The band Johnnyswim, made up of husband-and-wife duo Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano Ramirez, has been very busy lately. The couple recently released their second full-length album Georgica Pond, which debuted at #13 on Billboard’s top current album chart, performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and welcomed their first child last year. Happily, they made some time to answer some of my questions about their career and the new album, which I highly recommend listening to—it’s turned into one of my favorite albums of the year.
Verily: You've been making music together for a long time, with your first full-length album Diamonds coming out in 2014. Did you feel any pressure about making your sophomore album?
Amanda: I don’t think we felt any pressure; I think we were just really excited because the first record was a lot of older songs and the time period that we had to record was really kind of cramped. So with Georgica Pond it really felt like we got to take our time, and we got to let things breathe a little bit more, and play them live a bit more before we actually recorded them. It felt like we had a lot more under our belts as far as touring and what we felt like our fans would like. So I feel like it was more fun.
Verily: Do listeners assume that because you are married, all your songs are about your own relationship? Do you have any guidelines about how personal you will get—is anything off-limits?
Abner: A lot of our songs are about our personal relationship—the love songs and the breakup songs. I think when we use a third writer it’s to be our referee and marriage counselor more than anything. When we write together, just Amanda and I, a lot of times I’m really sensitive about what she doesn’t like. I’ll get passionate about a line, passionate about a chorus or a section or a melody idea, and she’ll respond, “well, I mean, I think that’s okay,” and I’ll react with, “oh so that’s JUST okay?” But when there is a third party, a lot of the time we’re more rational. We don’t have any guidelines about how personal it gets—we do this for the sake of the art. We’re lucky to get to make a living doing what we do, but no, we don’t set guidelines or limits for vulnerability or how personal we’ll get. Nothing’s really off limits. We believe in what we’re doing. We believe in mining—that there’s gold deep in there somewhere and that it’s worth mining regardless of if it shows some coal along the way.
Verily: Your music is a truly delightful mix of musical genres. What musicians and songs have been your biggest influences? (Amanda, with all respect to your mother, Donna Summer, choosing her doesn't count.) What music is inspiring you these days?
Abner: I grew up on old Latin American boleros. I don’t know if you really have it in English. We’ve got Sinatra, we’ve got the classic love songs, which are kind of like boleros, but boleros are these juggernauts of emotion. I grew up on guys like Luis Miguel, stuff that’s über-passionate and I think everything I’ve made musically has definitely had a touch of bolero in it. These days, there’s so much good new music out. I’ve been listening to the new Bon Iver record a lot, and I’ve been listening to a lot of Drake.
Amanda: I think my musical influences, my mother not included, were Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Traci Chapman. It’s a lot of stuff we grew up listening to in the car; we traveled a lot together as a family so we listened to music a lot as a family. My parents always had a lot of fun getting to know music that we liked and showing us music that they grew up listening to and that they loved currently. They wanted us to love songs and love stories that songs could tell. Currently I’m listening to basically just Christmas music, but we listen to a ton of Louis Prima and Chili Gonzales as well.
Verily: Choosing favorite songs off an album you created must be a bit like choosing favorites among children, but if you had to—what song are each of you most proud of on this album?
Amanda: My favorite is Georgica Pond because it is so personal. It was never meant to be on a record, but my mom always wanted us to write a song about her, and she’d get a little salty about it because we had one for Abner’s mom and she’s like, “Where’s mine?” So I inadvertently did write this song about her and me, and about me and our son Joaquin, as a little lullaby to Joaquin that I would sing to him around the house and when I took him for walks. You kind of just make songs up as a mom, but Abner heard me singing it and recorded it, and then begged me to put it on the record. It ended up being the title track because we felt like it encapsulated everything that we want to say at this point: loss and legacy and love are the big cornerstones of this record. It has a little bit of all of that, and I feel like my mom is smiling down from heaven about the fact that she got a song and a record and a whole album named after her. So I think I’m especially proud of that one.
Abner: Georgica Pond is absolutely my favorite song on this album.
Amanda: So we agree on that one! Married points!
Verily: Art is never created in a bubble. What were some of the biggest personal and worldwide events that shaped your vision for this album?
Amanda: I think having a son was huge, and I think that kind of works in with what’s going on in the world, because our focus was very much about what we want to pass on: the legacy we want to leave, what we feel is important for him to learn and to chase in his life. I think there are a lot of options for him, and there are some things that we don’t care if he does or not, but sensitivity and compassion and loving others is a big deal that’s high, high, high on the list. When you travel all the time and you’re meeting new people all the time, there’s no room for intolerance. He can be an idiot, but he’d better love people. I hope that comes across as part of what shaped the album. I think Georgica Pond is about that; I think "Drunks" is very much about that, about being able to be different from people but still love them.
Abner: There are some songs like "Drunks" that were definitely shaped by the state of the union right now, the state of affairs. Just on Facebook during political season I’ve felt in me an awakening of the call to unite, of reminding ourselves, starting with myself, my house, and my family, that the forces that bind us together are stronger than the forces that try to tear us apart. The state of the world around us has been an influence in a major way on the album.
Verily: I am always in awe of artists who juggle being successful professionals and dedicated parents. How has having Joaquin changed your music and/or process?
Abner: I feel more. I think as an artist it’s your job to feel, and to capture a feeling, whether you’re painting or you’re writing a song or writing a book. My highs are higher, my lows are lower. Fear is much more easily accessible now, having a little tiny kid that only eats if I give him food. But courage is also much more easily accessible because I have this little kid that depends on me and that I’d die for, and more than that, I’d live for. It changed everything. Practically, we’ve always been the babies of the families, so we’ve always rolled with the punches. It does change a lot of things, but things have always been changing, so this is just another change.
Verily: Embarking on a tour with a 1-year-old must be both incredibly exciting and extremely challenging. What do you hope Joaquin absorbs from the experience, even if he won't remember it when he gets older?
Amanda: He’s not going to remember a ton of being on the road with us at this point, but I hope that the experience of being on tour with us allows him to love people around him more easily, so that sharing and getting to know people and loving them where they are is just his default.
I also hope that it gives him courage. He’s in new places all the time—some places we can set up a nursery just the way we like it, and some places it’s a crap shoot and we’re just hoping he takes a nap and is okay in weird place—that even when he’s uncomfortable he learns to be comfortable. I hope that later on in life as he pursues whatever passions he wants to pursue, when there are times when he thinks “this kind of sucks, I don’t want to be here, I don’t know anyone here, what am I doing,” if he goes to a new school or gets a new jobs or any of those times that stretch us as humans, where you’re someplace new and you have to adapt, I hope he takes it as a happy challenge, and not stress so much. I feel like having that skill that will last him a long time, and I hope being on the road super young gives him that.
Verily: What advice would you give to young people who want to get into the music industry?
Abner: Never ever ever give up. Never give up. There’s so much bad advice around every corner. Everyone thinks they know what you need to do. Everybody thinks they’ve got your chart, but this isn’t succeeding on Wall Street, this isn’t succeeding at the head of the class in law school. This is art for commerce, and there is not one straight path for anyone. Hold to your instincts, hold to your heart, grow in character, grow in perseverance, grow in patience, grown in compassion for those around you and for yourself when you fail, but by no means ever give up. Never ever give up.
Amanda: And if you’re not having fun you’re not doing it right. If you’re having fun, then you’re not going to give up. I think that’s what made us not give up—we were having fun along the way, so when setbacks would come they would throw us off for a minute, and then we were like “what do we want to do?” Well, we want to have more fun, so let’s go write some songs and play some shows.
Photo Credit: Sacks and Co.