Martin Johnson has been living in a camper since last June, traveling all over the country. It might seem insane, but uprooting his existence from the modern world (he still uses such conveniences as a smartphone to stay tapped into songwriting and producing) has allowed him to bury his head into his new album. Going by the moniker The Night Game, Johnson drops his second solo record, Dog Years, an 11-track project that bids adieu to Los Angeles and confronts matters of growing older.
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“I’m terrified of the universe, but I’m guiltily thriving this year,” admits Johnson, most known for fronting late-aughts pop/punk band Boys Like Girls, who released a chain of undeniable hits including “Love Drunk” and “The Great Escape.” Free from the LA label system, and feeling the rush of the open road on his skin, Johnson’s entire life these days has no rules whatsoever.
Dog Years, on which he rips pages out of his early 20s, reads much like a movie montage, during which you’re “experiencing the world that they’re experiencing. It’s almost like a psychedelic dream sequence, and you’re seeing something that’s an alternate reality,” he says, making reference to that basement scene in 2004’s “Garden State.”
Johnson shakes loose some of his most provocative compositions 一 from the opening spoken word setpiece “The Stiltwalker,” a mosaic of news feed static and vintage interview audio, to the moody and bruised “Hurts So Good.” Both in approach and style, he elevates the work he pressed together with 2018’s self-titled debut into a dimension-defying expedition — always stapled right from the heart.
“I had a pretty hard early 20s. I put a lot of years on myself and my body,” he says. He originally had the idea to write a song called “Dog Years,” a reference to a dog’s much shorter lifespan, but the sentiment seemed more apt as an album title. When he got it into his head to leave Los Angeles behind, the last eight months became the most treasured out of the whole nine years he lived there.
Then-living in Los Feliz, Johnson biked the 15 miles every morning and every night to and from the studio in Burbank, with strapped “meal-prepped meals on my back.” He wanted to take a “pretty different approach to Los Angeles than I had taken” as a way to reground his life and “really feel” what it meant to be alive. “So, I made a commitment to bike commute to work. I was biking home with a headlamp on at two in the morning with empty tupperware,” he says. And then he’d meal-prep for the next day, go to bed, and start the routine all over again, landing back in the studio around 11 the next morning.
As “beautiful and amazing” a place it is and was, Los Angeles didn’t seem to make sense for his life anymore. 2018 was coming to a close, and Johnson was feeling his head and his heart being nudged into a new direction. “I’m so grateful for the nine years I spent there. I learned a lot. I felt a lot. I made a lot of great relationships and worked on some cool music. I don’t resent that time in my life at all,” offers Johnson, who completed 80 percent of the record in Burbank, before wrapping once he landed himself in Nashville. Tthere was a moment when he “looked around and realized that I only had fast friends. I lost the plot a little bit. I felt I had mined the last piece of coal out of that city. It was time for a scene change.”
Johnson, now 35, has undergone quite the transformation. “I thought maybe this seed would grow / But it’s wilted and turning brown,” he sings through gurgling whooshes of “UFO,” a cosmic metaphor of the jolt you get when you wake up, fully grown.“I had a pretty decent ride when I was a kid in the music industry. I rode the wave pretty hard. There was a moment when I woke up,” he says.
“You achieve your dream and God disappears, because you sit in the ‘it’ll be OK’ lens. When I was 14, I lived in that lens so much so that living in a windowless room in south Boston in a dance studio below the tanning salon or living in a converted attic showering with a house in Massachusetts 一 all that stuff felt tolerable because ‘it’ll be OK when we get a record deal’ or ‘it’ll be OK when we have a song on the radio.’ You wake up, and you’re 23, and you’ve lived a life already. You think, ‘Am I washed up at 23? What am I doing?’”
Written during his stint “pumping out” songs for various “The X-Factor” winners, “UFO” encompasses a “really depressive moment in my life,” he says. “You have these dreams, and God forbid you achieve them because then what? What now? I guess now I just try to be happy. I never got the rulebook for that. I only got the rulebook for grinding my teeth as a teenager, determined to succeed in music because I loved it so much. I didn’t really know how to live. I just knew how to tour and get on stage and put on the outfit.”
“There was a year when it was pretty hard for me to leave the house,” he adds.
Songs like “UFO” are textbook catharsis, naturally, and in sharing such personal confessions, Johnson allows those emotions to fly off into the ether. “I feel so good and loved now, and I’m happy making music again. But I did look in the mirror and I wasn’t sure I wanted to make music anymore and [wondered] if it was all in vain. Everybody feels like there’s this backup plan of going home: ‘Oh, I could still go home, and then I look around and there are friends who are married or in jail or strung out. I had nothing to go home to. Yeah, I could live on my dad’s couch… but there’s no home.’”
Time had also been plaguing his mind. “I was constantly thinking, ‘That happened too fast.’ I think there’s a threshold you pass over when you’re grateful and happy to be an adult. I’m there. I love my life and making music. I get to hum melodies for a living. I know people fake gratitude sometimes because they feel weird complaining about being an artist 一 I’m really not faking it. I am grateful, and I love it.”
Speaking about time, even now, makes Johnson surprisingly “emotional,” he says. “When I listen to a song that meant something to me when I was 17, I get choked up. You can’t really access it or get it back. I think this year, more than ever, I’ve been doing a better job at living in the moment. My life is rad right now. Yeah, I might never be able to be 19 again. And do I wish I had another stab at those years 一 because you never know how good it is until it’s over 一 yeah, I do. I wish I had a time machine, but I don’t. I can either live in that or I can be grateful and happy with where I am now. It’s not like you snap your fingers, and you’re jacked on your life and pumped to be in your 30s. You go through it.”
“Time is scary. I’m about to be the age my dad was when he had me. My dad seemed young when I was a kid, but also, my dad was always an adult-adult. It is next chapter time. I can either kick and scream the whole way and be miserable or I can embrace it and be happy.”
With “Dancing in Heaven,” perhaps Johnson’s most affecting pinnacle, written with long-time collaborator and friend Sam Hollander, he guides the listener into an ethereal world about death, grief, and impenetrable loss. Johnson’s mother died when he was 16, and around the time of writing the moving ballad, Hollander’s father had recently passed. “We were both feeling it,” reflects Johnson, whose voice seems to both claw at heaven and keep him immovable on the ground.
“This felt like the most poignant approach to a letter to [my mom]. It was one of those songs that was in the machine in half an hour. Some songs take like eight years to make,” he says. Johnson and Hollander have been writing songs together for nearly 20 years, and their chemistry as songwriters is irresistible. “I’m grateful to be able to do this with him and represent his father in this way. It was a sensitive one to write for both of us, but it felt really good and a nice release. The visual of dancing in heaven felt good to imagine and believe in.”
In the musical outro, one that feels not unlike “Titanic,” he quips, Johnson pays homage to his mother’s love of Irish music. A social studies book writer by trade, his mother would have “Irish music just blasting” in the house, as he recalls. “One of my most treasured moments with mom is when we took a trip to Ireland to meet blood family there 一 some cousins and her grandmother. We would go into these little bars and there’d always be the fiddle and the pennywhistle. So, I was trying to give a little of that color as you ride off into the sunset.”
Johnson punctures the emotional tension with such entries as “Our Generation,” a brazenly flirtatious commentary on modern dating, inspired by his love of musical theatre. “Theatre is always in my gut and my heart. I like songs that create a world and set this imagery up,” he says, quickly offering an anecdote of the time him and some “theatre-heads” camped out to see “RENT” in high school. Initially thinking he’d make a career in theatre, he was asked to join a little band out of south Massachusetts, and well, we all know what happened next. “It changed the trajectory of my life into taking my own songwriting more seriously”
On the body-jolting “Our Generation,” talky verses (think: Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”) slide alongside splashy ‘80s “whoa-whoa”s and groovy blasts of color. Around the time of writing, dating apps like RAYA and Bumble were all the rage. “You’re ordering a date like you’re ordering a pizza,” Johnson laughs. “You’re ordering a pizza, and you don’t know what you’re going to get. It’s this faceless thing where you’re having these emotionally flirtatious conversations with like 19 people at once. You forget who’s who. I wanted to create a theatrical representation of what that feels like.”
Fortunately, Johnson is now engaged to Naomi Cooke, a member of country breakout trio Runaway June, and he no longer has to “get back in the trenches” of the dating scene. “I can’t imagine dating in 2021 where everybody’s faces are covered, and you’re on this app trying to figure out if you’re both comfortable enough to hang out at somebody’s house. You’re single through turmoil and trying to figure out ways to get attention and validation.”
While playing a narrator role, Johnson loosely fuses in his own frustrations and experiences from his dating days in Los Angeles. “It’s this character of a man who is completely washed over and unexcited about the prospect of this girl coming over. You can hear this spike in dopamine when she asks, ‘Do you want me to send a photograph of myself?’ It’s these weird dopamine button pushes that we get, but at the same time, [this man] is so checked out.”
Dog Years is a shape-shifting experience, winding the listener through the peaks and valleys of the human experience. Martin Johnson is the one constant, a reliable powerhouse whose tremendous heart informs everything he does. In confronting regret, misery, and loneliness in such an honest way, he allows himself the clearance to take off, musically, like a gusting 747.