When some people reach a major life milestone, their favorite way to celebrate might be with glasses of champagne. But Niko Moon? He celebrates with tattoos.
“I think of them like bookmarks in life,” he tells Billboard. As an example, he offers the fact that he had swallows tattooed on his hands that symbolize his relationship with his wife and fellow musician Anna Moon. “Swallows mate for life and they travel a lot. Sometimes they’ll fly away from each other for thousands of miles and somehow they are able to find their way back to each other. With us being artists, that resonated with me.”
Earlier this year, Niko Moon not only earned his first No. 1 as an artist hit on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart with “Good Time,” he also matched a record set by Sam Hunt back in 2014, when “Good Time” became the first song since Hunt’s “Leave the Night On” to simultaneously top Billboard’s Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts. And yes, when “Good Time” was released, Moon had the song’s title tattooed on his leg.
Of course, as a songwriter, Moon is intimately aware of what it takes to craft a radio hit — he’s co-written multiple songs that reached the pinnacle of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart for Zac Brown Band, including “Homegrown” and “Keep Me in Mind.” Another Moon co-write, “Heavy Is the Head,” gave Brown and Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave) a two-week No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Airplay chart back in 2015.
Now, Moon has forged his own unique sound, an amalgam of pop-centric, radio-friendly vibes and lyrics with an inspirative ethos that permeate his debut full-length project Good Time, out Aug. 27 via RCA Nashville. The album follows his Good Time EP, which released earlier this year.
“That’s what I feel like is my purpose in life: to make feel-good songs, so that’s why all the music that I make is that way,” Moon tells Billboard. “Nothing against a sad song. I’ve done a lot of sad songs for other artists, but for my own music I just feel like that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Moon, a Texas native, was raised in Douglasville, Georgia, a town centered equidistance between the hip-hop-dominated Atlanta and Newnan, Georgia, the childhood stomping grounds of country superstar Alan Jackson. Moon’s father worked as a truck driver, but also played drums, and Moon’s mother also sang. As Moon began to pursue his music career, he balanced evening gigs at bars with a series of day-time odd jobs, including work at UPS loading trucks, as a maintenance man at an apartment complex, an electrician, insulator and a construction worker. “I’ve done a million things, but the one constant was always playing music,” Moon says.
Along the way, Moon met fellow Georgian Zac Brown when he got booked to open one of Brown’s shows. “This was before he really blew up,” Moon explains. “He was just playing by himself, solo acoustic. He dug what I did and that night after the bar closed down, we hung out, having a drink. He asked if I wanted to write a song with him sometime. We ended up writing a good one — and that was the start of a really long, cool collaborative friendship.”
In addition to writing songs with Zac Brown Band, Moon also joined Brown and Ben Simonetti to form the electro-pop trio Sir Rosevelt in 2016. He says the experience creating music within groups and writing for other artists helped him refine his own artistic choices.
“I have so much fun helping other artists be the best they can be, and a lot of that involves helping them find what they want to say and how they want to sound. When it came time to make my own music, I felt like it really helped me in being able to take time to say, ‘If my life had a sound, what would it be?’
“With Zac Brown Band, they’re so known for their four-part harmonies and massive vocals, so writing melodies that lend themselves well to three- and four-part harmonies, it’s so much fun to do that,” he continues. “When you’re writing, you got to hold that in mind so that it feels right for each artist you are writing for. That’s why on my album, too, you’ll noticed the harmonies are pretty pushed — and I think that’s just from all those years of writing for Zac Brown Band. Because I love big vocals. It just feels good to hear.”
The making of Good Time was itself an intense collaborative effort for Moon, his wife Anna and Moon’s co-producer Josh Murty. All three contributed to the writing of 13 of the album’s 14 tracks. Moon’s wife also came up with the idea for “Last Call,” including the hook, “If lovers are like alcohol/ Girl you’re my last call.”
“I thought it was perfect because she is my last call,” Moon said. “When we met, I hadn’t seriously dated anybody in a long time and had shut that part of myself off, because I was too busy traveling, playing bars, that kind of thing. But when you’re good, you know that’s it. She had this song idea and was like, ‘I was kind of like your last call.’
“She is such a big reason why I am the way that I am,” Moon adds of his wife’s influence. “At the time we met, I felt a real artist needed to be like a troubadour — drinking every night, traveling, just living that wild, musician life. I thought you needed to be in that mental place to get good music, almost like that Jack Kerouac, ‘On The Road’ mentality. But it was really just a story I was telling myself, and she brought that home to me big time. I started falling in love with her, and when that happened, the songs started changing, too. I began writing about finding meaningfulness in love, friends and family. The simple things in life that are, most of the time, the most powerful things.”
The lone track that is not a Moon co-write is a carefully chosen cover of Travis Tritt’s 2001 hit “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” which Moon calls his “inspiration track.” He elaborates: “I think I’m going to do it for every album I make. I’m going to have one song on each album that is a song that inspired me to want to be an artist. Travis lived about 15 minutes from where I lived growing up [in Georgia], so he was a bit inspiration. He was a guy that made it real, that someone from where I’m from could make it. I’m also a big fan of [the song’s writer] Darrell Scott.”
But Moon was adamant in refusing to “just do a carbon copy of it.” He sped up the song — and where Tritt’s original recording has a fiddle helping to carry the song, Moon’s version places a focus on guitar.
The album’s fulcrum is perhaps “Without Sayin’ a Word,” a song that teems with life lessons and pays tribute to Moon’s father. “He never really would sit me down and tell me, ‘Hey, man. You need to work hard in life,’” Moon recalls. “He just got up at 4:30 in the morning and went to work, and that was the example. Kids pick up on that. He let his life be the lesson and I picked up so much from him just by observing. I started thinking about all the things he never actually said, but that I observed, and I wanted to put it into a song.”
After a pandemic-induced hiatus from touring, Moon is back hard at work on the road, playing several of his new songs each night as he opens shows for trio Lady A’s What a Song Can Do Tour, which has also given him time to write with that group’s Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood, fellow Georgia natives. And he promises there is more music to come from those writing sessions.
“I was just texting Charles about a particular song today,” Moon says. “I can’t reveal the name of it yet, but we were both like, ‘This song is for real.’ It’s going to see the light of day, for sure.”