NAPA — Despite having penned and produced Top 40 singles for the likes of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Christina Perri, Gavin Degraw and others; despite a promising career as the frontman of Boys Like Girls; and even despite the surging popularity of his new band, The Night Game, Martin Johnson still pauses when he’s asked if he could be living a healthier, happier and more fulfilling life doing something else.
“I’d probably be healthier and more satisfied if I picked something other than music. Music is hard, man,” he says, sitting in the bingo hall at the Napa Valley Expo, during a break in between the action at BottleRock Napa in May.
“So much of happiness [in music] is based on validation from your work,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the job for me is traveling and sitting at the airport. You’re in the van, loading gear. There’s a cushy top 0.1 percent. … You get this glorified 35 to 95 minutes on stage, and the rest of it is, like, getting to the next 35 to 95 minutes.”
Still, his inherent need to have an artistic outlet has pushed him once again to music, following a time when he didn’t know if it made him happy anymore. If he could go to his happy place, which for him is a solitary existence in nature—he vocalizes this place as “Jackson Hole, Wyoming,” though that’s a stand-in for what he imagines for himself—he pictures himself being happy for a minute before missing music again.
“The grass is always greener, you know?” the 32-year-old says.
Johnson resurfaced as The Night Game in 2017. The Boston-born singer-songwriter-producer had his first success with Boys Like Girls in the latter part of the last decade. The band was popular with the MySpace crowd, and co-headlined with the likes of Good Charlotte.
But behind the scenes, he was questioning every personal decision. He was also drinking too much and had other dangerous vices. To try and leave that life, he left New York, where he had been living at the time, for Los Angeles. Over several months, he willed himself to quit drinking and started writing songs again. He says he has avoided alcohol since 2010.
Boys Like Girls members began focusing on other endeavors around 2012. For Johnson, it was working as an extremely successful and in-demand pop songwriter and producer.
In L.A., his vice became gambling. The city’s songwriting culture wasn’t helping ground him, either.
“You’re co-writing every day with a different person. It’s like speed dating,” he explains. “It’s like, ‘I just want to get back to telling stories.’”
Johnson cancelled all his plans and tried to force himself to write the way he used to, but it wasn’t easy. His first batch of songs was off-kilter and depressing. That’s not what he wanted; he wanted his music to inspire himself.
“I went through a bit where it felt like I was making music to keep the lights on,” he says. “It was working great, but it didn’t really feel good. As a kid, you get your first guitar and you stare at yourself in the mirror. You’re like, ‘I wanna rock!’ Where the fuck did that kid go? I wanted to let him back in the studio and let him play with the toys.”
During this time, Martin Johnson left the radio off. He didn’t want popular trends holding him back or influencing him. He also didn’t want to be “10 minutes behind” others. Three years later, when he finished the first batch of songs as The Night Game, Johnson turned on the radio again and “everything was loud hi-hats and confusing.”
That first batch of songs, which he released in 2017, included “The Outfield” and “Once In A Lifetime.” The former, which he made with Grammy-winning producer François Tétaz, got the attention of John Mayer, who invited The Night Game to open for him on an arena tour. The song features backing vocals from Gotye as guitar-playing by Johnson’s friend Kirin J. Callinan, who has also been touring with him this summer.
The meditative, groovy and slow-dance ready “Once In a Lifetime,” meanwhile, was written about that dark time in Johnson’s life when he was over-indulging, drinking too much and questioning his love of music. The song explains, more or less how he realized it wasn’t the end of the world when he emerged from the darkness.
Is it weird for Johnson to see fans enjoying themselves to a song about such a dark personal time, that includes a lyric about “putting the handgun down?”
“I think it’s cool; I got it out of my system when I wrote the song,” he says. “I’m doing pretty good, man. I got nothing to complain about. Realistically, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t know that I’ve ever really had anything to complain about. … I find my outlet in music, and I’m grateful for that.”
“Once In a Lifetime,” like many songs by The Night Game, lays out Johnson’s desire to be a storyteller as much as a songwriter and performer. Johnson named his band after a Paul Simon song called “Night Game.” The hallmarks of Simon and other storyteller greats such as Bruce Springsteen are all over The Night Game’s songs.
“Paul Simon is the GOAT for storytelling,” he says. “I have a Gracelandtattoo. … I think your DNA is what your parents were listening to when you’re in your formative years. My old man was super-psyched on Graceland. I had the VHS, the African concert. I knew all the words. For me that was pretty mega.”
On stage, Johnson’s The Night Game has more swagger, whether it’s belting or talk-singing about blue-collar lives, like he does on newer track “American Nights.”
He captured the story for “Bad Girls Don’t Cry” after an evening conversation with a woman whose career he describes as one of ill repute. He doesn’t go into specifics—“I’ll never tell,” he guffaws—but we presume it’s an adult film actress.
“I was staying at some shithole like Bali’s and playing poker across the street at Caesar’s or Bellagio, and she was just telling me about her life,” he explains. “I found it so interesting, because of my insulated entertainment industry life—sometimes I’m sad that I didn’t go to college or something like that. Hearing her perspective on how she grew up and what she did for work; I found that really fascinating. I was asking her how it affected her on a deep level. She said to me that ‘bad girls don’t cry.’
“That’s some hot shit there,” he says.
Johnson went back to his hotel and wrote the song the same night. But that’s not to say that writing and recording The Night Game self-titled debut LP (released last month on Interscope) was an easy process.
“I smashed a keyboard in the studio,” Johnson begins. “I threw the mouse at the wall. I threw a couple laptops in the pool. But we have a record now. The record didn’t go in the pool with the laptops.”
In addition to Gotye and Callinan, the record includes a feature by Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek. Johnson enjoys working with others and doesn’t rule out writing or producing others again sometime in the future.
Quitting drinking was easier than staying mentally positive all of the time. The strong feelings of uncertainty return from time to time, just like when he came so close to quitting music.
“I swing up and down,” Johnson says. “I say that I’ve made a record and that I’ll detach from the results, but it’s bullshit. You want people to like you.”
He likens the feelings to the first day of high school, where even to those who say otherwise, acceptance is important. The singles The Night Game has released so far have been streamed more than 60 million times since 2017, and Johnson is visibly excited to learn that Snoop Dogg came out to watch part of his set alongside other fans earlier that day.
“I made this record for me, but then I finished it, and I looked around: ‘What do all you guys think? Is it cool?’”