Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano were down to their last $20 when they joined the line of people at the Paris bus stop. They weren’t married yet, and Johnnyswim was still in its youth. Amanda was in France for a modeling job and Abner was posing as her manager so he could go, too. The couple couldn’t afford a real vacation, but this was close enough. Neither of them knew where the bus was going. They bought two tickets.
The bus took them to the town of Greve in Chianti. It was the annual Chianti Classico wine festival, and local merchants had set up shop in the village. Abner and Amanda bought two sampling glasses with the last of their money and spent the day exploring. They ate cheese and olives and bread and drank the local wine. It was, in their minds, a perfect day.
“There’s something so beautiful about that time, when we hadn’t seen any dreams come to fruition yet,” Amanda says. “We were the richest poor kids ever.”
That was 2010. Amanda and Abner—27 then, 35 now—were so broke they had to use money from their church’s charity fundraiser to buy snacks for Bible study (“It was still a nonprofit using it. We didn’t have any profit,” Abner jokes.). Amanda was working at Starbucks to make ends meet while Abner bussed tables at P.F. Chang’s.
“We were fighting hard for our dreams,” Amanda says. “But that doesn’t mean we didn’t love where we were. At some point, hopefully, we would have money to buy food regularly, and go to Paris just because, but until then, it was awesome to spend our budget on whatever we could and be together.”
When you’ve found the right person, nothing else feels like enough.
The Johnnyswim story actually begins in 2001. Abner was sitting next to his then-girlfriend in a Nashville church lobby when he saw Amanda across the room and said aloud, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” That’s when the girlfriend became his former girlfriend. If some people wear emotions on their sleeves, Abner’s heart comes bursting out of his chest.
Amanda saw Abner, too. He was surrounded by girls. “He’s trouble,” she thought. She was on a mission to be a professional recording artist, and if some people fight for their dreams, Amanda is a one-woman army. She didn’t have time for a guy trying to hit on her at church.
The two made eye contact. Abner stood up, but Amanda cocked one of her deadliest weapons: a vicious eye roll. It sent Abner right back into his seat. They didn’t say a word to one another, and they wouldn’t see one another again for four years, when they met in a studio and formed Johnnyswim.
Sorrow is going to happen, but despair is, in some ways, a choice.
The reunion came in 2005, and this time, their connection was obvious. Amanda felt a freedom with Abner she hadn’t felt in any of her past recording sessions, and Abner, well, he remembers a lot about what Amanda wore in those days (a certain red dress of hers sticks in his mind). Regardless, their differing attentions merged onto one wavelength. They had something.
“It felt so refreshing,” Amanda says. “It wasn’t about being cool. It was about expression. With him, I could be creative in the way I wanted.”
Abner had another takeaway: “I just remember [thinking] our voices sounded good together.” He smiles. “I processed that to mean I could spend more time with her. That worked for me.”
Johnnyswim came together because Abner and Amanda had the same dreams and the same drive, but that drive had different manifestations for each of them. Abner was like a tree frog leaping from leaf to leaf, never settling and rarely threatened.
“That kid was brave,” he says of his younger self. “He knew what he wanted. And what I’m most proud of is he was willing to be broken. Sometimes I envy the bright-eyed hopefulness he had. There’s things I would flinch at now I would never have flinched at then. There was something exciting about that.”
And if Abner was a tree frog, Amanda was a snapping turtle, singular and defensive, a fighter.
“That girl wanted the best,” Amanda says. “She was willing to work hard for the things she believed in. She worked at Starbucks. She moved in with her parents. She made herself seem like a failure to the people
around her in order to get the best. I’m proud of her for that.”
While Amanda dug in, Abner kept playing things fast and loose, even when they began dating. He had always been around women. He grew up in a house full of them—his mom, two sisters, his grandma— and held many close female friends. One friend was too close. She would come onto Abner and Amanda would flag it, but Abner would brush it off. It reached the point where Amanda didn’t trust him to keep proper boundaries.
“Abner didn’t realize the power he had over other girls,” she says.“Not all the girls out there were just trying to be friends. It felt unsafe. There was a part of me that felt he liked the attention, and I wasn’t sure I could trust him.”
Abner says all of Amanda’s fears were justified.
“I’m the baby of my family, and the babies end up being the performers because they can create their own reality in a way,” he says. “But I had somebody I loved with all my heart present me with a truth I couldn’t ignore. It was time for me to soul-search. I had to be wrong in a way I wasn’t used to.”
Amanda and Abner broke up, but while they worked through their trust issues, Johnnyswim stayed together. It was a deal the couple made in the beginning: Regardless of their relationship status, Johnnyswim would persist.
So while the couple was split, they kept touring, recording and doing photo shoots. Their dream was too important.
During one shoot, the photographer asked Abner and Amanda to stand face-to-face. It was too much for Abner, and he screamed in frustration, but Amanda stood her ground, poised and regal. The camera snapped, and the couple kept the picture. To this day, Abner says it’s his favorite photo. It’s them.
Abner wanted Amanda back, but his passion needed discipline. So he gathered his emotions, reined them in and recommitted himself to her. The couple was back together after two weeks, and it was forever from there. Johnnyswim was married a year after the breakup.
“If that break didn’t happen, we would have carried a lot of those trust issues into our marriage,” Amanda says. “The term ‘speed bump’ is a good one when you’re talking about relationships. We try to slow down and make sure we’re on the same page, and that’s what speed bumps are for. I think we look at obstacles as ways to make us stronger instead of things that make us insecure.”
Nothing tested Amanda and Abner’s resilience more than a 10-month stretch between 2011 and 2012, when the sudden death of Abner’s father coincided with a terminal-cancer diagnosis for Amanda’s mother, legendary disco singer Donna Summer. When loss is sudden, it’s more painful but more revealing. You don’t have time to calculate your reaction to the pain, so what emerges is the most honest, unfiltered version of yourself.
Abner’s father was in the intensive care unit after a severe stroke. It was going to take a miracle. Abner’s emotions were running hot, and he vowed to stay at the hospital until his father walked out. His family, gathered to say goodbye, questioned him.
“My hope brought up these questions from my family: ‘What’s going to happen to your faith if he dies? How can you put all your hope in him surviving this thing?’” he remembers. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know, but I’m going to hope.’ Any theology I have has taught me that, even if I’m about to be thrown into a literal fire, I can have hope I’ll be brought out without even smelling like smoke.” After eight days with his father in the ICU, Abner was thrown in the fire. “The worst case scenario happened,” he says. “He was gone.”
There’s a Bethel worship song called “God, I Look to You.” While Abner was with his father, Amanda was outside, praying and singing. She sang that song every day, and she sang it the day Abner’s father died.
Abner remembers after his dad’s death, he and Amanda and his family walked by the river in downtown Jacksonville, Florida. They sang the song together: “God I look to You / I won’t be overwhelmed / Give me vision to see things like You do / Hallelujah, our God reigns.”
“I realized in time all those prayers of healing didn’t just evaporate into the sky,” Abner says. “The hope we held on to dug a well of joy that to this day, seven years later, we’re still drinking from. We weren’t destroyed by the passing of my father, and we weren’t destroyed by the passing of Amanda’s mother. I believe those prayers did something greater than healing, they showed us even when the worst happens, hope is still here.”
Amanda broadens his point: “Sorrow is going to happen, but despair is, in some ways, a choice,” she says. “You can get lost in despair because despair is hopeless, but sorrow you can carry with joy. There was grace in walking through that time together. We learned how the other one hurts.”
Amanda was born into a legacy of music, but in many ways, she’s self-made. She’s always been steady, but in that season, she had to be solid enough for another person to lean on her. That’s why she stood outside that room in the ICU. And when her mother passed in 2012, she had to let Abner be strong for her, too.
“If you put pressure on something, it becomes real and lasting,” Amanda says. “I believe there are generations of healing because we pressed in instead of letting ourselves sink into despair. Even in times when there’s incredible pressure on you and your family and the dreams you’re pursuing, even in those tough moments, there are diamonds.”
In 2014, after nine years of working, recording, going on pseudo-vacations and learning how to trust one another, Johnnyswim released their first full- length album. It reached No. 1 on the Singer-Songwriter charts and stayed there for weeks. It was Diamonds. Johnnyswim’s music is a moment in time. It’s specific and detailed. With two studio albums and three EPs released so far, plus a third full-length on the way, Abner and Amanda have created a series of time capsules marking each period of their lives.
The couple has said often they want to make music their children would
like. They’re joined on the road now by their son, Joaquin, 3, and their daughter, Luna, 4 months. Joaquin listens to all his parents’ music, and Abner and Amanda play him the music they record to see if he likes it. Sometimes, late at night, they hear him singing their songs to himself over the baby monitor.
“I hope when our kids hear our music they have a sense of who we are,” Amanda says. “I hope in those songs they know how cherished and loved they are.”
“In every song we write, we leave a little bit of ourselves inside,” Abner adds. “We pour ourselves into our music in a real way. I hope they hear us, our being, ourselves.”
Johnnyswim’s music is timeless, too. It reaches backward and forward. It captures who Abner and Amanda were in the past, who they are now and the artists, partners and parents they aspire to become.
“I had all these dreams as a kid,” Amanda says. “Dreams of singing and of who I wanted to be, but I didn’t know how to get there. I remember being overwhelmed about this future version of myself. Sometimes I’ll write for younger me and make sure I live up to what I dreamed.”
Even if I’m about to be thrown into a literal fire, I can have hope I’ll be brought out without even smelling like smoke.
For Abner, it’s about evoking an emotion. “If it’s a sad song, I want you to feel known in the hurts that you have,” he says. “If it’s a happy song, I want you to feel that, too. The magic of art is the ability to capture a feeling and deliver it to people. I can almost see that thing that comes out of us.”
Johnnyswim’s feelings for each other are obvious. When they perform together, Abner can’t take his eyes off his wife. He might unleash a half-smile and she’ll walk over and undo a button on his shirt, and his half-smile will spread across his entire face. She anchors his emotions. He crumbles her defenses.
Amanda and Abner have known one another for 17 years. They’ve made music together for 13 and have been married for eight. Their story is defined, through the triumphs and the failures, by passion. Some might say passion runs out on you. For them, it never will.
“Passion doesn’t feel like something that has to keep getting refilled,” Amanda says. “I see it like a well. It’s something I have to keep open, so the water can keep coming up from the ground.”
Abner agrees. “I don’t think you have to conjure passion, you just have to make yourself available to it,” he says. “And you can’t be cynical about yourself or others. I think the most cynical people are also the most still. Passion moves you to do something and say something.”
Johnnyswim has never stopped moving, even through challenge, heartache and the unknown. Sometimes they don’t know where the bus is going, but it doesn’t matter. They have a seat next to someone they love-with depth, with honesty—so much.
Tyler Daswick is a senior writer at Relevant. Follow him on Twitter @tylerdaswick.