It’s fitting that when Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano-Ramirez, the married duo at the core of Johnnyswim, Zoomed in to talk to American Songwriter about their new self-titled album, their kids made cameo appearances as well. After all, Joaquin, Paloma, and Luna also show up on the record in spoken-word interludes. “They own their publishing on this album,” Abner jokes.
While the Ramirez’s certainly embody a happy family, Abner and Amanda’s artistic ambitions compelled them to dig deep with their subject matter on the new record, tackling subjects like relationship turmoil, aging, and even death. “One of my fears in being a married man is in any way, shape, or form that we would be seen as trying to promote the perfect love or this flawless movie standard of happily-ever-after,” Abner says. “That’s just not real.”
The genius of Johnnyswim is how they manage to coax uplift from these difficult topics on this standout record. Their gorgeous vocal interplay, long a trademark of the duo, certainly helps, as it winds through both danceable up-tempo grooves and emotional balladry. But the writing also stands out for its fearlessness and insight. Take, for example, the opening track “Devastating,” which muses on the notion that tragedy will ultimately befall even ideal couplings.
“The most romantic thing that we could think of was how our parents said goodbye to one another,” Amanda explains. “How my Dad said goodbye to my Mom, I think the last word she said was my Dad’s name. Watching his Mom say goodbye to his Dad. We’ve experienced the pinnacle of romance. And it’s morbid and it’s heartbreaking and it’s tragic and it’s beautiful. I think all that stuff is in us.”
“I was raised in a world that was obsessed with having answers,” Abner continues. “In my church growing up, the first thing you would hear is that it was OK, that’s part of God’s plan. And that never sat right for me. That wasn’t enough for me and remains not enough for me. Releasing the need to have constant certainty, you learn that sometimes the most beautiful thing goes hand in hand with the most painful if you allow yourself to grieve. Sometimes the most powerful moment can come at your weakest if you allow yourself to feel it fully.”
Johnnyswim’s decision to make this, their fourth album, a self-titled affair, emanated from circumstances that dictated a DIY approach to making the record. “It’s the most us,” Amanda says of the album. “It was created at a time when we were so isolated. Most of these songs were done during the pandemic, with various degrees of being able to see people. A lot of the co-writes were done over Zoom. Normally in the process of writing an album, we’re touring at the same time. We’re writing songs and playing them at a show, saying, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to play this new one for you.’ See what people think, and maybe we’ll go home and change something. Normally we’re kind of workshopping as we’re touring live. There is so much input from management, our band, from our family members. As we’re making an album, there are all these other factors.
“With this, we were just at home, just us with our thoughts, him at the computer with a bunch of instruments around him. There was no peanut gallery. Our management heard things when we were already on the finishing side of them. Our family members might have heard some, but if our family members were at our house, they were watching our kids so we could work. If you stick Amanda and Abner in a room for a little while, without any distractions, this is what you get.”
“This the clearest Polaroid picture of who we are right now,” says Abner, who handles most of the album’s production duties. “In the inception of songs, in their production and creation. Never before have we made something so clearly us. As I’ve grown as a producer and learned under producers who are amazing. I was able to learn so much about workflow, creativity, about trusting yourself. It was time to take the helm, to take the reins back production-wise to hear what was in me. As much as it’s an exercise in archaeology to write a song, the same can be said for production. Sometimes you need a feather-duster, and sometimes you need dynamite. It’s when you use each, that’s where the art is found.
While the duo claims that the material on the new record is rarely pure autobiography, some tracks, like “Hanging My Heart On You” and “Nostradamus,” do indeed refer to the combustibility between them. “We both had people when we started dating saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t date that person, I’ve heard things,’” Amanda remembers. “Luckily, both of us were like, ‘Let’s just see where this goes.’ I had heard all these rumors about him like he’s a partier, he’s a player. And I was like ‘Ok, good to know.’ He had people say things about me. They were all rumors, and none of it was true. ‘Nostradamus’ is like that as well. Like I know this might not be the best thing. But even if I knew ahead of time this was going to be bad, I still can’t say no.”
The refrain “Loving you is savage” from “Nostradamus” sums it up. “I think I’ve seen lots of people have non-savage love, regular milquetoast love,” Abner says. “It’s never been something enticing to me. I’ve always preferred fireworks. Even if it’s bad, it can end up being something good.”
Perhaps this new record hits home in such powerful ways because it is the purest distillation of the stark honesty that has always characterized Johnnyswim’s musical output. Abner says, “I remember her Dad said to us in 2005 when we started this band, ‘Always be yourself. Don’t try too hard to be somebody else. Cause if you can make a living being yourself, you can do that the rest of your life.’ And I’ve always taken that to heart. A mantra of ours, a goal of ours has been honesty in all the work that we do. May we never be found guilty of trying to be somebody else for the sake of success, or for the sake of popularity or growth. If we can grow being ourselves and being honest, that’s what a real one looks like.”
When asked about how they’ll feel now that this album, so deeply connected to who they are and what they experienced over the past few years, belongs to the world, Amanda brought it full circle with a family metaphor. “We’re stoked that the baby gets to go to kindergarten. That finally, the little thing we’ve nurtured at home will hopefully be a joy to the real world. It’s exactly what I said when our kids went to preschool for the first time.”
Photo by Chloe Enos/Sacks & Co