The Ballad of Jack


Picture 3 of 9

Portrait photos by Morgan Maassen, courtesy Jack Johnson Music © 2018.

For musician Jack Johnson, life is his muse.

I would say i’m really competitive,” says Jack Johnson, when asked what would surprise people about him.

“IT’S INTERESTING, WHEN you start to have a name and then a persona gets built about you. I just got this whole persona of being this really mellow guy. All my friends laugh at that. They’re like, ‘how are you the mellow guy? You’re the most competitive guy I know!’”

The singer/songwriter/philanthropist goes on to explain that if he’s challenging someone at ping-pong, bocce or horseshoes, he likes to win.

Anyone looking at his life would say that “winning” is exactly what he’s doing. The North Shore native, known for his (yes, mellow) music released his newest album, All The Light Above It Too, last year and while the tracks cover many of the same topics Johnson’s fans have come to love, he did switch things up in many ways to get to this final product.

In press materials describing the album, the multi-platinum-selling musician describes that instead of following his normal song-writing process of creating “sketches” for each song, Johnson had a desire to keep the “rawest form” of each song. He and producer Robbie Lackritz (Feist, Bahamas)—along with Adam Topol on drums, Merlo Podlewski and Zach Gill on piano—brought forth an album with a stripped-down feel that audiences fell in love with 17 years ago. “This time around the original sketches became the final versions,” Johnson says.

The first single off the album, “My Mind is For Sale,” a politically charged song with lyrical barbs. Set to an upbeat tune and released at a time where Johnson’s already-engaged audiences are feeling particularly “woke,” the tune resonated with fans—and maybe even garnered Johnson some new devotees.

While Johnson is no stranger to making political statements in his songs, he credits the times and the song’s melody for bringing it to the fore. And, unlike his other politically themed songs, this one was basically written in one morning, over a cup of coffee.

Trying out a new writing exercise, Johnson sat down ready to write. “…You basically don’t let your pen leave the paper, and you start writing and you spend 10 minutes in the morning writing,” he explains. “For me, it was just the first morning that I did it … I was thinking ‘okay it’s going to be like an exercise I’ll start doing’— and it was the only morning that I did it!”

Every word he wrote that morning made it into the song. Usually, his verses come in one train of thought, choruses separately. For this song, the all the words came together in that one sitting.

“For me, the verses are meant to be a little bit hearsay or rumors,” he says. “Every line starts with ‘I heard …’—‘I heard this,’ or ‘I heard that.’ It was a little bit how everything was feeling where, you know all these new terms like ‘fake news’ and ‘reality TV’ … what media you can trust, which ones you can not [trust]. Everyone’s disagreeing about which ones are reliable sources, I wanted it to feel a little bit like that. And then, the chorus, I wanted to feel very clear, it’s just a statement from me: ‘cut away all the rumors and all these different things that people are saying …’. My feeling is I hate the way it sounds when this person [who] is supposed to be the leader of our country is saying such hateful things. You know, condoning racism—and not only talking about a physical wall that he’s going to build but then saying that ‘we’re going to make them pay for it.’ Just that sort of divisive talk is just really … I don’t care for that.”

Discussing his process, Johnson explains that his writing style just meant that certain phrases were making it into the song no matter what.

“It just rhymed, too,” he explains. “‘I don’t care for your pare.’ I guess the ‘care,’ ‘pare’— ‘paranoid.’ Sometimes, that’s just how my mind works. It finds little rhymes, syllables. Once it works, it locks in.”

Playing in both red and blue states, Johnson was curious about the reaction to “My Mind is For Sale.”

“Interestingly, it’s been a really positive reaction everywhere,” but the place we got the biggest reaction was in Georgia,” he says. “The whole crowd started cheering as soon as I said the first line of the chorus. It helped me realize that it’s not really healthy to look at our country as red and blue states. That’s kind of obvious, but my point is that they’re all different shades of purple, really.”

Additional tracks on the album also cover other serious topics: consumerism, media exposure and the environment among them.

The track “Fragments,” which is a direct result of the time Johnson spent in the North Atlantic Gyre, is meant to encapsulate that life-changing experience sailing out on the ocean.

“I’d say that’s one of the trips that influenced me and inspired me,” Johnson says. He sailed with his son and helped the crew gather data on plastic pollution in the ocean.

While he’s used to turning information given to him into songs about protecting the environment, this time, Johnson was there, helping process that information.

“You look at that trip and you can either say it was really depressing because everything we learned … or I can tell you it was one of the best trips of my life because [I got to] sail with my son through the Bermuda Triangle and wake up every morning to the sunrise and work on the boat … And then, there’s also the joy of the whole participation aspect of it. Where, even though you’re finding out heavy and depressing information, it’s like when you become overwhelmed, you have two choices: give up or participate. Joseph Campbell, a writer I like a lot, talks about ‘Joyful Participation.’ You should try to find a way to interact that’s joyful because this is your life and you might as well enjoy it.”

Out on the water, gathering information, Johnson relished being part of that process. “We’d almost get excited when you see all the bits of plastic and you’d get the tweezers out [to] separate it,” he says. “There was something about that I was realizing that was the ‘Joyful Participation’ for me.”

Johnson had that experience filmed and produced a 30-minute film, Smog of the Sea, about that time spent in the North Atlantic Gyre. In “Fragments,” Johnson aimed to strike a delicate balance between the information gathered and the feelings he experienced on that trip.

“I didn’t want it to feel like a PSA in the end,” he says. “[I] just try to remind people … through music to make that connection with something they love again, because we protect the things that we love.”

It’s a topic he’s covered time and again— does he ever get frustrated? Feel the need to scream? Johnson laughs, pointing out that he does have a history with protest songs—he was in a punk rock tribute band during his time at Kahuku High School.

“My friend … he could scream,” Johnson says. “He could sort of sound like the singer from Minor Threat, [which] was our favorite band. I just could never really do that with my voice.”

Those themes he covered in his high school band have stayed with him: over-consumption, materialism and the like. They now just manifest themselves in a different style—Jack Johnson style. And, with each album—this is his seventh studio album and the sixth that was recorded in his Mango Tree Studio—Johnson puts out songs that answer the questions and tell the stories of his life.

There’s lullaby-like “One Moon” that tackles greed and was inspired by a camp-side conversation with his son. Or the jaunty “Gather,” which speaks to different peoples’ different economic realities. Th at was another song that came together in a short time.

“It was just kind of a fun jam,” Johnson recalls. “Th at was the last song we made in the studio, it was one that didn’t exist before that morning. My friend would have me do a pass in that song, and I’d play all this stuff, and then he’d take the one part that I’d thought I’d messed up and he’d loop it. I liked the way it came out.”

With all that said, there’s one constant that has been with Johnson since the birth of his career—his wife, Kim.

On this current album, you’ll find “Love Song #16,” written for Kim. He says she is the unsung co-writer on many of his songs, (“she’s kind of been my editor”) as he would play new riffs; try different lyrics, to get her feedback. But the love songs? He surprises her with those.

Johnson admits he did the math wrong and there are actually 18 love songs that have made it to albums, but no doubt, there are countless more—tunes that he keeps just for the two of them. “Once I put them out, they’re not ours anymore,” he explains. “So, I’ve got to keep doing them. But they’re the same story every time. I feel lucky in that, I guess.

I would much rather pick to have one love story and have it be kind of boring for people because it’s that same one over and over. I think that’s better than having a bunch of different love stories just to have fresh songs.”

He and his college-sweetheart wife have three kids: two boys and a girl, ages 13, 11 and 8. Together they manage his career, the Kokua Hawai‘i Foundation, All at Once Network and Th e Johnson ‘Ohana Foundation. While he may have a reputation as a mellow guy, there’s no doubting Johnson’s passion about the environment and helping others. Th e Kokua Hawai‘i Foundation, a non-profit that supports environmental education, has grown from its humble beginnings to an in-demand entity. Johnson is quick to acknowledge other community partners—such as KUPU and Food Corps—that are working with the foundation to further the environmental education message in schools and the community.

The All At Once Network encourages individual action in the different communities that Johnson tours. He’s noticed positive growth between his 2014 and 2017 tours. “As much as I can get cynical about some of the aspects of technology and social media, I mean, that’s the positive side—it’s allowed us to communicate in ways we couldn’t before. Some of the venues were even 100-percent plastic-free [the Waikiki Shell included], which allowed us to make it a rule that there was no single-use water bottles sold that night. We did a reusable pint cup program at every venue, where we had these stainless-steel pint cups that were an option for people instead of plastic. A lot of the venues would incentivize people so that for the whole season at that venue, they could bring back that cup and get a dollar offtheir drinks.”

The Johnson ‘Ohana Foundation continues the work of the Kokua Festival, in all the places Johnson tours. “It can be confusing with all the names,” Johnson explains. “All At Once Network, that’s kind of the network where we tie all these different groups together and the ideas we’re doing on the tour. Th e Johnson ‘Ohana Foundation is the foundation that gives grants to all those different non-profit groups.”

The foundation focuses on music, art and environmental education, and has allowed for kids in different cities to listen to sound checks and jam with the band or budding creatives to learn about writing music or making films with environmental themes.

“With the foundation, we’ve been able to completely divest from fossil fuels and those kinds of things. So, we’ve learned a lot about the power of where you put your money, not just with grants, but by giving to farmers, investing in farms and biodiesel plants and all these different things you an put your money into that you can still get a return from and support the kinds of things you want to see in the world, rather than just looking for a return.”

Amid all those ventures, there’s a life to live. A smile lilts through his voice as he describes some of his favorite things to do. “One thing as a family we love doing is [going to] Honolulu Th eatre for youth,” he says. “Th at’s always a reason for us country bumpkins to get offthe North Shore, and we go into town. And then we use that to go to different restaurants. We like going to Town and Mud Hen Water—we’re good friends with those guys.” He adds that supporting restaurants that support local ag and feature farm-to-table menus is something that’s important to the family. “Th ose are always the best restaurants anyway.”

It’s not hard to see the connection between Johnson’s life and his songwriting; he says that many songs come from questions he’s pondering himself.

“I think where I’m at right now as far as the song variety—I’m a 42-year-old dad that grew up in Hawai‘i and … got to travel around and see these different places that I’ve really enjoyed,” he says. “Th at traveling has inspired me. Being home inspires me. I’d say this album is a mixture of all those things … ranging from sappy, goofy love songs to political commentary. And everything in between.”

So, judging from his songs, life’s been good to Jack Johnson. And don’t forget, he plays to win.

Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites