“I can’t believe you went to Camp Encore/Coda,” singer/songwriter Martin Johnson tells me via phone, surprised that I attended the same New England music camp he once did. “I got kicked-out, though. I was a little bit tough when it came to music back then. I didn’t ever really want to be told what to do.”
Being a musical renegade has served Johnson well. From his tenure in the band Boys Like Girls, to his star-studded songwriting work with artists like Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo, Gavin DeGraw, Christina Perri, and Pentatonix, Johnson’s ability to craft contagious pop fare has made him one of the most sought-after artists writing contemporary music today.
Now after a long hiatus, Johnson has resurrected his solo career with his latest project The Night Game. Following the release of two initial singles (the first of which “The Outfield” landed him a support slot on John Mayer’s 2017 solo tour), Johnson talked to me about the tech and tenacity behind his new body of work.
My first introduction to your new music with The Night Game came via a Spotify playlist called “Feel Good Dinner.” About an hour into a seemingly similar batch of songs, your song “The Outfield” came on and I immediately said, “What is THAT?” It’s quite a feat in this day and age to catch someone’s attention, especially in the middle of a three-hour streaming playlist.
That’s an amazing compliment. I think the music industry these days is built-on metrics. People who are using the streaming services are predominantly pretty young, and the genres that are resonating at the current moment are mumble rap and dance music. If you can make any type of music that resonates with anyone, that’s amazing. The problem is, anything outside those two genres has a really hard time getting a shot. As a songwriter, I’m looking to harvest a moment and harvest emotion. I’m writing to capture a feeling in myself, and if that can be spread, then that’s the biggest joy of all. But at the time I wrote that song, I was thinking, “Am I supposed to open a juice bar? Am I supposed to make maple syrup? What am I doing, because I don’t really like making music anymore.” I didn’t want to make music based on metrics, or work on things that I didn’t like. I was sick of making music exclusively to keep the lights on. So I asked myself, “If I’m going to make something that’s exclusively for me – if I had a 10-12 song playlist of my own tunes that I wanted to listen to, what would that sound like?” And I spent four years finding it.
It took you four years to find the sound you were looking for?
Yeah. I spent four years searching and saying “No” to everything. I turned-down every production gig. My publisher called me and said, “You know, Martin, the phone has stopped ringing.” And I said, “Good!”
How did you know when that sound you were searching for was starting to materialize?
When I started-out writing this record, I was pretty depressed. I was struggling to find music, and I was searching to fill a gaping hole in myself by going and playing poker every night after I finished in the studio. I would drive down to the casino in L.A. and sit there until seven in the morning. Then I’d wake-up and try to make a song. You can feel a little of that self-hatred in some of the music. The second track I put out “Once in a Lifetime” is from that time. I think it all started to “click” and I found a road map when I started to like making music again. It was still a chore at first. I was like, “Okay, I’m here in the office! What do I do now?” While I was staring at the wall.
What was your process like? Were you playing guitar? Playing keyboards? “Once in a Lifetime” sounds like you were writing to a loop.
Yeah. On “Once in a Lifetime,” I pulled-up a loop, and then I played-in fuzzy bass line. The loop was like a needle-drop break beat.
Was this in Logic or Pro Tools?
I was in Pro Tools exclusively for this record, and I made it a rule that I wasn’t going to use a ton of MIDI. Sometimes I’d use MIDI if I was going for a [Yamaha] DX-kind of FM sound, but in general, the drums were "off the grid,” and if I was replacing sounds or using a drum machine or a sample, I would run it out through NI Battery or Kontakt, into the pads of an MPC so you could actually feel the performance.
Were you doing this all yourself, or did you have an engineer?
I had a little bit of teamwork on this record, which was beautiful. I co-produced the record with Francois Tétaz, who is a really brilliant collaborator. He has such a library of references, and he exposed me to beautiful music and culture. He had a lot of patience. I had never really performed a vocal before. When I was producing music for other artists, I’d have them sing 10-15 takes and then I’d choose words from each. With this project, I’d go in and sing the song, and Franc would be like, “Okay, come-out. I want you to listen to this Neil Diamond ‘B-side.’ And this Johnny Cash song.” He would have me sing along with them in the shower and work on specific things and practice them. That was the first time I practiced a song since I did musical theater as a kid! I hadn’t made records like that before. I had been of the mindset that if you could make it “in the machine" and cut corners, you did so. But Franc was looking to get a true performance for the sake of the song.
How did you end-up supporting John Mayer last fall on his solo tour?
It’s a really similar experience to what you had. I didn’t believe that kind of thing existed in the music industry, especially in 2018. Everything usually comes through the machine and is based on metrics and on how many tickets you can sell. But in this case, Mayer heard “The Outfield” and said, “I like this. I want to see this live. Let’s bring the show to me.” He heard the song and really gravitated toward it and thought, “Let’s give this thing a stab.” It’s really refreshing to see that it was the music that led to that. Because he didn’t have to do that. His shows were already sold-out! At that point, it was simply “What 40 minutes do I want my crowd to hear before I play?”
What is the pad sound on the opening of “The Outfield?” Is it a [Roland] Juno-60?
I think it’s a combination of a Juno and an [Oberheim] OB-8. When we played it on the Mayer tour, we were recreating it in Ableton with a Juno plug-in. Now when we don’t have to set-up really quickly and we have more room to shine, I think we’re going to use an old Yamaha SY77 synth, with a Juno-106 and a MIDI controller on top of that.
At this point you’ve released two singles, plus the remix of your song “Kids in Love.” What are the plans for a full album release?
We’re building into an album release in early summer. The album’s done, and it will probably have 10 or 11 songs on it. I think I want to do a series of three 10-song records, but we’ll see how that goes. Plans shift, things change, and creatively you want to do different things.
Are you releasing the album on a label or independently?
It’s coming out on Interscope in the US and Vertigo in Germany. What’s cool about that is we can independently create a little bit of a story in Germany, a place built a little bit less on metrics where they use their gut a little bit more. I’m also really excited to do quite a bit of touring for this record. The reason I made this record is because I want to sing and I want to play.
What would you say are the most essential pieces of gear these days that you’re using to write and record?
For vocals, I use either a [ELA-M] 251 or a [Neumann U] 47. Those either run through a Neve, a Shadow Hills, or a Chandler TG-2 Mic Pre. I probably use the Neve the most often, but on this record I used the Shadow Hills a lot. Then I run the vocals through three compressors. You could probably bring it down to just one mic pre and one compressor if you hit it a little harder. I like to hit multiple compressors softly. I also have a few FM and older synths and a few drum machines, and I run it all into a Mackie mixer. It’s sort of like when you’re a kid and you’re playing your keyboard through speakers. Here, it’s all playing through speakers through the mixer hat then runs into a few API mic pres and a few [Empirical Labs] Distressor compressors. It’s interesting – some people say that the signal loses a ton of quality by going through the mixer, so when I’m cutting a track I sometimes will switch-out the cables. But when I’m writing, I want to jump around. I’m not writing by pulling-up things like Omnisphere in the machine. I like to feel it.
Are there any synths you relied on heavily while making the new album?
A lot of the record was made using the Juno and the OB-8, and also an FM synth like the DX-7.
I also saw a vintage Prophet-5 in one of your studio photos.
That thing is really hard to use. It’s so out of tune all of the time. It’s a beautiful piece, but it takes a long time to get right. I also used a Roland Jupiter-8 a lot on the record. I own a Jupiter-6, which to me is a little more primal. You recognize all the sounds that are in there and you can tweak them. The world we’re living in these days seems to be about making things work with a laptop and a travel MIDI keyboard. And if I was in a crunch, I could make that work. If I absolutely had to.
So I’m assuming you didn’t sell all of your vintage keyboards when you sold your Los Angeles house last year?
No. I kept them. A doctor bought the studio. He’s a very sweet guy and he does unbelievable work in pediatric plastic surgery. But it’s a little bit depressing because [legendary studio designer] George Augspurger designed the studio, and now it’s going to be a home theater. So it’s a little bit sacrilegious. But I was having an issue with the house because I was working four feet from where I slept. That’s where I made the full record. I kind of want to commute to work, and have some separation. So yeah, all the gear came with me.
In this journey to find a new sound and a new set of songs, what did you learn along the way?
I think a song should pass three tests. It should pass the “Laying in bed with headphones alone” test, where you can feel proud and excited by what you’ve achieved. I think it should pass the “Crank it up in the car with your best friends from high school who are working regular jobs” test. And it should pass the “Play it for your girl” test. That probably goes both ways if it’s a girl writing the song, but coming from my perspective, those were the three tests that I took on for every song. But the most important test of all is, “Does it mean anything to you?” Are you telling a story? Don’t write for the listener, write for you!
When I was creating this album, a big rule for me was to have everything I said musically be derived from the meaning of the lyrics. So if there was longing and deep nostalgia and pain in the lyric, the guitar or synth part needed to reflect that. And if it didn’t, then maybe I needed to mute it and try again. In general, I think the music should speak what you’re trying to say. We have an unlimited amount of tracks these days, so the name of the game is always “stack as much sound and make it as big and present as possible with no air.” But if you can find the meaning of what you’re saying in every sound and every intricacy, I think your music becomes that much more believable.
For more info visit http://www.thenightgame.com/