Midway through a phone interview with Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez of Johnnyswim, the doorbell rings in their L.A. home. Sudano jumps up from her seat and rushes for the door while Ramirez laughs. “Yeah, sorry, my birthday is on Monday. I turn 30, so Amanda has been guarding me from any deliveries.”
That’s just the sort of sweet, thoughtful gesture that seems standard for the duo. And their music, though it’s hard to define, has a distinctive loveliness that could only be written by a couple that acts like newlyweds after eight years together.
You can tell they’ve been asked about how they met many times, yet they still playfully argue over certain points. No, they didn’t meet on MySpace, but that is where Ramirez technically asked Sudano out for the first time; he invited her to come to one of his shows. But they actually met at church as teenagers in their hometown of Nashville.
“I was sitting next to a girl that I was kind of talking to, and I said what I thought was to myself in my inside-my-head voice, that that is the girl I’m going to marry,” Ramirez says. “But I said it very much out loud and the girl next to me jabs me in the ribs with her elbow. She was like, ‘Well I guess you better go talk to her,’ so I get up to go talk to her. Long story short, I didn’t get to talk to her. I chickened out a little bit. She rolled her eyes at me. She swears she was looking for an exit. I swear she knew how hot she is and how not hot I am, and so she is out of my league.” (Sudano, the daughter of Donna Summer, has modeled for the likes of Louis Vuitton, though the handsome Ramirez would look just as at home on the pages of Vogue.)
Four years later, they met up for real, at Ramirez’s show. Sudano was feeling burnt out with her music and she asked Ramirez if he’d like to play together. “I think he saw it as an opportunity to be alone with me in a room,” she says, laughing.
Whatever his reason for accepting her proposal, they started playing together, and things just fell into place. “I just started singing in harmony and we were just like, ‘Oh, this is kind of nice,'” Sudano says. “So we just kept writing. I think pretty early on, more than knowing that it sounded good and thinking, ‘Oh, we could be good at this,’ it was just like we were having fun. We had fun singing together and we enjoyed spending time together obviously. It was kind of like this other facet of, we both love music. That is our number one passion, and then you meet someone that you get along with really well and you get to do the thing that you love with them and you have fun doing it and you kind of have similar inspirations … Having music as an alternate way of communicating, it is like a language that we both understand.”
Since getting together, they’ve performed their music at concerts and festivals across the country, released a handful of EPs, and even played the Cistern when the TODAY Show was in Charleston last month.
Being together nearly constantly, the couple has plenty of time to write new material, though the process usually happens pretty organically. “It starts with a feeling I want you to have,” Ramirez says. “It is an emotion we want you to feel as a listener, so we start there. From there it kind of ebbs and flows. It can be a lyric that has inspired us, it can be the progression on the guitar and it all kind of moves fluidly from there. It always begins with a feeling, and something we want to project. It is just kind of different every time.”
Sudano adds, “Sometimes I will be cooking in the kitchen and he will walk in with the guitar and just play something or just write something else and I will just start singing along. Sometimes from that it is a lyric that is rolling through our heads and we put it to music. Sometimes we watch a movie and we get that feeling, ‘OK how do we write a song like this, how do we write a song that makes people feel the way this movie made us feel?’ So it changes probably with every song.”
The funny thing about this happily married couple is that one of their favorite topics is relationships in turmoil. Though sometimes they’re inspired by their own tiffs, they often write about past relationships or those of their friends. “We tend to write about other people’s break-ups pretty well,” Ramirez says. “We tend to offer therapy sessions to our friends so they can tell us a story about breaking up.”
Check out YouTube for their song “Get Out My Bed” for an example. “There is a guy we write with often, Burton Hill,” Ramirez says. “We were kind of stuck one day and we were like, ‘Man what is going on with you?’ He said, ‘Well, my ex-girlfriend still lives with me in my studio apartment and I really wish she would leave so I could stop sleeping on the couch. It is really hurting my neck.’ So we wrote this super-super country song and put it on YouTube, ‘Get off my bed so I can get off this couch.’ It is a joke song, but a lot of our songs, we start as a joke then we end up liking it.”
Ramirez adds, “Sometimes the stories are imagined. Like, the song ‘Home’ isn’t really a sad song, but the first few verses are pretty depressing if you read it. It was more just this kind of feeling we had that we wanted to express but didn’t have any real stories to tell so we made some up like Peggy Sue whose dad is an alcoholic and beats her. It kind of just happened.”
While the subject matter is fairly consistent, Johnnyswim’s sound varies from old-school R&B to folksy country. They’ve worked hard not to have a definable sound. “I am super happy to say that we have taken the long road and have evolved and grown in our sound, and we realize that we have all these kind of scattered sounds, and as writers and performers we can still choose,” Ramirez says. “We can consciously pick if we want to do a more soulful song, a more country song, or a more rock ‘n’ roll song.”
When they’re not performing, Sudano and Ramirez are quite the philanthropists. In July, they’re going to Indonesia to volunteer in some of the places affected by the tsunami. They’ve also worked with a group called Living Orphans in India, and they started a literacy campaign for children in another village. They hope to eventually start their own volunteer organization to give people the opportunity to help those in need.
“That is a big part of us,” Ramirez says. “We know that you can have all the good intentions in the world and people, especially in Nashville growing up, [would say] ‘Once I achieve the status I want, once I get famous, then I will help people. Once I get rich then I will cut a big check, or do a foundation or something.’ What we witnessed and realized on our own and kind of feel compelled to do is that if you grow in stature it is only going to magnify the thing that you are doing. If we do nothing now, we aren’t going to change much later. If we want to be people of influence and change communities, let’s start getting our hands dirty now.”
He adds, “As creative people, as such emotional beings, those kinds of trips and our desire to transform communities will hopefully change people’s lives for the better. It is as influential on us as falling in love. It permeates our songs and what we do as much as anything.”