New York, NY (Top40 Charts)
At first glance, the uninitiated might think they're looking at a young duo from the 50's or 60's. The retro cover of the debut recording from Johnny & Jaalene does give a clue, but you have to listen first.Johnny & Jaalene Release Rip Cat Records Debut
The throwback sounds of old-school blues, R&B, rockabilly and pop are marked by a string of covers that are second nature to 19-year-old Johnny Ramos and his 16-year-old partner Jaalene De Leon.
This album is a solid listen back in time to those influences above, all of which are embraced by the pair. Voices, mature beyond their years handle most familiar songs such as "Baby I Love You
" and "Let it Be Me," but in their own way. The same goes for Eddie Cochran's "Teenage Cutie," and the Carla Thomas
classic, "Gee Whiz."
"We listen to all the stuff we play, really," Johnny said in a recent interview. "Rockabilly people, soul singers and everything, but you know, since we're young we have really big influences from everything else, the 90's, the 2000's."
If Johnny's last name is familiar to blues fans, you would be right. The son of blues guitarist Kid Ramos, Johnny joined his father on Ramos' comeback album Old School on Rip Cat Records. The southern California label found it easy to cut another deal.
The progression for the pair has been a fast one; while both sang in choir, there was no formal training. "We met in church in 2010," Jaalene explains, "but we only started singing together last year."
"And we just haven't stopped," Johnny adds. "It hasn't been that long, so it's really cool that we have an album out to show what we've been doing. It's really cool music."
The one thing that stood out for me was our chat was just the three of us. No parents, no managers, no handlers; the duo were relaxed, happy to do the interview and enthused. Their influences range from decades past to the present day. In describing their sound, Johnny says, "I think we're the new, made from the old. We're really like the product of everything; we take everything that's soulful from the old, and we're trying to keep that alive in our music. I think as time goes on, when we put out our own written music and everything, you'll still clearly get the creation from the older music that's been our beginning and will always be our beginning. And we'll work off of that, and just try to contain the old soul nature of the music from the 50's and 60's, the realness of it, the organic feeling of it into new music, newer generations."
Another process unheard of today; the entire album was cut in two days, which flies in the face of the norm in recent years. The change in sound is not lost on the pair. "I think one of the main deals with modern music is," Johnny says, "it's just overproduced. If you look at a lot of pop idols and icons, right now each song has like five songwriters on it. There's so many people trying to get their own ideas into the thing so there's like too much production, and it's kind of like all over the place.
"There's always the concept looming in the back of your mind, 'Well, if I'm making a cover of this great song, it's gotta be different,' so we always try to change things. Sometimes we don't even try, we just do it, that's how we are through the different music that we cover."
Jaalene became involved after occasionally coming up to sing with Ramos. "I watched him before," she explains, "and I watched his dad, but we were never gonna be a band, like how we are now. It was fun, and when we made it official and started recording, it was so surreal, so much fun."
Johnny then asks, "Did you ever have an 'a-ha' moment?"
"Not really," Jaalene replies. "I always knew I wanted to sing. I was in dance at first, but I eventually started singing in church, then I started doing theater, and then I was in choir at school."
Her first appearance onstage was initially a gift. "I sang 'Angel Baby' for his birthday in May of last year," she explains. "That was the first time I ever sang, and after that I just started going up."
"It's kind of like a tradition now," Johnny says. "If it's somebody's birthday, someone has to sing a song. And then it was my dad's birthday, and she sang 'Gee Whiz.'"
"And then for my birthday," Jaalene adds, "he sang 'Sixteen Candles.'"
Johnny's path to music did not come in the way you might imagine. "It's actually funny," he says, "ideally it would go back further when I was a small child, but I think it was just so normal for me to see my dad on big stages and festivals when I was younger. I'd be on the back of the stage hanging out with my older brother. It never occurred to me this is like a big thing, it was never like, 'Oh yeah, that's a musician doing his thing, it was just like, 'Yeah, that's my dad, he's working, man, he just being himself.' It didn't really occur to me that he's like a great blues musician that knows all these wonderful people and has traveled all across the world till I got older."
Ramos himself almost left the stage permanently after a cancer diagnosis, something that affected his son greatly. "When he got sick," Johnny explains without reservation, "I was going through puberty, and I felt like an outcast and everything. I was going to this prep school I didn't know anybody at. And I started to think, 'I need to learn guitar, like what if my dad isn't here?' It really freaked me out. I didn't start getting into music until I was twelve, thirteen years old and then I got obsessed with it."
One person you might not imagine being a guitar influence was Kurt Cobain. "I would see these videos of just him freaking out with the guitar," Johnny says, "breaking the guitar, screaming, this relentless rage but still making it art. How can somebody do that? And the fact he didn't care about what anyone thought about it, is what made me think, 'This is what I need to do--I can do what I want with music."
As for the question of how his father took that? "He was really happy, man," Johnny replied with clear relief. "He was really into it. I took piano lessons when I was younger, but when you're taking lessons, you're not really into it, you're just kind of doing it. But the moment I stopped taking lessons, I got really into it. So, the fact that nobody had any pressure on me to be a guitar made me enjoy playing guitar. He was really happy, and he was like, 'Yeah, whatever you want to learn man, I'll teach you.' That's his way of looking at it, which is great."
After doing some shows, the questions of whether they had a record followed, and Rip Cat producer Scott Abeyta, who worked with Kid, and currently plays guitar with label mate John Clifton went behind the board. "We went in," Johnny recalls, "and I think we recorded it before we showed it to them, and we were like, 'Yeah, so you guys want this?' And they were like, 'Yeah.'"
The lineup included father and son, plus Tommy Harkenrider on guitars, Brett
Harding (Social Distortion) on bass, Kip Dabbs (who also drums with James
Intveld), and Ron Dziubla on sax and Jesus Cuevas of Los Fabulocos on accordion.
Jaalene has also earned a nickname, "Queen of the Teens." "Johnny came up with that," she explains, "he told me, but I don't remember now. Something with your friends?" She asks.
"Oh, yeah! There was this really popular girl when I was in ninth grade," Johnny explains. "She was like a junior or senior, and my friends would be like, 'Johnny, look, you see the queen of the teens?' It became like this huge joke. Jaalene is like the queen of the teens, it kinda like rolls off, too."
Johnny & Jaalene Release Rip Cat Records Debut
In a pensive mood...Johnny & Jaalene
The music especially, but the look, the outfits and the hair of the Rockabilly movement continue to flourish, something both appreciate. "You go to Europe," Johnny says, "they have these big festivals everywhere, and then here we played Viva Las Vegas
(earlier in 2018). It 's like a big deal in OC and Anaheim, there's a lot of rockabillies, (and) Mexican rockabillies. We play these things, we see it, these are all the people that get it."
Johnny & Jaalene are currently doing shows around Orange
County, as well as gigs in San Diego, and events such as the recent Riverside West Coast Blues Festival. The next step is original material.
"The next album will be all original music," Johnny promises, "and it will showcase all our different influences above and beyond what we're doing now. I think you'll see what we are."