Jack Johnson has always been a voice we can depend on. His Brushfire Fairytales became an instant classic in 2001 when he formally introduced himself to the music world with its release. But if you’re a surfer – or a student who frequented Santa Barbara music venues in the late nineties – you knew who Jack was. His surfing speaks for itself, as did his filmmaking. The North Shore native has made the ocean his number-one priority, and it’s rooted him. Decisively. He’s a musician we can relate to.
Last week, Jack released his eighth studio album, Meet the Moonlight. There are certainly some new sounds but it isn’t a giant departure, musically. Lyrically, however, Jack examines the world we’re living in through a microscope – all the chaos and the weirdness. Still, there’s a dependable side to Meet the Moonlight, a positivity that reminds us that while we don’t know everything, everything is somehow gonna be okay. I spoke with Jack about all the weirdness, the new album and how he’s remained true to what he does. The man is a gem of the surfing world. And the rest of society is lucky to get to enjoy his sounds, too.
In this album, there’s a bit more cynicism than your past works. Did the pandemic get you down?
It’s always funny, I’m just starting to do interviews and I don’t usually do interviews until the album cycle starts. When you write an album, it’s like seeing the psychiatrist. You get everything on your mind out and start analyzing it. I always write from the perspective I see the world in. For the first album I was living with six guys in a house in Alta Vista, Santa Barbara. It was a collection of situations at college and those relationships. The second album I’d moved out and it was the beginning of that part of my life. The third one was after my first child was born so there are a lot of songs about new life. I always have a different perspective. With Meet the Moonlight, I couldn’t help but be influenced by the worldwide pandemic and see the way people communicated about it. There was fodder for cynicism and a little of all that creeps into the songs. Everyone was struggling to be more optimistic.
Talk about that song writing process.
To me, songs are a question I have in my mind. I start with a conversation I had with my wife or a friend that’s on repeat in my mind. The songs become an attempt to answer those questions. Sometimes all you get is more questions. The better songs make you more confused sometimes, 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 that had strong opinions. With “Open Mind” (from the album), one of the lyrics is, “an open mind stuck between hope and doubt.” It’s a good thing to have an open mind. But you have to go off of previous experience. You can’t always have an open mind. You can’t start from nothing. You’re always trying to have an open mind for all of the thoughts and not to be so certain that you’re right. Information is coming at us from all directions. There has never been a time where it’s easier to find the truth. There’s never been a time where it’s been easier to mislead. Technology has changed immensely but humans remain the same.
You worked with a new producer on this album, Blake Mills?
Working with Blake, I have a ton of respect for him as a song writer and his musicianship. He’s a really great guitar player. He would have ideas on things like minor and major chords. Sometimes they would work, sometimes it would take it to a beautiful place. I just wanted to sit down and play guitar with him. I’d teach him songs and he’d pick things up really quick after I showed him the chord changes. We’d be sitting across from each other and watch each other’s hands and sometimes record it like that and leave it stripped down or build it out. But it was always from two guitars.
You’ve never done the radical reinvention thing, showing up with spandex and long hair. You’ve stayed pretty true.
Sometimes it’s a trap. Some might dig that – that I’ve stayed the same for the 20 years I’ve been doing this. Others hate that my music hasn’t changed much at all. Some bands, you hear a new album and you want to 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 sonic pallets, that’s great too. There has to be a trust with your audience. It doesn’t have to be a whole new genre, just really small things that from the outside doesn’t make much difference, like an electric guitar with a phaser or Hawaiian tuning in Open G. But whenever I write it’s gonna be an acoustic guitar.
Is it easier to kind of stay true to yourself when you have your own label?
I got really lucky. I have some pretty great people around me and got good advice when I started. JP Plunier produced my first album. He’s a great friend and gave us a lot of good advice in the beginning, at a time when it would have been easier to take those first offers I was getting. There were some big offers on the table. My wife has also been a huge help and she’s always been around to see those offers and evaluate them. The amount companies were offering up front, it scared 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. Music is great but it’s not like six-foot Rincon. One time, I came home from touring and I went surfing with a friend at Rincon when it was six feet and we were just hooting. I told him, ‘the tour was pretty fun but I don’t remember feeling as good as this.’ Those early offers were really exciting. But (by not committing to them) we were able to keep complete control and that was the most important part. We could put things out when we wanted to. In the early days, I was really thinking more about signing a one-record deal instead of seven. I never owed anyone an album. We were just making decisions on our own terms, there was no owing anyone a record.
How much do you get to surf these days?
I never had to make it secondary. It’s always a key thing. Definitely gonna be on tour in the Midwest this year and maybe have to find a wave pool. But I’ll put music first for a couple of weeks. Surfing’s always first, even when recording albums. I’m in the studio, and there’s a good swell, it tends to take priority. I’ve been able to do it that way, mostly. There’s nothing worse than when your brother calls and tells you it’s cranking. That happens sometimes.
Do you think you’ll ever make another surf film?
Funny things is, we all got so busy, we fell off on making sure the ones we made stayed watchable. They’re on VHS. We made a run on DVDs. I don’t think you can even stream them. Thicker Than Water, September Session, there isn’t a place online to watch them other than some super low-rez versions. We want to get those back out there at some point. Usually if I get invited on a trip I wanna just surf, even back then. When we were doing September Sessions, we’d wake up and if the light was good, we’d film. But between Kelly and Shane, I knew I needed to surf too. They’d go in to eat and I always had a Power Bar. They’d grab my camera and I’d go surf. Then I’d see them waving at me and I knew it was time to film again. I’d be in the sun all day and my whole forehead would be so sunburnt.
What’s the best novelty wave you’ve come across while touring?
Italy, actually. One time we were playing in France the night before. We were on the coast in a beach town on the Mediterranean. It was so windy we had to call the show off, the whole stage was blowing over. A French surfer told me, ‘Hey you should leave early and go straight to Italy. The wind is gonna create a swell in Italy and it’ll be double overhead.’ 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 for sure. I watched him grow up. If he’s surfing I’ll follow it. 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 trips me out to see them on the screen all surfing amongst the world’s best with this crazy athleticism. My daughter and I like to watch Malia Manuel as well. I watched all of them growing up. I give them the uncle support.
So what’s your key to happiness these days?
It’s always been boosting my daughter into a wave and watching from the back, seeing a long section and her head pop up while still flying down the line. Now it’s just seeing my kids happy to get their own waves.
Jack Johnson is in the middle of his first tour since the pandemic. Find all tour dates here.