Martin Johnson’s Night Game is the experiment going better than expected
Martin Johnson may not be a household name across the globe, but his influence in the music industry reigns supreme. Still actively a frontman for scene kings Boys Like Girls, he found success outside of live touring and produced records and wrote songs for the likes of blink-182, the Cab, Black Veil Brides, Ariana Grande, Jason Derulo and more.
Though all of this was exciting and eye-opening for Johnson, he finally realized it was time to share his own voice and authentically connect with himself. Enter the Night Game, his electro-rock, pop-soul solo project.
Johnson began the project by focusing entirely on the music and letting it speak for itself. This meant no branding with photos and videos, no label interference and no disclosure of his personality. Ultimately describing this as an experiment, its results were certainly not disappointing. From his debut 2017 single “Once In A Lifetime” to his forthcoming sophomore album, Dog Years, Johnson has successfully crafted the beginning of his musical story as a solo artist.
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With a taste of what’s to come on his full-length from his Feb. 5 Beautiful Stranger EP release, it’s fair to say fans from his early 2000s days and new listeners to Night Game should be excited. They will be stunned by Johnson’s raw storytelling, the project’s high-energy, ’80s nostalgia-inducing instrumentals and a vocal tone that just oozes pure passion and heart.
Dog Years will hit all streaming platforms March 5 and is available for physical order here. We had the chance to talk to Johnson ahead of his release about his collaboration with pop star Elle King, his writing process as a solo artist vs. with Boys Like Girls, what it means to discover a love for music again and much more. Check out the full interview and the releases we do have below.
You've had so many cool collaborations. Obviously Taylor Swift way back in the day, Kygo and now Elle King on “Companion.” How did that collab happen, and how did you decide that she was a good fit for the song?
Elle and I have been friends for a really long time. In 2013, I was writing a lot of music for other people, and I still am. That was the main gig at the time. I wasn't really touring with BLG, and I was just in the studio every day. Elle came in at, you know, 1:15 p.m. with a brown-bagged 40 and starts talking in an Australian accent about how she just broke up with a guy because he wears flip-flops and [she was] playing banjo and singing about it and talking in different accents. And I was like, “This girl's a star. [I’m] absolutely in love with this vibe. I've never seen anything like it. She's completely out of her mind.” We stayed really, really close. And then I had a song on her first album called "America's Sweetheart" that we wrote together. There was another song that we were talking about redoing. And then I sent her "Companion" just to see what [she] thought. I felt like it was a song I wrote alone. I was at the tail end of a relationship and commenting on the Los Angeles dating scene being a bottomless quicksand pit of hell. [Laughs.]
But Elle was going through the same thing at the time. I sent the song, and she was like, "Holy shit, who's singing it?" And I was like, "Do you want to? When are you going to be in Nashville?" And she's like, "I'm going to be in Nashville a day after tomorrow." I had no idea she was coming into town—I hadn't seen her in a couple of years. She's coming to town to open for Heart and Joan Jett. And so obviously, it's pre-pandemic. She came over to the studio [and] laid it down in like an hour. It's been cool because it's leading to working on her solo stuff and her next album, too. So, we got back in the grind and rejuvenated our friendship in a beautiful way and got back into collaboration. She got on "Companion," and since then, we've written like 10 new songs. It's got another feature on it that I think you'll enjoy. But it's going to be Elle, not Night Game. But nobody could have done the song better than her.
When you were in Boys Like Girls, more of the emo scene thing is to avoid being super mushy-gushy with love songs. The Night Game is very much into love songs. What's the difference between being in a place where you want to write about how much dating sucks to where love is a little more beautiful?
It's funny, actually, because Boys Like Girls were the one emo band or pop-punk band [that] anybody who wore skinny jeans in 2008 was popped into that crew, and we were happy to be a part of it. But I think we were the one that were really down to write a love song. We had probably three singles that went to pop radio that were love songs like “Hero / Heroine” and “Thunder.” And "Two Is Better Than One" probably being the biggest one that just straight-up ended up being a wedding song. I sang at one of my best friend's weddings actually recently.
What was interesting is that I actually went through a period of time after Boys Like Girls where I couldn't write a love song. I couldn't physically do it. I didn't believe myself. I was really stuck. If you listen to the first Night Game record, it's mostly this longing, heartbroken nostalgia where I'm talking about being 18 and "the one that got away" and this retrospective "What is it like to become of age in this modern era? What does it mean to be a man? What happened to the American dream, and what does that mean now?" That was what I wanted to talk about on this record. It was funny because I couldn't really write a love song until the very end. I met my fiancee at the very tail end of making Dog Years. I tried to write like 15 love songs. The very last song that got put on Dog Years is a song called "Beautiful Stranger." And it was like I was incapable of finishing one of these love songs. I just didn't believe myself. I really didn't want to sing about somebody else or a story or make a character. I could do that enough when I'm writing for someone else. When I'm writing for me, I want to believe it, and I want it to be true.
At the very, very tail end of making this record, I was able to go back to work and complete the song that had been sitting there for two years. And I couldn't finish this lyric because I didn't believe myself. Los Angeles didn't really yield any good love stories, and I was there for nine years. I know that may be a little bit jaded and dark, but I think there's a reason for everything. And I think that maybe that was my time to keep my head down and work hard, and I wasn't really ready for it. I definitely can write a love song now. It only took 10 years.
You want to be completely authentic. Would you say that the Night Game is completely authentic to what you've been going through in life when you've been creating?
Yes, honestly. In 2014, I was just really writing music for other people, and I was telling a lot of other people's stories. And it started to feel like there were some songs that are getting into the world that I really wanted to sing. I was also hating music. I was thinking about quitting. My longtime collaborator Brandon Paddock, I asked him, "You mind just sitting in the studio with me for a couple months and just let me stare at the wall and break a couple of computer screens and smash a couple of keyboards and get upset and try to find love for music again?“ That was the story [of] that first Night Game record was finding that again. But in that, it was about finding truth. I don't know that I was capable of working on one more disposable kind of song for an X Factor winner or something like that at that point.
When you're a kid and you're posing in the mirror with your first guitar and you're thinking about being a rock star, you're really not thinking about maintenance. You're thinking about glory and telling your story and being honest and your internal torture and what that means and allowing the world to hear that and see that and do something great. And then you end up in this 12 by 12 box with no windows—in the major-label guts creating songs just to pay the mortgage. And it was like, “All right, let me see if I can do something great.” I said no to working on a lot of big projects in 2014 and just said I'm going to quit, or I'm going to make something that I believe in and that I feel is real, and I'm grateful I did it. I found my love for music again, and I found my love for creating and the art of it. I guess the biggest thing for the Night Game was I just detached from the results. I never really detached from results before. My personal validation has always depended on whether or not people like the song. Who I felt like I was as a man really depended [on], "Do you like my work?" And with the Night Game, it was like, "Do I like my work?"
What’s the main difference between writing with a band and writing as a solo project?
The writing process way back in the day, like the first record, was actually really similar to the Night Game writing process with an acoustic guitar, staring at the wall. Maybe it'll take three months to finish the song. Maybe it'll take 45 minutes. And I think that that's why there was a bit of truth in that record. I was 18, so sometimes I feel like I'm being graded on my senior paper when people tell me they like that record. But I think there was a raw authenticity that was just man and guitar or man and piano, telling the truth and finding what that is. I think after a while with that project and even with others, it became about like, "What do the people want to hear? What do the fans want to hear? What is going to be the best thing to put out now?" It was never about ultimate freedom.
Did you ever feel less free or boxed in with other projects before? Do you have a lot of support from the band and from Boys Like Girls fans?
I never really felt that boxed in by Boys Like Girls. I think I boxed myself into giving the fans what they wanted. It's funny: You create who you are as a musician. Right? Because I didn't know who I was when I was 17. I was doing musical theater and writing pop-punk songs. You're not really thinking, and then you start thinking because you're reading what journalists say about you, and you're reading album reviews, and you're boxing yourself into a corner. So I never really felt boxed in. Me and the Boys Like Girls guys are literally still best friends. We watch football every Sunday, we go out to eat a couple of times a week, [and] we all live in Nashville. Paul [DiGiovanni] just came out to Utah to ski with me and another friend.
The band have never broken up. But some people think we went on a hiatus. Some people think we broke up, [but] we've all just done our own thing. There's no rules that say we're either never going to make a Boys Like Girls song again. Who knows? There might even be one in the can already. You know what I mean? I'm not saying anything, but I'm saying something!
Paul is like a massively, massively, massively successful country music songwriter. And he's had, you know, a bunch of big songs in the country world and John's been really, really successful in the sync world [by] writing music for commercials. And so it's been awesome supporting each other. I know when the Night Game was [having the] first shows in Boston and John [Keefe] was still living there, he was coming out first row screaming along to the songs. So it always feels weird when you come of age in a band with these guys who end up being your brothers. I'm an only child, so the only real brothers I know are Paul and John and my two best friends from high school. So playing music without them is a little bit strange. It's like a little bit weird to look back and onstage and there's different people up there. But I think that it makes it more enjoyable when you step back onstage.
You did have a tour planned for 2020 with Boys Like Girls. Are you hoping to reschedule that and also tour Dog Years when things start to open up?
I would love to. I think it's funny because I've talked to a lot of creatives waiting to go out on tour, and everyone's waiting. It's a little bit like keeping a dog in a cage. I only really feel comfortable onstage. So, it's hanging out at home and not expressing myself publicly onstage feels quite strange. I love playing shows more than anything. A lot of people don't like touring—I love it. So, I'm really hoping that I'll be able to promote it. I mean, it'll be a little bit of a delayed reaction, I think, to promote Dog Years. A year-and-a-half after it comes out, we're going to do all we can before we can play again. But there are a lot of ways to do it digitally, and we'll take it from there.
So, there has been so much growth across all of your projects, but even within the Night Game, you’ve matured musically. From 2018’s “Bad Girls Don’t Cry” to your recent EP, how have you experienced change within those years?
I was taking a lot of contrary action on the first record. I didn't show my face for about a year. I didn't really want anybody to know who it was, not because I was embarrassed of my past or the music I made with my best friends in the scene days. But just because I felt that it was something that I wanted to share and let speak on its own. And it was an experiment. It was not about tapping into Facebook followers. It was more about letting the music speak, and it was an experiment that was really interesting. It was cool to watch it work. I put one song out, and that song was called "The Outfield." It was cool because it hit the Spotify new music Friday, and John Mayer hears it [and] asks me to come on a tour. And that was really off no major-label involvement.
It was an independently released album, and not really with a video or a photograph that was taken yet—nobody really knew what it was. As this record cycle came into play, halfway through that record cycle, I was picked up by Interscope. And so this was like even less rules. Obviously, I'm not going to be boxed in by not showing my face—it is what it is. And so I had a pretty significant amount of footage and content making an album. I've been working with Brandon [Paddock], who I made the record with for 12 years and was basically just us in a room. And the boys, they were playing on it. You know, Sean [Hurley] and Rob [Humphreys] and Mark [Schick] and Izzy [Fontaine] and Ryland [Blackinton]. And it was like, “OK, let's just do it with the boys and see what happens.” And it was pretty euphoric to not have any kind of fear. The first record was like, "How do I love music again?" And it was a lot of anger. And this record, we were all just in Burbank for six months, having fun throwing paint at the wall. Some of the songs were songs that I felt didn't belong on the first record and had been written for a while. The song "Our Generation" was inspired by musical theater. It's about modern application dating culture. It was a song that was recorded for the first record and completely recorded for this record in a way that was a bit less pretentious. It's just a little looser. I felt a little less afraid.