The Interview: Jack Johnson Loses His Cool
On his new album, the king of mellow beach music takes a bold turn. We asked him why.
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On Friday, September 8, Jack Johnson will release All the Light Above It Too, his first studio album in four years. Predictably, it will soon be at the top of the Billboard charts and iTunes bestseller lists. Predictably, the new songs feature lots of good-vibes acoustic strumming from the man who has composed the modern soundtrack to hanging out at the beach. And yet, in some important ways, this isn’t the same old Jack Johnson. Though known for his environmental advocacy work and efforts to green the music industry, he has always been uncomfortable talking about either, telling interviewers he didn’t want to sound preachy. But this time around, we’re hearing from an artist who seems ready to take a much bolder stand.
Jack Johnson Loses His CoolOutside Podcast episode
In February, Johnson’s Brushfire label released a documentary film called The Smog of the Sea, which followed a group of scientists, surfers, and freedivers on a sailing expedition between Bermuda and the Bahamas. They collected water samples loaded with tiny plastic bits. Jack was on the ship and played a central character in the film, speaking directly to the camera about the choices we need to make to reduce waste.
Then, in July, Johnson released a single called My Mind is for Sale that’s a very obvious anti-Trump song. The video shows him building walls with his kids’ blocks, then tearing them down. The song is the fourth track on All the Light Above It Too, but not the only one with a social message. And, as it turns out, this was an album Johnson simply decided to make—he didn’t have a record deal pushing him to produce new music. He also did a lot of the instrumentation himself, something he hasn’t done before.
All of which sure makes you think that Johnson has some things he really wants to say. So this summer, when he came through the Bay Area to play a couple shows at the Greek Theater, near where I live, I decided to ask him: What’s going on?
You can hear his full response—plus a number of the new songs and even Johnson singing a new tune he’s never recorded for an album—in the latest episode of the Outside Podcast. Here, an edited excerpt from our conversation.
OUTSIDE: Considering your role in The Smog of the Sea and the strong anti-Trump message in My Mind is For Sale, it feels like you’ve changed—that something has pushed you to speak up and take a stand on big issues. Am I right?
JACK JOHNSON: I like the synopsis. I think it’s good. It’s interesting doing interviews, because I don’t do them very much, then I have a new record out and I tend to do a bunch in a row and try to publicize the new album, and it’s like seeing a psychiatrist. Because all of sudden, people look at these groups of ideas that you put together, and they tell you things. But I appreciate that one. It’s true. It wasn’t a conscious choice or anything like that, I just tend to write about what’s on my mind.
So that means politics are on your mind, which is the same for most people these days. But what spurred you to write a song that directly took aim at President Trump?
I wanted to have at least a song on the record that started the way I felt about certain things. It just feels like such a divisive time with the idea of building walls that separate us. Not even the literal wall that Trump talks about, but the idea that anybody who wants to separate people by race and religion, just the choices we decide to make. It felt like it would be ridiculous not to make some kind of a statement about it in my music.
You’d said before that you don’t want to come across as being preachy. What got you past that concern this time?
I think it has to do with where I’m at in my life. It’s almost too simple to blame it on age, but there comes a time where it’s our turn. Jacque Cousteau says we protect the things we love, and so I realized it’s my time to do that work. It’s always tricky for me. I’ve never wanted to the music to feel like a PSA, so I’ve always avoided that. I do have PSA-type song that I write, but I know they’re for cafeterias. And then, on the record, I always try to make sure that if it has any kind of environmental theme, it’s really just reconnecting people and nature.
On the new album, you seem to have both songs with subtle messaging, plus others that help help us forget about all the serious stuff.
Yeah, I think this album has both. The first four songs all have social or political commentary. And then, by the time you get to Big Sur—I wanted to call it that because that’s a place my family and I go camping a lot—it’s like that feeling you get driving off, escaping the first four songs and hanging out with friends around a campfire.
You wrote one of the tracks on the new album, Sunsets for Somebody Else, while on a surf trip with Kelly Slater. How important are those kind of getaways to your music?
We surfed our brains out on that trip. We had really amazing waves. Just the time detaching—we didn’t have a crazy studio schedule or anything but you’re in there day to day. You feel like, I just need to keep working, keep working. And then, the first day I get outside, these songs come all of a sudden. I think more than anything it was a perfect time for a break.
Looking back over your career, how big a change do you think All the Light Above It Too is from your earlier albums?
My first record was full of songs I never knew would be on a real record. They were just songs I wrote and put on little four-track tapes that I assumed like 30 or 40 of my friends might here. There are some songs I don’t know I would have written it if I thought people would hear them. But then, I dunno, I still write cheesy songs. I know they’re cheesy. Maybe cheesy is too strong a word—they’re sappy. I let myself go there, I don’t mind. It’s interesting, some people, assume that’s all I write, whereas people who get into my whole albums know there has been social and political commentary on every one.
Listen to our conversation with Jack Johnson on the Outside Podcast.