His detractors say he’s bland and the man himself describes his music as “three star”, yet fans can’t get enough of surfer turned singer Jack Johnson.
You cannot escape Jack Johnson. As the unofficial Sunday afternoon soundtrack to the developed world, it’s his music you will hear in the grocery store, in the taxi, in your lover’s bedroom. One friend confided to me that she lost her virginity while listening to him. The Hawaiian beach bum turned unlikely summer festival chart monster has commanded global sales of more than 15 million albums. With each release, he tops the charts in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Germany and Brazil – any major country with a coastline, really.
Johnson laughs when I tell him about my friend. He’s actually heard it before. Women also have come up to him cheerily disclosing they’ve given birth to his songs. (Imagine Johnson’s laid-back summer melodies as the backing track to the guttural screams of labour.) Couples have chosen his songs for the first dance at their wedding. Parents tell him that they put their kids to sleep with his tunes. “I’m not sure if I should take that one as a compliment or a diss,” he says, only half-grinning now.
We’re on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where Johnson grew up as a kid and now raises a family. Considering the scale of Johnson’s celebrity, the fact he gets away with living in Oahu is remarkable. Oahu is tiny. From Honolulu Airport at the island’s most southern end, my drive past palm trees, red dirt and sugarcane fields to Johnson’s headquarters in the north only takes an hour.
Today his kids go back to school, so Johnson has the entire day to show me the sights. First, though, we need breakfast. Johnson’s at that stage of fatherhood where a significant part of his diet is his kids’ scraps – “So far, I’ve eaten a quarter of a banana, half a bagel and some spoonfuls of cereal” – but he’s ready for a proper meal, so we get into his zero-emissions electric Nissan Leaf (truly zero emissions: he charges it with solar panels on the roof of his house and studio). Behind the wheel, Johnson points out landmarks like a friendly tour guide: there’s the local post office; here is the best beach to see turtles; this is the bridge where they shot Magnum, P.I., the ’80s television series.
Johnson resembles a cross between tanned surfer and lion. Lately, he’s been growing out his hair: long, wild brown curls made scrunchy with saltwater (“My disguise,” he says, smiling). Up close, it resembles a wig you could tug clean off to reveal the shorn-headed Jack Johnson from his early music videos and album covers. Right now, he’s enjoying the anonymity his hairdo grants him. “There’s a time in your life where you think you want fame,” he says, “but when you’re 38 and have kids, not getting recognised is a beautiful thing.”
We park at a little roadside cafe. Johnson’s outfit today – navy-blue T-shirt, boardshorts, brown thongs, green latex charity bracelet – is pretty much what you’d find him wearing on stage, in front of a crowd of thousands. Weirdly, he says he doesn’t get stopped much wearing what he usually wears, especially on Oahu. His slouchy dress sense is a calculated decision, he says, ever since one of his first gigs in Paris, where he found himself getting self-conscious about how he looked to people.
“I started to wear a button-up shirt thinking,
‘I got to dress up,'” he says. “I even started putting on shoes.” Johnson says the word “shoes” the way a Catholic priest might say “condom”.
“Most people from Hawaii don’t wear shoes,” he says, shrugging.
At the Paris gig, Johnson’s friend J.P. Plunier – who produced Johnson’s debut 2001 record Brushfire Fairytales – was appalled with Johnson’s get-up. ” ‘What’s the go with your outfit?’ he said. ‘It doesn’t even look like you. You’re going to get stuck having to wear that stuff all the time, you know. Next time, just wear your slippers [thongs] and your shirt. It doesn’t matter where you are – Japan, Germany – you wear the slippers! You’re summertime.’ ” Nowadays, even if Johnson is playing Germany in winter, he figures the venues will have decent heating.
Wardrobe considerations are easy. What Johnson gets anxious about, he says, swigging back his third refill of percolated coffee, is the effect his fame might have on his family. Johnson has two sons – aged 9 and 7 – and a three-year-old daughter, and he wonders: is he normalising mega-fame to his children? Is he revealing too much about his family in his songwriting?
Johnson’s new album, From Here to Now to You, which his record company has sent me here to discuss, focuses on the daily rhythms of life as a husband and father. But still he asks himself, “How do I tell that story without making it a reality TV show or something, where I’m letting people into my story?”
It’s a gentler album than his previous two, 2008’s Sleep Through the Static and 2010’s To the Sea, a period when, he says, “I was losing people really close to me.” Johnson’s father Jeff died of cancer, and Danny Riley – Johnson’s good friend, and his wife Kim’s cousin – died of brain cancer, aged 19.
Johnson first met Kim at the University of California in Santa Barbara, one week after they moved there for college. “She didn’t have anywhere else to sit,” Johnson says, “so I got lucky.” They bonded over soul music. She introduced him to beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and bands like Pixies and Sublime.
“Do your kids see the shows?” I ask.
“That’s almost bedtime for them, anyway, so they do miss the shows a lot,” he says. “But I struggle with whether or not to let them see Daddy in front of all those people.”
One time while touring Australia, where he’ll be returning in December, a bunch of teenage girls mobbed him, squealing, “Oh my god, I love you, I love you!” demanding the usual signatures and photographs. Normally Johnson wouldn’t have minded, but this time he had one of his sons with him.
“When they walked away, my kid was saying, ‘Why were they saying I love you?’ He was really confused. I had to explain, ‘Those girls don’t even know me. They might think they love Daddy, but they just like my music a lot. Those people are just … confused.'” He doesn’t want his kids to think his love is spread too thin.
His protectiveness extends to his security on tour, as Johnson usually takes his whole family with him. “Despite my whole laid-back persona, we’re actually pretty locked-down backstage,” he says. “The bass player has two kids, and the piano player’s got two kids. We’re all on the same page in the band: we want sanity backstage.” His tour rider has nothing to do with ostentatious food. Instead, he channels environment superhero Captain Planet, requesting the venue or festival has comprehensive recycling stations, refillable water stations to avoid excessive single-use plastic, and energy-efficient light bulbs.
It’s the opposite of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, I point out.
“It is!” Johnson says enthusiastically. “It’s very boring. There have been times where I’ve literally walked off stage and I’ve gone to changing a diaper within five minutes.”
Snorkels strapped to our heads, Jack Johnson and I submerge ourselves in a sunny swimming spot with the slightly sinister name of Shark Cove. Underwater, Shark Cove is a thriving marine petting zoo. Like an excited marine biology teacher, Johnson points out the schools of manini, several vivid-neon parrotfish, black rock crabs and the Hawaiian national fish, the humuhumu nukunuku apua’a, which translates to “pig-like nose fish”.
When he was a teenager, Johnson and his friends would peer pressure each other into holding their breaths to swim under the natural rock formations without drowning. When I try now, I feel my body involuntarily floating upwards underwater, and I nearly smash my head on the rocks above me. From the other side, Johnson protectively guides my head through the rocks and I come up for air gasping. Horrified, Johnson asks whether I’m okay. I give him a spluttering thumbs up.
Johnson might be in love with the ocean, but he’s also intimate with its dangers. Aged 17, Johnson was on the path to becoming a pro-surfer when the accident that resulted in the long scar curving around the left side of his nose nearly left him dead. As a teenager, he had just made the finals of the Pipeline Masters Trial. “It’s everything when you’re a kid here,” he says. “It seems like the biggest thing in the world.” Before the finals, he went out into the surf with his friend, the now pro-surfer Kelly Slater. Like most young surfers, the boys liked to egg each other on.
“The most dangerous spot is the hesitation,” Johnson says of catching a wave. “You’ve got to fully commit. It’s a way of helping a friend to commit to say, ‘You won’t go.’ Kelly said that to me on this wave as I was paddling: ‘You won’t go.'” (Slater has apparently regretted this moment ever since.)
Launching himself up onto the board, Johnson made the drop and found himself charging down through the tube easily. Then something went wrong. “Sometimes you realise you’re not going to make it, so you jump off, punch through the wave and body surf through back,” he says. However, this wave curled back into itself and exploded out its own back, pushed down on Johnson and smashed his face into razor-sharp coral.
“I was almost knocked unconscious,” he says, “but was still there enough to think to myself, ‘Ooooh, you just really got hurt. This is probably the worst you’ve gotten hurt in your life.'”
When he eventually made it to shore, Johnson’s face was bleeding freely. The coral had shredded his gums and nearly sliced his upper lip right off, which now hung off his face in a raw, gruesome flap. A paramedic on the scene advised Johnson not to look in the mirror. Johnson insisted. “I looked and I almost passed out. This part, right here,” he says, pointing to a faded cross-shaped scar on his forehead, “doesn’t look that bad any more, but this was like a bullet hole in my head. A big, round hole, all the way down to the skull.”
Johnson needed roughly 150 stitches to put his face back together. “These are fake teeth,” he says, tapping his three upper front teeth. One very white fake is drilled right into his jaw; the other two cover the spot where two teeth were broken in half. One of his kids recently asked him, “Dad, how come you only have one white tooth?”
Johnson says the accident’s significance gets exaggerated in the press, that because of his horrible injuries, his burgeoning professional surfing career was ruined, but hark! During recovery, Jack Johnson discovered music! It’s a convenient half-truth, he says. By the time of the accident, Johnson had already been accepted into university and decided not to pursue surfing professionally.
In the several months the injury took to heal, Johnson focused on music. Not only had he missed the Pipeline finals, but he had to stay clear of the water completely during the Hawaiian winter, which is when the surf is world-class. It was depressing. He had already been playing guitar – had already started a band, in fact – but now he absorbed himself even further into his music, mainly to distract himself.
Years later, when Johnson was producing and directing surf documentaries, he started writing his own tunes for the soundtracks.
A four-track demo of his music caught the attention of Plunier, producer of American singer-songwriter Ben Harper, who then offered to produce Johnson’s debut.
Johnson still vividly remembers how sales of Brushfire Tales went throughout the year. To begin with, he was stoked to sell 200 units a week. “I could actually picture the number of people in a room buying our record.” Soon enough, they had sold 20,000 records. Then the debut single, Flake, scored radio airplay. Within weeks, the record was gold. Soon it was platinum – one million record sales in the US alone.
“It was so nuts,” he says. “I couldn’t picture that many people in a room any more.”
“It’s probably a small island nation,” I offer.
“Exactly!” he says.
“Actually, what’s the population of Hawaii?” I ask.
“It’s about a million,” he says, soberly.
Johnson’s solar-powered music studio in north Oahu resembles an organic co-op. Lacinato kale, basil, mint, rosemary, sugar cane and taro grows in every spare patch of the wide property. Chickens lay eggs happily and lazily in a large hutch, while at the far end of the grounds, Johnson and his brother are in the middle of building a greenhouse for new seedlings. This is also the site of Jack and Kim Johnson’s Kokua Hawai’i Foundation, which supports environmental education in schools.
An annual fundraiser, the Kokua Festival, invites musicians like Willie Nelson, Ben Harper, Eddie Vedder, Jackson Browne and Dave Matthews onto the island. On top of that, Johnson donates 100 per cent of his profits from touring to the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, which hands out grants around the world to organisations focused on the environment, art and music education.
In an era when album sales are haemorrhaging worldwide, it’s testament to Johnson’s ability to shift records that he can afford to give away so much money. Sitting under the giant monkey pod tree that grows outside the recording studio, he shrugs at the thought. His cost of living is pretty modest, he figures.
Doesn’t he have any vices, though? Grand expenses? Indulgences?
“Probably surfing gear,” he says.
“What’s the most expensive piece of surf equipment you own?” I ask.
“Mine would be a twin-fin Pyzel,” he says. “It rides really well, and probably cost me … well, he gave it to me cost [price], like, $300.”
Still, for a guy so wholesome and generous, people can be blisteringly savage about Jack Johnson. Music critics happily brutalise his albums. “Oh, how it drags,” wrote UK magazine Q of 2003’s On and On. For 2005’s In Between Dreams, the same magazine served a brutal back-handed compliment. “His best work to date,” they wrote, “because, at last, he actually sounds awake.”
“The first time I got a two-star review, I was a little offended,” Johnson says. “Rolling Stone wasn’t kind to me for my first couple of albums. I don’t think anything I do is that special, but it’s respectable. Home-made songs, not just pop crap the industry’s putting out. I always felt I deserved three-star reviews.”
Most musicians would shrivel with embarrassment if someone labelled them a “three-star musician” – the title seems synonymous with mediocrity. However, Johnson is pragmatic.
“You look at [someone] like Bob Dylan or John Lennon. Those guys were artists, first and foremost. For me, this stuff feels like a hobby.”
So if people have lost their virginity and given birth to his music, what does Jack Johnson think is the best way to listen to his songs?
“Barbecues,” he says, without a hint of irony.
If you told other songwriters their music was perfect for barbecues, I say, they’d probably take that as an insult, too.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Some bands I love, but I wouldn’t necessarily put them on for barbecues. Like Radiohead.”
“It would make for a pretty anxious barbecue,” I say.
“A lot of ups and downs; a lot of trips to the volume knob,” he says, then grins. “Not all music is perfect for barbecues.”