Achieving a happy work-life balance can prove difficult for many of us. . . but not so it seems for Jack Johnson.
You’ll probably feel a pang of envy when you think about how the 47-year-old Hawaiian singer, known for his laid-back acoustic vibe, goes about his days.
His priorities are his family, his unwavering passion for surfing, environmental initiatives and, when he feels like it, music.
He lives on the North Shore of Oahu with his wife Kim and their three teenage children, where he grew up and where he runs The Mango Tree Studio.
Just imagine the white sand, palm trees and big, foam-capped waves crashing into the world-famous Sunset Beach.
Then consider that Jack is the son of a legendary surfer, the late Jeff Johnson, and that he started learning this exciting sport at the age of five.
“I never know how to say this without people taking it the wrong way, but music is really secondary to me,” he says of Zoom.
Despite sitting under artificial lights in a Los Angeles hotel room, he still looks healthy, like someone enjoying the great outdoors.
Jack continues, “Family and surfing are my big loves and they’re the things I like to focus my time on.”
Nevertheless, he confirms: “I love making music. I appreciate being able to do this for a living and am grateful for all that comes out of it.”
Your CD collection was cooler than mine
It’s worth noting that Johnson has had four consecutive #1 albums in the States, and they don’t include his biggest hit, In Between Dreams, which reached #2 twice.
Now he’s back with his first album in five years, Meet The Moonlight, a beautifully executed song cycle full of subtle textures and deep expressiveness.
His main collaborator this time is guitarist, producer and solo artist Blake Mills, known for his work with Alabama Shakes, Fiona Apple, Laura Marling and John Legend.
He also played on Bob Dylan’s longest-running song of all time, Murder Most Foul, inspired by John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Like the rest of us, Jack has been going through “a weird couple of years” because of the Covid pandemic.
But the enforced hiatus led to positive personal results, as he explains: “I couldn’t tour for a couple of years, so I had to be with my kids quite a lot. I had a lot of time to observe things and write music.”
Even if he has enough new songs floating around, it’s up to his partner Kim to get the album process going.
“Getting started on a record has a lot to do with my wife realizing I have material ready,” says Jack.
“I know it sounds weird, but she’s been with me in this whole thing since we were 18 years old. She has always been my editor.”
He smiles crookedly as he remembers that “her CD collection was cooler than mine when we first met . . . she loved bands like the Pixies.
“She drew me to a lot of music and I’ve always trusted her ear more than my own.
“As soon as she hears me playing songs in the house, she finally says, ‘Sounds like you’ve got enough for another album.’ She really helps me bring everything together.”
The big difference with “Meet The Moonlight” is Blake Mills, who helped Jack crack the song “Any Wonder,” which “was hanging around for the last two albums but just couldn’t find the words.”
Now it’s the full blown album finale, a beautiful reflection on the passage of time complete with one of the singer’s most moving vocals.
Jack is full of praise for his co-worker. “I love Blake’s guitar playing and production skills.
“One of the reasons I wanted to work with him was just to be able to sit in a room and play with him and my eldest son, who can now play the guitar better than me.”
He was also impressed with Mills’ production work on the Alabama Shakes’ second and final album, Sound & Color, a genre-defying, Grammy-winning tour de force featuring stunning vocals by Brittany Howard.
At the request of Emmett Malloy, who manages it with his wife, Jack called Blake.
“We chatted for an hour and it was like talking to an old friend straight away,” he says. “We had a lot of fun and our sense of humor seemed to be right. . . always a good sign.”
They also shared their mutual love for American folk singer Greg Brown and the late blues rock maestro JJ Cale.
DREAM OF SOLUTIONS
The Meet The Moonlight sessions took place when Covid permitted, partly at LA’s Sound City Studios, famous for recording Nirvana, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and Johnny Cash, but mainly in the more leisurely setting of The Mango Tree.
As for the themes Jack uses in ten tracks, he gives a typically thoughtful answer.
“I was having a conversation with a friend, my wife, or my brothers, and later that night I was thinking about it,” he says.
The songs, he concludes, become “meditations on things that stick in my mind.”
“There was so much talk about isolation, tribalism and empathy for this album. . . both negative and positive emotions from this pandemic.”
In Hawaii, Jack experienced a real sense of community, particularly over food issues, but also experienced “split friendships.”
This prompted him to delve into the changing way we speak to each other, and he says: “Even you and I are on that zoom, but we’re kind of opposite each other.
“Communication has changed so much and our human nature hasn’t had time to deal with it.”
With the divisive nature of social media in mind, Jack quotes the opening line from his song One Step Ahead: “How can you be so sure that you’re the one flirting with fire?”
He says, “Everyone feels like they have the ability to pull things off the internet so quickly and then act like they’re a news source.”
LOVE IS THE STRONGEST HUMAN EMOTION
The soothing theme song “Meet The Moonlight” is about why the best moments in life are unpredictable and why “love is the strongest human emotion”.
Borrowing an idea from author Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five), he says, “Anytime you’re just sitting in the shade, maybe having a lemonade with a friend, and you’re like, ‘Well, that’s really nice,’ it is good to say it out loud.
“I always try it on my kids. When the family is together and we’re playing cards, I tell them, “Hey, this is as good as it gets, right here.” Because it really is.”
Jack recalls the time he “walked into the back of the tour bus and saw his whole family sleeping on top of each other.”
“Such a funny thing gave me one of the best memories of my life. You don’t have to plan them, they just appear.”
I think of the title of his album and ask Jack if he likes looking up at the moon and stars.
“Even though the stars are beautiful in Hawaii and we’re lucky to have those skies, all too often I’m indoors at night,” he says.
Family and surfing are my first loves…but I’m grateful for everything music has given me
“But sometimes I go outside, maybe to take out the trash, and I’m like, ‘How can I not go out here every night? This is crazy, I just had to walk through the door.
“I think in the song the stars and moonlight symbolize being outside of four walls.”
If I had just one word to describe Jack’s album, it would be intimate.
This atmosphere is enhanced by a few ad hoc instruments. “On Calm Down we used the demo I made myself and the main backbeat is my wedding ring banging against this hand drum in my studio,” says Jack.
Then at Costume Party we see him blowing into a series of beer bottles filled with descending amounts of liquid, a trick he learned playing Led Zeppelin’s Dazed And Confused in such an improbable way.
Jack says, “The reason I’m in LA is because me and the band are starting to rehearse for our tour and I’m learning to do that (beer bottle) part live.
“I said to them, ‘You would tell me if I made a fool of myself, right?’ I still can’t tell if it’s a good idea or the worst idea I’ve ever had!”
No interview with this character, who lives on the other side of the world, would be complete without the latest updates on his environmental campaigns.
His charity, the Kokua Foundation, acquired a 20-acre farm a few years ago that teaches children about organic farming techniques, and now it even includes a bird sanctuary.
Jack says this work “is more important than ever to me. It has become my main job at home.
“We connect children with the origin of their food and bring them into nature. To see her laughing and walking outside on a field trip, that’s my true love.”
He tries to make his tours as green as possible, drives trucks with biodiesel, but is appalled by the “sea of plastic bottles” at the end of a festival.
“As a surfer, I see the east side of every island in Hawaii becoming more and more colorful with all the microplastics in the sand.
“We’re doing beach clean-ups so people see the real problem. Hawaii is like a pollution filter in the middle of the ocean.”
Does Jack think humanity can turn things around when it comes to climate change and non-biodegradable waste?
“That depends on when you ask me the question,” he replies.
“If I’ve just had a cup of coffee and it’s morning, I’m sure we can change everything. But don’t ask me at 3am.
“We can dream of solutions and I’d like to believe they are there, but this next generation is better at dreaming than us. I must have hope I’m a bit of an optimist by default.”
With that in mind, Jack leaves some interesting thoughts on our Zoom lesson together.
“This is one of the first real interviews I did for this album,” he says. “It’s a bit like going to a psychiatrist. . . You address all these themes in the songs and it makes me think.
“That’s why I appreciate it. Afterwards I feel clearer in my head.”