Jack Johnson is the opposite of a rock star. If only there were more like him.
The 38-year-old Hawaiian appears essentially to be a saint, aside from today’s cardinal sin of wearing flip-flops inside The Ivy. He runs two charitable foundations, works to improve the environmental record of every venue he visits, and tours mostly for the benefit of local non-profits and his wife and three children, who use the school holidays to see the world from theatre stages. When he tells me that he thinks he sounds more contented on his forthcoming sixth album, I think, how much more content can one guy get?
“Money doesn’t concern me too much, I have enough to live. So to go out on tour, it’s not interesting just to put more money in my bank account,” he tells me in his calm surfer’s drawl. “Funding these foundations is a motivation for the craziness of going out on the road. I see the real impact of these things and it makes it feel like a job worth doing.”
There’s the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, which promotes environmental education in schools on Johnson’s home island, a place that currently imports 90 per cent of its food. The other one is the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, a grant-giving body that funds music, art and environmental eduction mostly outside Hawaii. Johnson became environmentally aware himself as a teenage surf champion – “When you spend so much time in nature you can’t help but question certain things” – and recognises the importance of showing children what’s what without preaching to them. “Having significant experiences in nature as a kid are more important than being told by an adult that there are things you need to worry about.”
So he avoids do-as-I-say moments in his music too, which invariably gives the impression that everything is hunky-dory in breezy acoustic style. “Is he the Banana Pancakes guy?” someone says to me when I mention that I’m meeting him, referring to his chirpy song from 2005 about having a really great breakfast. Yet on his new album, From Here to Now to You, amid the songs about washing dishes, playing with his kids and still thinking his wife is super, the standout song for me is actually the one that does seem to have a more serious message.
Ones and Zeros features slow, minor-key guitar plucking as Johnson’s smooth, campfire voice sings of the world’s obsession with technology. It was inspired by a meal in a fancy restaurant where he was astounded to see, at the next table, a family of four all texting and watching movies on separate screens while eating.
“I’ve been on radio stations performing my songs, looked up and the DJ is sitting texting right in front of me,” he says. “Even if he was tweeting something about me, does it have to be so quick? People are missing out on being present in the moment.”
However, contrary to my initial proposal, he admits that he’s no saint in this regard either. “It’s not like, ‘Me good, you bad’. I point the finger but I’m pointing it at myself too. I try to limit my kids’ screen time, but if we’re on an airplane I actually want to turn them into little zombies.”
His children are now nine, six and three, and a major factor in deciding whether he wants to record more music, because a new album means touring. He reaches London as part of the iTunes Festival in a couple of weeks, on the day his album is released. “We plan around their school breaks, and make sure they’re home for tests. They miss a bit of school but we feel like the things they see on the road will be a great experience for them.”
For there are always new songs – it’s just a matter of whether he wants to release them. When I first met him, about eight years ago when his album In Between Dreams was in the process of becoming his commercial breakthrough (it recently went five-times platinum in the UK) he gave the impression that the songwriting thing was a happy accident that may not last. He had studied filmmaking at the University of California at Santa Barbara, then directed a surfing film with two friends, Thicker than Water, in 2000. Putting his own music on the soundtrack, his singing quickly earned more attention than his directing.
Today he accepts that writing music is what he does. “I feel like I’m going to run out of songs, but they just sort of keep coming. I won’t argue that they sometimes touch on the same themes. I used to be confused and wonder why am I even doing this, what are my intentions. Now I realise that it’s just the natural way that I process information.”
Perhaps the oddest aspect of this process is the rabid response this mellow, lovestruck music gets from fans once it reaches the stage. Later that day I watch Johnson perfoming solo at an intimate show for competition winners in Notting Hill’s Tabernacle, and there’s a hilarious amount of angry shushing and jostling for the best view while the soft tunes drift past.
At festivals and bigger gigs, he barely even has to sing. I tell him I’m surprised at the overwhelming passion his horizontal music inspires. “Me too, every time. Some places you can almost take a break whenever you feel like it, because every single word is sung by the crowd. I love that interaction I get between the audience and the band. It kind of feels like the cycle is complete.”
So perhaps there is a bit of ego underneath that lifelong tan, beatific smile and shaggy non-hairdo. Johnson gets the same thrills other rock bands do, but also does something valuable with the experience long-term as he ploughs the money he makes into teaching children where their food comes from. “This is what I feel gives all of this meaning enough to make it feel like a career to me,” he says – reason enough for those obsessed fans to keep buying his records.
From Here to Now to You is released on Sept 16 on Brushfire/Island. Sept 16, iTunes Festival, Roundhouse NW1 (itunesfestival.com)