The Outfield may have been a hit-making pop-rock of the '80s, but come 2017, "The Outfield" is a song that sounds like it belongs to that era -- and could very well be a hit today.
The Night Game, which unveiled "The Outfield" on Wednesday (Apr. 12), is the debut of the latest project from former Boys Like Girls singer Martin Johnson, and sounds like an accumulation of the veteran singer-songwriter's finest qualities. Featuring background vocals from Gotye, the song is a sing-along so undeniable that listeners will likely be singing along before the end of the first chorus.
"This song felt like the best introduction to what I'm trying to do and a really good way to segue into the project," Johnson tells Billboard. "It felt anthemic, without being a throat jammer."
Before beginning the process of putting The Night Game together three years ago, Johnson was in the midst of a career crisis. He had gone from being the lead singer of popular alt-rock band Boys Like Girls to a songwriter and producer for artists like Avril Lavigne and Christina Perri. He scored a few hits behind-the-scenes, but no longer felt the energy that performing music had given him when he was younger.
"I was trying to find love for music by making it for other people, and it wasn't working for me," he says. "You get older and it becomes about maintenance, maintaining what you've made in your life. I had to start almost completely from scratch and write a couple of very left-of-center, sad songs to help me discover what I wanted to say."
While "The Outfield" is certainly not one of those very sad songs, Johnson admits that despite having made music for nearly a decade it took a lot of trial and error to figure out exactly what The Night Game was going to be. "I didn't want to force something out into the universe without feeling like it was a genuine extension of my personality," he explains. "For once in my life, I had the luxury of time, so I just went into the studio and took the time it takes."
One issue that made the discovery process a bit more challenging: his voice had naturally evolved since his Boys Like Girls days, and performing songs like their hit "The Great Escape" in his original range was no longer an option.
"In 2006, I was gravitating to what was hot at the moment," he says. "You're an impressionable 18-year-old and you want to sing like the music you're listening to. The tone of things across the body of work became a little less like, 'I'm gonna wave my dick around now,' which I think is really characteristic of being young and hungry. It became less about creating a wall of sound and more about 'What is this sound saying?'"
Along the journey, Johnson met producer Francois Tetaz, whom he calls a huge inspiration thanks to his patience in helping Johnson find "the character and the DNA" of what he was setting out to make. "It became a little bit more about the emotion of it," he suggests, "being able to believe it and feel proud of it, not make it concocted." Tetaz, who helped create Gotye's breakout 2011 album Making Mirrors, put Johnson in touch with Gotye's Wally De Backer, who ended up volunteering to perform backing vocals for "The Outfield." "It's a huge honor," says Johnson. "I'm a big fan of what he does. It's nice to have a different character as a part of those big stacks on The Outfield, because if it's all me, it becomes a lot."
With Tetaz on board, Johnson has created 30 songs he's fully confident in, and is eager to continue unveiling The Night Game now that "The Outfield" is out. He's been playing secret shows across Los Angeles (where the Massachusetts native now mainly resides), and been getting positive responses from attendees. But even if The Night Game doesn't become the "next big thing," as he says, it's big enough in Johnson's eyes, simply because he feels he's put his best foot forward.
"I've done something that I have pride in," he says. "I've got to be okay with what happens and still feel pride in it - my self-esteem can't 100 percent be based on validation from either music critics or music fans."