This Thursday night on VH1, the music channel hosts its "You Oughta Know" concert series featuring Lorde, Ed Sheeran, The Lumineers, Emeli Sande, Matt Nathanson, HAIM and Johnnyswim. While The Lumineers swelled to fame with "Ho Hey" and Sheeran ("The A Team") and Lorde ("Royals") became household names, Johnnyswim spent 2013 being the band you really oughta know.
The married duo has crisscrossed the country this year, peddling its first mainstream release, the Heartbeats EP, and appearing on tour with Sande and on late night talk shows, at the Spoleto Festival and at the global Catalyst conference.
So, who are Johnnyswim? Great songwriters, for one. Their EP's title track and "Home" are sweetly intense his-and-hers stories set to grooves which are not easily pigeonholed. Amanda Sudano is Donna Summer's daughter, with a heaven-sent voice and a face that launched a thousand Tumi ads; her partner, Abner Ramirez, is the second coming of Jeff Buckley, minus the angst, plus a sexy Latin vibe. But I shouldn't try to pin Johnnyswim down: Just when I think I know what their music is about, each listen reveals another layer.
"People want to categorize things," says Sudano, who shares Johnnyswim's vocal and writing duties with her hubby. "So when [audiences first saw us] -- two brown people -- they thought, 'Oh, the music is R&B.' Or then they'd see our guitars and think, 'It's totally folk.' It takes a lot of work to figure out where you fit in. But if you don't mind not fitting in for awhile, you can discover who you are, which we've had a lot of fun doing."
Johnnyswim's path to discovery includes songwriting stints in Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville, where they recorded parts of the Heartbeats EP in their guest bedroom on a laptop with a copy of Logic software from Sudano's producer dad, Bruce. Ramirez says the recording was borne out of frustration. "Musicians are always looking for a champion -- a manager, a label. Waiting for the right person, you might miss out on creating your opportunity of building something on your own. So we thought, 'Let's go buy a microphone.'"
Sudano says she grew up listening to "everything from Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye to the Carpenters, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash" -- and those are but a few of the influences that pop up on Heartbearts. While the instrumentation is often upbeat, the lyrics have gravitas.
"We went through a really tough time a couple of years ago. Abner lost his dad and I lost my mom and grandmother, all in about 10 months. So we had this heavy-hitting few months and 'Heartbeats' and 'Adelina' were birthed out of that. 'Don't Let It Get You Down" was when the fog lifted and we started being joyful again."
Johnnyswim have led worship at Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, but they're not part of the contemporary Christian music scene.
"You are going to have songs that are about what you believe in, spiritually," Sudano says. "And you might have songs about a breakup or a song about what you ate last night. We're Christians and we're musicians."
"I want to be able to drink whiskey and cuss and not have it affect my record sales," Ramirez, who was raised a Southern Baptist, jokes. "Seriously, I just want to make music."
VH1's You Oughta Know concert airs Thursday evening, November 21 on VH1. Check local listings for air times.