Q&A: Johnnyswim and Drew Holcomb On Justice, Church, and Making Music | Sojourners

Q&A: Johnnyswim and Drew Holcomb On Justice, Church, and Making Music

Image via Bekah Fulton/Sojourners 

Drew Holcomb is frontman of the Americana band, Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors. Holcomb teamed up with duo Johnnyswim (Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez) to write “Goodbye Road” — a collaborative new EP recorded in the wake of the Charlottesville white supremacy rally. Drew Holcomb and Johnnyswim spoke with Sojourners about the EP, their Christian faith, and what it’s like to write music in turbulent times.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Christina Colón, Sojourners: How did this collaboration EP come to be?

Abner Ramirez, Johnnyswim: We've always wanted to work together. I think typically, the way you work with friends in this industry, is you play shows together, but I think all of us, even in the way we've modeled our careers and the way we involve ourselves in the business, has always been a little left of center. We're not traditionalists, we're not looking for the record deal, the big manager, or whatever is going to set us up. We've always liked to do things our own way, bespoke, if you will. So, we wanted to find a bespoke, a custom fit way, for us all to work together and the first thought we had was, let's tour together and then we were like, why don’t we write songs together. It was a conversation over breakfast one day that Drew and I had while Amanda was getting a facial that we really were like, alright, enough talk, let's go do this thing, let's set some dates to it, let's set some goals, and that got it going.

Drew Holcomb, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors: You know in anything you do you sort of look around and see peers doing something similar and some of them you kind of love and respect the way they do it, and I think I certainly had that point of view about Johnnyswim. As we got to know each other, playing different events, festivals, and college shows, a friendship started to develop. Amanda and my wife Ellie grew up and went to high school together and so this idea of writing songs together was really, for me at least, a new idea. I flew out to L.A. where they live and we wrote some songs and it happened to be the Tuesday after the Charlottesville white supremacy rally so we had a lot of things on our minds when we wrote these songs.

Colón: You said it was right after the Charlottesville rally. How did that influence the whole design of the project?

Holcomb: I think we all felt a little betrayed by certain faith leaders and either their support of the president's moral equivalency of the two sides or their silence. I think for me, that’s where I've felt a lot of betrayal from faith leaders is silence about these issues that are facing us with more and more of a rapid pace. “Goodbye Road” in a way, is a metaphor for how you move on and find your people when you don't know who your people are in the midst of upheaval. It has revealed a lot about the sort of holes in our church communities; that we will leave the least of these, that we will do what’s best for us and not what's best for those around us. We had these sort of conversations around these songs of like, well in this betrayal, what do we do? We rally people together. That’s what our job is.

Amanda Sudano, Johnnyswim: I think there’s a sense to that in times like these, there can be a sort of healing crisis.

Ramirez: Explain healing crisis, you’ve said that a couple times and I love it.

Sudano: For example, when we were touring Europe, I was in the first trimester of my pregnancy and I came back and I got an IV with nutrients, just to give myself a boost, and I felt great for a couple of hours and then it was like I had the flu and I was in bed sick for 24 hours. I couldn't move and my doctor texted and she was like, “How do you feel?” And I was like, well I felt great but now I feel horrible and she was like, “Oh, you're just having a healing crisis. The stuff that your body has been allowing to be there, suddenly now it has the energy to fight it. You feel like crap, but it's actually good because your body is fighting off some stuff it's needed to fight out.” So, it feels like this could be that moment where suddenly the things that have been lying low in our nation are coming to the surface and you see where people's hearts are at and what's important to people. There are times too where you look at people and you're like, I don't agree with you but I kinda see where your heart is at so I can get with it. Then there are other people where you're like, we shouldn't be friends because we are totally on opposite sides of the playing field. I feel like this coming to the surface allows people to really focus on it. I think that was kind of our hope to be part of the speaking of healing. Part of that is just recognizing it and allowing it to come to the surface even within ourselves, allowing the emotions of it. I know for me with Charlottesville, I never really payed attention to the fact that growing up in Nashville, I used to get terrified if I saw a car with a Confederate flag in the back coming up behind me. I was so scared, I would pull over because what if this car tries to mess with me, like I'm just a little brown girl in the South. It brought up a lot of stuff in me. It brought up a lot of stuff with Abner growing up in Jacksonville. Even within myself, it was kind of a healing crisis. I think the hope was that we could speak to the healing of the crisis.

Ramirez: There's a lot of energy being spent in moments like these in history, at least the ones we've lived in. There's a lot of energy spent pointing out differences, pointing out wrongs, and it feels sometimes kind of counterintuitive. It feels impossible to not do it, especially when you feel so betrayed by faith leaders and by their silence or by their agreement with something that is clearly wrong. How do you then not just become indifferent and try to numb yourself to it? How do you not just point out the things that everyone is doing wrong? Drew said this and Amanda said this, we have to interject ourselves. We have to be a part of this. It doesn't have to do with platform. I could be a barista. I could be anything. There's a place for unification. There's a place to find the place that we're together if we start with the things we agree on; hope, love, life, and community. If we can start there, there's a place for us to grow and a place for us to heal. For us, that was the stirring pot within us as we wrote the songs for “Goodbye Road.”

Colón: Going off of that, you are artists and then it sounds like you're also bringing this element of activism. How do you balance those? What is the tension in finding the space where the two come together?

Ramirez: You don't. You don't balance it. I don't balance being Cuban, being a Christian, being a husband, being a musician. I am those things, I don't have to find time during the day to talk about being a dad, I am a father. I’m a father onstage, I'm a husband onstage, I'm a Cuban onstage, I'm a refugee onstage. If we were trying to just make music that would get a bunch of clicks or a bunch of streams, if that was the true sole purpose, we wouldn't write these kind of songs. What I think Drew does, what Amanda does, what we do, is we are humans. We are ourselves fully in songs, on stage, and in person and that's our true north. Our true north is when all of us, who we are, follows our actions like a wake behind us. We are all of these things at once and I feel these songs, pardon me if I'm wrong, but I feel like there isn’t a fight for objectivity or balance. There's a truth that encompasses all those things.

Holcomb: I feel like in a lot of ways, the question is not what's the difference between being an artist and an activist, but it's what's the difference between being an artist and an entertainer because an artist is by nature an activist. What you're doing as an artist is speaking something into existence that was sort of a glob of various ideas and pieces of music and then you're also bringing your humanity to it. I think it was Bono or somebody who said, “Love is an act of defiance.” For us to even collaborate and share in the praise of men onstage, is a radical act of community. I think in some ways, at least for me, when I started to let myself speak more from my point of view as a human and not try to just be safe and say what I think my fans want, but when I actually shared who I am, then I feel myself more than ever. In the last few years, I’ve been taking those steps of saying, well I think I need to say something that might potentially offend some of my fans, but I also have to be honest about who I am in this world. I think this project has definitely been that in a new way.

Colón: Diving into that, these parts of yourself that you bring to this project, I know that you all bring some sort of a faith, how has your faith impacted or been shaped by this project?

Sudano: It has given a more direct outlet to a different part of faith. Part of faith for us is standing up for those who can't stand up for themselves. So, it has given us an outlet to live out our faith through the words of these songs and through touring them and that part of our faith informed the songwriting process of it.

Holcomb: It all feels sort of integrated to me. We definitely didn't come together and write these songs and say like, well what does our faith have to do with how we feel about Charlottesville and this song. It feels like faith is sort of ingrained in how you see the world and then how you see the world is how you write a song.

Ramirez: I think the songs have given us a vocabulary for some of the things we felt. I'm proud of that about this project, especially “Ring the Bells.” There's lyrics like, “Give back the pieces of my Jesus, take your counterfeit to hell.” That says something that I felt.

Holcomb: For me, taking back language has been a big part of the reconstruction of the deconstruction of faith. Like the lyric, “I ain’t scared to face a fortress, I have seen them fall before.” That line is taking it all the way back to Jericho and this idea that we know for sure that God is on the side of those who can’t help themselves. The God of the scripture is for those who are in desperate need of justice and a protector. We want to be on their side speaking in solidarity with them. I think a lot of people feel that way but they don't know how to say it. My sister, I think she wouldn't mind being quoted on this, when she heard “Ring the Bells” for the first time, she was like, “Wow, I feel like you guys have put words to what my soul has felt in this turbulence.”

Colón: Well I know for me, the lyrics have definitely resonated. So, to dig in there, in “Ring the Bells” you sing, “It's time for words to fall like thunder, sound of justice breaking through.” I'm curious, how do you conceptualize justice? What is justice?

Ramirez: I think like what you said, it's taking the side of the broken, the beaten, and the defeated. It’s knowing that when you say, “You just gotta lift yourself up by the bootstraps,” that not everybody has boots to be lifted up by. Justice looks like that. It looks like taking the side of the one being accused, the one being pummeled, not even just today, but throughout history because there are whole people groups who have been pummeled. Justice looks like giving people a taste of a true Jesus. Jesus would go to the woman at the well even if all of culture said not to, even if people looked down on him, even if it might have been bad for his reputation, that’s what he did. So often we like to tell good stories and take pictures of refugees and orphans somewhere else, but we very much like to ignore the causes that we should be fighting for here. For me, that's what justice looks like.

Holcomb: I think for me as a white male, justice looks like listening. We have a great moment in history to listen too. I think with the Me Too movement, with Black Lives Matter, and with the immigrant battles that are happening, it’s a great time for people like me to listen. I think that's sort of my method of operating in this season. I have a platform, I have means, I'm around wealthy people because of music and because of the world I grew up in, and so I can listen and maybe translate.

Colón: In the midst of everything, what is keeping you hopeful?

Sudano: I mean not sound too much like I grew up in Christian school even though I totally did, I think there's always hope. The call of heaven is always glory to glory. I feel like sometimes that means things have to die. Sometimes that means that things have to fall away and be burned off. It sucks when you're walking through that burning process and it sucks to feel the heat of that fire, but to know that it's OK and that sometimes it just means that something beautiful is coming out of it. I feel like that's really what this song “Goodbye Road” kind of says in a lot of ways; Saul to Paul.

Ramirez: I think for sure there’s this eternal sense, this all-encompassing sense that there’s always hope, that Aslan is always on the move. I think in this season, we’re constantly saying, to continue the Aslan narrative, winter turn into spring. I'm feeling it in my personal circle, in my heart and my soul. In this time of turbulence, I'm feeling my faith going from deconstructed to this new structure, this thing that maybe my grandmother wouldn't understand, maybe my father wouldn't even understand. I am so much more confident in the things I believe and what gives me hope, is seeing rooms like we’ll see tonight, where you know good and well most of these people wouldn’t agree with each other. It would either be split down the middle or you could bring up something that would divide the room so strongly. So to see folks able to get together, sing together, drink together, laugh together, cry together, that reminder of community, and I really think community is a word that's taken too lightly, I think what happens, to quote Amanda, what happens in shows is beyond community, it’s communion. It’s people gathering together to eat spiritually and it’s powerful. It gives me hope.

for more info