song.
29 July 2010
Near tropical humidity saturates the grapevine-lined fields of Wölffer Estate Vineyard on the Eastern End of Long Island. That doesn’t keep more than 200 revelers from spending their evening with Johnnyswim for the Vineyard’s “Twilight Thursdays”, a weekly wine-tasting that features live music among the bottles of Merlot and Chardonnay.
The setting provides the perfect backdrop for the Parisian sway of “Bonsoir”. Abner and Amanda’s impassioned performance suspends conversation among the crowd. “Oh, oh, oh, oh-oh oh,” they lament fervently as Abner grips his guitar. The song’s infectious hook prompts the audience to join in. “Bonsoir” will appear on V-VIII, the follow-up E.P. to 1-4. Final mastering is underway but for the time being, “Bonsoir” has become a show stopper.
Boasting a mournful violin, staccato guitar strumming, and a marching drum-styled rhythm, “Bonsoir” features an array of intriguing production accents. The song itself was inspired by the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose (2007). “I saw the movie once all the way through and then we watched it again with Amanda’s father,” Abner shares. “It was so good and so moving and so passionate. I literally just ran off and grabbed a guitar and sat in a corner. ‘What chords can I put together that make sense and feel like that?’ That turned into the chords for the intro to ‘Bonsoir’. We would get together and sing fake French over it.”
Fake French morphed into a tale about a relationship that’s precariously close to dissolving. In the context of the duo’s own life, the story line is based on fiction rather than fact: the two have been happily married since March 2009.
It is not without irony that one of the duo’s strengths, thematically, is writing about relationships that are challenging or just simply not working. “How’d We Get Here”, another song that’s made the cut for V-VIII, examines those challenges. “The song is about how easily it is to get used to somebody,” Amanda says, “where it’s comfortable to a bad degree. You realize that we aren’t where we were when we started. Let’s split the difference and have the interests we have now but the freshness we had then.”
Introducing a song called “Home” at Wölffer Estate, Johnnyswim relay another irony that has shaped their career trajectory. Only after moving from Nashville to Los Angeles did they write a country song. A rollicking, roaring three-and-a-half minutes, “Home” is bolstered by one of Johnnyswim’s most vivid narratives. It’s ascended alongside “Bonsoir” as a highlight of Johnnyswim’s concerts.
Written with songwriter Britten Newbill, “Home” also represents the kind of collaboration between songwriters that distinguishes Nashville as a songwriting capital. Amanda explains that dynamic further before clarifying why she and Abner ultimately migrated across the country. “In Nashville, there were people who would write whether nobody heard them. It’s not fake. It’s not about anyone trying to be cool. There are so many great artists and friends that we have. You look around the table at dinner and think, Wow, all of you are good.”
“There were a lot of people that we liked working with that were moving to Los Angeles. We thought we’d be closer to people that we wanted to work with and be able to play for different audiences. You play the same couple of places in Nashville. The same people come. After awhile, you feel that you’ve played for these people five billion times. We wanted to find a new home for this. Playing in different places always expands your songwriting in different ways. We felt like we needed a challenge, to expand it.”
It’s that spirt of expansion that generated an opportunity for Johnnyswim to play the Roxy in Los Angeles a month earlier; a month later, that spirit will also land Johnnyswim a gig at the launch of a Louis Vuitton boutique in Santa Monica. The west coast is beginning to feel like home.
Johnnyswim take Manhattan. Their photo appeared in this week’s Time Out New York for their appearance at Joe Pub, the live music annex of The Public Theater in Greenwich Village. Nona Hendryx will make a special appearance to welcome Johnnyswim back to New York City after featuring them in “UnFiltered” six months ago while a few industry figureheads will see Johnnyswim for the first time. Brooklyn-based artist Maya Azucena, who shares the bill with the duo, has arranged for the show to be streamed on Peaceday.tv, the official website for the International Day of Peace.
In honor of this auspicious evening, Abner and Amanda are offering a free “pre-release” copy of V-VIII to each ticket-holder. They’ve printed up a special edition of the disc that contains an extra cut. It’s the song they open their set with tonight, “Killer”. In three minutes, the song packs a quick and effective punch. Abner and Amanda’s vocal interplay elicits approving hollers from the audience. Within the next 35 minutes, they will sustain the momentum through selections from both 1-4, the new EP, and even a lilting cover of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”.
However, the most gripping moment arrives when they sing “You’re Not Gonna Leave Me Here”, a track from 1-4 that never ceases to summon visceral reactions from listeners. The inspirational tone of the lyrics is accompanied by a soul-stirring melody. Watching Johnnyswim perform it in person has a profound impact on a few audience members, who silently echo the words “Won’t leave me, love won’t leave me here” from their seats.
Abner and Amanda cite a speech Bono gave years earlier for the National Prayer Breakfast at the White House as the catalyst to write “You’re Not Gonna Leave Me Here”. Abner explains further, “I was thinking about my family, coming from Cuba. It was a very difficult time. My grandfather was assassinated and they attempted to assassinate my great-grandfather and my father. It’s a struggle. If there’s anything to describe my family, it’s very hopeful.”
“You see the videos of the people in Haiti that are struggling, that are having such a horrible time. Their families are gone and here are the people singing praise songs at night before they go to bed. People are just singing. That’s something that goes beyond language and cultures. That just exists. That’s what we were wanting to get a piece of in ‘You’re Not Gonna Leave Me Here’, the love that’s deeper than any circumstance, the hope that really is stronger than anything in life.”
Of course, there is an unspoken weight to performing in New York City on 11 September, nine years after the attack on the World Trade Center. As a testament to the resilience of New York, Johnnyswim weave the anthemic chorus of Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” into “You’re Not Gonna Leave Me Here”. It’s an appropriate, respectful way to acknowledge the day without overstating the fact of it.
By evening’s end, tweets, texts, and status updates by the standing room-only crowd attest to the power of Johnnyswim’s performance. Within two months, another standing-room only crowd will greet Johnnyswim at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side. New York is also feeling like home.
28 April 2011
Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano-Ramirez return to the east coast after a whirlwind start to 2011. While their beloved New York experienced near-record snowfalls, Johnnyswim spent all of January shuttling between Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco for weekly residences at Hotel Cafe, Lestat’s Coffee House, and Hotel Utah, respectively. They capped off a successful run at all three venues with the web premiere of their video for “Bonsoir”.
Though an outside director presided over the visual concept for “Bonsoir”, Johnnyswim have continued to maintain control over how their music is recorded and distributed. “We’ve stayed very independent”, Abner emphasizes. “We want to be able to make our own decisions. Self-developing has been the main thing”. They’ve implemented a YouTube feature called “New Music Mondays”, which documents the acoustic heart and soul of their songs before tracking them in the studio. Some of the more recent additions to the page include “Adelina” and “Paris in June”.
Johnnyswim perform both “Adelina” and “Paris in June” at The Living Room, another of New York City’s heralded destinations for live music. Both new numbers are well-received but the audience is especially excited to hear “Pay Dearly” and “Good News” from V-VIII. The former is a slow-burning blues number that features a voltaic lead vocal by Abner while the latter is a peaceful, almost lullaby-like tune sung with quiet intensity by Amanda. In the same way that “You’re Not Gonna Leave Me Here” casts a hopeful light in even the darkest emotional space, “Good News” possesses a reassuring resonance. “When we recorded ‘Good News’, we recorded in this old church in South Nashville,” says Amanda. “We recorded Abner stomping his foot on the floor. We miked the whole room. It was fun because it wasn’t ‘studio’. It wasn’t sparkly. It was warm”.
That warmth easily translates from V-VIII to The Living Room stage, and will doubtless envelop A-D Sides. “We want what we do live to come across,” Abner explains, “the vibe that you would get if we were just sitting in front of you playing. The soul of that. It’s a bit of an art form that we’re still mining.”
On this cool April evening, just 13 months after debuting in New York, Johnnyswim are not just mining that art form, they’re mastering it.