JOHNNYSWIM: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features JOHNNYSWIM
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Members: Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano Ramirez
Hometown: Los Angeles, Calif.
Albums: Diamonds
For Fans Of: The Civil Wars, Over The Rhine, The Lone Bellow

Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano Ramirez do not agree on how they met. For as many times as the up-and-coming husband-and-wife duo is asked to recount those dalliances, they’ve clearly got their responses down by now.

“I love taking the lead on this question because Amanda’s version is different,” an excited Abner starts. “I saw her from across the room and literally said out loud, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry.’ Except that I was next to a girl who I was trying to date at the time. So that girl jabs me in the ribs and says, ‘Well, I guess you better go talk to her.’ So I was like, ‘Yeah, I should!’”

Amanda cackles audibly at this point, but her tenor-voiced counterpart continues breathlessly.

“I stand up and Amanda’s exiting the room we’re in. I’m standing by the exit so there’s no way she can get by me without some form of conversation happening, or some kind of interaction. I’ve got every line ready, every possible scenario—

I bump into her by accident.

I’m looking at her and she’ll make eye contact.

I’m looking away and I look back at her and we’re making eye contact.

Whatever, I’m just ready.”

He meanders and gets excited easily, which fills his stories with suspense and surprises.

“I was ready for everything except for what actually happened,” he says.

“And what actually happened was as we get two feet away from each other, we make eye contact. I take a deep breath to say something, and she rolls her eyes,” he exclaims, drawing out the phrase with feigned astonishment. “And in all of half a second, [learned] everything: Not interested/Don’t talk to me/Who do you think you are?’ So I just regressed back into my seat and we literally never spoke for four years.”

Amanda, however, tells her version like she’s talking to a grade school pal—full of fast-talking, pitch changes and pauses for interpersonal affirmations. She seems detail-oriented, speaking to me by name and referencing Paste directly.

“Hilary, I just want to point out that that’s his side of the story,” she begins, prepping me for the rebuttal.

“My side is that I had seen him a week or two earlier. And I saw him in a group of all these very beautiful girls that all look like they spent all their days shopping, like Cher from Clueless. He was with all of them and I just thought, ‘I’m in college. I barely crawl out from under my books.’ And I was sitting there in sweatpants probably. I don’t really remember what I was wearing. But I wasn’t those girls and so I thought, ‘Well if he likes them, then A) He’s probably, let’s be honest, a little bit jerk-y. And B) He’s not going to like me.’ So I had made it a point to avoid him.

“I’d actually seen him around a bunch more times before he saw me,” she explains, “but I would always avoid him. So by that time, I’d done a really good job of avoiding him whenever I saw him and not having to talk to him. He used to valet-park cars at the mall in Nashville and I would drive my car past the valet to see if he was valeting and if he was, I would park in the back where the employees would park because I didn’t want to have to walk by him. That’s how nervous he made me.

“So when we was walking my way, I just had a full-on panic moment and just looked for any exit and quickly took it….After that, it took four years and we finally met in Nashville at a coffee shop. I was actually living in New York and he was living with a friend of ours that we’d known for forever and I’d known for forever separately from Abner. He was like, ‘Oh, do you guys know each other?’ And that was it. I realized in like, 30 seconds, that he wasn’t jerk-y at all and he was actually really fun. But I had a boyfriend. So it took four years for us to get married after that.”

This exchange represents just part of the joy of speaking with JOHNNYSWIM. Their overt awe of and affection for each other is adorable, and their passion for creating music together seeps into every song on Diamonds.

Although JOHNNYSWIM released its first of four EPs in 2008, Diamonds is the duo’s first full-length record. And contrary to their cheerful dispositions, much of the soulful folk-rock album stemmed from tragedies that befell both the Sudano and Ramirez families.

“I think a theme that influenced us during the whole writing process was that we both lost a parent within the same year, about a year and a half ago,” states Amanda, who is the daughter of disco star Donna Summer and composer/producer Bruce Sudano. “We were writing through that process and a lot afterwards. There are a lot of songs that are still recognizing loss.”

Amanda, who takes a tactical approach to describing Diamonds, details: “The last song, ‘Over,’ kind of sounds like a break up song—we kind of wrote it as a break up song—but we were tapping into that same feeling of loss and understanding it and processing it. We don’t have kids, yet, and so we always kind of imagined that my mom and his dad would be great grandparents to them. [We] realized that dream is done.”

She also points out that “A Million Years,” a bouncy love song with an “ooh-OOh-ooh-OOh” chorus, “came from the fact that we both have parents who were married until one of them passed away.”

Abner follows her descriptive lead, bringing context and resonance to the album’s title. “Even in the type of pressure that makes coal turn into diamonds,” he says, “we will think about the diamonds through the pressure. We’ll recognize that we’re going to be better by the end of this. We’ll focus on the triumph at the end and triumph through the process as opposed to the heartbreaking tragedy through it.”

Just as husband and wife draw strength from each other, Abner and Amanda’s powerful harmonies support each other and push each other to their limits. They share each other’s sufferings and successes, both of which can be exemplified in JOHNNYSWIM’s stellar, stomping single “Home.” And it’s been the music—from the Cuban records Abner grew up with to the pop quizzes of obscure songs on the radio that Amanda’s parents used to test her on—that has defined their relationship and their band.

“Pretty much since we met, we were listening to music and singing,” admits Amanda. “It sounds super cheesy, like we were just on dates and it became a musical or somethings.”

But, declares Abner, “Music’s always been a cover for making out.”

He can’t finish his statement without Amanda cracking up again. “Even before me, Hilary, it was always his cover!’ she interjects through her giggles.

“It’s just been so intertwined—our relationship and music—that it’s impossible for us to separate,” Abner maintains before offering one last joke. “I would think that one great benefit is that most bands can’t do interviews with Paste Magazine from bed. With coffee. Together.”

“Yeah,” Amanda agrees. “That’d be weird.”