Jack Johnson plays an electric guitar on the beach
Johnson has never been as simple as we’ve made him out to be. (Photo: Morgan Maasen)

Jack Johnson Is Not as Mellow as You Think

In an exclusive interview about his first album in five years, the multiplatinum-selling musician opens up about his competitive side, songwriting, and the struggle to stay optimistic in trying times

Jack Johnson plays an electric guitar on the beach

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On a hot day in Los Angeles, I hand a nonalcoholic beer to Jack Johnson. It’s midday and we’re in a pleasant climate-controlled studio, where I’m interviewing him for an upcoming episode of the Outside Podcast. The near beer is not meant to be a refreshment, but a musical instrument. Seriously. In the liner notes to Johnson’s new album, Meet the Moonlight, which drops on Friday, June 24, he’s credited for playing beer bottles. This I had to see.

Johnson gamely shows me how to tune a beer (each sip drops the pitch), which I knew he would do, because he’s the nicest guy in the world. When I wrote a profile of him for Outside in 2010, he drove the car I’d rented so I could take notes. When we met again in 2017 to talk about his last album, All the Light Above It Too, he helped the podcast sound engineer with setup. This is what we expect of a guy who has been caricatured as a laid-back surfer from Hawaii and an artist whose feel-good music has become the soundtrack for days at the beach, summer road trips, and aprés-outdoor anything. At a moment when there’s a lot of darkness in the world, a new album from Jack Johnson feels like a welcome salve to our anxiety—an invitation to gather with friends for a campfire sing-along, perhaps with someone playing the base line on a half-finished beer.

And yet, Johnson, now 47, has never been as simple as we’ve made him out to be. Those who know him well insist that he’s a fierce competitor at everything, from surfing—he was on track to be a pro before smashing his face at Pipeline at age 17—to Ping-Pong to, yes, music. (He’s even proven to be a pioneer in the Web3 space, joining Outside for its first NFT launch, the Bedrock Badge, to raise money for his Kokua Hawaii Foundation and offer badge holders a chance to win concert tickets and signed copies of his new album.)

So as Johnson prepares for his first tour in five years—a 35-date swing around the country—I’m curious to know: How is he feeling about spreading the good vibes this time around? And does any of the North Shore toughness he developed growing up around some of the world’s most intimidating waves ever sneak into his music? You can hear his extended answers on the Outside Podcast starting June 22. What follows is an edited excerpt from our conversation.

Outside: You’ve said that you want your music to bring people comfort and to make them feel happy. Was it harder to write songs that do this during such a difficult time in history?
Jack Johnson: A friend of mine told me, “You’re always pretty optimistic, but it feels like you’re having a harder time finding the optimism on this album. It’s still there, but it’s like you’re struggling to find it sometimes.” And I think that’s fair to say. There’s a line in the first song in the album, “Open Mind,” that says, “I find myself somewhere between hope and doubt.” I think that’s maybe a good way to put where a lot of the songs on the album fall.

There’s this assumption that everyone from Hawaii is all sunshine and smiles. But you’re from the North Shore, which can be a really competitive place, especially for a surfer. I’ve heard stories about you going at it with Kelly Slater and other guys, in the water and out.
Ask any of my friends, and they all think that the whole mellow-guy persona is really funny. If we play Ping-Pong, I’m just as competitive—or more so—than all my friends. Kelly was involved in our little crew when we were young, and we used to play a lot of Ping-Pong and a lot of croquet. Croquet sounds very uppity, but it was like a four-wheel-drive version. We would put the thing in the bushes and then your friend would have to go find it. We were very competitive.

I remember driving out to the North Shore when I was a kid, and when you came around Waimea Bay, there’s this cement barrier to make sure you don’t drive off the cliff. At one point, I remember somebody spray-painted across it “Caution Egos Ahead.” I thought it was the funniest thing. There’s all these big-wave surfers, just so macho out there, including myself.

How does that competitiveness play out in your music?
In the very beginning, when Ben Harper invited me on the road to open for him, I was so amazingly excited. I realized, I’m getting an opportunity that I don’t deserve right now. I was barely filling little clubs in Santa Barbara, California, where I was living at the time. We got the opportunity because Ben dug our surf movies and I dug his music, and we became friends. I wanted to make sure that we put everything into being the best opening band for him ever. The competition wasn’t with the other bands, but ourselves: Let’s make sure we give this room the best show we can give them tonight. Let’s try to outdo what we think we can do.

You made a rather daring choice to work with a new producer on this album, Blake Mills, who’s known for his incredible talents as a musician. And you started recording with him in Los Angeles instead of the Mango Tree Studio at your home in Hawaii. Why?
I’m at a place where making a record is great, and you always want to give it your all, but I also want to take it a step further. If I’m gonna spend a month with somebody, I want it to be somebody who I really enjoy being with and/or I feel like I’m learning something from. And so I can honestly say that one of the main reasons I wanted to work with Blake is because I wanted to just sit in the room and hang out with this guy and learn how to play guitar better. That was a big part of it.

Eventually, you got Blake to come to Hawaii. How did that change things?
As much as we were working really hard, we made time to go take a swim and get to experience things. And it was funny—after a week, there was one day when I looked at him and was like, “Man, you’re tan all of a sudden! I’m used to the pasty city version of you, but you look like a whole different guy.” And he was like, “I get it, let’s slow all the tempos down, forget all those loud drums and stuff.” He was joking, but there was definitely a downshift.

Where did you think your impulse to write music that makes us feel good comes from? It can’t just be all that tropical sunshine.
When I learned guitar growing up, it was always to play music on the front porch or in the living room. Our family would always be there, and we’d sit around and play Beatles songs or Bob Marley. My grandma lived next door to us, and she’d be there listening, and my niece and nephew, who were in elementary school. I was learning from one of my dad’s friends how to play chords, and everyone would have to wait for me to move my fingers. They were so sweet about it. And later, when I was writing my first songs, I could picture my family sitting around listening. I think it was just an understanding of that’s where these songs would be played.

Early in your career, you were uncomfortable playing bigger venues. You embraced it later. But now, after the past couple years that’ve had us all so isolated, do you think touring might actually be healthy for you?
It definitely feels really good to get people together and share lyrics and sing all along together. There’s a lot of positivity and a lot of healing. But you have to be careful to not let it overinflate you. You can say the dumbest thing on a stage and people will cheer. My friend Zach Gill, our keyboardist, we’ll call each other a couple days after being off tour and be like, “Hey, I don’t know what’s going on—I keep saying things around the house and nobody’s clapping.” So I try to stay kind of even.

I have this memory of getting to Santa Barbara during a two-week break during a tour and I went down to the beach with a friend and the waves were really good, like overhead and just pumping. We got our wetsuits on and were hooting and running down the beach. And I had this thought: I haven’t been this happy or excited the whole last month on tour. And I was like, that’s a good thing, try to hold on to that.

It’s great to be able to be moved by the shows and to be able to bring everything you have and be present, but it’s also good not to let them become the thing you’re depending on for happiness in life.

Lead Photo: Morgan Maasen