Everyone’s had a quarantine project. Maybe you wanted to finish reading the Great American Novel. Maybe you wanted to finish writing it. Maybe you wanted to learn a new language, pick up juggling or just connect with a few old friends.
Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano, the husband-wife duo better known as Johnnyswim, had their own quarantine project. But Songs With Strangers isn’t quite like any other project out there. They talked to RELEVANT about what it is, how it came together — and how you can get involved.
Tell me about your quarantine project: Songs With Strangers. It sounds like it’s taken on a life of its own.
ABNER: I had this idea. And I’ve never seen it before, and I still haven’t seen it since: Songs with Strangers. What if we got on Instagram Live and selected a person completely at random, wrote a song with them, and recorded that song and released it that night? And I was like, “Man, that’s really ballsy. Maybe impossible. I don’t know, but let’s give this thing a shot.” I was like, “Yo, I’m really stoked. What if we did this thing? What if we just spend a day and we just record what we can, we do what we can, we invite the viewer into the entire experience?” For us, we were supposed to be playing every night in front of 12,000 people for months. We were still supposed to be on tour now. And those shows all got canceled and postponed to next year. And so there’s this energy of being on the road and being in front of people, the risk. So it was an opportunity for us to feel that sense of alive music again. Let’s do something ridiculous. Let’s write with people who don’t write songs. Let’s do it in front of folks. Let’s interact the entire time.
AMANDA: He likes being on Instagram Live. He could have spent his whole day just talking to random people on Instagram Live. He loves it. I, on the other hand, am hiding in the background. I’m just trying to cook dinner. I don’t need to say hi to everybody right now. I just got out of the shower and I’m just cooking dinner. So when Abner first came out, he thought that I was going to say, “Nah, you have fun with that.” But I was like, “No, that actually sounds like fun.” My expectations for fun were high, but for what we were actually going to come out of it, I was like oh whatever, it’ll be fun, we’ll write a song about whatever. I thought, “Oh, we’re going to come up with a fun little ditty and we’ll get it done.” And then all of a sudden …
ABNER: We get there, we start writing. And I think to your point, it was a complete shock where it ended up going. Amanda and I have written countless songs together. There’s all kinds of inspiration that happens, stories you hear. Your own life, stories that evolve and are created through your own experience. And sometimes you sit to write, and you spend a lot of time trying to feel something because you want to feel it before you spout it out. And then getting on the same page with that emotion, with that story. How are we going to create it? What do we even want to say? And I realized we just skipped to third base in songwriting. Because all the emotion we wanted was there, we both were on the same page, it had language to it already, and this song just came tumbling out of us. We thought we’d do it once or twice. We ended up making six songs, six different groups of people. We ended up having seven writers on it, on the six songs. Each a different story, a different person completely chosen at random.
What I like about this project is it could have happened a million different ways, but it couldn’t have happened at all without the people you talked to. It was entirely dependant on these strangers.
ABNER: There’s a friend of ours named George, he makes bespoke shoes. He literally takes a cast of your foot, makes a mold of your foot, and then builds the shoe latched around it. The shoe that he makes for you is completely conformed to the absolute originality of your shape of foot. Your left foot is going to be a little different than your right one. It rocked my world. I realized that life is like that. Life, our journeys, are completely bespoke to us. You can’t compare yours to someone else’s, because that’s completely theirs. And yours is completely yours.
None of these songs would exist without the people we wrote them with. Could we have written a song that day? Yes. Would we have written these songs? Absolutely not. There’s a zero percent chance that we write “Still Wonderful” if it’s not with Rebecca Gore. There’s a zero percent chance we write “Wait” without Maddy Stanitsky. There’s a zero percent chance of all those things. And it really got me so fired up with the importance of each of us.
We are a singular expression of God himself on this planet. He won’t do it again. He won’t be like, “All right, that was a cool Abner in 2020. It’s 3219. Let’s get another Abner in there, see if he can do it better.” There’s just us. We’re all we have of us and how special and unique this walk is, this life is. Anyways, the wow factor for me of what I expected from Songs with Strangers to what we got, doesn’t just include the songs, all our super talented friends that donated their time to be a part of it. It includes what happened in me, being a part of it. I’m better because of the strangers I met on Instagram Live.
AMANDA: I just remember having a lot of creative dreams, and feeling like there were a lot of obstacles. I really didn’t know what to do, and it felt so overwhelming. And I think that feeling of being overwhelmed was more paralyzing than my lack of actual stuff to use for my dreams. And so that’s why I’m also excited to have this album out there. I hope that somebody can look through it and be like, “Oh, so it’s not just like they’ve got everything sorted. There are kids running in, there’s stuff going on.
ABNER: Kids are messing up guitar takes, vocal takes.
AMANDA: Yeah. You can still pursue passions wildly. It doesn’t always have to be sterile, you know?
You can find the entire Songs With Strangers projects at thesongswithstrangers.com.