How Jack Johnson Managed to Never Sell Out

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Jack Johnson has always been a voice we can count on. His Bushfire fairy tales became an instant classic in 2001 when it officially introduced itself to the music world with its release. But if you’re a surfer – or a college student who frequented Santa Barbara music venues in the late ’90s – you knew who Jack was. His surfing speaks for itself, as does his cinema. The native of the Côte-Nord has made the ocean his number one priority, and that roots him. Decisive. He’s a musician we can relate.

Last week, Jack released his eighth studio album, Meet the moonlight. There are certainly new sounds but it’s not a great departure, musically. Lyrically, however, Jack examines the world we live in through a microscope – all the chaos and weirdness. Yet there is a reliable side to Meet the moonlight, a positivity that reminds us that even if we don’t know everything, everything will be fine. I spoke with Jack about all the quirks, the new album and how he’s stayed true to what he does. The man is a gem of the surfing world. And the rest of society is also lucky to be able to enjoy its sounds.

In this album, there is a little more cynicism than your past works. Has the pandemic got you down?

It’s always funny, I’m just starting to do interviews and I usually don’t until the album cycle starts. When you write an album, it’s like seeing the psychiatrist. You get everything on your mind and start analyzing it. I always write from the perspective in which I see the world. For the first album, I was living with six guys in a house in Alta Vista, Santa Barbara. It was a collection of college situations and those relationships. The second album, I had moved on and that was the start of that part of my life. The third was after my first child was born, so there are a lot of songs about new life. I always have a different point of view. With Meet the moonlight, I couldn’t help but be influenced by the global pandemic and see the way people were talking about it. There was room for cynicism and a bit of everything that creeps into the songs. Everyone struggled to be more optimistic.

Jack Johnson talks about his new album, Cynicism and his favorite surfer

This album hits a little differently than Mr. Johnson.

Talk about this song writing process.

For me, the songs are a question that I have in mind. I start with a conversation I had with my wife or a friend that repeats itself in my head. The songs become an attempt to answer these questions. Sometimes all you get is more questions. The best songs sometimes make you more confused, the answer never solves the world’s problems. It’s almost like a meditation. I tried to keep empathy and compassion in mind with this album, talking to friends who had strong opinions. Along with “Open Mind” (from the album), one of the lyrics is “an open mind caught between hope and doubt”. It’s a good thing to have an open mind. But you have to start from previous experience. You can’t always have an open mind. You can’t start from nothing. You always try to have an open mind to all thoughts and not be then sure you are right. Information comes to us from all sides. There’s never been a time when it’s easier to find the truth. There has never been a time when it has been easier to mislead. Technology has changed tremendously but humans remain the same.

Did you work with a new producer on this album, Blake Mills?

Working with Blake, I have tremendous respect for him as a songwriter and for his musicality. He really is a great guitarist. He would have ideas about things like minor and major chords. Sometimes they worked, sometimes it took him to a beautiful place. I just wanted to sit down and play guitar with him. I was teaching him songs and he understood things very quickly after I showed him the chord changes. We would sit across from each other and look at each other’s hands and sometimes just record it like that and leave it stripped down or build it up. But it was always from two guitars.

You’ve never done a drastic reinvention, showing up in spandex and long hair. You have remained quite faithful.

Sometimes it’s a trap. Some might dig this – that I stayed the same for the 20 years I did this. Others hate that my music hasn’t changed much. Some bands, you hear a new album and you wanna hear New, like something from Radiohead. As far as I see my own music, my content is in the lyrics. If I can naturally evolve to find new sound palettes, that’s fine too. There must be a relationship of trust with your audience. It doesn’t have to be a whole new genre, just very small things that from the outside don’t make much difference, like an electric guitar with a phaser or Hawaiian tuning in Open G. But every time I write, it will be an acoustic guitar.

Jack Johnson talks about his new album, Cynicism and his favorite surfer

Thanks to good decision-making early in his career, Jack was always able to walk on his own rope.

Is it easier to stay true to yourself when you have your own label?

I really got lucky. I have great people around me and got great advice when I started. JP Plunier produced my first album. He’s a very good friend and he gave us a lot of good advice at the start, when it would have been easier to accept the first offers I received. There were big offers on the table. My wife was also a great help and she was always there to see these offers and evaluate them. The amount that the companies offered in advance frightened us. The biggest thing we had going for us was that we were pretty happy with our lives. Living in our little apartment, being more into surfing, having something I love more than music. The music is great but it’s not like six foot Rincon. I once came home from a tour and went surfing with a friend in Rincon when it was six feet and we were screaming. I told him, ‘the tour was pretty fun but I don’t remember feeling that good.’ These first offers were really exciting. But (by not committing to it) we were able to maintain full control and that was the most important part. We could take things out whenever we wanted. At the beginning, I really thought more about signing a contract for one disc instead of seven. I never owed an album to anyone. We just made decisions on our own terms, no one owed a case.

How much do you earn surfing these days?

I never had to make it secondary. It is always a key element. I will definitely be touring the Midwest this year and may need to find a wave pool. But I’m going to put the music first for a few weeks. Surfing is always first, even when recording albums. I’m in the studio, and there’s a good swell, it tends to take priority. I was able to do it that way most of the time. There’s nothing worse than when your brother calls and tells you things are going badly. It happens sometimes.

Do you think you will ever make another surf movie?

The funny thing is, we were all so busy that we didn’t make sure the ones we made were still watchable. They are on VHS. We did a race on DVD. I don’t think you can even stream them. Thicker Than Water, September Session, there’s no place online to watch them other than some super low-rez releases. We want to put them back on the market at some point. Usually, if I’m invited on a trip, I just want to surf, even then. When we were doing September sessions, we woke up and if the light was good, we filmed. But between Kelly and Shane, I knew I needed to surf too. They were going to eat and I always had a food bar. They grabbed my camera and I went surfing. Then I saw them waving at me and I knew it was time to film again. I would be in the sun all day and my whole forehead would be so sunburned.

What’s the best wave of newness you’ve encountered on tour?

Italy, in fact. Once we were playing in France the night before. We were on the coast in a seaside town on the Mediterranean. It was so windy that we had to cancel the show, the whole stage was blowing. A French surfer told me, ‘hey you should leave early and go straight to Italy. The wind will create a swell in Italy and it will double. It was solid 6-8 feet, like surfing Pupukea. It was a fun wave.

Are there any competitive surfers you’re watching right now?

John John of course. I saw him grow. If he’s surfing, I’ll follow him. It’s always routine for John, I don’t care how many titles he’s won. He makes it look easy. It’s always routine for Seth Moniz and Zeke Lau too. It freaks me out to see them all on screen riding some of the best in the world with that crazy athleticism. My daughter and I also enjoy watching Malia Manuel. I saw them all grow up. I give them the support of the uncle.

So what’s your key to happiness these days?

It’s always been about kicking my daughter into a wave and looking back, seeing a long section and her head popping up while still flying down the line. Now it’s just seeing my kids happy to have their own waves.

Jack Johnson is in the middle of his first tour since the pandemic. Find all tour dates here.

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