When it comes to effortlessness, no one has Jack Johnson beat. The Hawaii-born-and-raised singer-songwriter’s mellow vibe hasn’t change much since 2001, when his debut album, Brushfire Fairytales, swept across college campuses and beachside bars like wildfire. Anchored by amiable acoustic guitars, soothing, subdued vocals, and a personal, playful, yet surprisingly incisive songwriting perspective, Johnson went from perpetually laid-back surf filmmaker to an international sensation in no time.
Johnson didn’t let the success affect him a bit. Even as all seven of his studio albums have been certified gold or platinum, Johnson has remained grounded. He enjoys a quiet, private home life with his wife and three kids. He’s spread an environmentally active brand of aloha through two nonprofit organizations. Most important, he’s figured out a way to translate lucrative international success into a vehicle for relaxation, family time and good deeds.
Here are five koans that Johnson delivered in his unassuming Zen-like way in a phone interview with Folio Weekly. As the proverb says, “When the pupil is ready to learn, a teacher will appear.”
The Gates of Paradise: “Excuse the cheesiness of the comparison, but my life has been this wave that I’ve tried to ride as naturally as possible.”
Johnson grew up charmed on surfing’s version of Mecca: the North Shore of Oahu. A member of a multigenerational line of well-regarded surfers, by the time he was 17, Jack had become a competitive hotshot, too. But in 1992, a face-first wipeout at Pipeline, a death-defying wave that breaks close to shore over shallow coral reef, earned him 150 stitches — and altered his career trajectory forever. The 17-year-old decided to attend college at the University of California-Santa Barbara, where he majored in film production, directing and producing several surf films now regarded as classics. His first few songs were actually strictly to soundtrack those projects; luckily, good friends Ben Harper and G. Love loved them so much they featured Johnson on their albums and urged him to write and record more of his own material.
If You Love, Love Openly: “I’m always trying to figure out a way to make songs feel personal but also general. I change lyrics around; if it’s a song for my wife, I’ll take certain parts out that are just for us and put in stuff that feels more like the truth of being in a relationship for any couple.”
Johnson’s penned countless odes to his wife, Kim, whom he met at UCSB in the ’90s and married in 2000; 2001’s childlike “Mudfootball” even has a line delivered to the narrator from a girl whose “best friend Kimmy wants to go with you/So meet her by the sugar mill after school” (Kim taught math; as Jack says, “I stole her to become my tour manager”). But his sentimental ballads truly do feel universal — and his more melancholy numbers address ills like greed, war, egotism and environmental degradation to which anyone can relate.
The Giver Should Be Thankful: “Before I started doing the music thing, I ran a surf camp for kids and my wife was in education for years. So working with kids and education through the Kokua Foundation and the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation brought it back to what felt normal to us. It makes the whole music career make sense. Seeing so many people doing so many positive things is a nice way to bring some balance to the craziness of it.”
Johnson’s two nonprofits — Kokua focuses on Hawaiian environmental and educational issues, while Johnson Ohana awards money to deserving organizations around the world — together have distributed more than $1 million to several hundred worthwhile causes. Johnson calls this network of like-minded activists and principles “All at Once,” a social action network that motivates individuals to become active in their communities (and publishes its impact results each year).
How Grass & Trees Become Enlightened: “I never really put out all the stuff we do at home, but I realize that if we’re out there talking about greening efforts on tour, it’s only fair to know what we do in our personal lives. We have rain barrels — three 500-gallon tanks on top of the house — and we have solar panels on the roof that charge a little electric Nissan Leaf. Not going to the gas station is fun, but you always get range anxiety when you drive that thing. You have to be conservative. I’m really slow — very un-rock star with my driving.”
Johnson’s greening efforts stretch back over 10 years, well before it became de rigueur in the touring world: biodiesel transportation, zero waste recycling and composting, CO2 reductions and offset credits, locally grown and organic concession options, the elimination of single-use plastic water bottles. Johnson’s label, Brushfire Records, is even headquartered in a renovated green building that’s insulated with 100 percent post-consumer waste.
The Most Valuable Thing in the World: “Lately I’ve been spending more time surfing, especially because my kids are at an age where they like to surf. The more time for that the better. It’s all about giving them a good life.”
Johnson used to tour only during the summer so he could be at home in Hawaii for the winter surf season; now he tours only during the summer because his kids are out of school and he gets to take his whole family on the road. Asked about any major artistic goals he still hopes to pursue, he chuckles: “I’ve never been too ambitious with my career. Now that things are established, I’m not really looking to grow much bigger. I’m just looking to maintain the integrity of it all.”