Some things are built to last. During the course of its two decades of making records, O.A.R. — lead singer and primary songwriter Marc Roberge, drummer Chris Culos, guitarist Richard On, bassist Benj Gershman and saxophonist/guitarist Jerry DePizzo—has created and maintained a sort of a parallel universe. In effect hiding in plain sight from the world outside, the band fills arenas and amphitheaters as it crafts and releases relatable songs with big pop hooks, all of this activity going down completely apart from the mainstream. Within this universe, these songs are bona fide hits, and the band members are superstars.
Now, 20 years, endless shows and 13 albums later, O.A.R. (an acronym for the band’s full name: .…of a revolution) has assembled a comprehensive career overview: XX ; a 24-track, half-studio and half-live collection, shines a light on key moments from this vital, prolific band’s recording career. As a bonus to O.A.R.’s ecstatically devoted fans, the set opens with a pair of inspired, newly written songs: “Follow Me, Follow You” and “I Go Through,” which were written and recorded as the cameras rolled during Qello Concerts’ captivating six-part docu-series Evolution of a Song.
“People like being part of what we are doing, because we exist and we succeed within our own community,” Roberge points out. “We have no desire to exist or succeed by someone else’s standards. We just want to provide for our families and give them every opportunity, and do that by playing shows and making music.”
XX is neither a career culmination nor a conventional greatest-hits album; rather, it’s a sizing up, a series of aural snapshots on a continuing journey. Roberge views O.A.R.’s evolution as a series of stepping stones—he refers to this zigzagging movement as “island-hopping”—and each of the songs on XX represents a moment of significance for the bandmembers and for their devoted fans. The one song that appears twice, “That Was a Crazy Game of Poker,” a definitive tune that dates back to that first album, The Wanderer, closes Disc One of XX, while an extended take recorded during the band’s triumphant 2015 “You Pick the Set Tour” at Providence’s Fete Music Hall climaxes Disc Two.
Roberge breaks down the rationale behind the selection of some of the other tracks he and his bandmates have identified as “springboards to the next moment” in O.A.R.’s narrative. The medley of their own “Night Shift” and Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “Stir It Up,” on which they were joined by reggae legend Junior Marvin, “was a live recording at the 9:30 Club in D.C., ” Roberge recalls. “It combined our music and the music we’ve always loved. We didn’t want to play Bob Marley’s music or reggae in general unless we received some sort education in that music from the people who were there, and Junior bridged that gap—he came out and made it a moment for us.” The album, 2002’s Any Time Now, went gold.
“I Feel Home,” from the same album, “has to be on there because it harkens back to innocent times—our very beginnings,” Roberge explains. “Playing that song with two friends on the trunk of a car in a driveway in Rockville, Maryland, singlehandedly shaped how I saw things and my attitude toward songwriting for years. I thought—and I still do—that songwriting was supposed to be: Write what you know, be honest and invite people into your world. And that’s exactly what we did with that song.”
Fast-forward five years to “War Song.” “In 2007, we went to Iraq and Kuwait to play songs for our troops with the USO,” Roberge explains. “It was a huge moment. When we got back, we wrote this song about the people we had met—a song about the warrior, not the war.” This recording is from Live on Red Rocks.
If there’s a thread that runs through this music—from the band’s humble beginnings to its present hard-earned status, it’s affirmation and uplift. This expansive humanistic impulse, which remains a central aspect of the band’s appeal to its legion of fans, “comes from a few different places,” Roberge notes.
“In the beginning, I hadn’t really done anything yet except dream about this magical place where we could all follow these ideals and be awesome. Then you go a little bit further into the career, and you’re still really feeling that your goal is to lift people up, but you start to do it out of frustration—that things aren’t the way you thought they were or could be. When you get to that point, you have to scream even louder to make a difference.
“Later on, when you find yourself backed up against the wall, and that’s when the real test comes. That was when we really began to connect as a group, and we became aligned with a sort of philosophy of human movement. We just stay honest and try to bring people up. Because we fall just as often as everybody else, and sometimes I have to coach myself to keep my chin up. I just transfer that inner dialogue into the music.”
In a sense, then, every O.A.R. show is a communal celebration in which Roberge and his bandmates preside over a town hall meeting of their constituents. It’s a unifying, reassuring and ultimately ecstatic experience, for the bandmembers as well as the enrapt faces in the crowd spread out in front of them.
“It feels therapeutic,” Roberge says. “I feel like I am in complete control of my life for those two or three hours. I’m riding this rollercoaster up and down through each song, expressing what I’m thinking, feeling and living—and everybody else is experiencing the same thing. So we’re all in it together for the duration of the show. When it’s over, everybody feels better. That’s what happens every single night. I never go into a show thinking I have to do this. I always think, I get to do this.”
This communal process of therapy/exorcism/ecstasy animates the songs and performances handpicked by the bandmembers to represent the magical world they first envisioned as teenagers and have inhabited ever since. Some dreams die hard. And some dreams are built to last.
You won’t forget the first time you heard The Rua. It will be on a day such as this when nothing feels right and it seems like as good an idea as any to fill the silence with reason. Songs very rarely make you stand up and sing but Fight For What’s Right and Stand Out and Into The Crowd and Follow just might. And you could stand here all day and say that The Rua sound like this and The Rua sound like that but it wouldn’t get you anywhere – you’d still be standing up and singing.
Rua means essence of a group – or at least, “we found a meaning from the Hebrew word Ruah with an h at the end and we really liked it but we didn’t like the h” – and the essence of The Rua are all members of the same family: 22 year old year old chanteuse Roseanna Brown provides voice and guitar, 24 year old Alanna Brown is responsible for piano and backing vocals and 19 year old Jonathan Brown plays violin and guitar and provides vocals and backing vocals. Of course, a further investigation of rua reveals that the word has a myriad of Gaelic connections and certainly the band have Irish blood flowing through their collective veins. Having said that, The Rua all live in the same house near Windsor, England and yes, you guessed it, they’ve spent most New Year and Xmas holidays back in the Emerald Isle. And, no, they’re not the new Monkees.
Aside from the fact they all live together, The Rua also have a theatrical background: Alanna has appeared in the film Closer as well as no less than four Harry Potter movies whilst all of them appeared in Stormbreaker and Roseanna – who’s appeared in three Harry Potter films – also appeared in Snow White and The Huntsman and the Thor movie. And perhaps if we also mentioned that Jonathan appeared in one of the Harry Potters (as well as Dark Shadows) then we can understand why you might want to refer to them as HP4, HP3 and HP1. But we’re not going to do this. Ever.
The Rua are all classically trained – pianists, violinists, singers – and their membership of many established choirs means that they “have a standard and always listen to each other.” Roseanna has a degree in Music from Royal Holloway – although all studied music at A Level and Alanna has a degree and Masters in Science – but before you start thinking that this must be some kind of operatic outfit let’s get one thing clear: The Rua are an outlandishly-epic, indie version of bands like Fleetwood Mac and The Cranberries and the kind of band that hits the Coldplay/Snow Patrol nerve before you’ve even gotten as far as their exceptional choruses. So yes, we have to say it: they’re going to sell millions.
And so to the songs – which are all co-written – on the band’s debut album Essence: opener Fight For What’s Right is about “having a belief and letting people know you’re going to stick to it”; the colossal Stand Out is about a family friend who sadly died but throughout her illness selflessly encouraged the Brown enfants to be themselves and follow their dreams; Without You is about being independent and knowing that you can trust in yourself to get on with your own life; Into The Crowd is about those that surprise you in ways that you wouldn’t think possible; and best of all, Follow, is a song about letting go of others who want to follow another path and, perhaps, if you will, a The Rua version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way.’
In an era where manufactured pop is considered to be the height of creative ambition, a band like The Rua might be considered something of an anachronism. Except, of course, that if anything, The Rua beat the X Factor wannabes at their own game: they craft beautiful and epic tunes out of their own non-artificial artfulness. Live and on record the band are completed by ex Blondie bassist Nigel Harrison – co-writer of One Way Or Another and Union City Blues amongst other Blondie gems – and Portishead drummer Clive Deamer who’s also drummed with Radiohead, Roni Size and Siouxsie Sioux amongst others. Naturally, apart from absolutely destroying the average age of the band, they provide a unique, possibly symbiotic backdrop to this essential rock group – a band you’re going to remember for a long, long time.
A small town that forces a strong bond is where the greatest loves begin, and Walking on Cars are no exception. These five school-mates and natives of the tiny town of Dingle on Ireland’s southwest coast, have the noisy energy of a large, unruly family, hugging each other close, but fighting to be heard. Starting the music writing process in the “bleakest winter” they can remember, isolated and with nothing else to do but huddle and create, the band got on their tour bus and soon became Ireland’s biggest independent band, with two top 30 hits and an iTunes chart smash. On the day that the band announced their album release in Ireland last year, it was the only album pre-order higher than Adele on any iTunes store anywhere in the world – a testament to the band’s status in their home country and the story spreading to the UK and internationally this year.
But where they humbly started is obvious in songs such as Tick Tock, Always Be With You, Speeding Cars and Catch Me If You Can, with an emotional connection that only deep-rooted friends possess. This special relationship is just as evident when you sit down with them. As is the sense of listening in to a conversation that sounds like it’s ceaseless, and equal parts piss-taking banter and affectionate bicker. Here, by way of illustration, is their response to a question about precisely when, and how, they formed:
Paul: “Me, Dan and Evan were in a band from when we were about 12, at school.” Patrick: “And I was in a band with Dan’s little brother.” Sorcha: “My brother was in the band as well.” Patrick: “I gave Sorcha a call, I knew she played the piano, and we just started writing together, and pretty soon we both thought, ‘We need to get some more heads in on this.’ At the time, I was playing acoustic guitar, then Paul came in, and he was playing acoustic guitar. As was Sorcha’s brother. Eventually, we realised we had a problem.” Dan: “I was in Australia, working in Sydney, and they put something up on Facebook about trying to find a guitarist. At the time, I was thinking, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’. I’d decided I was coming home, so I sent Paul a message, saying I’d give it a go.”
The careful chaos that ensues from a five-piece band of brothers is apparent, but so is their bond, and love for their hometown – which hosts the annual Other Voices music festival (and boasts a pet dolphin named Fungie in it’s harbour) – “It’s so much part of who we are,” says Dan, “and I think the way the music has developed is a lot to do with the environment we’re in, and how we run our operation.” “We socialise together as well,” explains Sorcha, “and we all have the same friends. We’re lucky that we get to travel; but we’re even luckier that we get to go back there. Plus we can stay there and do what we do, when a lot of people our age have to move away because there aren’t many opportunities.” “It’s tricky in the winter, though,” says Paul. “There’s just nobody there. I can remember, when I was a bit younger, sitting in the pub with these old guys, and thinking, ‘I’ve got to get the hell out of here.’”
Early rehearsals took place in Paul’s kitchen, “but that wasn’t very good for our health,” he chuckles. “So we rented a house, in the middle of nowhere.” “And we’d no transport,” adds Sorcha, “so if we went there, we’d have to stay for a few days.” “There was no internet,” says Paul, nostalgically, “no mobile phone coverage, just a load of instruments, some mics, and us. And we’d take it in turns to cook.” “We like old farmhouses, the more isolated the better,” Paul muses. “Somewhere in town would be too much of a distraction. You know, ‘Er, I’m just popping out to the shop’; and, three pints later … ”
Armed with lyrics that veer between tenderness and anguish, soundscapes that, sit back, intricate and restrained, and then explode into colour, and vocals that roar of heartache and romantic longing, Walking On Cars headed out on the road. They knew that the next step was to test the waters and see if their music could find an audience. “I never really thought of myself as a lead singer,” says Patrick. “I’m pretty shy, and I kind of like to hide behind things. I didn’t realise that being a singer would focus so much attention on me.” (Patrick’s being ridiculously modest: he’s a messianic frontman, hurling himself off the precipice, and taking the band with him.) As expected, Paul has a slightly different angle on the experience of playing live. “For me, sometimes I’ll start saying something on stage and I’ll think, ‘What in the name of God is this stuff coming out of my mouth? Play something! Please save me!’” When she’s managed to stop laughing, Sorcha adds her own take. “Both my parents are uilleann pipers, and growing up, I learnt classical piano. When the band first started, I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I had to learn to play rhythmically rather than intricately – and that’s even more the case live. We’ve been through a lot in the past two years, played some great gigs and some not so good ones. Local radio has been amazing in Ireland, they really got behind us. Now, it almost feels like we’re starting all over again, but we have the experience from playing so many times back home.”
“It was always about getting as many fans as possible,” Sorcha continues, “playing as many gigs as we could, and pleasing the fans rather than anybody else. And that’s what happened: our shows got bigger and bigger, we were building a fan base, and people started to take notice.” “We spent two years travelling all around Ireland,” says Evan, “and eventually we were selling out every show and scoring numbers. But there was no label involved, no publicists; we were doing everything ourselves. Our only aim was to save money so we could record the album.” “We didn’t chase a record deal at all,” Paul stresses. “We always thought, ‘Let them come to us.’”
Which they duly did, with Virgin EMI winning the day. The early singles Catch Me If You Can and Two Stones were both Top 30 hits in Ireland, the former also topping the iTunes charts there. The As We Fly South and Hand in Hand EPs followed it to the number one spot, as the band hunkered down in the studio with the MyRiot production team of Tim Bran and Roy Kerr (whose past credits include London Grammar, Bloc Party and Foxes) to record their debut album. All the while, the buzz got louder, their epic songs being streamed over 5 million times, selling out three London headline shows last year including The Scala and Electric Ballroom, and dominating Ireland’s most prominent venues, playing two sold out nights at the Olympia in Dublin and Killarney INEC arena. Now, with their much anticipated debut album ‘Everything This Way’ set for release in January, 2016 is theirs for the taking.
Born in the port city of Hull in Northern England, Calum Scott is disarmingly direct – a quality that informs his self-penned, ripped-from-the-soul songs and that’s apparent even when he is interpreting another artist’s material, as his poignant cover of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” demonstrates.
Shortly after Scott self-released “Dancing On My Own” in March 2016, the song went viral in over 34 countries on Spotify, peaking at No. 2 on the Global Viral 50. The single charted at No. 1 in more than six countries, including the U.S., and ranked in the Top 10 in over 20 countries on Spotify. “Dancing On My Own” has charted in iTunes’ Top 10 in more than 12 countries and has now spent four weeks in the Top 40 of the U.K.’s Official Singles Chart hitting #27 and climbing. The accompanying video is also a viral hit, with views exceeding 23 million.
“When I recorded ‘Dancing On My Own’ in my bedroom, I never thought for a second that it would reach as far as it has and bring this level of support from literally all over the globe,” says Calum Scott. “I’m so excited about the next chapter because there is so much to come!”
Now signed to Capitol Records, Scott is currently working on his debut album. He was a finalist on the 2015 season of “Britain’s Got Talent.”
BLUE OCTOBER is the Texas-based band known for its shimmering melodies and heart-string pulling lyrics, boasting a powerful line-up of players and one of the most emotionally charged and magnetic front men in music today in Justin Furstenfeld.
Blue October has charted NINE Top 40 Hot AC and Alternative singles over EIGHT albums with songs like “Into The Ocean,” “Hate Me,” “Home” “Calling You,” “Dirt Room,” “Say It,” “Bleed Out” and “Fear” from albums such as 2009’s Billboard Top 200 #13 debut ‘Approaching Normal,’ 2011’s Billboard #8 debut ‘Any Man In America,’ the Platinum-selling ‘Foiled’, Billboard’s #13 debut ‘Sway,’ and most recently 2016’s new album ‘Home’ #1 Alternative Album, #1 Rock Album, #1 Independent Album, #5 Current Album Top 200 reaching audiences around the world.
On April 22nd, 2016, Blue October released their 8th studio album, titled Home. This album was co-produced by Justin Furstenfeld and Tim Palmer and features mixes from Tim Palmer and Mark Needham.
Since releasing his five-times-platinum debut single “Home” in spring 2012, Phillip Phillips has put out two chart-topping albums and taken his earthy but expansive brand of guitar-fueled rock to stages across the globe. With his rich, soulful vocals and ruggedly warm sensibilities, the Leesburg, Georgia-bred 25-year-old saw his first full-length effort The World from the Side of the Moon go platinum soon after debuting at #4 on the Billboard Top 200. In 2014 his sophomore album Behind the Light offered up the lead single “Raging Fire,” a major radio hit that revealed his bold twist on anthemic folk-rock. Now gearing up for a co-headline tour with Matt Nathanson, Phillips is also at work on a third full-length album set to showcase his newly sharpened songcraft while capturing the fiery spirit of his powerful live performance.
Raised on rock-and-roll legends like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, Phillips thrives on bringing boundless energy and thrilling unpredictability to his live shows. “I always change it up onstage, keep it really free and open,” says Phillips, whose upcoming tour also features A Great Big World and Eric Hutchinson on select dates. “You never know what’s gonna happen—even I don’t know sometimes.” That approach has proved more than winning in Phillips’s past performances, which include touring with the likes of John Mayer and sharing a stage with Bruce Springsteen at the 2013 Rock in Rio festival.
In working on his forthcoming album, Phillips aims to channel that intensity into a sound that’s heavier and more urgent than ever before. At the same time, Phillips is tapping into his longtime affinity for experimental yet massively appealing artists like Peter Gabriel, exploring more intricate arrangements as well as moodier tones and textures. That dynamic is especially suited to the emotional center of the album, which Phillips describes as partly dealing with issues like separation and all the pain and freedom that comes from parting ways. “There’ll be some sadder and more serious songs on this one, but definitely some love songs as well,” notes Phillips, who married his longtime girlfriend Hannah Blackwell in fall 2015.
While Phillips made his first two albums in New York, most of his recent songwriting sessions have taken place in Nashville. “I needed a change of scenery and a change of pace, and Nashville’s been great for putting me in that headspace of focusing on getting the right songs for this album,” says Phillips. “I’ve ended up writing more than I’ve ever written in my life, and a few times I’ve surprised myself with what I’ve come up with,” he says. “I feel like I’ve grown a lot and learned a lot as a songwriter, and it’s gotten me really excited to keep going and see what happens next.”
Phillips first started writing songs as a teenager in Leesburg, Georgia, where he learned to play guitar at age 14. After mastering riffs from classic-rock tracks like Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”—mostly by playing along to his family’s karaoke machine—he formed an acoustic band with his older sister and brother-in-law and soon added singing to his repertoire. While studying at Albany Technical College in Georgia, Phillips continued playing music with his brother-in-law, landing gigs in nearby college towns and at festivals. With encouragement from his family and friends, Phillips took a break from working in his family’s pawn shop and auditioned for American Idol in summer 2011—only to emerge as the show’s season 11 winner. Released the same day he claimed his victory, “Home” marked the most successful coronation song of any Idol winner and the highest-ever debut on the Billboard Digital songs chart.
Now living in Albany with his wife (whom he met at age 18, while the two were volunteering at a women and children’s center), Phillips has racked up plenty of live experience in recent years and taken the stage in such far-flung locales as South Africa, Argentina, and Japan. Along with seeking to deliver a truly singular, once-in-a-lifetime performance at each and every show, he also uses the stage as a breeding ground for creativity. “One of the reasons why I like to change up the show every night is that it always challenges me to come up with something new, to take the music in a different direction,” says Phillips. “Something that starts out as a jam could turn into a whole new song that I never would have found otherwise, and there’s a real beauty to that.”
Back in 2009 while running the Mercury label at Island Def Jam Records, I heard a very intriguing early version of the song “Cooler Than Me” and saw some compelling raw videos of the young artist/Duke student Mike Posner performing in front of adoring crowds and revealing a striking originality. He came into our offices, baseball cap, baggy jeans, tons of attitude and very much a star in terms of his confidence and his completely original musical point of view. I badly wanted to sign Mike but lost out to another label.
His new label turned “Cooler Than Me” into a major worldwide hit and Mike’s major debut album 31 Minutes To Takeoff connected also, but then Mike seemed to consciously disappear as an artist.
I knew he was still writing great songs and I always pursued him to at least write for our artists. He had a string of hits that others performed including Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend”, Emeli Sandé’s “Beneath Your Beautiful”, and Maroon 5’s “Sugar,” but I remained a major fan of Mike the artist. Last year at an event we held for Nick Jonas, Mike unexpectedly jumped on the piano in front of us all and spontaneously performed two magical songs: the unforgettable “Buried in Detroit” and “I Took a Pill in Ibiza.” It was as if by some mystical energy, everyone ended up singing softly with Mike the refrain of “Ibiza”…“All I know is sad songs, sad songs.”
Sometimes when Mike performs acoustically like this, the world stops. He is naked emotionally to the world, revealing himself with soul, humility, and an exceptional emotional resonance. We were all captivated and I resolved to find a way to work with him which came to pass when he signed to Island earlier this year. Since then, the real Mike, the passionately committed songwriter and sometimes autobiographer, has crafted an exceptional album which will, I believe, stand out to music lovers as an outstanding body of work, with perfect lyrics, haunting melodies, the embodiment of his simple truth and his unique voice.
He has come a long way from the hip hop student turned rock star and presents now more closely to a legend like early Elton John and greats such as Neil Young.
Mike is a remarkably talented and deeply sensitive soul and he is going to give the world a very special record beginning with his introspective, and deeply personal EP, The Truth, (out June 22nd).
Honesty, passion, and a sense of purpose flow through every song on Georgica Pond. Hailed by The New York Times as “a pairing of equals, a key finding its lock,” singing-songwriting duo JOHNNYSWIM have amplified the strengths of their critically acclaimed debut Diamonds (2014) with an album that reflects different seasons of life and love, filtered through their rousing fusion of folk, soul, pop, and rock. Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano Ramirez’s uniqueness as storytellers who possess the “sparkle of natural-born stage performers” (NPR) has cultivated a devoted audience who pack the duo’s sold-out shows. It’s those listeners and countless more who will see their reflection in the lyrics and melodies of Georgica Pond.
The album arrives two years after the Top 10 Billboard success of Diamonds, which was released after JOHNNYSWIM launched VH1’s You Oughta Know + campaign with their Heart Beats (2013) EP. “When Diamonds came out, I remember one of our first shows was in Atlanta at Smith’s Olde Bar,” Abner recalls. “The whole place was singing every word. It was one of the most overwhelming experiences of the last few years. It doesn’t matter what the three people in suits think. It matters what the 150 people showing up at a nightclub think.” The duo’s audience grew exponentially after performing at Bonnaroo and several other music festivals, along with appearances on network television programs like The Today Show and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Following the release of A JOHNNYSWIM Christmas (2014), the duo’s Live at Rockwood Music Hall (2016) CD/DVD set perfectly capped the two-year journey of Diamonds.
Produced by Abner, Georgica Pond was recorded at the couple’s home studio in Los Angeles, with bass and drum parts added at the Castle in Nashville. “We just flew an engineer out and got to work,” says Amanda. “The process felt a lot more freeing because it was all on our terms. We had the space to try things instead of being in a studio where you don’t want to take a ton of chances because there’s money being spent every minute that you’re there.” Abner adds, “I felt freedom and creativity in making a choice. On Diamonds, if I felt like a track wasn’t ready, I would add stuff to it. I looked forward to doing the opposite on Georgica Pond: I would remove layers instead of adding layers.”
JOHNNYSWIM teamed with a few different songwriters to create a listening experience that spans a range of tones and emotions. Their longtime collaborator Britten Newbill helped co-write “Summertime Romance,” an autobiographical portrait of the duo’s relationship. “It’s about enjoying life with the one you love and making the best out of every little stage of it,” says Amanda. Violinist/composer Anton Patzner accentuated the beguiling tenderness of the song with a string arrangement. “I contacted him in San Francisco and asked if he could spend some time with the song and come up with something,” says Abner. “We wanted Anton’s beautiful creativity to be the star and so we created that space for him at the very end. I’m really proud of that moment.” Indeed, Patzner’s arrangement is among the most stunning sequences on the album.
Newbill also teamed with the duo on the tuneful “Let It Matter,” a song that makes no apologies for heartache or the healing process. “I think a lot of times people don’t know how to deal with other people’s grief,” says Amanda. “They just want you to cheer up really fast. We had one friend whose father passed away right before we lost Abner’s dad and my mom. She said the best thing anybody told her was to grieve and feel everything for people that are worth that kind of mourning. Let it matter and let it really sink in.” The anthemic quality that distinguished JOHNNYSWIM’s previous collaborations with Newbill on songs like “Diamonds” and “Home” also sparks “Drunks.” As Abner explains, “It’s a call to purpose. The resounding sentiment between Amanda, myself, and Britten when we wrote ‘Drunks’ was what greater purpose is there than unity or love?”
Abner and Amanda explore the sometimes strained dynamics of relationships on “Villains,” an infectious slice of pop written with Nashville-based songwriter Natalie Hemby. “The journey of the song is kind of like the resolution of an argument,” says Abner. “It’s dumb little moments like forgetting to wash the dishes where all of a sudden you feel like it’s difficult to understand each other, yet those are the things you forget the quickest.” After cresting towards a spirited climax, “Villains” closes with a snapshot of the duo’s creative process. “That was me and Amanda just figuring out the bridge,” says Abner. “We took the song from this big production back to something really raw, just us sitting in a room together.”
“Touching Heaven” also concludes with a window to JOHNNYSWIM’s world. It was written for Abner and Amanda’s young son Joaquin, who makes a cameo in the closing moments of the song. “I made sure to say his name at the end when he’s singing so that long down the road, when we’re sitting there saying, What year is this? Which kid is that?, it will be very obvious that it’s for Joaquin!” Amanda chuckles. Another writer from Nashville, Chris DeStefano, also collaborated on “Touching Heaven” with the duo while Houston’s Lakewood Church choir lent a rich, celestial quality to Abner’s production.
As a co-writer and guitarist, country music icon Vince Gill brought a career’s worth of talent to “Lonely Night in Georgia.” The opportunity to write a song with Gill resonated with Amanda, especially. “The first piece of music that I ever bought was the cassette single of Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You,” she says. “I didn’t even have a cassette player that was my own, I was that young. It was my dream to meet him. We made friends with him enough to be bold and ask him if he’d want to write with us. We spent the day at his house, writing the song and singing it together. He was kind enough to play on it.” Abner continues, “When you hear Vince play those first three notes of the solo, you instantly feel the weight of his journey, of his experience, of his musicianship. The solo’s a classic and I feel like the song has a classic vibe to it.”
While JOHNNYSWIM has no shortage of original material, they recorded their own unique rendition of a modern pop standard, Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” Jeremy Griffith, who mixed the album, suggested the cover. “It’s our ‘Oh wait, there’s more!’ moment on the album,” says Abner. “I love that it’s kind of the anti-hero love song. ‘I don’t want to fall in love with you’ is such a beautiful way to say ‘I’m head over heels in love with you. This could be reckless or this could be wrong, but this is where we’re at.’ We wanted to bring out that element of danger in the production.”
Griffith also co-produced “Georgica Pond” with Abner, creating the wistful, emotionally charged centerpiece of the album. “Georgica Pond was the place in East Hampton (Long Island) where we would stay with my mom,” says Amanda. “She’s been gone a couple of years but this last summer was the first time I brought my own child, one of the little creatures that we daydreamed about having out there. I just started singing that first line: ‘One day when I’m gone, scatter my ashes on Georgica Pond.’ I was thinking of my mom and of all those memories. It was this bittersweet moment of the past and the future colliding.” Written by Abner and Amanda, “Georgica Pond” exemplifies the duo’s unique ability to make even quiet moments pulse with feeling.
Georgica Pond captures the spirit of musical adventure that’s long shaped JOHNNYSWIM’s approach to writing and recording. “Any fear we had on album one has completely evaporated,” Abner says. “We know the people that come to JOHNNYSWIM shows. We know it matters to them what we have to say. We realize that, much like ourselves, our fans appreciate honesty. We wanted that to be the cornerstone of this album.” The reflection of Georgica Pond illuminates “love, legacy, the past and the future all put into this bittersweet mixture that makes you fully appreciate the present,” says Amanda. Like love itself, the universality of that mixture is beyond measure.