For husband-wife duo Johnnyswim, Nashville is everything: the city’s musical melting pot defines the group’s blend of folk, pop and soul, and resonates deep in their bones.
“There’s this innate purity, and dope-ness, to the songwriting there,” says Johnnyswim guitarist/vocalist Abner Ramirez, who began calling Nashville home after graduating high school. “In New York, the attitude is you’re trying to be successful. In L.A., it’s about getting famous. But in Nashville, it’s about doing what you love.”
That no-frills passion can be heard on Johnnyswim’s recent EP, “Heart Beats,” which was released in June through Big Panic Records and peaked at No. 14 on the Heatseekers Albums chart. The six-song follow-up to 2008’s “Home, Vol. 1” packs a heavier punch than one would expect from a pair of Nashville-bred folkies (who now, ironically, reside in Los Angeles), and is filled with intense melodies from Ramirez and wife Amanda Sudano that often move between haunting and celebratory.
Along with the influence from Music City’s diverse array of singer-songwriters, much of Johnnyswim’s essence is built on the duo’s undeniable chemistry. Ramirez and Sudano first locked eyes in Nashville when they were still in their teens, and sparks immediately flew.
“I literally said, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry,’ while sitting next to [another] girl I was trying to date,” Ramirez laughs. The two were introduced through a mutual friend at a Nashville coffee shop, and Ramirez invited Sudano to watch him perform at a local show.
“As soon as he opened his mouth and started singing, I thought, ‘I want to be him. I want to marry him. I want to sing with him,'” Sudano says. “After the show, I asked him if we could write some songs together… and I think he thought I was asking him out on a date, which, maybe I was.”
For Sudano, making music with loved ones had been a way of life before she began performing with Ramirez in 2006. The daughter of late disco legend Donna Summer and acclaimed songwriter Bruce Sudano, the songwriter cut her teeth performing and touring with her mother’s band. “My parents were never home long enough to keep me in any sort piano lessons — I think I started the same piano book like 14 times,” Sudano says. “My guitar- and piano-playing are strictly so that I can have an idea come across, and Abner can make it make sense.”
Meanwhile, Ramirez’s knack for getting a song to “make sense” comes from a more formal school of thought. Prior to Johnnyswim, Ramirez was a classically-trained violinist who studied music at the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in his native Jacksonville, Fla., where his compositions followed a very ambitious formula. “When I was 17, I wrote much more complicated songs than I do now,” Ramirez says. “It wasn’t a real song if it didn’t have seven different sections and least a dozen chords. And now, we pride ourselves in writing one- to three-chord songs.”
Such simplicity is on display on the title track of “Heart Beats.” The single features lush harmonies, handclaps, deep hooks and an urgency that fills the song with suspense, as if it had been written for a film trailer. Some of the darker themes on “Heart Beats” stem from the time in which the EP was written: Ramirez had just suffered the loss of his father, and Donna Summer was deep in her fight against cancer.
“[The EP] is about the process of wanting to run away and have a break, and there is no break when you’re going through that kind of a loss,” Sudano explains. “It was about us figuring out who we wanted to be in that moment. It goes from wanting to run away and wanting mercy, to realizing that you can get through it if you try.”
Fortunately, Johnnyswim is looking toward a bright future following the “Heart Beats” release. With an appearance at Bonnaroo and on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” already under their belts this year, the duo is preparing for a string of dates to close out the year, including a short run supporting Emeli Sande in October. In addition to touring, Sudano hinted that Johnnyswim’s first full-length album is currently in the works, and should be released in January 2014.