Musicians often become weary of being asked the same questions over and over by writers. On this April morning, Johnnyswim — Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano — are in the band's New York City publicist's office for a day full of phone interviews. So far, they tell me, they've had plenty of coffee and forgone a plate of donuts in favor of fruit. As the day wears on, though, the junk food is looking better and better.
Prior to our interview, I find varying accounts from them online sharing the band name's origin — probably to keep themselves entertained on a day like this. One story says the name is from the movie Jaws — a character named Johnny is fleeing from the shark as his friend shouts, "Swim, Johnny, swim!" Another story says it was Sudano's childhood goldfish that she refused to believe had died as she yelled, "He's alive! Johnny, swim!" There are even more, including one with a neighbor's cat, Johnny, falling into a stream.
While there's no telling which of these tales are true, the married couple — who brings Johnnyswim's brand of folk mixed with soul, pop and blues to Neighborhood Theatre May 9 — does share a cute, and truthful, story about their relationship. Ramirez says after meeting at a songwriting workshop, he figured writing music together was a way to win her heart and spend time with her. She was equally intrigued by him.
"I knew if the songs kept sounding good, I'd have a better chance to make out with her," Ramirez says. "At some point, we liked what we were creating together and knew it would keep going even if our relationship didn't."
The duo's recently released debut LP, Diamonds, is the perfect showcase of their talents as singers and songwriters.
While their vocal tones are similar, Sudano's voice offers power and soul — undoubtedly passed on by her mother, Donna Summer. Ramirez meanwhile balances it out by keeping the harmonies grounded and steadfast. On upbeat songs, their voices provide the right energy, while ballads can convey a purity of emotion heard in groups like the Civil Wars. There are also songs one or the other sings solo.
"As we're writing, things happen naturally," Sudano says. "As a whole, we look at things over the course of the record to make sure it's balanced instead of Abner singing four songs in a row."
"We also want it to happen organically," Ramirez says. "There are some songs, like 'Over,' 'Closer' and 'Live While We're Young,' that Amanda carries so beautifully that I didn't dare try to join in."
As the 15-minute interview wraps up, and knowing I'd likely get another random tale if I inquire about the band's name, I simply ask for the favorite origin story they've told so far. Ramirez laughs and says, "OK, I'll give you the truth."
He goes on to talk about Saturday morning cartoons and how his parents wouldn't let him watch them. "I snuck into my sister's room to watch," he says. "There was a cartoon with a kid who always wanted to go swimming. I didn't know the name of the cartoon so I would say I wanted to see Johnny swim — it always made me feel like I was doing something bad. It's a stupid story so I never tell anyone."
"True or not, at least it's a good story," I reply. Ramirez and Sudano burst out laughing.