Happening upon their set at Jazz Fest in New Orleans earlier this year was a moment of pure enjoyment. A laid back duo with a passion in their vocals, Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez were performing for an audience who had been baking in the hot afternoon sun. And they were nailing it: the intimacy of a smoky lonesome room emitting through the humidity of a southern spring, conjuring enough low-key lust to edge the temp up a little hotter before sizzling into some swinging relationship lyrical ramblings. It’s not as easy as you think to pull off. Sweating bodies want to dance and rock out, not necessarily think about love entanglements laid out in raw emotations.
Johnnyswim, the moniker the married couple baptized themselves when their voices together were too good to ignore, released their first recording in 2008 and have continued to sprinkle out small bouquets of tunes since. They have appeared on David Letterman, The Tonight Show, Craig Ferguson and Live From Daryl’s House. And this summer they are hitting festivals while playing club shows in-between. This weekend they will be at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, playing a prime-spot set on Saturday night to a Jack White-headlining crowd. They are so worth seeing, you shouldn’t hesitate to even think about it.
Their latest offering, Diamonds, is a full-scale album featuring twelve songs that delve into the loves and lives of human beings, not necessarily their own. They watch and feel what others think and experience and mold them into lovely poems. Sudano and Ramirez are blessed with passion flower harmonies, weaving in and out, hitting emotional nerve-endings on “Closer” and “Pay Dearly;” getting folk frisky on the title track and “Trouble;” and culminating with a breathtaking “Over.”
Last month, while waiting to do a show in Chicago, the couple called in to talk about their music … but memories of playing Jazz Fest were still buzzing their senses.
You played such a wonderful set at Jazz Fest this year.
Abner: It was such a great experience. We didn’t know what to expect. We’ve done Bonnaroo now, we’ve done Firefly and now Jazz Fest. We’ll do Lollapalooza later this year and the Austin City Limits Festival and you never really know what you’re going to get when you get there. But it was such a pleasant surprise to hang out with 20,000 of some of our favorite people in New Orleans.
Did you get to hang out any in New Orleans?
Amanda: We got one full day but I can tell you one thing: we ate probably more in that one full day than I’ve probably eaten since Jazz Fest. I had every type of po-boy I could find. I had every type of everything. We basically walked out after our set and went to every stall we could possibly go to and then sat at a picnic table and everybody just shared everything.
Abner: What was it, the gumbo something?
Amanda: The quail
Abner: Oh the quail and something gumbo was just unbelievable (laughs)
You’re still out on tour.
Abner: It’s just non-stop. It’s funny because the regular idea of like a tour is, you know, nine weeks or three months or six months or whatever. But for us it has been like three years of just saying yes and playing whatever we can get, wherever we can get a microphone in front of us and some new ears to listen. So we’re, I think, on the second leg of an eighty year tour (laughs).
Where can people find you over the summer?
Abner: On our website, www.johnnyswim.com, you can find us all over the place. We just finished up one part of the west coast run. Now we’re kind of in the Midwest and south; we’ll be in Florida, we’ll be in Ohio, we’ll be all over. Then we’re also doing the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. We’re doing Austin City Limits in Austin. We’ll be doing Lollapalooza in August back up here in Chicago.
Amanda: So we’re doing everything
Tell us about Diamonds. It’s actually a full-length album.
Amanda: Yeah, when we first started we kind of wanted to do EPs at first because (A) we’re a duo, so there’re two people who have opinions in taste and influences. And secondly, we only had so much money to work with so we were like, this allows us to put little bits and pieces out and kind of get a little bit of feedback and be able to do it ourselves and be able to manage ourselves and be able to develop ourselves. Too often you sign with a label and they want to develop you and they want to kind of make you into what they think is going to be profitable. And we really don’t want to do that. We always look at success as mileage – the longer we can do this the better, and the only way we’re going to be happy doing this in the long run is if we’re having a good time and we feel like we’re being ourselves. After a couple of years of EPs, we signed with a great label and the time was right. We had a couple years’ worth of songs and a whole lot of extra added life experiences, in about a year or two we went through a whole lot, and it felt like now is the time to tell the whole story as opposed to little snippets.
On the song “Pay Dearly,” there is so much passion in the vocals that you can physically feel it. It’s very raw.
Abner: That song almost didn’t make it onto the record. It’s one of the oldest songs we had. I wrote that song back in my early twenties, so it wasn’t too long ago but it was long enough. We never found a right way to record it cause the song by nature kind of turns into this bluesy thing and whenever we had drums and bass, it turns into something it really isn’t. And Amanda actually encouraged me to try it with just strings and electric guitar and a vocal. And it was really a kind of left-of-center approach to it and it was really a left-of-center song for us as well. And you know the vocals on that song is actually the scratch vocal. I sang that part while I was tracking the electric guitar part, and the only way I could remember where I was was to sing along at the same time. So it’s really raw. When I tried to go in there and kind of fake it or force it or do something new, we couldn’t quite get the same vibe out of it. But it’s one of my favorite songs on the album.
Another great song is “You & I.”
Amanda: Oh thank you. We actually wrote that with a guy named Matt Kearney, who is an artist as well.
Abner: He actually introduced us, by the way
Amanda: So it was fun to get to write that song with him
Abner: We wrote that song later in the process, probably just a couple of weeks out from tracking. We were already in Nashville getting ready to start working on pre-production. Our drummer’s name is Rico Allen and for a week, probably four or five nights, we just ran through songs. It was during that time actually when we wrote “You & I.”
When did each of you first start writing songs? And did they start off as actual songs or perhaps poetry?
Amanda: You know, mine for sure started as songs. I actually have old cassette tapes of myself singing when I was in like preschool. My dad [producer Bruce Sudano] had a studio in the house and he would let us after school come over and write songs in the studio and let us record them. So I’ve been writing songs for as long as I could remember and they were pretty horrible (laughs) but it was all about, you know, if I did my homework and what the teacher said at school and if my friend said hi. None of it rhymed at all but my parents [her mother was Donna Summer] gave me some pointers as time went on and I ended up doing alright.
Abner: My mom and my sisters all played piano. We had this old stand up piano and I would go over there and just play on it. I think I wrote my first song when I was eight and it was really horrible. I still remember it to this day, which I’m kind of proud of, that I could remember it. It was called “Whiter Than Snow.” I was trying to write like a hymn or something. My dad was a pastor and my mom was the choir director. It was one of those tunes.
When you first started, was it just the two of you?
Abner: When we first started, it was always just me and Amanda cause it was the cheapest. We could get in the car and drive somewhere or we could do whatever. But it’s always been fun. We’ve always had a few friends with us whenever we could afford it or whenever the show required it. But now, as you saw at Jazz Fest, we had a blast touring with a lot of our best friends and you get to do a whole new element to the show.
What have you found is the hardest thing about performing live as a duo?
Abner: Well, we’ve been doing it long enough where different things are hard at different times for different reasons. At first it was hard because people didn’t believe in duos and thought it wouldn’t work. Duos weren’t happening anymore. So what made that difficult was that you had to show up every night and prove everybody wrong. So now, it’s more fun. We get to hang out. Now what is difficult is not getting carried away with each other cause we kind of sit and talk and enjoy each other’s company and we’ll just gab all day but we have a blast.
In interviews you like to have fun with us journalists when we ask you where the name came from. What story do you want to tell this time?
Abner: (laughs) You know what, I think we should tell you the truth.
I don’t believe you
Amanda: It all kind of stems from an inside joke that my family had because when I was a kid I couldn’t swim and my next door neighbor Johnny also couldn’t swim. I was the youngest of three kids and my older sister could swim and used to make fun of me that I couldn’t swim and I would always say, “Well, Johnny can’t swim either so who cares.” They always thought I couldn’t do that cause I wouldn’t try so when Johnny started swimming, started taking swim classes, they were always encouraging him, “Swim Johnny swim.” So as soon as he swam then they knew they could get me to jump in the pool. We lived in southern California so there was always kind of like a buzz kill when I was in my floaties and wouldn’t get off the steps. So it became like a long term inside joke that basically was get over your fears. That was basically the root of it and kind of like a family mantra: Swim Johnny Swim. Abner was nice enough when we met to think that was actually kind of a cool idea and we just made it the band name. So the nic-name continues.
Abner: And the fact is, the definition of the name is kind of boring, like that story is kind of boring, so we like to have a little fun sometimes.
What excites you the most about playing together, besides that you love each other and all that mushy stuff?
Abner: (laughs) There are a couple of things that are exciting on a big scheme of things. This is what we’ve dreamed about doing individually, even before we met each other, since we were babies. I think the moment I knew you could actually have a career doing music cause it was the thing I loved most in life, it was my dream. So to be able to travel around and do it for a living, it’s super exciting. And on another level, just meeting new people, playing shows; like we talked about Jazz Fest, we still talk about it. So being able to play shows like that is so exciting and it’s something we really look forward to every day.
What are your plans after the summer?
Amanda: Really, we’re just going to be on the road for the rest of the year. We’re talking about sneaking away for a couple of days and recording a little Christmas EP for the holidays and so we’re excited about that. And other than that, we’re just going to be out on the road.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough