Sporting a weathered Budweiser windbreaker and modern half-mullet, Martin Johnson is all smiles as he steps into Sonia on Saturday (March 31), a few hours before his set later that night as The Night Game.
“I love this place,” the Andover-born musician exclaims, looking around the white walls of the Cambridge venue, the recently reincarnated version of T.T. The Bear’s Place.
Johnson, the Boys Like Girls frontman and now doing pop music business as The Night Game, is a living and local songwriting success story. Between Boys Like Girls and his myriad of tunes penned with the likes of Avril Lavigne, Betty Who, and Ariana Grande, he holds a handful of RIAA-certified multi-platinum songs to his name and a career that’s been blossoming since 2006.
But Johnson’s story didn’t start in a dive like T.T.’s. Before the noisy VFW halls with pop-punk ricocheting off the walls, there were the Andover High talent shows and a notable performance of the national anthem at Fenway Park at the age of 12. He’s earned all the stripes of a tried n’ true Masshole the hard way.
Somewhere within the crossroads between Massachusetts and the West Coast — where he now currently resides — Johnson’s storytelling well ran dry. At a musical loss, he briefly considered dropping music altogether. “I was either going to quit and move to Jackson Hole, Montana, or something like that, or I was gonna be like ‘let’s see if I can truly love music again,’” Johnson explains.
He chose the latter.
After two years on the scene and four simmering and shimmying singles, Johnson’s solo project The Night Game is revving up for its debut album, due out this summer. Times have changed since that fateful debut Boys Like Girls release in 2006, but Johnson’s gusto sure hasn’t, and with a new arsenal of stories to share, he is, in a way, starting from the bottom all over again. For the record, he’s completely cool with the fresh slate.
“I’m just going to handle this like a completely new artist and get back in the van, playing shows around Los Angeles under an alias in front of 30 people, just trying to truly do it as if it were square one,” he says.
Johnson’s ongoing tour hits Bowery Ballroom in New York City tonight (April 3), and appearances at festivals like Shaky Knees, Bottlerock, and Firely are in his immediate future. The songwriter had plenty to say during our pre-show conversation at Sonia, and you can read his full interview with Vanyaland below.
Victoria Wasylak: You’ve been writing music with and for other people for a decade. What was the point when you thought “I want to write music for me?”
Martin Johnson: I just lost the fun of it. It was really fun for a little while playing a character, and so you jump onstage and you play a different character — you get to be somebody else for a minute. That was really fun, but I just missed telling stories. I’ve been quoted saying this, but I’ll say it again: You’re a little kid, looking in the mirror, and you’ve got your guitar around your neck and you’ve got a dream, and at some point I lost track of that little kid and instead I replaced him with a mortgage payment. I had to invite him back in the studio [and say] “What do you want to do? What do you want to play? What do you want to sing? Tell me.” It became about chasing some sort of relevance and I abandoned what I wanted to say.
I was either going to quit and move to Jackson Hole, Montana, or something like that, or I was gonna be like “let’s see if I can truly love music again.” It was a bit of a crossroads. I got in [the studio] with my engineer for six months and cancelled everything — I had sessions with other people — and just said “okay, let’s see if I can love this.” I’m throwing things at the wall [thinking] “Why can’t I find a story to tell like I did when I was a kid?” Slowly, the love for it came back, and the vision for it came back, and the freedom came back.
Stylistically, pop and pop-rock have changed a ton since you started in 2006. Was it hard to jump back in as a frontperson in 2018?
Yes and no, because of the vulnerability — so much validation is attached to people liking or disliking it [the music], so much personal self-worth is attached to that, and I had to detach from that. I had to say “it’s going to be about making something that feels good to me.”
Spreading music in 2006 and creating a fanbase was a lot different than it is today.
It is and it isn’t. It’s just different platforms. Boys Like Girls was a Myspace band, and we would individually go through and add fans one by one, and one by one, and one by one. Now it’s about Spotify and Instagram and Soundcloud, and still word of mouth. Live music still matters and I’ve never been in a generation where music wasn’t free. Music has always been free. When Boys Like Girls’ second record came out, there were those metrics about who transferred one of them off of the illegal pirate sites, as opposed to buying it, and it was 15 to one, or something like that. It’s always been free and I’ve always been okay with that. I’ve always encouraged people to burn our CD. Obviously it’s really great to have a life outside of the grind, but it’s never been about selling records, it’s been about playing shows and having people spread the word whenever they can, and accessing music however they’re going to access it. And luckily now we have streaming at our fingertips, where it makes it really easy and free.
Have you found that the people coming to your shows are old Boys Like Girls fans?
Kind of the opposite. It’s pretty range-y: Word of mouth, John Mayer shows, Spotify, Apple Music, whatever it might be. It’s cool, I love seeing that range, and it’s been flattering to see people telling their friends [about my music]. I think the thing that makes me smile the most is when people connect the dots — like, they didn’t know [I was in Boys Like Girls], and they’re coming anyways, and then they connect the dots.
Do you feel like you’re starting from scratch?
100 percent. I mean, I wanted it to be that way, rather than switch over the Instagram and really tap into the Boys Like Girls fans. I’m just going to handle this like a completely new artist and get back in the van, playing shows around Los Angeles under an alias in front of 30 people, just trying to truly do it as if it were square one.
Is that why you picked a band name for your group instead of just using your name?
Yeah, I wanted to have a true fresh start, and calling it Martin Johnson wasn’t that. Kirin, who plays guitar, really wanted the name to be “Real Johnson,” and I ended up calling the record label that. I know for me, when I have a favorite artist, I want them to play that nostalgic hit that I felt something for when I was 16, and I wanted a little bit of freedom from that expectation, and freedom to do something I’m doing now. When it’s time to play a Boys Like Girls show, we’ll play a Boys Like Girls show. So I thought the best way to do that was under an alias.
Are you tired of people talking about Boys Like Girls?
Not at all. I’m not ashamed of my past, those guys are my best friends, I’m texting with them literally right now. There’s no shame, there’s no hiding. I’m excited to someday play shows with those guys again and this is just a different project.
Some people, when they have more than one project, they don’t want to talk about their older stuff.
I don’t care, it’s part of my musical story. What the heck am I going to do, hide from my musical story? I’ve strategically chosen things like the name and the way that I’m handling myself on the internet currently to create a little bit of musical distance, but it’s not emotional distance. It has nothing to do with the boys or how I feel. I was making this record and we chose to do a 10-year [anniversary] tour of that first [Boys Like Girls] record, and that was a conscious celebration of what we had achieved as best friends. It has nothing to do with what I’m choosing to do musically now.
You’re from Massachusetts. Have you been writing or recording any of your debut album here?
I wrote a little bit of it here, but most of it I wrote in Los Angeles. I’m living in Los Angeles now and I come back here for Christmas and holidays, stuff like that. I miss it very deeply and I love and it will always be a part of me, but I just haven’t spent a ton of time here in the last five years.
Did you ever play T.T. The Bear’s before it was Sonia?
Nuh-uh. I’ve played the Middle East, the Axis and the Avalon before they became the House of Blues. When I grew up in the pop-punk scene, it was VFW halls and stuff. We were living in Taunton playing churches, halls, Andover’s old town hall, stuff like that. I wasn’t really in the Boston club scene, and all of the sudden, we [Boys Like Girls] were on tour.
Do you have any favorite musical memories from Massachusetts?
I sang the national anthem at Fenway Park when I was 12, and it was my claim to fame for a really long time. A lot of my musical memories from Boston aren’t actually from bands, it’s from being a kid and singing in the Newton Boys Choir or doing theater at the Emerson Majestic Theatre, or playing at Andover High’s talent shows. Pretty much as soon as that ended, I moved down to Southie and Taunton with the boys and we were just trying to get in the ring.
Do you have a set timeline for your debut album once this tour finishes?
Early summer, probably announcing a pre-order within a couple weeks.
Are you nervous at all about it?
I think so. I’ve done a lot of work on myself to try to feel like this is just about the music, and I’m really trying to detach from what people think and put my best foot forward, and then let the music do the talking. Sometimes that’s hard. I find that a lot of my happiness is hinging upon what people think of me and what people think of my music, and that’s something I’m working on. I’d say I’m a little bit nervous, but I’m doing my best to stay in today.