Jack Johnson Heads To the Sea

The smooth tracks of a surfing, songwriting, social-activist rock star.

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Jack Johnson's latest laid-back beats just hit stores in his sixth studio album, To the Sea. A blend of lyrics and music paying homage to his Hawaiian roots and ocean reverence, Johnson caught up with Mother Jones from his 100 percent solar-powered recording studio on Hawaii's Oahu Island. We talked about music, surfing, and the oxymoron of the mellow activist. He even sang a few bars.

Mother Jones: Your new album is called To The Sea. Does it have an overarching message?

Jack Johnson: Usually after I finish an album I'll look at it and try to see if there is a theme to carry through. On this one, it seemed like there were a lot of songs that were talking about getting to the ocean, or a river flowing by on a crazy ocean and things like that. I think for me, the reference is that I'm right in the middle of my life. I guess at some times I feel like my parents' son still. And it's my own Dad leading me to the ocean. And other times I feel like I look in the other direction and I’m pulling my kids down there, whether it's actually to the beach or just thinking of the interpretation of water being the subconscious and looking to get beneath that surface and understand yourself better.

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MJ: The ocean is obviously a big part of who you are, what you sing about, but the ocean is largely something that's invisible to the public in terms of what we're doing to it environmentally, they don't see the garbage gyre, or the marine life and the changes in the ecosystem under the surface, say, when there's a horrendous oil spill. So how do you get people to care about something they don't see?

JJ: Well, I think it depends. Getting adults to see it. That's one topic. And then with kids, I think it's really important to actually not show them—in a way—some of that stuff, because I think that what's going to happen at an early age is, you start showing the kids the problems—it's almost like they start becoming desensitized because they’re so used to it. I think it's really important with kids just to show them the beauty of nature and teach them a profound respect for nature, to get them outside and have any significant experiences, and then at a certain age, once they, you know, when they reach high school and they start to do reports and things like that, then it's important to see these things and see what humans—what our effects are on these natural beauty.

Go to the east shore of any of the Hawaiian Islands, and that's a pretty big lesson on how much plastic is ending up in the ocean. Basically, the Hawaiian Islands act as a filter out in the middle of the Pacific. It's basically a long pile of plastic along the shores. We go to the east side to surf a lot. And when you get over there, it's just always so shocking to see piles of plastic along the beach. And it's really sad to see. I think that's something you can't really avoid.

MJ: Your song "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," you wrote that for kids, yes? It seems like there are eco-messages everywhere for kids growing up now. Are there enough, or is it mostly just "buy green but still buy"?

JJ: I think it's all on how you frame it. Specific for Hawaii, I guess, I do a lot of stuff with environmental education here. I think as long as you keep it fun. You know, a lot of field trips to the farm, seeing how the farmers grow food and that kind of thing. Even with that song, I tried to keep it fun—not talking about the negative aspects of why we need to recycle, so much as just teaching kids about the way to be at a young age. They're still developing the way they're going to approach the world. I can remember being a kid, and there were these stickers when I was little that said, "Don't be a litterbug." And it was just that simple mention of teaching kids to put trash in the trashcan, not to [leave a wrapper] on a field. It's so simple—that was something I remember, was thinking in my conscious mind. With my kids, for instance, already my six-year-old—if someone says, "Can you throw this away for me?" he'll be like, "This isn't trash, this is compost," or "This isn't trash, this should be in the recycling." So I think at a young age, we need to teach them about things like that, about the waste stream.  

MJ: Surfing or songwriting, which comes first in a day?

JJ: Well, they're kind of one and the same, to be honest with you. I finish a lot of lyrics while I'm in the water and it's always pretty constructive for me to get out in the water. I'm not actually writing the words down, but I have time to think about words, and doing a lot of surfing usually gives me a little space and peace of mind to finish things up.

MJ: You're a native son of Hawaii but not its most famous native son. Do you think Obama's being from Hawaii has raised the profile of the islands?

JJ: Yeah, I think so. I know people are definitely proud of him being from here, and he's talked about it a lot. I think the nice thing about it is that he really…there's little things that will come up at interviews that really show that he was influenced by Hawaii and just how much he loved it. There's footage of him bodysurfing. There were a lot of people that are into bodysurfing and water activities that feel really connected to him because he has that natural understanding of the ocean. There was a joke. There was some footage of John Kerry. I think John Kerry went windsurfing last time around, back when he was running. I think a lot of people in the surfing world felt that somebody was willing to spend enough time to learn to do that—to be out in nature—then they must be OK, that kind of a thing. And I felt the same way when I saw footage of Obama bodysurfing.

It might sound silly to some people, but if anybody wants to spend time to go out and glide on waves, it just feels like they have an appreciation for the joy of life and must be an okay person. But I got to meet him, too. I got a really good sense. He gave me a big 'ol hug. I was wondering if I was going to have to just do the presidential handshake, and then he came up to me and gave me a big hug because I'd come and played one of the inauguration balls. So we talked for a minute about Hawaii and growing up here and stuff. But definitely everybody here for the most part is really proud of him.

MJ: People have always thought "Hawaii" and they think beaches and sun and sand and travel, not a tried-and-true part of what America is. Do you think that's changing?

JJ: Well, I think there's a really great amount of potential for Hawaii to become an example of what’s possible with renewable energy because there are so many renewable resources here: energy, solar energy, and wind energy. There's so much potential here. I think it's just beginning, and I hope that it will get better, where it's really going to be an example—being that it's a set of islands. You can really see the effects. So, yeah, there's a lot of potential for Hawaii, being that it's islands, to try things out and see how they will work. It could be a really good example of sustainability. Now, 85 percent of our food is shipped in, so it's really far away. That's something…that number's so shocking, I think, that our generation, people who grew up here in Hawaii, are now in the position that we can do things that can lead the change. I think there are a lot of people who really want to see that change. A lot of the restaurants you see are supporting local agriculture by getting all their produce from here. It's something people want to see. It's the long battle that …I think there's a potential for that, for Hawaii to be a real leader with alternative energy and sustainability.

MJ: Musicians, maybe more than other types of artists, have a platform for politics or taking on causes. Lyrics allow you to be explicit, whereas actors have to adhere to a script, painters exact a more subtle rendering, writers have words but they don’t get to say them aloud. Because of this power, do you think musicians have a kind of obligation to have a message?

JJ: No, I don't think that there's responsibilities inherent with being a musician. I think if you're somebody who has been involved with folk music or political-type songs, then I think you should stick to it. You probably have that responsibility more than somebody that started out singing love songs and that kind of thing. I think that if everybody changed and tried to make their music political, it'd be kind of a bummer, you know? Some music, it's meant just to make you dance and be able to celebrate and get away from all that kind of thinking. And so, I think it is important if you think your music can do that—to keep doin' it.

I know in my own case, in my own commentary, there's everything from social commentary to straight-up sappy love songs. And I can never tell what’s going to end up being on an album until it's all finished. I'm reading the news everyday, and sometimes I just have to be away from it. And that ends up writing the songs for me a little bit.

MJ: Right, and it sounds a little like your campaign, "All at Once." It's a little bit of everything at once—the singing and dancing in some songs that maybe don't have as much of a message. All at once. I know there's a commitment to change and activism in there, but also enjoying yourself and letting loose.

JJ: It was tricky, you know, trying to pick a title, and something that would refer to maybe some lyrics and the way we're thinking of using all of our resources all at once. And the song on the album is called "All at Once," and it touches on a lot of the fears that people have right now, the ideas of all these different things that are going on in the world. With that song, it kind of starts out at three o’clock in the morning and the lyrics that I wrote, where the first line is [singing] "All at once the world can overwhelm me. There's almost nothing that you could tell me to ease my mind." Sometimes the lack of sleep—I get to this point where I'll get really anxious about things and nervous, and that's the feeling the song starts out with. And then it turns around and turns into more of this major key where it's, [singing] "I wanna take the preconceived stuff from underneath your feet. And we can shake it off, instead we'll plants some seeds. We'll watch 'em as they grow."

Sometimes I feel like there's hope. You know, sometimes I have a lot of hope. Sometimes I have despair. It was meant to be uplifting. Even though we're up against a lot of these huge challenges that sometimes we feel like we can't actually overcome them…Then, other times we feel like we have to solve it. I think the 'all at once' reference for us, we were thinking of it as trying to use all of our resources at once, just trying to use all of this attention I have on myself to do something really good, which is to use money for nonprofit groups that are focusing on things specific to their areas that they know in their city better than anyone.

MJ: Your tours, too, are a form of activism.

JJ: We've made this decision to make all of our touring into a fundraising tool. It was really exciting. It kind of made sense again to us, because for a long time we were working on lessening the negative impact on shows by running the buses on biodiesel or trying to have refillable water bottles to cut down on the single-use plastic, trying to get the recycling better at the venues and things like that. All these little things we could do to try to lessen the negative impact. And that was important to do, to try to change the industry a little bit. But once we made the decision to actually expand on the positive impact by using each one of the shows as a fundraising tool, then it all…then the touring just really made sense to me. It felt like I should be doing it.

MJ: You’ve said your song "Better Together" is one of your favorites because of the stories you hear, how it speaks to people and their relationships. It seems like that's one of your messages, not just two people being better together but that as a group we're better, we can do more. Would you agree?

JJ: Yeah, that feels really good to sing live. It's funny because that song…Always, when I write, I'm always thinking about if it's a love song, just my wife, or if it's a song for, say, my mom. Maybe it's a conversation I'm trying to have with a friend or with my brother. I just try to think of that one person until the song's done. And when I'm playing live, it's funny how they can be reinterpreted a bit. That one always feels nice to sing. It's kind of a nice song to close the night with. That feeling you get when we're better together. To be part of a community feels really good—to be among people who have similar feelings and want to share thoughts. It's a nice feeling.

Sometimes, the simple messages are the best thing music can do, really. Sometimes, songs can stir people up, motivate them to make change. That song is more about getting people together, making them feel good to be part of a community, making them feel connected to people around them. And then it makes people work better. If everybody listened to it on the way to work every day, they'd probably be more productive, because they'd see the humans around them in a better light and want to work together better. I think music has that power, too.