On a hot day in Los Angeles, I hand Jack Johnson a non-alcoholic beer. It’s noon and we’re in a nice air-conditioned studio, where I’m interviewing him for an upcoming episode of the outdoor podcast. The nearby beer is not meant to be a refreshment, but a musical instrument. Seriously. In the liner notes of Johnson’s new album, Meet the moonlight, which falls on Friday, June 24, he is recognized for playing beer bottles. This I had to see.
Johnson bravely shows me how to tune a beer (every sip lowers the tone), which I knew he would do, because he’s the nicest guy in the world. When I wrote a profile of him for Outside in 2010 he was driving the car I rented so I could take notes. When we met again in 2017 to talk about his latest album, All the light above too, he helped the podcast’s sound engineer with the setup. It’s what we expect from a guy who’s been caricatured as a laid-back Hawaiian surfer and artist whose feel-good music has become the soundtrack to beach days, summer road trips and of everything after-outdoor. At a time when there is much darkness in the world, a new Jack Johnson album feels like a welcome balm to our anxiety – an invitation to get together with friends for a campfire, maybe with someone. playing the baseline on a half-finished beer.
And yet Johnson, now 47, has never been as simple as we imagined. Those who know him well insist that he is a fierce competitor to everythingsurfing – he was well on his way to becoming a pro before smashing his face at Pipeline at 17 – to table tennis and, yes, to music. (It even happened to be a pioneer in the Web3 space, joining Outside for his first NFT launch, the Bedrock Badge, to raise funds for his Kokua Hawaii Foundation and offering badge holders a chance to win concert tickets and autographed copies of his new album.)
As Johnson prepares for his first tour in five years — a 35-date swing across the country — I’m curious: How does he feel about spreading the good vibes this time around? And does the North Shore strength he developed growing up around some of the world’s most intimidating waves seep into his music? You can hear his detailed answers on the outdoor podcast from June 22. The following is an edited excerpt from our conversation.
Outside: You said you wanted your music to bring comfort to people and make them happy. Was it harder to write songs that do that during such a difficult time in history?
Jack Johnson: A friend of mine said to me, “You’re still pretty optimistic, but I feel like you’re having a hard time finding optimism on this album. It’s always there, but it’s like you sometimes have a hard time finding it. And I think that’s fair to say. There’s a line in the album’s first song, “Open Mind,” which reads, “I find myself somewhere between hope and doubt. I think that’s maybe a good way to put where a lot of the songs on the album fall.
There’s this assumption that everyone in Hawaii is all sunshine and smiles. But you come from the North Shore, which can be a very competitive place, especially for a surfer. I heard stories about you going there with Kelly Slater and other guys, in the water and out..
Ask any of my friends, and they all think the sweet guy character is really funny. If we’re playing ping-pong, I’m just as competitive, if not more so, than all of my friends. Kelly was part of our little team when we were young, and we played a lot of ping pong and a lot of croquet. The croquet looks very cocky, but it was like a four-wheel-drive version. We’d put the thing in the bushes and then your friend would have to go find it. We were very competitive.
I remember driving up to the North Shore as a kid, and when you got to Waimea Bay there’s this cement barrier to make sure you don’t fall off the cliff. At one point I remember someone spray painting “Attention Egos Ahead”. I thought that was the funniest thing. There are all these big wave surfers, so macho, including myself.
How does this competitiveness manifest itself in your music?
At the very beginning, when Ben Harper invited me on the road to open for him, I was so excited. I realized that I had an opportunity that I didn’t deserve right now. I was barely filling small clubs in Santa Barbara, California where I was living at the time. We had the opportunity because Ben dug our surf movies and I dug his music, and we became friends. I wanted to make sure we did everything we could to be the best opening band for him. The competition was not with the other bands, but with ourselves: let’s make sure we give this room the best show we can give them tonight. Let’s try to surpass what we think we can do.
You made the rather daring choice to work with a new producer on this album, Blake Mills, known for his incredible talents as a musician. And you started recording with him in Los Angeles instead of the Mango Tree Studio at your home in Hawaii. Why?
I’m in a place where making a record is great, and you always want to give it your all, but I also want to go further. If I’m going to spend a month with someone, I want it to be someone I really enjoy being with and/or feel like I’m learning something from. And so I can honestly say that one of the main reasons I wanted to work with Blake is because I just wanted to sit in the room and hang out with this guy and learn how to play guitar better. That was a big part of that.
Eventually, you brought Blake to Hawaii. How did that change things?
Even though we worked very hard, we took time to go swimming and have experiences. And it was funny – after a week, there was one day when I looked at it and I was like, “Man, you’re tan all of a sudden! I’m used to your city version, but you look like a whole different guy. And he was like, “I get it, let’s slow down all the tempos, forget about all those loud drums and stuff.” He was joking, but there was definitely a downgrade.
Where do you think your desire to write music that makes us feel good comes from? It can’t be all that tropical sunshine.
When I learned the guitar growing up, it was always to play music on the porch or in the living room. Our family would still be there, and we would sit and play Beatles or Bob Marley songs. My grandmother lived next door to us, and she was there to listen, as well as my niece and nephew, who were in elementary school. I was learning from one of my dad’s friends to play chords, and everyone had to wait for me to move their fingers. They were so nice about it. And later, when I was writing my first songs, I could imagine my family sitting around listening. I think it was just an understanding of where these songs would be played.
At the beginning of your career, you were uncomfortable playing in bigger halls. You adopted it later. But now, after the past two years that have isolated us all, do you think touring could be healthy for you?
It really feels good to bring people together, share lyrics and sing together. There is a lot of positivity and a lot of healing. But you have to be careful not to let it overinflate you. You can say the dumbest thing on a stage and people will cheer. My friend Zach Gill, our keyboard player, we’ll be calling a few days after the tour is over and we’ll be like, “Hey, I don’t know what’s going on, I keep saying things around the house and nobody applauds. So I try to stay a bit balanced.
I have this memory of arriving in Santa Barbara on a two week break from touring and went to the beach with a friend and the waves were really good, like overhead and just pumping . We put on our wetsuits and screamed and ran down the beach. And I had this thought: I haven’t been this happy or excited the whole last month on tour. And I was like, that’s a good thing, try to stick with it.
It’s good to be able to be moved by the shows and to be able to bring everything you have and be there, but it’s also good not to let them become the thing you depend on for happiness in life. .