Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano are not your everyday married couple. They’re barely even your average musicians, what with Ramirez being one of Nashville’s most notable teachers and composers and Sudano being the daughter of guitarist/songwriter Bruce Sudano and the late, great Donna Summer.
As Johnnyswim, though, Ramirez and Sudano have gone far beyond what’s expected of a Nashville session cat and a child of disco who spent school breaks singing backgrounds for her mom and dad. Instead, the duo — on albums such as 2014’s “Diamonds,” EPs such as “Johnnyswim” (2008), “Home, Vol. 1” (2012), “Heart Beats” (2013) and their brand-new “A Johnnyswim Christmas” — play a mix of scuffed-up, soft-spun folk, soul and country with lyrics surprisingly ripe with angst and avarice to go with its romantic display.
“We just write what’s in us, however it comes out,” said Sudano, fresh from a stretch of tour dates that will bring Johnnyswim to Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St., on Dec. 19.
The Johnnyswim duo could have formed in 2005 in Nashville, where Sundano’s folks had settled, perhaps to be closer to the country musicians (Reba McIntire, Dolly Parton, etc.) that her parents were writing songs for. In reality though, Ramirez and Sudano first met after Sunday church service in 2001.
“I absolutely felt a spark and incredibly connected to Abner when I met him,” Sudano said. “We met in a personal setting and I had no clue that he was musical in any way, but knew I wanted to spend time with him. A little while after first hanging out, he invited me to a show and when I heard him sing, I knew how we’d be spending a lot of time from then on.”
Considering that one could hear elements of Emmylou Harris and Sam Cooke in the pair’s unified sound, you can’t help but wonder what it might be that influenced Johnnyswim to set pen to paper.
“Absolutely Emmylou and Sam Cooke, as well as Joni Mitchell, The Carpenters, Tracy Chapman, Otis Redding and Lauryn Hill on my end,” Sudano said. “Both of us loved Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Abner grew up listening to a lot of Cuban music, Dave Matthews when he was in high school, and got into R&B more once he left his original home in Jacksonville, Fla.”
As their misty, moody vocals and equally dramatic music is tonally quiet, scratchy and subtle — a genuinely unique sound unto itself — it’s curious to think they arrived at birth with this supplely theatrical vibe. Oddly enough, Sudano said they had a lot of people telling the pair what they thought the sound of Johnnyswim should and shouldn’t be.
“We knew instinctively what we wanted to write, but felt a lot of outside pressure. For a while, we weren’t sure. It wasn’t until we went to L.A. that our minds cleared, and felt like we could write whatever we wanted without those whispers. Our early recordings don’t necessarily sound harder or louder, but definitely poppier and cleaner.”
Still, when the pair wrote its first song, “Why’d You Do It,” on their first EP, Sudano jokes that Ramirez was playing a metal riff on the guitar, that Sudano found a rugged melody to sing over it. “We laughed and finished it quickly. We knew we’d found a good match at that point.”
Nearly 10 years later, they are doing likewise on songs such as their new EP’s sole original tune, “Christmas Day,” as well as “Diamonds”’ elements of discord. The angst the pair embraces throughout “Diamonds” makes the epiphany and joy of “Paris in June” and “Home” stick out. Johnnyswim simply doesn’t play at being a couple safe or sappily happy.
“The day we wrote ‘Diamonds,’ we were upset about things people said about us and needed a little pep talk, so in our anger we wrote that song,” Sudano said. “We both lost a parent within a 10-month span, so a lot of the sad songs aren’t really break-up songs as much as they are songs of loss written in break-up language. We didn’t — and don’t — give ourselves boundaries. Our goal was honesty.”
With that, Sudano must hate when people assume that every couple song they pen is about the twosome.
“No, in a way I’m glad they do. It means the songs are convincing,” she said with a laugh.
While it’s a shame Sudano shied away from conversation about working with her mom or Summer’s role as an icon of the LGBT community, the Johnnyswim songstress did however comment on the bonds of being married while performing together.
“We really don’t see any downsides,” she said frankly. “We love what we do and we love each other. It’s a win/win. Music and marriage is all about communication, so we find that one compliments and strengthens the other. And look, when we started, there were no duos. It wasn’t popular in any way and people told us it wouldn’t work. Our goal, though, was to do what we love with who we love for as long as possible, and I think loving what we do gave us stamina to keep going when no one cared, and probably will continue to give us the stamina long past when people care anymore.”