Location / Catalina Coffee
“For years, I was seduced by the idea that I should be waiting for the right manager, the right label, the right publisher, the right somebody to come along and take me to the next level. It took years for me to learn this lesson: nobody will work harder for me than me…”
The thing about Abner and Amanda Ramirez is this: they are not just putting on a show. The way they look at each other while they're singing, the way they elevate the mood of the room, the way they make you want to be a more thoughtful, more truthful person. These things are not part of some elaborate stage act or performance. They are, at the core, fundamental to who JOHNNYSWIM's two members are as people. And we, as the audience, are not just invited into their music when we hear them play, we're invited into their lives. And the invitation is worth accepting. I have no doubt that JOHNNYSWIM has a long and beautiful career ahead of them and we look forward to following their journey.
Ryan then sat down with Abner and Amanda and talked about choosing passion over money, being in it for the long haul, and writing that begins with a feeling...
- Patrick Dodd, Executive Producer
RYAN: Let’s start with Nashville. Is that where you guys first started playing music together?
AMANDA: I went to high school and college in Nashville. It was such a warm place to be and obviously really creative, with an amazing community of songwriters and musicians. After college I moved to New York and began working on music. I was doing a little modeling, a little this and that. But, after a couple of years, I moved back to Nashville and that’s when I met Abner. He had this great group of friends who were all songwriters and singers and I instantly felt something different. In New York, it felt like everyone was very focused on trying to write the next big hit. So, even though all the people I was working with were great, it was very success driven. And when I went to visit Nashville and I met Abner, I started hanging out with his friends, and found that they could’ve been content singing and writing songs regardless of whether anybody ever heard them. And, that’s how I’ve always felt. There were times when I worked at Starbucks, there were times when I worked odd jobs, and I’m glad that I had that contentment of loving music for what it is, because it got me through all those times when nothing was going on. A lot of people would just give up a couple years in, and decide to go do something more profitable. But, I was happy just sitting in the corner writing songs with Abner, and I think Nashville was a big part of that. It allowed you to be okay with that.
RYAN: Has it always been music for you, specifically?
AMANDA: It’s always been music for me. I grew up in a really musical family, so even in high school I was trying to put together a girl group, like Dixie Chicks but browner. (laughter). I went through a phase where I think I wanted to be in the WNBA when I was in middle school, but other than that it was always music and creative things (laughs).
RYAN: WNBA? Nice. (laughter)
AMANDA: It was actually before the WNBA even started, so I figured I’d have to start the WNBA and then be on a team. That was all for like two years, and then I was like screw this, this is not my thing.
I’m glad that I had that contentment of loving music for what it is, because it got me through all those times when nothing was going on. A lot of people would just give up a couple years in, and decide to go do something more profitable. But, I was happy just sitting in the corner writing songs
RYAN: So, you’d have been the commissioner and a player.
AMANDA: (laughter) Exactly! Abner originally started studying music when he was maybe 8 or so. He wanted to take karate and his mom said he could only take karate if he also did something that helped to calm him down. So she made him take violin lessons in exchange for karate. He ended up going to an art school in Jacksonville to study violin and music, and then ended up moving to Nashville and just continued on from there. For both of us, for the large majority of our lives, music has always been what we wanted to do.
RYAN: In Nashville, did you find that being in a place where there is an over-concentration of people wanting to do music was a positive or negative experience for you? Did you even notice?
AMANDA: Oh yeah, we definitely noticed -- playing a show in Nashville is always scary for us because in most other towns, you’d just be happy to get some decent live music in any venue, but in Nashville, you’ve got so many great musicians that audiences often sit there, watching every little thing, soaking it all in...
ABNER: There will never be a place that pays more attention to a concert...
AMANDA: Yeah, they pay such attention to every little detail, that you’re thinking, “Please, please don’t mess up.”
ABNER: For me it used to come across as being super judgmental, but now I find it to be the result of a genuine love music and the desire to capture every moment that’s happening.
RYAN: So how did you guys start to actually play music together?
ABNER: It had nothing to do with music, had nothing to do with being a band, and had nothing to do with writing songs -- basically, this hot girl came up to me after a show named Amanda Sudano, soon to be Amanda Sudano-Ramirez I might add, and asked me if I would ever think of writing with her. And she could have said, “Hey, do you want to go build a boat?” And I would’ve said, “Yes absolutely, I love building boats!” She could’ve said, “Hey, do you want to go watch paint dry?" I would have said, “Absolutely I love watching paint dry!” But, she happened to ask me if I wanted to write songs, which is something I happen to be experienced in. So, absolutely, and I’ll bring the champagne and flowers. For both of us looking back, I think we just liked each other, we liked being around each other, and we had a common passion that gave us an excuse to be around each other even more. So it was amazing. We got together to write as an excuse to be around each other and amazingly, we’ve been able to now start a career with it.
RYAN: Do you remember what the first song you wrote together was? Is that something that’s survived?
ABNER: Yes. Absolutely, it’s a song called Why’d You Do It. It was about when my sister-in-law dumped my brother-in-law for a really cheesy actor guy before they were married.
AMANDA: They got together two weeks later.
ABNER: They got back together two weeks later, got married soon after, yadayada. So, it’s a beautiful story, even if they broke-up just to inspire a song.
RYAN: (laughing) “Thanks guys. Appreciate it.”
ABNER: Exactly. You know what’s funny about that song is that it was built around a metal riff that me and my buddies in a band used to use during soundcheck. (SINGS THE RIFF) But then Amanda starts singing this beautiful, soulful, melodic line over the top of it that was amazing. It actually was one of the cooler writing experiences I’ve ever had, and it just happened to be our first time writing together.
For us, writing always starts with a feeling, whether we watch a movie or we have a conversation, we can feel something stirring. It always begins with a feeling.
RYAN: So how has the process evolved over the course of your relationship? Do you guys essentially write songs the same way now, or has that grown and changed as you’ve been together?
ABNER: If anything, it has evolved in that it’s more consistent. We write all the time now, whereas we used to write every three months or so. For us, writing always starts with a feeling, whether we watch a movie or we have a conversation, we can feel something stirring. It always begins with a feeling. Whether it’s sadness, whether it’s joy, love, passion of some sort, that’s always step one -- the follow up could be a melody, it could be a lyric. With Amanda, those feelings will often stir up a lyric idea and then we’ll put music under it. For me, it is often more musical. I can hear the soundtrack of this emotion in my head and I want to grab a guitar or a piano and try to capture it in a way that makes other people feel it too.
RYAN: Does that “feeling” feel like an itch that needs to be scratched? Or is it a really subtle kind of thought that you could miss if you’re not paying attention?
ABNER: For me it’s always an itch that has to get scratched. Sometimes, I’ll literally feel frustration, a very specific “I’ve got to write this down, I need to get this out.” For Amanda, she’ll casually say, “Oh there’s just this ditty I just wrote down, it’s nothing important, I don’t even know that its really a song.” She could’ve easily ignored that feeling or intuition to grab a pen. I’m a little more volatile in general, with higher highs and lower lows. Not many things in my life are subtle, so for me its a little different.
RYAN: Do you feel like there is a difference between who you guys are in your personal life or even in songwriting mode, versus who you guys are when you’re on stage performing?
AMANDA: No, I feel like pretty much the same person. Abner is louder and more passionate in every way. He is a fire, and I am, well, an introvert. I tend to be quieter and tend to be pretty happy and calm and peaceful. If you listen to the songs that Abner has written totally by himself and the songs that I’ve written totally by myself, it’s 100% us. Which is what makes us balance each other out in all the other ways.
RYAN: Is being on stage is something that you’ve had to practice to get more comfortable with? Or are you okay with the paradox of being an introvert and on stage?
AMANDA: Oh it is definitely something that I have had to learn. I grew up in a very musical house and I have a sister who is an extrovert. She would write a song and then immediately play it for everybody, and everyone would applaud and be happy. But it would take me forty-five minutes just to even get the nerve to tell anyone that I had written a song. And then it would take another three weeks to actually play it for somebody. I remember my parents used to always say, “Well, Amanda if you won’t play us a song you wrote, then how are you ever going get on a stage and play for other people?” But in my heart I knew that there would be a difference. I knew that something would click and I would be able to get up there to sing. Now, after a show? I get very embarrassed really, really easily. A couple of years ago I got nodules on my vocal chords. One of the things that the doctor told me to do after I sing, is to be quiet for at least 20 minutes after a performance -- so I go into a back room, don’t talk, just let my voice calm down for half an hour. If I don’t do that, I could potentially mess my voice up again. So that is perfect for me because after a show, I generally have a high level of embarrassment, regardless of whether the show was good or bad. I don't know if embarrassment's the right word, but it’s a feeling of vulnerability. So I take the doctor’s advice very seriously. (laughs) I will literally just go find a quiet place and sit by myself for 20-30 minutes, if I can. I think it’s half for my vocal chords and half for my soul.
RYAN: That’s amazing. I feel the same way. As in, even thinking about being in public right now is making my throat tighten up. I’ve been on tour with a couple bands doing documentary stuff and I’ll get stressed out for them when the shows over. I don’t even have to do anything but just seeing everyone standing around afterwards to talk to them just sounds like the worst thing in the world if you are at all introverted. (laughter)
RYAN: So, tell me, how would you guys define success? What are you guys trying to accomplish as musicians?
ABNER: For us, we take money off the table, we take fame off the table, we take popularity, and all the other easily measured externals off the table; we don’t even consider them from the beginning. After you remove those definitions, I think success for us becomes a journey. It’s a journey of becoming better writers, putting pen to paper and capturing emotion more truthfully, and then taking people on a journey along with us. And maybe we can give people hope that didn’t have any, shed light on things, maybe even giving words to emotions people dont know how to explain. I remember my 11th grade year sitting in science class listening to Dave Matthews and feeling so inspired, feeling that there was a depth to every saxophone line and that everything had such a meaning. Something came alive in me in those days when I was listening to music, and so I think success is bringing something to life in someone else in the same way that music brought something to life to me. I think that’s success.
The standard was set very early on that money wouldn’t be the driving force. The beginning is the easiest it's gonna be to choose heart over dollars. So we knew that if we established that within ourselves at the outset, then maybe we’d be lucky enough to be able to do this for the rest of our lives.
RYAN: The interesting part is that the stuff that you dismissed at the beginning, a lot of people say that “it’s not about making money,” but their actions don’t confirm that to be true. You know what I mean? Do you feel like it’s a struggle reconciling the desire to be truthful and write songs that move people and the idea that you’ve chosen to get paid in this way. At the end of the day, this is a business. Is it hard for you to reconcile that?
ABNER: It hasn’t been hard to reconcile that for us, because we we chose to not make any money, and to just do it for us. Amanda chose to quit making a bunch of money being a model to go work at Starbucks so that we could write songs full time. So for us the standard was set very early on that money wouldn’t be the driving force. The beginning is the easiest its gonna be to choose heart over dollars. So we knew that if we established that within ourselves at the outset, then maybe we’d be lucky enough to be able to do this for the rest of our lives. We’re lucky, it took us 7 years to make a dollar. It gave us time to really figure out why we were doing what we were doing.
RYAN: For me, when I meet other filmmakers, I would say 75% of them would, if push came to shove, freak out and go back to law school. So, when I meet people that say, “I may not exactly know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to do it for the entire course of my career”, I feel like drawn to them because there’s really not that many people that feel that way. Do you find that to be true in music, among your peers and the people you meet?
ABNER: I think so and I even think that ratio is about right. But, it changes with cities and it changes with age. In Nashville, you have people that want to do music for the rest of their lives, period. They’ll be homeless if they need to be. They may even get a job, but they’re not going to stop being musicians. The job is just the means to put food in their mouth, but their life is writing songs. I think as you get older, people get married, people have kids, and it’s easier to set it aside. In LA, there’s going to be a different standard than in Nashville, where we’re all doing it for the love of the music, and if I happen to get paid that’s awesome. A place like LA and New York are just too expensive to even be in that town if you’re not making money doing what you’re doing.
RYAN: So why move from Nashville to Los Angeles?
AMANDA: You know we had just gotten married, and we just felt like it was a time for a change. We thought we should go to LA for a couple of months, get a short term lease, and see what happens. We planned on writing with some people there to get a sense for what it’s like there. We thought for sure we’d do a little stint and then we’d move on and figure out where we want to go next. Three years later, here we are. I think what has kept us here is the community of creative people, community of friends, and to be perfectly honest, the beach and the weather.
RYAN: Do you feel like LA has worked its way into your music? To what extent does geography, the community of a place, work its way into your music, if at all?
ABNER: As a songwriter, your output is constantly related to input. So whatever is affecting you, your surroundings, the conversations, people, the movies you see, the decisions you make in your personal life, all of that input constantly determines your output, especially when your goal is to be a genuine songwriter. When you’re not looking for hits, when youre not looking to write the next pop single for whoever the next Rhianna is, I think as a songwriter, your friendships and your town, all that stuff is going to be the substance that really affects you. So I don’t know that we’ve changed being in LA rather than being in Nashville, because our core values have stayed the same. But you know what’s funny? Country songs are a lot easier to write in LA than they are in Nashville.
We wouldn’t write anything folky in Nashville because everybody is writing folk music. But then you get to LA and everybody is trying to write the next dance hit. And it is almost out of rebellion that we write these folk songs.
RYAN: Really? Why?
ABNER: We wouldn’t write anything folky in Nashville because everybody is writing folk music. But then you get to LA and everybody is trying to write the next dance hit. And it is almost out of rebellion that we write these folk songs.
RYAN: Do you have other musicians in the crowd of people that you guys hang out with in LA?
ABNER: There are dancers, actors, musicians, all kinds of people make up our core group. Web designers, TV producers, and post-production producers, PAs, everybody, in some way, works in entertainment.
RYAN: Awesome. So, somebody listens to your music in the car, somebody comes to you know see you at a show, watches a video online, like what do you hope that someone kind of takes away from bumping into your music?
ABNER: I hope that when people hear our songs, or when they see us perform, that our music strikes a familiar chord, that puts into words something that they were feeling, but didn’t know how to say. I want our music to feel like a step that makes sense, but that hasn’t been taken yet.
RYAN: How do you know when that happens, or can you ever know when that happens?
ABNER: I don’t know if you do. Hopefully, there’s a response and hopefully people like it, but I don’t know if it’s more philosophical than practical.
RYAN: When you guys were starting out and you look at the music landscape, was there ever a thought of signing the big deal and going a more traditional route, or did you always know that you were going to end up having to do things yourself?
AMANDA: I feel like we always knew we’d be on our own, for the most part. I mean, when we started, duos definitely weren’t a thing like they are now. I remember in early meetings people would ask us, “like Sonny & Cher?” It just wasn’t trendy when we started. But we also, ran into a lot of people that wanted to make us into something. They saw two brown people and decided that it has to be soul music. Or, maybe pop soul. There was always something that they wanted to make us into. So after those first couple meetings we had with label people, we realized that we didn’t really want to be the thing that they wanted us to be. We felt like there was more in us, we felt like there was more influences that we wanted to be able to let out. And that is where we decided that we were really ready to work. You know what we didn’t have kids that needed braces, I was fine working at Starbucks in between sitting in vans with a bunch of guys after spending way too much money to play a show in Toledo, Ohio. It became a source of pride. We really didn’t want to sign on with somebody who says, “I can make you into the next Whatever.” We want to be able to get to the core of who we are and what our influences are and get to the place where all of our influences, as diverse as they might be, can come out freely. We didn’t want to sign away our chance to really discover our sound. But, even so, I think there was still a sense that even in that process, maybe someone will discover us. It only took a couple of years before we just fundamentally realized that nobody is going to root for us more than we’re gonna already root for ourselves. So, let’s make it what we can, ourselves.
RYAN: Even since we’ve tracked together, I can see the forward momentum. How do you quantify that? Can you sense when things are going well, and if so, what are the sign posts?
AMANDA: A big turning point for us was when we signed with our agency. For years, a big focus for us was getting the right team together. We didn’t really know who the right team was exactly, but we knew we needed a team to get to the next level. So, right before we filmed with you guys, we signed with Paradigm.
ABNER: (in background) Those were the first bookings that they got us...
AMANDA: Yeah, we were there with A Prairie Home Companion when we shot with you guys, and that was one of the first things that they got us on. I think they’ve been able to see into our future a little more clearly than I think even we could, because we’re so used to the grind of it. We’re used to doing what’s in front of us to do, and they saw what we were doing, saw us in the future, and laid out a plan for us. It’s been completely pivotal.
I remember for years I had this feeling that things weren’t progressing because maybe I’m just not playing the right shows, not getting the right person in the room, or am I not impressing the right people. That’s such a weird illusion that was created in the 80s or 90s that to get the right person in the room would get you your big break.
ABNER: (in background) We signed a record deal since then as well, but that real feeling of success and progress was signing with our booking agent, Bobby Cudd.
RYAN: So do you have a master plan now? Do you have a goal that you want to execute and you’re just running the playbook at this point? Or is it more fluid than that?
ABNER: Well, we put the EP out in June, a record in January, plus there’s a ridiculous team behind us to build up for this record in January. The idea is to see if we can just keep making traction, keep running, keep setting goals that seem ridiculous, and see if we can keep knocking them down.
RYAN: That’s great. You know, it seem that the bands that just started in the last couple of years don’t have any illusion as to how much work it’s going to take to make it. They know they’re going to have to get in a van and not come back for a few years. But, some of my friends who were at the tail end of the “maybe we’ll get signed” era are still flopping around a bit, because they just haven’t quite been able to reconcile the way things work now versus how they were working a few years ago. So, it’s really great to see you guys go for it and not wait around for anybody to do it for you. It’s inspiring to me personally because, even as a filmmaker, I definitely can have my dark days where I mope around and wish someone would “discover” me, you know? But then I pick myself up and say, “Dammit, I just have to work, I just have to keep working.”
ABNER: That was a great ah-ha moment . For years, I was seduced by the idea that I should be waiting for the right manager, the right label, the right publisher, the right somebody to come along and take me to the next level. It took years for me to learn this lesson: nobody will work harder for me than me, nobody would do a better job for me than myself. Sure, somebody can come in and be a dose of vitamins, a boost to help get you where you want to be. But, if you’re not the captain of your own ship, you're not probably gonna get what you were hoping for. I remember for years I had this feeling that things weren’t progressing because maybe I’m just not playing the right shows, not getting the right person in the room, or am I not impressing the right people. That’s such a weird illusion that was created in the 80s or 90s that to get the right person in the room would get you your big break. For us, now, we’re driven, and we want to be in the van for months on end. We want to be on planes six out of seven days a week. You know, really stepping up to handle our own business, on our own, changed everything. When our mentality changed, our whole world changed. It’s been no looking back since.
Abner Ramirez · Vocals, Guitar
Amanda Ramirez · Vocals
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