Johnnyswim’s “Christmas Day” Spreads the Cheer

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Since Amanda Sudano-Ramirez and her husband and musical partner Abner Ramirez won’t return to their Los Angeles dwelling until just a few days before Christmas, she’s been a woman on a festive mission.

She explains, “I spent much of yesterday, before we left, trying to find a Christmas tree somewhere that was already open. They were all still closed, so we might have some sort of Christmas fern.”

When not tree-shopping, she and Ramirez write, sing, record and tour together as the roots-pop duo Johnnyswim. They’ve been at it for nearly a decade but finally released their full-length debut Diamonds in April, followed by the EP A Johnnyswim Christmas this month.

As coed singing duos go, the expressive language exchanged between these two is nothing like the bubblegum flirtation of “I Got You Babe,” the poignantly detailed narration of “Golden Ring” or the snappy romanticism of “Islands in the Stream.”

Even though they have famous musical templates in their own families — Sudano-Ramirez is the daughter of the late Donna Summer and songwriter-producer Bruce Sudano — Johnnyswim are singer-songwriters of their own moment who sound as though they’re tearing pages of ardent, abstract yearning from a diary and exulting in the emotions with billowy, side-by-side performances. And they respond to interview questions in much the same way — side by side on speakerphone.

CMT Edge: It’s easy to get onboard with the idea of a coed singing-songwriting duo in 2014. There have been plenty on the radar, including the Civil Wars and Shovels & Rope. How was the musical climate different when you started? How were you received then?

Ramirez: So often people see us and go, “Yeah, of course. Another duo. They just hopped on the duo train or whatever because everybody’s doing it.” But when we started, we had a meeting with someone and told them we wanted to be a duo. They said, “What are you thinking? Are you trying to be Sonny & Cher? Nobody’s doing duos. It’s not happening. It’s a waste of your time.” …

So the climate towards duos when we started in 2005 was one of shock and awe. It was not something that was acceptable or that was normal. It was so passé. It was like saying you were making a disco record or something. It was old and not convincing. We were committed to spending as much time together as possible, so it was the one and only [option] we had. The one and only option we gave ourselves was being in a duo together.

Sudano-Ramirez: For us, it was such a no-brainer. We loved writing songs together, we like singing together and we liked each other. I think that part might have scared people, too. “What if you guys break up?” It just seemed like such a risk.

Ramirez: I think it taught us something early on that we’ll need throughout our careers and, really, in life. … We learned to be not self-sufficient but to do as much as we can on our own. We started producing stuff on our own.

Amanda, I read an interview where you talked about other things that shaped your music, like acoustic guitar being your instrument of choice and the fact that your racial backgrounds weren’t in line with the stereotypical white singer-songwriter. How did that play out?

Sudano-Ramirez: We both experienced that a lot. Abner had a record deal when he was, like, 18. You listen to those songs, and they were all produced super-R&B — kind of like “Spanish soul guy,” you know? Everybody on my end, I think because of my mom and other things, were like, “Oh, we can make you a Rihanna. You can be a new-school dance-soul person.”

When we sat down and wrote songs, we wrote whatever we wanted. That’s not what came out, and that’s not what we really listened to. …What we listened to was different than that. What we wanted to write was different than that. … It’s really hard to know what your sound is and know what you’re trying to say when you have somebody else that’s insisting, “This is what you should be, this is what you should say and this is how you should say it.” It’s hard not to let that get into your head.

I’ve noticed from past interviews that when people know Donna Summer was your mother, they tend to project her musical identity onto you in a way that your sound doesn’t really invite.

Sudano-Ramirez: The funny thing about my mom, too, is that she didn’t walk around the house listening to dance music. She raised me listening to Joni Mitchell and the Carpenters, Bob Dylan. That’s stuff that she would actually listen to. She was way more acoustic-folk than anybody would let her be.

I think that was part of why we said we’d rather be broke and do what we love than be the next whatever people think we could be. Because I watched her try and try to write stuff that she wanted to write, and it was always a fight. It was always a fight for her to make the records she really wanted to make because they had her kind of pigeonholed.

Besides having a hand in writing everything on Diamonds, Abner, you produced it and played a good chunk of the instruments. And you’d done a lot of home recording in the past. Was musical self-sufficiency always part of the vision?

Ramirez: Never. I always wanted someone to come swoop me up and make all the big choices for us. That was always my goal at the beginning: “Oh, we’ve gotta wait for the right producer.” Musical self-sufficiency has been our lifeline, and it has also been our last choice. It was not what we wanted to do, and now it’s what we have to do and most want to do. … It’s important to have your hand in it. You have to be the one leaving the impression.

You first encountered each other in church, then the co-writing happened, quickly followed by the romance. I’ve also read that you played together during worship services. You’re in good company, having moved from that church background into the world of roots-pop, folk-rock and Americana. How did that transition happen for you?

Sudano-Ramirez: The funny thing about that is, for us, it wasn’t a transitional process at all. We both grew up doing both. It wasn’t like a hard line [between them]. I think a lot of times, you come up singing in church, and people tell you, “Well, you’re a church singer, and that’s what you do. You’ve gotta sing for the Lord. You can’t do anything else.” I think we both heard that from other people. But especially with my mom, there wasn’t a stark line at all.

The thing about singing in church, which is still something we love to do, is that it’s 100 percent an act of service. If you’re doing it for yourself, you’re inherently wrong. And there’s nothing better than being onstage and not feeling like you’re there to get something. … That’s one thing a worship environment gives you. It shuts down that thing in your head that says, “I need people to like me.”

How do your experiences with contemporary worship music inform the way you write now?

Ramirez: Growing up in church, my dad was a pastor and my mom was a choir director. And all our parents were passionate musicians. I think when you combine those two environments, you learn quickly the connection between what Amanda said — if it’s even bigger than you, you’re thinking about something other than just what you get out of it.

But also you grow these bridges between your head and your heart really quickly — what you believe and what you think. You learn to communicate that in a sense of a feeling.

I think growing up in church has really informed our writing. I feel like we get closer and closer to having an unabashed “heart into the microphone” record. I feel like when we learn to do those things properly — in the best way that we’ve been given the tools to do it — Amanda and I will write songs that feel like they [erase] all the barriers between your heart and the record. You’re plugging a mic into your chest and going for it.

As for the new EP, where is the fun in singing Christmas standards for a duo who otherwise write their own songs?

Sudano-Ramirez: I’m obsessed with Christmas. Anybody who knows me can tell you that I’m one of those really annoying people that cannot wait for Christmas every year. There’s a lyric in the one song that we actually wrote [“Christmas Day”]: “I’m too old to be so excited.” That’s the lyric. And that’s me. I know I shouldn’t be so excited, but I’m so excited.

Christmas standards, it’s like any other standard, whether it’s Christmas or whether it’s old Gershwin love songs. They’re just well-written songs. The melodies are beautiful. … It’s really inspiring and challenging, too, because you’re trying to make it your own — songs that have been sung a bunch. How do you translate that? That’s a really fun process for us and involves a lot of sitting in our house and being Christmas-y and lovey-dovey.

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