The frontman embraces creative freedom, vulnerability, and joy on the power-pop record.
Zooming from his home in Nashville on a Monday afternoon, Martin Johnson, lead vocalist of alternative rock band Boys Like Girls— comprised of Martin Johnson on vocals, Jamel Hawke on lead guitar, Johnny Keefe on the drums, and Gregory James on the bass guitar— is cheerful and eager to chat about the iconic group’s latest record Sunday At Foxwoods, released October 20th via Fearless Records. (During the interview, Johnson jokingly turns the tables and asks which track is Substream’s least favorite — for the record, it’s “Lost In Wonderland”—, a track that Johnson says you can connect with once you travel a lot and is written for those who have been on the road “specifically men in vans”, he quips. ) The group’s first album in eleven years, Johnson and company update the band’s trademark pop-rock sound mixed with the country tinge while returning to their roots with singles such as the groovy, synth-soaked “Blood And Sugar”, the catchy “Miracle,” and the emotional “Cry.”, songs that Johnson has been working on for a long time. “I’ve been tucking away songs for this record since 2014. I don’t stop working on things until they’re released and even then I feel like I have to fix shit, so I’m glad it’s out. The never-ending job of seeking perfection was taken out of my hands.”
Formed in 2004, the Boston, MA band released their self-titled debut album in 2006, known for the early aughts hits such as “Love Drunk” and “The Great Escape”, both of which are platinum certified. A slew of successful singles such as the Taylor Swift duet “Two Is Better Than One, “Thunder”, and “Hero/Heroine” followed by tours across the United States, Europe, Asia, South America, and Australia. By 2012, Johnson was feeling himself pulled into a different direction. Collaboration was nothing new to Johnson, but for the first time, he began writing and producing music not intended for his band. What followed was another string of wild successes with hits from Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Blink-182, Avril Lavigne, Jason Derulo, Daughtry, Christina Perri, Gavin Degraw, Pentatonix, and more. This—along with Johnson’s bandmates’ own successful musical endeavors—led to a years-long hiatus for Boys Like Girls. However, the band was back on the road in 2016 and time had changed Johnson’s outlook on life and art, making Johnson rework songs he had been crafting, injecting emotion into them, according to exactly where he was in his artistic process and his life. Sunday At Foxwoods represents a mature era that is rooted in the same energy that sparked their seminal output. “That’s what’s important. For me, I need to believe it when I sing it on stage.”
“Cry”, a vulnerable track, took some life changes to feel right for the singer. “When I wrote it, it was 2014 and I wasn’t writing for myself at the time, at all. I wasn’t writing for Nightgame, Boys Like Girls, and wasn’t thinking of doing a solo record yet. I had fallen out of love with the art of it, it had become a bit of a 9-5 for me. It had been a while since I had written to write.” Saying it took him eight years to “believe it” because he lacked someone to sing the song to, Johnson tinkered with the track. “At the time, I was very single, my whole life revolved around work, and I think it had this empathetic love [about it]. So I tried to rewrite it as [being about] that one, everlasting, deep relationship.” First, Johnson tried to write it about his father— the singer is an only child and his mom passed away when he was 16—and fashioned it as a song to sing to him, but it did not feel right. However, when Johnson met his wife—the frontman is married to country songstress Naomi Cooke with whom he shares a daughter— in 2019, the song’s purpose became clear to Johnson. “I finally believe myself singing this song. I re-recorded it five times. She got pregnant a year and a half ago now, our daughter is six months old, and right before the album came out, I was still having a hard time with the vocals. We were in Utah and I had her come into the vocal booth with me and I put the microphone down low and turned down the lights. I sang the song as a lullaby to her belly and it was finally right. Now I have something in my heart that I can believe in.”
Believability played a significant role in the creation of Sunday At Foxwoods. “I’m too old to sing a song that I don’t care about. I have to feel it, I have to believe it. I have to know that it’s real to me.” Johnson was unsure of the “twenty songs that we tried for the record” saying that some of the songs that did not make the album have potential later down the line after listening to them again. “I kind of fuck with this, maybe we’ll put it on the next one. It’s funny that some cycles are born before their time and they find you down the line when you’re ready for them. I had a song I wrote for another artist— Elle King— in 2014 and it came out in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. Seven years later, it finally mattered.” When it comes to songwriting, Johnson bases his preference on his current spot in life, pondering the question as he talks. “I think you go through chapters of your life and there was a chapter in my life where that [collaboration] felt right. I think after doing it for a long time Right now, at this time in my life, letting the wolf out of the cage and performing again feels so good. I feel way more inspired as an artist than I do as a songwriter and producer. Luckily, I can combine the two and produce my stuff. Sometimes you want to write things that feel less consequential. I think there’s a lot of pressure when you’re writing something that’s your own story and there’s a little bit less pressure when you can play a character writing for someone else. You step in for the day, you play that character, you wear that hat, you assume that role for a brief amount of time,e and then you can detach from the results. When you’re writing for yourself, you have to answer questions on a call like this where you talk about the relevance to your life and why it’s true. You get up a 6 a.m. to sing those songs on a morning show. Every night you have to believe it when you sing it on stage and there’s a bit more consequence and pressure to that type of thing. But this part of my life, it feels better to stand behind something true and it feels great playing with the boys again.”
Johnson finds happiness in touring, incredibly grateful for the life that he lives. “I love the ability to be home, but after about two weeks I’m itching to play a show. That amount of time away from the stage— I think I find discomfort in comfort so the happiest that I am is when I’m being tested. I love being on tour.” Over the years. Johnson has realized the significance of “being a vehicle for the [fans’] soundtrack [to their lives] At the end of the day, music needs to bring joy and escape.” Next year, the band will hit the road for festival season, playing Slam Dunk in the United Kingdom along with going to Brazil and Australia on a tour with We The Kings and Simple Plan. “I think when you spend that much time away, you rejoin society in a way. It takes a certain level of narcissism to do that type of work. To regain a slice of normalcy, you have to bury your persona of whoever you were in your 20s. Stepping back into the semi-high-heeled boots and the leather jacket, it’s a bit overwhelming, kind of like I forgot that this guy was a part of me and I forgot that people in this crowd exist. Two minutes ago I was at my house and now I’m here. It’s liketime-travelingg to being 22 again. I love traveling and different cultures and we’ve toured with a lot of these bands before. It should be a good reunion.”
The latest musical collaboration that Johnson has been a part of is the tune “I Can’t Stop Me’ featuring K-POP sensation TWICE. After receiving an email being asked to do it and not knowing of TWICE, Johnson went on a YouTube video viewing spree, becoming a fan of the group after watching multiple videos. “They were putting together a remix album and I don’t know who the Boys Like Girls fan was, one of the girls or someone on their team, but I got an email asking whether I wanted to do a feature, write a verse, or sing on it while I was on tour. I had never heard of Twice. I don’t use social media a lot and I live a bit under a rock sometimes, but I went on Youtube and I went into a 4-hour wormhole and became a massive fan throughout six videos.’ Saying he’s not so secretly into K-POP, Johnson admires what the artists do, claiming that it is “dope and different”, reminiscent of TRL and the pull that boy bands had on the show, but updated for the modern music scene. Due to this, there was “no question” that he would participate in this collaboration. “I got sent the session files or stems for the sound and I think it’s a lot of pressure to rewrite a song that already has two billion impressions. It came quickly and it was super fun to put my spin on it. It’s been fun doing something deeply outside of the comfort zone and I think the years of writing pop songs for other people helped the ability to step into that character quickly.”