Martin Johnson is The Night Game, a relatively new alternative-pop project that is quickly gaining the attention of many. Martin is known largely for his involvement with his former band Boys Like Girls, in addition to being involved with an extensive list of artists that he’s co-written and produced songs with. He also recently was on tour opening for John Mayer, and has a Spring headlining tour kicking off in a couple of weeks.
Martin Johnson and I had a revealing chat about how his musical origins, the upcoming album for The Night Game, and how his artistic journey has brought him to where he is today.
Well, I wanted to start by digging a little into your musical background – when did you start playing and making music?
It’s funny, I don’t really remember. You know how you have your first memories? Well I don’t really remember a memory that exists in a world where I wasn’t wanting to play music. It’s pretty much been the only thing I ever wanted to do. I mean, I got a ukulele when I was two and a half years old.
I also have these old photos of me at the preschool playground, and there was these little poles coming out of the ground and I would pretend that they were microphones. There were some teachers that thought I was really weird or a strange child because I would just stand there and sing into this pole.
So I don’t really remember a life where this wasn’t my aspiration – whether I was going to make money doing it or not, I just knew that it was something that I was going to do. I was a part of musical theater and chorus, forcing my friends to learn instruments so that I could play with them – just all those accessible routes to performance. Then that all slowly bridged into playing in a band and writing my own music.
Up until The Night Game was birthed, it looks like you were songwriting for a pretty prolific list of artists. Do you have any songs that you are especially proud to be a part of?
I mean it’s like picking your favorite baby. I think the best song I’ve written is the next one – the one I haven’t written yet. I think that one is my favorite.
Huh, I like that way of thinking.
Yeah, I mean I’m always trying to grow, always trying to change. I think it’s funny, I feel a tremendous amount of pride in the things I’ve done in the past, but sometimes it’s tough to listen to because you make stylistic choices and your taste changes.
My main goal in that realm was to strip away the layer that was chasing someone else, and getting away from what I thought the sound should be like. I turned off the pop radio, and I kind of really turned off listening to any major influences, other than stuff on cassette. For a couple of years I didn’t really let myself listen to the radio or even Spotify because I just didn’t want to be chasing somebody else.
Understood, it sort of helps everything occur naturally because it is so easy to get distracted.
Yeah and like I said, you find yourself chasing. Especially when I was writing music for other people, because it was like “okay what’s hot right now, and how do we re-word this?” in a way. Sometimes, it’s like you look back at those songs three years later and you see that they don’t stand the test of time. And it’s like removing that noise will help bring forward something that will stand the test of time.
Looking back at your musical journey, what would you say were the ground-breaking moments?
Oh boy, probably singing the national anthem at Gillette Stadium in Boston. I know that’s probably not a super popular answer in San Diego, but that was a pretty big moment for me, being from Boston. The funny thing about the journey is that you don’t realize how hot something is until you look back at it later. When you realize how great a tour was or when you’re going from radio station to radio station. It’s sort of like you’re in your moment in the now, and later on you look back and it’s just like, wow. I was actually just talking with the guys that I played with for years in Boys Like Girls and we were looking at this old video from Indonesia, and we were like in this hotel and there were a ton of security guards everywhere and screaming girls. We were talking about this actually just last night, and we were all just laughing about it, like “did it even feel like that when we were there?” It’s just crazy, like in the moment we were just riding it and doing it and we were more worried about the daily grind and what we ate and what’s next.
Any regrettable moments?
I think that I may have missed some opportunities around 2008-2009. I was drinking a lot and pissing a lot of people off and was really only concerned about myself. Looking back, I think that I would have acted a little bit nicer during those times. But you change, and you evolve, and then you grow. It’s been a long time since, and I look back and think “man, I blew that one” but they say life is short, but at the same time it’s also really long. So I’m excited to be able to have this shot at this project, The Night Game – it’s been a reminder that writing and playing songs for a living is my life.
So is that part of the reason why you went from writing music for others to making music again as The Night Game? Like filling a void?
Yeah, there was a gigantic void. Like I was having a lot of fun playing different characters and being other people for a day, but emotionally, a huge outlet for me is just being able to tell stories. And you know, I wasn’t really telling stories anymore. I missed playing live every night and feeding off that exhaustion and feeding off of that intimate personal connection that I felt with others through my music.
I know you’ve worked with a lot of different kinds of artists, just through songwriting and also with The Night Project. What is the most important thing you’ve learned by working with such a variety of artists?
Patience. I would say that my first musical instinct is always right until it’s not. It’s like – the song will eventually find it’s way and you don’t need to force it. I feed so much on the results, that I want it to be perfect, and I’ve learned that sometimes I need to detach because the song just needs to find it’s way.
It’s also being patient and letting other people be heard, you know? A lot of people have something to say and a lot of the time it’s going to be different from what I have to say. Doesn’t mean that either of us are right but it’s about just figuring it out and seeing where it all goes. I would say that there were a ton of mixes on songs that I bleed – and listening back on them, I listen to the songs the other way that the collaborators wanted and sometimes I think that they were right, so I could have been a little more patient and maybe less of a bully.
Yeah, well it’s great that you’re retrospective about all of that. It’s a hard skill to have sometimes.
Sometimes I feel that I’m better at being retrospective than being nice and in the moment. Like I like things my way and I like them now, and it would be good to find that balance, so that I wouldn’t have to be so retrospective all of the time.
That’s part of the human experience, always learning.
Part of the human experience definitely. I think another thing that I learned – like you can walk into my house and lick the floors, it’s so clean. It’s like the opposite of the vision of the modern American rock star. So I think one thing I learned, is that sometimes rough edges are good. Especially now in 2018, it’s so easy to go back and fix things with the computer, almost too much to the point where the piece no longer has a personality. So I think, just letting things go and kind of allowing a personality to shine through – it doesn’t have to be scrubbed like my floor. You can really wax something down to the point where you don’t see it anymore, and you don’t hear the story anymore.
You’re set to release your first album this summer, correct?
Yeah, well I actually do have a specific date set in my calendar, but I can’t yet tell you what it is because it’s not fully confirmed. But we are shooting for early summer – I’m really excited about it and it’s something that I’ve been working on for a really really long time. I also have some incredible collaborators on the album that I got to work with and I’m just ecstatic to get it out into the world.
Are there any special collaborators on the album that you’d be able to name drop?
There is a specific one that I’d like to share but we’re not going to share that one just yet. My main collaborators were just the boys that I play with live and on the record. A lot of records are just made on the computer now but I think it’s important to really feel the performance. I would say roughly 99% of what you hear on the album wasn’t made on a computer. It’s exciting – you can hear a lot of different personalities and different framings of the stories.
Yeah, that’s actually something that I noticed right off the bat with your music – all of the songs are a little bit different and it seems like there’s something for everyone. I’m not much of a pop-person but these songs really grew on me.
Thank you! And don’t box yourself in – you sound like you’re too smart for that. You can’t just say you’re a whatever-genre person. Why put yourself in a box – you love music right?
Well exactly, that’s why I continue to listen and I see it as art rather than genre.
Yeah, like I can be anything – I don’t have to be “this-type of a person” or “that-type of a person” – I’ll listen to whatever I want to listen to that day, and it could be some sort of Bossa Jazz thing in my car, or maybe I don’t want to listen to anyone talk to me through the radio, so I’ll just put on classical for the day, it really just depends. It’s whatever my emotions are, or wherever the void is.
That’s the beautiful thing about music! So for the new album, are these songs all written within the last year or do you have inspiration drawing from older songs, maybe tidbits that you came up with while you were working as a writer? In other words, has the inspiration been with you for a while or is it more recently that you’ve been in a creative mode writing them?
I’d say mid-2014 to early-2015, I kind of fell out of grace with music and I was thinking about quitting. And to counteract that, I sort of just cancelled everything that was going on and went back to writing alone, and writing just to write. I had lost vision of why I made music and this album was sort of the journey to finding it again. I started it without any expectations and I was serving each song individually, rather than serving them as a grand vision about how you’re going to promote it or what it was going to be. When I was writing the songs, I didn’t have a name for what was eventually going to be called The Night Game. For me, I was just writing songs, and now we’re here.
Do you have any recurring themes in the upcoming record?
It’s a little bit of a journey. I was pretty depressed when I started the record – I was playing a shitload of poker and wasn’t really hanging out with any friends. Sort of just digging out of a hole. You can hear that in the record and in some of the songs, and it sort of shines over and it’s like “Okay, this is fun again” – so it’s that whole journey.
But I think the themes that you hear on the record is like dealing with a new stage of adulthood in life, and the “American Dream” of what things should be like in your life, versus what’s reality. Also what love means, are you going to find it, or will you be alone living in nostalgia. Also thinking about your childhood and accepting that you are past the point of ever being able to have that again.
Sounds like it’s sort of like the theme of crossroads.
Mhmm. Yeah, that’s it.
I know earlier you said you can’t choose favorites, but do you have a favorite song off of the new album?
If I had to choose… I think it depends on my mood. Like if I’m feeling sad, there’s a song called Summerland that has the nostalgic taste of growing up in Northern Massachusetts and falling in love there. But then there’s the party-bangers that are really fun to play live. We just released a new song called “Bad Girls Don’t Cry” and it’s one that really resonates in a live space and it’s super fun to play live.
Right, and you have your Spring 2018 tour coming up, when does that kick off?
The week after next, the first show is March 17th in Seattle, then we’ll be heading down the coast and will be in San Diego on the 22nd.
Do you have any shows for this tour that you feel especially excited playing?
I’m excited to go back to Boston, but I also love playing the coast – LA and San Diego. I’m really excited to play Nashville, I have a bunch of friends there. New York is usually logistically a pain-in-the-ass show, but I’ve found that once you’re up there behind the mic, it can be a good time.
Sounds like it’s cross-continental. When’s the last time you were on tour?
We were last on tour a few months ago, I guess closer to summer. We supported John Mayor and then flipped it into a headline thing for a bit. It’s been a few months, but I’m excited to get back and play – we’ll be heading overseas after this tour as well.
You nonchalantly mentioned John Mayor, how was that? How was touring with him?
It was good. It’s cool to see that it can be about just the music and not about the industry. Like I only had one song out on Spotify at the time, The Outfield, and John Mayor asked us to come out on tour. It was cool, it’s like he was bringing the show he wanted to see out to him. It was a fun opportunity, and it was still in the early days – we were still figuring out the set-up and playing in the big arenas.
Did you have a big following at all as The Night Game at that point in time? Or did you feel that a lot of people found out about The Night Game through that?
I think a lot of people found out about The Night Game through that then, and I think it’s still in the early days now. I think people are still discovering it and finding it.
Yeah, and I think it’s building – it seems on the upward slope right now, which is exciting.
Yeah it is pretty exciting.
Is there a story behind the name The Night Game?
It felt like a good fit for my music. I’m a really big Paul Simon fan and he has a song called “Night Game” and I’m a really big sports fan so it kind of reminds me when the lights go down, and the pressure’s on, and all of the best games happen at night. It felt like the right thing to say, when I think about the music that I make, the sound doesn’t seem to me like it happens before 7:30PM – it felt like the appropriate name.
Listen to The Night Game’s latest release, “Bad Girls Don’t Cry,” below:
Martin is kicking off his North American tour with The Night Game this month! The cross-country tour will include appearances at Shaky Knees, Bottleneck, Firefly, and Innings Festivals. Check out the full list of dates below:
3/17 - Seattle, WA - Barboza 3/18 - Portland, OR - Doug Fir Lounge 3/20 - San Francisco, CA - Brick & Mortar 3/21 - Los Angeles, CA - El Rey 3/22 - San Diego, CA - Soda Bar 3/24 - Tempe, AZ - Innings Festival 3/26 - Dallas, TX - Dada 3/28 - Nashville, TN - Exit/In 3/29 - Chicago, IL - Subterranean 3/31 - Cambridge, MA - Sonia's 4/2 - Philadelphia, PA - The Foundry at the Fillmore 4/3 - New York, NY - Bowery Ballroom 4/4 - Washington, DC - DC9 5/4-5/6 - Atlanta, GA - Shaky Knees Festival 5/26 - Napa, CA - BottleRock Festival 6/14-6/17 - Dover, DE - Firefly Festival
Tickets available at www.thenightgame.com
Stay up to date with The Night Game through the following social links:
Support The Night Game by streaming/purchasing his music on Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Soundcloud, and Amazon.
THIS INTERVIEW WAS EDITED AND CONDENSED FOR CLARITY