Louis Johnson and Jordan Meredith were never destined to be together, at least in the fall-in-love-at the-top-of-the-Empire State Building sense.
When they coexist as a duo called the Saint Johns, though, their voices intermingle with such passion and fury, it's hard to imagine these Nashville newbies singing with anyone else.
Oh, true romance was out there, but it was found with other significant others. From the day they met, Johnson and Meredith have insisted their connection is all about the music.
On the speakerphone during a drive from Madison, Wisconsin, to Milwaukee for the resumption of their tour as a support act for Judah & the Lion that began in early March, Johnson and Meredith needed only three words each to answer the personal question asked of them for probably the umpteenth time: Is there anything more to your relationship than music?
Louis: "Not at all."
Jordan: "Just good friends."
When pressed, Meredith added, "I mean, we're just not attracted to each other in that way, I guess. It's been eight years now that we've been playing together and it's very much a brother-sister relationship."
Fortunately, the Saint Johns, who seem as protective of one another as, well, loyal siblings, had much more to say about their full-length album debut. Dead of Night was released only a month ago but it's already a candidate for record of the year in this critic's circle.
From the opening "Shadowplay," a slow builder that soars to magnificent heights, to the closing "Oh St. Johns," a nostalgic trip that references their namesake, a Florida river running through the stomping grounds of their past, the sophisticated sounds of an experienced but devoted twosome ring true.
With 12 perfectly constructed gems Johnson and Meredith wrote -- many of them with one or more outside partners -- the dizzying blend of their wraparound vocals makes you want to believe that intimate details about their private lives exist. Maybe there's some salacious diary stored in a safety-deposit box, its contents to remain a deep secret until their dying breaths.
Contemplate that for a moment before exhaling, then get ready to fall in love with two voices that will leave you breathless.
That the Florida transplants have stayed together professionally longer than most Hollywood marriages last is a testament to their willingness to make beautiful music together without any sappy strings attached.
Married to Paper Route frontman JT Daly since November 2014, Meredith might seem at first glance more reserved than her gregarious musical partner, but she doesn't need to mince words to get to the point.
"Louis and I have a very ... there are a lot of things we don't agree on (including her fascination with the Kardashians), but when it comes to our sound and our style and what a Saint Johns song is, we're constantly on the same page," she said.
With more chapters yet to write, Johnson and Meredith were willing to discuss part of their origin story. Like many long-term relationships, they've had their ups and downs, too.
A South Floridian from Wellington, Johnson went upstate to attend Flagler College in St. Augustine. In 2008, that's where he met Meredith, who grew up in America's oldest city.
A party ("more like a gathering that my friends decided to make into a party," Johnson amended) turned into a night where "we just kind of started playing music together from that day on," he added. "And it was a lot of really bad covers that went into writing our own music and probably a lot of really bad original songs, which brought us where we are. Takes us thousands of bad ones to get a couple good ones. So hopefully we're there at this point."
While that might simply summarize the rationale behind a two-heads-are-better-than-one existence, it took a lot of re-examination, self-evaluation and false starts as solo artists and as a duo -- anyone remember Louis and Jordan, Jordan and Louis or the electro-folk of Augustine? -- to get there.
"I was not really thinking that music was gonna be my career but realized through taking some courses and stuff that what really made me happy was music," said Johnson, a former member of the teen punk band Odd Man Out who went to college to study business. "And I think Jordan kind of felt the same way. She was going to school as well and feeling as though what really made us happy was when we were playing these three-hour bar gigs and feeling like, 'Man, there's something to this.' ... I think separately we weren't really serious about what we were doing until we met each other, which is kind of an interesting thing to have happen. We were kind of each of our motivators."
Meredith, who grew up taking piano and guitar lessons while writing songs from an early age, echoed those sentiments while adding: "I think that both of us in the time of our lives that we met each other didn't have many friends who were wanting to play music or write. So when we found each other, we were both encouraging each other and kind of pushing each other to be better and to work harder at our music and at our craft. It kind of, I think, ignited something inside of us where we decided, 'Oh, this is worth pursuing.' "
After a move in late 2009 to New York City didn't work out ("We basically tried to do anything we could to figure out what was gonna be our path," said Johnson, who even tried his hand at acting), they went back to Florida for a few months to regroup. A weekend trip to Nashville on a whim eventually turned into a game-changing -- and name-changing -- event in 2011.
"We weren't really thinking that we were going to live there," Meredith said of the Music City. "And then we were living there by the end of the month. We just fell in love with the town and the people and the community there. There aren't many towns like Nashville and we're happy to call it home."
The Saint Johns -- Louis Johnson (left) and Jordan Meredith --
will enjoy many moments in the sun.
Johnson and Meredith became the Saints Johns, worked with their mentor, pedal steel player Bruce Bouton, got booked on David Letterman and, with an EP called Open Water, officially introduced themselves to the town where dynamic duos can rise or fall.
"It got us in the right rooms with like the really cool young people that were also doing what we're doing," Johnson said of the EP with five songs he and Meredith co-wrote. "I definitely think with Open Water, if you listen to it, it's very much the Americana singer-songwriter feel. And for this new record, Dead of Night, we really tried to kind of push our boundaries there and get out of Nashville and tried to make a record that maybe was a little more unique to us."
The final piece in assembling a picture-perfect puzzle was hiring Grammy Award-winning producer David Kahne, whose impressive clientele has included Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, the Bangles and Lana Del Rey.
"He works so much differently than we are used to, which was really cool for us because it really took us out of our comfort zone and kind of pushed us in ways that I think made us better," Meredith said of the project she and Johnson began three years earlier. "Just the way that he records vocals and the way he goes about making records. ... He's mapping out every detail in excruciating detail. And it's ... it was in a way that first kind of drove us a little crazy. And then we realized like that's his genius. He is so inside of a song and he is concerned about every part."
The two wrote four of the 12 songs on their own, getting assists elsewhere from Daly ("Dead of Night," "Lost the Feeling") and other prominent Nashville folks such as Jake Etheridge ("Shadowplay," "Oh St. Johns") and Sugar + the Hi-lows co-founder and hitmaker Trent Dabbs ("he's batting 1.000 right now" with "Caught Me Dyin" and "Testifier," Johnson said) that ultimately led to the sound every ear should hear.
"We were kind of scared that if we invited somebody else into that, that it wasn't going to be true to ourselves," Meredith said. "And instead I think we found that bringing other people in, especially people that were our friends that we trusted, that it brought out more of what we are as a group."
Recorded in New York's Avatar Studios with the Saint Johns' blend of voices that had developed over time, Kahne, according to Johnson, told them, "There's a lot of duos out there and what we have to do on this record is we have to showcase how you write vocal melody."
Instead of singing typical harmony, which "was kind of boring," Meredith said, their goal was to make two voices seem like one.
"So if you're humming along, you're not going to just do my part of just do Jo's part," Johnson explained. "You're gonna be singing kind of a combination of the two if we've done our job right. That's kind of what (Kahne) found interesting about us, I think, most of all."
With rock 'n' roll hearts and electricity running through their veins, the Saint Johns were aiming more for Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty than a robust version of the late, great Civil Wars. The laid-back duo of John Paul White and Joy Williams who were once the toast of Tennessee and beyond proved that sticking to business doesn't necessarily guarantee a happily-ever-after ending.
Other than being linked as a "boy-girl duo," the Saint Johns plan to dodge any comparisons or controversy. Currently touring with electric guitarist Jamie Mitchell, they hope to expand their stage act in the future to include a drummer and bass and keyboard players.
"Our EP was a little bit closer to the vein of what (the Civil Wars) did and, you know, I think just because of how we wanted our live performances to look and sound, we kind of stepped out of that bubble," Johnson said.
As serious as they are about their profession, though, it's comforting to know the Saint Johns aren't always focused on their work. Listen to them turn into a playfully bickering couple with the mention of one name -- Kardashian, Meredith's not-so-guilty pleasure.
Asked if that infatuation was real, she revealed, "I definitely keep up with the Kardashians. ... Kourtney's my favorite, if you needed to know. She speaks in a monotone voice and I just think she's ... here's the thing, and I could be wrong. And I think a lot of people will not agree with me but I think they're a lot smarter than they allow themselves to be portrayed on TV."
While Meredith laughed in the background, Johnson couldn't help but respond. "I want you to know there's a yin and yang thing happening here with the Kardashians," he said. "I'm definitely the one who's not feeling that way about them. There needs to be this black and white in the world. There has to be a balance. So that's me and Jo. She's the Kardashian fan and I'm not."
As the subject of reality TV spun out of control (Meredith outed Johnson for going to "college with a girl that was on this season" of The Bachelor), a twist on this successfully platonic and creative relationship came to mind.
Whether you're making love, war or art, it takes two to tangle.
Publicity photos courtesy of the artist.