Martin Johnson Talks Love Lost, Lessons Learned and the Meaning of The Night Game’s Debut Album
The jury is still out on parallel universes, and even the biggest skeptics among us find ourselves occasionally wondering what could have been if one choice we made years ago had been made differently. Such moments of reflection, and the sobfests that ensue, are the fodder of many pop songs — pretty standard fare, at large. It takes skilled songwriters, however, to take such universal concerns, and weave them into pieces that can make your hair stand on end, and still keep you singing along in chorus. Founder of The Night Game (and former Boys Like Girls frontman) Martin Johnson, who has penned songs with the likes of Talyor Swift, Kygo and Avril Lavigne, tackles this and a host of other hefty issues. Topics like the bittersweet romance of life on the road, and the elusive nature of the American dream are approached with a poetic candor that comes across as strikingly incisive and authentic.
The Night Game is best known for collaborating with Kygo on the hit song “Kids In Love” and the single “Outfield,” which drew worldwide attention with its sweeping anthemic chorus, and lyrics about an impasse resulting from pride and passion. With little exposure apart from this one single, Johnson and his band have toured relentlessly with the likes of John Mayer, using only live shows to tease new material. Now, the debut self-titled album is here, and it’s a meticulously crafted set of songs. There are plenty of bangers and upbeat numbers that offset the often emotionally heavy content. The style is hard to pin down, as Johnson himself will tell you, since it shuttles between disparate styles while still managing to sound cohesive. There have been plenty Springsteen comparisons, but those are lazy shots in the dark. There are elements that evoke various phases in the last four decades of popular music. Ultimately, you simply have to listen to the songs. Johnson met with Entertainment Voice to shed some light on the stories and sounds of the new record.
You’ve decided to go the self-titled route on your debut album, and your name, “The Night Game,” has a ring to it. What does your name mean to you?
I don’t know, I’m a massive Paul Simon fan. I have a “Graceland” tattoo. There’s an underrated Paul Simon song called “Night Game,” and to me, it represents a lot. It’s one of those names that you register first, and then it just becomes part of it. I think this is one that disappears into the background and allows the music to speak, which I like. It’s one of those things sort of like sports and sex and night time, and the pressure’s on, and the lights are on, and the American Dream, and, you know, (singing) Ba-ba-pa-ba-bah, Sunday night football, ba-pa-ba-bah, “Let’s go!” And I think a big part is there’s that sort of gusto. It felt like a perfect match. When that came up, it felt like it had always been there.
Your breakthrough hit, “Outfield,” has the words, “I know you try so hard to be so hard to get / But I can hear the way you talk under your breath,” a deeply relatable lyric because it describes such a common mindset so accurately. Expand on this idea.
You know, you can break someone’s heart, but it’s really hard to break their pride. It was a situation where I left, and I kind of burnt a bridge, and there was no amount of charm to make her notice me again. So for me, that song is sort of like she’s the untouchable. For me, the talking under your breath thing is like, the way that I am in relationships — whether they be romantic or non romantic, I’m pretty straightforward. Almost in a slightly European way, I tend to tell the truth even when the truth wasn’t asked for. I think that’s difficult in the short term, and great in the long term because people really learn to trust you that way, even if they don’t like receiving the bad news sometimes. So it can make me kind of seem like a dick, but I really don’t ever talk under my breath. I tend to say it exactly how it is.
“Bad Girls Don’t Cry” is quite a riot, certainly the danciest track on the record, with some wild percussion and a ridiculously ‘80s guitar tone. How did this number come about musically?
I don’t know, it just made me feel good, man. I co-produced the record with Francois Tetaz, who’s just a major inspiration to me sonically. We fucked with it a couple different ways. One was more straightforward, without the swing. We were referencing some older tracks, everything from Prince to Justin Timberlake to Kendrick Lamar, for how the song was going to hit and feel. The album is a little bit serious. I was finding, as we were getting all the songs together, it felt like I was frowning a lot of the time, and I thought that I needed a breath. So we worked really hard to make this thing still continue on with the DNA of the album, but at the same time, feel refreshing and fun, and a couple of different approaches in, we really locked on to something great.
You’ve described “Once In a Lifetime” as detailing “a self-destructive time in my life when it was challenging to walk out my front door, and the world in my head was more dangerous than the world outside.” It’s actually not uncommon for artists to get very caught up in their own headspace and end up shutting themselves off from the outside world completely for extended periods. In your particular case, what was it that spurred on the period, and how did you end up emerging from it?
When you are having any type of success in music, it can be really isolating and really lonely, and I became my own worst enemy in the way of — you know, self-medicating, and with everything. It starts to feel really lousy at the end of the day. You do the things that feel great in the short term, and in the long term, you find that you turn a little inward. The reason I called it “Once In a Lifetime” is that you only really get one chance to have a divine character change. You get a couple shots in the music industry, you get a couple shots at love, you get a couple shots at relationships with your family, but a real, true character shift, from head to toe, I think you get one shot. There were some things I was doing where I was really knocking on death’s door. And I’m lucky, I’m really, really lucky. There was a pinhole of light that I just ran through, and I don’t know what pulled me in there. I don’t know what it was about those couple days when I decided that I wanted to live, because I kind of wanted to die, and definitely quit music, and just be alone, and just make it stop. And instead, I just walked away from that apartment, from that life.
“Do You Think About Us” is a very chilling song because it taps into a feeling that’s so deep-cutting, and also a reality that’s, generally, frustratingly inalterable. You really captured the essence of it with your song. What was it, particularly, about Caroline’s voice that made her such a good fit for the song — if you’re able to put it into words?
I tried a couple different girls on it, and some of them were really great, but I felt the most important thing was believability and it feeling like it really cut you in the core. I really wanted to tap in to this emotion that I was speaking about in the song. The story is pretty specific, and as soon as Caroline got it the booth, I was like, “Oh man! This really feels like the right thing.” It just felt honest to me. Specifically in the chorus, I’m just hearing every little piece. She just brought an authentic energy and delivery to it that felt just really, really beautiful.
You’ve got a song called “Bad Girls Don’t Cry,” and then you’ve got plenty songs of deeply emotional longing — “Outfield,” “Do You Think About Us,” “The Photograph.” How would you respond to the statement immortalized in the old Cure song: “Boys Don’t Cry?”
You know, I was having a really, really, really hard time crying. In the last year, the world had hit me with a couple different blows, and I was kind of stuck in it, not being able to let the emotion out. The other day, my best friend from elementary school sent me a handwritten note in the mail, and old song lyrics from when we were in third grade, and we used to pass these little notes back and forth in Mrs. Pinkowski’s fourth grade class, and he sent them to me with this kind of emotional note about life and sticking with each other in middle school, and I had a real sob, and I really, really needed it. Maybe boys don’t cry, but men certainly do.
Would you ever sanction your song “American Nights” for a commercial for either a US politician or a quintessentially American good?
It depends on the politics. I think I’d be more inclined to have it be for a sports commercial or a beer commercial. Cheers, baby.
And on a more serious note, aside from the specific references to Arizona, Brooklyn, etc, is there anything about the specific experience and mentality that you describe in the song that is uniquely American. If so, what and why?
That song kind of started as a party track, and I really wanted to bring in the diversity of America and the cast of characters. I think the American dream is a little bit of a tragic disappointment when you break it down, and a lot of it is smoke and mirrors that was created in this kind of 1940s, ‘50s mentality of what the American dream truly stands for and means, and it’s changed a lot as time moves on, and I wanted to create a bit of a classic chronicle of my struggle with figuring out what that American dream is. Because I love the United States of America, but at the same time, it’s confusing to know what you want to be, who you want to be, how you want to be it, who you want to put in your life. And I think the place you live has so much to do with that. It’s probably the most confusing time it’s ever been to be American because the definition of what that means is a little different than it’s been in the past. So this song was sort of just about hope, about standing together just as people. At the end of the day, this is my home, and it’s about figuring out what that means in modern times.
Some of your songs, particularly “American Nights” and, maybe even more so, “Coffee and Cigarettes,” have a conversational, speaking-singing sort of flow, which gives them a breezy, West Coast kind of feel. Was living in California an influence on the sound?
I don’t know if that’s how I would compartmentalize it, or if I would credit California. I used to do a lot of musical theater. When I was a kid, I was into weird punk rock, musical theater, and I was in a ska band. For me, the faster, sort of speak-sing actually comes from ska music and from theater. It doesn’t really have anything to do with California. To be honest, the beachy music that you’re talking about kind of annoys me. When I was in a ska band in eighth grade, freshman year, sophomore year, it was all sort of that fast talk-ey. And when you do musical theater, there’s a lot of flowing in and out of your lines, and I think that’s actually deep-rooted.
Regarding “Do You Think About Us,” you’ve talked of reminiscing about how life might have been if you had gone to school with your ex girl instead of getting in “that dirty 15 passenger van.” The new album ends with this upbeat, exuberant closer, “Back In the Van” complete with horns and all, and you triumphantly declaring, “I’m getting back in the van!” Is it safe to say, that all the doom and gloom aside, you’re pretty happy now?
(Laughs) Define happiness. I can’t, so that makes it a little bit of a hard question to answer. The most free, youthful years of my life were like sleeping on people’s floors and traveling the world, so I get stir crazy when I’m in a house. In that quote about “Do You Think About Us,” I was just talking about the sliding doors. You’re always wondering what it would be like if you could experience a kind of normal life — like what would life be like if I did something different? “Back In the Van” is like I’m feeling a little stagnant. I think of it as sort of putting a joke on LA with, “Car seats burning, wet from the gym / I try to love this place, but I feel nothing.” Here I am stuck in Los Angeles in this house, making music for other people, and I’m like, man, what I really want to do is be with my ass stuck to a vinyl sheet on a trip in a van. You know, careful what you wish for because I got it, and I’m back in the van now and I think it was maybe a little more romantic when I was eighteen.
So there’s some irony to it?
Oh yeah, and I think that’s kind of the point of why the music is like that. It’s a little bit of a wink. Ironic songs are a little bit difficult. When I was younger, stuff like Ben Folds was a huge influence. Ben Folds has a really beautiful way of expressing irony. There’s a little bit of sarcasm, and I think that infiltrated the song a little bit. Still, I think I’m probably pretty serious. There is a romance to the open road that I’m talking about, that I’m pretty sincere about.
If you had never heard of Martin Johnson of The Night Game, and you heard this album, who would you say it sounded like? Think fast.
It’s tough to remove myself from the equation. I think when I was making this record, the most important thing to me was to not chase. I’ve been making music for other people for a little while, and I found myself tuned into pop radio, trying to follow production styles of the moment that were going to keep it relevant. And for this, I turned off the radio for two years, and I stopped listening to Spotify and radio, and I only listened to music on CD and vinyl and physical. I think that something me and Francois wanted to do more was find sounds and production styles that most specifically related to the lyrics. It wasn’t like “Hey, I’m chasing this certain thing.” It was more like, “Does this feel like the song? “Does this feel like the moment?” It was really a pretty interesting challenge.
The most interesting challenge in the couple years I was working on it was with the singing. I really relearned how to sing. Rather than just doing twenty takes of a song, I really wanted to find the performance. I would go in, I would sing it, I would study the way I sang it, I would find a way to really get the performance right. I’d been singing kind of affected for a while. I was chasing that sort of mid-2000s sound, and being in a pop punk kind of emo band, and there was a question going into this record that was like, “Hey man, what does my voice really sound like?” More than finding artists I was trying to chase, it was finding the way that I wanted to sound at the absolute core.
You’re about to embark on a big tour in both Europe and then North America. Are there any songs that you’re especially excited to play live? And are there any aspects of the live performance that fans should especially look forward to?
Heading out in a couple weeks to do this European run I’m really excited about. Heading back, and really grateful to be supporting St. Lucia. Then, doing a headline tour. We’ll be able to play a longer set, pretty much play the whole record and a couple covers, and I’m really looking forward to that.
“The Night Game” is available Sept. 7 on Apple Music.