Jack Johnson looks upward in a nature background
Making folks feel good is what Jack Johnson does best. (Photo: Morgan Maassen)
Adventures in Audio

Jack Johnson Reaches for Hope

Jack Johnson looks upward in a nature background

On his first album in five years, the singer-songwriter brings us a collection of heartfelt tracks that offer warmth and comfort when we really need it. Making folks feel good is, of course, what Johnson does best. For more than two decades, his music has served as the soundtrack to our fun times: hanging at the beach, taking a road trip, kicking back with friends after surfing or biking or skiing. But on Meet the Moonlight, which drops on Friday, June 24, he had to work a little harder than usual to find his optimism. In an extended conversation with Outside’s Michael Roberts, Johnson talks about finding himself stuck between hope and doubt, his overlooked competitive nature, and why a beer bottle is a legit musical instrument.


Want to see Jack Johnson live at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in October? Go to Outside.io to register for the free Bedrock Badge, a new NFT from Outside that automatically enters you in a drawing for a special concert experience as well as signed copies of Meet the Moonlight and other prizes.

This episode is brought to you by Aruba, an island in the Caribbean that offers so much more than a vacation. Learn more about what awaits you at this very special destination at Aruba.com.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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Michael Roberts: From Outside magazine, this is the Outside podcast.

Jack Johnson: I do think that like my natural state or my perspective of writing songs is trying to find hope no matter what. And I think it just ends up natural for me to, to somehow make the songs calming and like to, to find versions that I guess people do tell me they put their kids to sleep using my music and things like that. So it's gotta be pretty calming. 

I saw the engineer fall asleep one day we were making this record. We were doing meet the Moonlight and he started dozing off and he like, he had to catch his head, you know? And so like, I know it works

Michael: Oh it must be a great song. 

Jack: Yeah.

Michael: Jack Johnson does an impressive job of summing up what the world thinks about his music: full of hope and happiness. Calming, sometimes to a fault.

For two decades, his albums have served as the soundtrack to our good times: hanging at the beach, taking a road trip, kicking back with friends after surfing or biking or skiing.

Michael: I’m Michael Roberts and I’ve done several long interviews with Jack for Outside over the years. One of the things he's told me and others is that many of his songs begin as questions in his head. In the past, he's usually tied them up with what felt like rather tidy answers. But on his latest album, Meet the Moonlight, which drops on June 24th, you get the sense that, like the rest of us, Jack has found it a lot harder to find answers in the last couple of years.

Jack: Somebody asked me the other day is like, ‘what am I hoping to teach through the songs?’ And I, it made me actually reflect and think. I don't feel like I'm trying to teach anything. And then I, what am I trying to get out of the songs I was thinking about. And what am I trying to give from songs?

And I think that the, the thing, when you hear a great line in a song and it makes you feel like, it's a thought you've had before, but you haven't been able to articulate it. And it's like, oh, that's perfect. And even with those chords, it makes you feel the emotion you kind of were thinking of. And so I feel like sometimes with songwriting, you can put an idea out and maybe it's just a question, but maybe it's a question other people have, and it's like, you're able to put it into a line that somebody might be able to find comfort in the song because, oh, good, I'm not the only person to ask that question.

Michael: Your whole album opens with a question

Jack: That's true. Yeah. Good point.

Music: Why is it so hard to find an open mind? I’m finding it so hard to keep an open mind.

Michael: Really feels like a door opens at the beginning of this album. And, and it really kind of flows from there, like through these other questions. 

Jack: Right. Yeah. And I think in the first one, there's a line that says, says some nights I can fall for hope, but some I can't sleep. And so it's just admitting, like, I think some, a friend of mine told me, you know, you're always pretty optimistic, but it feels like you're having a harder time finding the optimism on this album, you know, but it's still there. But it's like, you're struggling to find it sometimes.

And I think that's fair to say. 

Music: Some nights I can fall for hope, but some I can’t sleep.

Jack: And there's another line that says, I find myself somewhere between hope and doubt. 

Michael: Right.

Jack: And I think that's a good, a good way to put maybe where, where a lot of the songs fall.

Michael: And maybe where, where we sort of feel like we're in the world right now, too.

When I wrote a feature profile of Jack back in 2010, one of my biggest takeaways was that, for the most part, he's exactly who we think he is: a surfer from Hawaii, the guy with the guitar around the campfire making people smile and sway and sing along, a man who cares about his family more than anything else.

But there are other sides of Jack that might surprise you, like the fact that he’s a fierce competitor at everything: surfing, ping pong, and yes, music.

This is probably what led him to make a bold choice when recording Meet the Moonlight. Instead of starting out at his Mango Tree Studio in Hawaii and working with the same producers he has in the past, he traveled to Los Angeles to work with Blake Mills, an immensely talented multi-instrumental musician as well as a gifted producer who has worked with Alabama Shakes and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Almost from the outset, some creative differences surfaced as they developed the title track.

Jack: It was like maybe the first or second day we'd hung out. I was playing the song and I just played the wrong note on a part. And he said, wait, play that again, though. It's more interesting than your real idea. And like what you don't really want to hear that, like, you kind of want to hear, like, none of my original idea is really good. What are you talking about?

And he's like, ‘it is good, but that, that sounds better. That mistake you made.’ And so I had a little trouble with that at first.

It was interesting to have somebody say, like, play that mistake over and over as like the hook of the song now. And I remember being like, I just don't really like that, you know, um, at first, the first day, and he was, he's like, ‘well, how about this? We're here. You know what you would do naturally if I wasn't in the room, how about we just entertain the idea of seeing where I take this song? Let's just try it.’

And so we recorded a version and then I tried to beat it a few times and every time we'd play him back to back, I would have to agree that that original one we did together was a little better.

And then it's like funny, cuz he would say, it's like one of those parts when you first hear it, you, it kind of catches you off. Then you give it a few listens and you'll think, ‘oh I can, I like that, all right.’ And then eventually it becomes the part you want to hear on the song, you know? And like that was what he kind of said about it .

If nothing else, it's just kind of nice to, to try an idea from somebody respect a whole lot. And just even if it's not your natural course, I mean, that's what makes a good producer is on your eighth record. It's nice to try some things that maybe aren't your, your complete, the, the same path you would go down.

I guess I'm at a place where making a record is, is great. And it's like, you always want to give it your all. But like, I also want to take it a step further and if I'm gonna spend a month with somebody, I want it to be somebody who I really enjoy being with. and, or you feel like you're learning something, you know, like it's, if through the process of making an album, I can learn a little bit about myself or learn a new skill.

And so I can honestly say one of the main reasons I wanted to work with Blake is because I was like, I wanna just sit in the room and hang out with this guy and learn how to play guitar better. It was like a big part of it, you know? And I also have teenage kids that love playing music and I thought like, Oh, if we make a record together then on like, we'll go make some dinner at my house and sit around. He can play guitar with my son and teach him a few things

Michael: This would all play out exactly as Jack hoped. After their session in LA, he invited Blake to record with him in Hawaii, where their dynamic would change a lot. And Jack' son would get an incredible guitar teacher

Jack: We'd be in the studio. And then I was like, okay, it's time for dinner. And then we'd go and we'd, uh, I'd be like over talking to my wife or whatever.

And I look in the living room, Blake and my son would be sitting down just playing guitar for a while, you know? And so like, that was like a big part of it. I hope like Blake's not offended by that, but because it's obviously

Michael: You just wanted to get your kid a really good guitar teacher 

Jack: I wanted to get my son a really good guitar lesson.

Michael: Well, that's the thing. You guys start in LA I think you for like a week or so just to, you know, work on some things, but then you get him to Hawaii.

Did he immediately, like, he's barefoot, you took him a pipeline. Like, like, like how did, what, what were you, you were pulling him into your world, which is, which is a pretty special place. So how did that play out?

Jack: No, it was pretty funny. Because like, well, I like to just kind of get a lot done while the kids are at school and then be able to take a little break. I like being there. I don't wanna miss any, I don't want records to get in the way of like me being able to coach soccer and stuff like that. Right.

So as much as we were working really hard, they were also like that first week had a lot of time to just kind of like, oh cool, now we can go take a swim and get to experience things. And it was funny, like after a week there was one day we showed up. I was like, man, you're tan all of a sudden. And like, I looked at him, I was like, ‘you look like a whole different guy. Like I'm used to the pasty, like sound city version of you, but now you're looking.’ And he is like, man, he's like, ‘I get it now,’ he was like half joking. He's like, ‘I get it all. Like let's slow all the tempos down. forget all those loud drums and stuff.’ But it was, there definitely was like a little bit of like a downshift where it was like, no, I get it a little more, you know? And it was funny.

Michael: Okay. So the here's the Hawaii thing though, because the assumption that everyone has is Hawaii is like all about like sunshine and coconuts and smiles and everything, super chill. You know, there's, there there's some truth to that, but you're from the north shore, and you're a surfer and it can be a really competitive place that way too, like really intense. 

Jack: Right. 

Michael: And you know, I've been at Outside long enough to have interviewed Kelly Slater and, and have heard stories about like, you know, you can be a pretty competitive guy.

Jack: Yeah, no, it's funny. Ask any of my friends and they all think that the whole mellow guy persona is really funny, you know, because it's like, if we play ping pong, I'm just as, if not more competitive than all my friends. That group, I mean, Kelly was involved in our little crew. He was from Florida, but when he started hanging out in Hawaii for the winter, he would kind of fall in with our crew. And we used to play a lot of ping pong.

A lot of croquet. Croquet sounds very kind of like uppity, but it was like this, four wheel drive version where we would kind of like put the thing, like right at the edge of like the bushes. And then if you could like send your friend into the bushes, they'd have to go like climb through to find and stuff. Anyways, like we would all try very hard to win and all of it. And you're totally right. We were, we were like a group of kind of, um, yeah, very competitive friends trying to beat each other. And then, I remember driving out the north shore when you, you enter it earlier, but when you come around Waimea bay, there's this cement thing to make sure you don't drive off the cliff into the bay.

And at one point when I was a kid, I remember somebody spray painted across it, ‘caution: egos ahead.’ And I, I thought it was the funniest thing. Like it was really classic cuz there's all these big wave surfers, just so macho out there. I mean, including myself, growing up, those were my heroes.

Michael: Yeah. Well, and, but here's the thing though, is like, I wonder if any of that plays into how you approach music at all?

Jack: Yeah. You know? I can honestly tell you, like, when the very beginning, I didn't have an ambition that was further than the place I was at at the time. Meaning that like, when Ben Harper invited me on the road to open. I was so amazingly excited about that tour. And I can honestly tell you, I realized, like I'm getting an opportunity that I don't deserve right now.

I was barely filling little clubs in Santa Barbara, where I was living at the time in LA. And then we got the opportunity because Ben dug our surf movies and I dug his music and we became friends. So he gave me that opportunity. I didn't dream past that, but I, when I got that gig, I wanted to do so good. I wanted to make sure that like, we put everything into it. Like I knew that like, there's people that deserve this more than me, but I'm gonna be the best opening band for him ever, because I'm such a fan. And so like, we would kind of make a lot of sports analogies, you know, like going into it. Like there was that, that thing of trying to, to be the best version that we could do and like talking about competition quite a bit, actually about like, how do we compete with ourselves?

Like, let's try to outdo what we think we can do right now and not be. It was really important. It's funny. We talked about like, let's not be competitive with the band we're opening for, or the band who's opening for us. Like further down the line. Let's be really collaborative with that.

But the competition will be like, let's make sure that like, we're doing the best we can do. And it's not always about like playing the chords perfect or doing all that stuff. Perfect. It's just. Being as present as possible and making sure that you're not phoning it in that you're like you're here. And you realize that like some of these teenage kids have saved up to be at this show and like this, we know as music fans, like we remember what that feels like.

Michael: Well, there's a song on, on the new album, “Don't look now.” And the first lines of that song are about, someone staying up all night and as I understand it, that's actually about you staying up all night, writing music. 

Jack: Yeah. Yeah. 

And, and so you were talking before about like how hard you, you know, when you got that chance to open for Ben Harper, like you're like, ‘let's go for it.’ I'm just saying, I sense that on this album.

Jack: Yeah. Yeah. 

Michael:  So like, what was with the all night sessions? You know,

Jack: Well, that's, that's funny cause um, so like I always kind of equate writing songs, like something that I think a lot of people can relate to, whether it's in high school or in college, like when you had to write a paper and I was the type person that I would get like a pretty good thesis or like I'd have the general idea of what I was gonna do.

But I would say pretty much every single time I would pull an all nighter to get it done.

And so that was the same thing. Right towards the end, I was trying to finish some lyrics and I was like, all right. I only have a little bit of time left here. So it wasn't like I spent a whole lot of all nighters. But I have this thing, my wife always gets really impressed cause you know, we're at the age now where, like, you kind of like relish your sleep. And then so like she sometimes will like wake up in the morning and say, ‘whoa, how late were you up last night?’ And I'll be like, ‘four o'clock,’ and she'll be like, ‘whoa.’ Like I could tell everybody impresses her still. You know, like it does back when we were 18 together and we'd have to pull all nighters for school.

And so the first line of the song was actually like, it was kind of almost like a love song. It was like, ‘come on wake up.’

Music: Come on wake up. How late were you up. Late enough to see the sun. 

Jack: But the original was um, ‘I love when you wake up and you say, how late were you up in? I say late enough to see the sun.’ So it was like the first line used to be, I love when you wake up and it was me singing to her. I love when you wake up and you say, how late were you up? And I say, late enough to see the sun. From there it became this, kind of, just chain of, of thoughts of like, you see the sun rise. And even though it seems like it's rising, we're actually turning. And so then the song kind of took a shape about being more about perspective and how you see things and all these different perspectives in the world right now. And you know, this sense of division and it's like the, the chorus became ‘don't look now we're all shook up.’ Uh, ‘don't look now, but somehow we got shook up. Good luck, baby. We're only animals in love.’ And so it's like, we're just humans. Don't get too hard on ourselves. We're doing our best. 

Music: Don’t look now. But somehow we got shook up. Good luck, baby. We’re only animals in love. 

Michael: We'll be right back

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Michael: Jack Johnson may be a hyper-competitive former almost-pro surfer from the North Shore, but he's also clearly a believer in having fun, and maybe goofing around. Those character traits also played out on Meet the Moonlight and in his collaboration with producer Blake Mills.

I think one of the things that came out of your relationship with, with Blake and maybe just who you are is there’s a little playfulness. So on, uh, costume party. Mm-hmm a part of that song is, is you're playing beer bottles.

Jack: Yeah. It opens its first note.

Michael: Yeah. Yeah. That's right. Like I remember seeing that in the credits when I was first sent everything, I was like, wait, what? Yeah. Like, and I was like, so is that, is that a, is that an instrument that I didn't know about? So I was gonna ask a little where that came from and if it helped you answer that question, I did bring a non-alcoholic beer for you.

Oh, okay. um, and a beer opener or a beer bottle opener. Sure. So, because I know there's some interesting history here, but I've just figured maybe a prop would, would support your…

Jack: Sure. Yeah, Yeah. Maybe I'll see if I can do it again here. Lemme see.

Michael: Okay.

Jack: The original idea came from, so you have to take a sip first and when it bubbles up like that, I've learned it doesn't make the best tone. So let's see if I find anything here, but yeah I see no tone when you got the bubbles. So give it a second. That lady's watching me through there probably going, like, why is that guy pounding a beer right now? What's going on? Okay. So there you go. This is gonna sound so dumb, but it was funny when I was two friends backstage, you gotta picture of my bass player sitting next to me and me going.

I've been dazed,

Michael: Oh, another sip

Jack: and confused.

Michael: another sip.

Jack: for so long. It's not true. It's the descending baseline from Led Zeppelin's “Dazed and Confused.” And I just had the, I had a thought as I was drinking a beer that every time you take a sip, it gets lower. And I, and that sounded horrible. And I'm sorry to the world who has to hear about how dumb that was.

But like he pushed the beer bottle at me and made me do it. But the, um, so I showed it to Blake one night. The end of the night, we were having a beer just in the studio. And, and he, he was like, it'd be funny if on that song, costume party, because like the whole idea of it is like, there's like this moment I always like at costume parties. Like, you're in your costume and then a little time goes by, and then you find yourself like taking your wig off. Cause it's too itchy. Or like somebody's mustache is like hanging at that point or like the Harry Potter guy, like doesn't wanna wear the glasses anymore. And like some people start unbuttoning their robes or like their cape's kind of hanging off funny. And it's like this, this moment where like, then everybody's just talking about like Bitcoin and stuff and it's like normal conversations. And it's like, but everybody's still got these dumb looking costumes on, you know, but like you're past the point where everybody's had their laugh and like, oh, you're so and so, and it's like, I was kind of just thinking.

That's a funny metaphor for life where like we're born into these costumes, some kind of belief system, maybe it's religion, maybe it's something else. But you know, like as a kid you're given the costume, it's like, that's your family and that's who, and then you kind of start figuring out who you are and maybe you're a little more comfortable to take this part off or that part off. And, and it's like this funny part of life where you're like half in the costume, half out sometimes. It was also like a reference to, um, I have a song called “My Mind Is For Sale” on the last record. And there's a line on this one that goes, ‘I want my mind back. Seller’s remorse already? It's such a fine line between the end and the beginning. It's long gone, sending in home letters, hoping to be back real soon, wishing that you were here with me or maybe I was there with you, whatever. 

Music: I want my mind back. Seller’s remorse already? It's such a fine line between the end and the beginning. It's long gone, sending in home letters, hoping to be back real soon, wishing that you were here with me or maybe I was there with you, whatever.

Jack: the first version I had and the one I kind of made a demo of was like real upbeat. I thought it was gonna be like a single kind of thing. I had like different chords and stuff.

And Blake kept kind of saying like, ‘let's try one that feels more like the after party than the actual party. Cause like what you've described through the lyrics is like it's already kind of going and like people have left and now it's just like a couple of drunk guys like talking.’ Yeah. It's a little sad for sure.

And so like we slowed it way down and then when I did that beer bottle trick, he's like, oh, l’et's get the beer bottles on there,’ cause we've both been through this experience a lot.

It's like after a show and then friends are hanging out and some old friends and then some people have drank too much. Maybe not everybody, but like you're sitting backstage and there's like guitars come out in the dressing room and you're playing. And there's like, inevitably like a guy over in the corner, just like, like in the wrong key, you know and everything.

And so like. We wanted to tune it, but you don't have to tune 'em perfect or anything, but we got 'em to like a certain pitch and then, um, and we added it to it and it, we felt like it worked. 

So right now the funny thing is like on tour, are we doing the bottles or not like every day at rehearsal? I'd find myself holding these four bottles and looking at the guys in the van, be like, you'd tell me, right.

Like, just put little, put one of those little clown noses on me right now. If I need it, you know, or give you some knee symbols. Am I that guy right now? And it's just like the most ridiculous thing. I don't know if we're gonna do it or not.

Michael: and you'll have to get that guy who's from, from backstage.

Who's had a few too many. 

Jack: Yeah.

Michael: You're on tomorrow night.

Jack: Totally. It's not a bad  idea. 

Michael: Jack Johnson's music is supposed to make you feel good. That's what he's trying to do. What I wanted to know is why? What made him into a guy who brings comfort and warmth to the rest of us? One of my theories was that it has to do with being the youngest of three brothers. I have three sons and my guy? He’s a sweetheart. People I've talked to say this is common. When I asked Jack about this, he didn't exactly agree with me, but he didn't disagree either.

And when you hear him talk about his family, you do get a sense of where his positive energy comes from.

Jack: I was 10 years younger than my oldest and seven than the other. So they were almost like young uncles. They were always so sweet to me. And I'm not just saying that, cuz I'm on the microphone. Thank you brothers. If you ever happen to hear this. They were always sweet to me. You know, of course we would have little, I almost wanna tell stories about the seven year old.

He, he did a couple funny things to me that like around a campfire, I love telling these stories to embarrass him, but in general tell them no, no, no, but like it. Well, I'll tell you one, like one time he, um, I was in the, I remember like being in our bedroom, we had bunks and he had this, um, cut on his foot and it was starting to get a little infected I guess. And he was babysitting or he was watching me for our parents throughout the dinner or something. It was just the two of us in the house. And he, and he is like, oh man, he was like putting some, some, uh, ointment on there or something. And I was like watching him and he goes, ‘oh man.’ He's like, ‘this cut is really bad. The infection is getting pretty bad, Jack. I think, um, this is gonna be really hard, but. I'm gonna have to cut my foot off right now.’ And I was like, I was real little, you know, like a teeny little guy. So like I fully, I was like, oh no. I was like, really? And he's like, yeah. And he's like, and here's the thing it's like scientifically proven that like you can't cut your own foot off. Like somebody else has to do it for you. So. You gotta cut my foot off right now. It's he's like, ‘otherwise, this infection's so bad.’ And he's like, ‘go to the kitchen, get a knife.’ Like, I can remember like my, it felt like, like walking into the kitchen, like thinking like, oh my God, I'm gonna have to cut my brother's foot off right now.

And I went in the kitchen. The only knife I was allowed to use at this point, this is how young was, is a butter knife. So I went and I got a butter knife out, the little drawer I had like tippy toe, like, look for it. I get the butter knife. And I come walking back and I could remember like putting, it had, you know, like butter.

Knife's the ones that have like the teeny little serrated thing, like barely. And I remember like putting it against his skin on his ankle and just starting to, starting to rub.

Michael: Oh, no.

Jack: And just thinking like, man, it's gonna take so long.

Michael: I'm not sure how that gets. Just to understanding like why you are a, you know, a guy who, who brings these sweet songs to us. Like, I don't, I don't– 

Jack: I don’t think it has anything to do with any, just the story of, I remember it and it was pretty funny, so anyway, I think it's my, we sometimes the piano player or my, we joke like, well, well careful don't get too reflexive because like the whole process of songwriting feels pretty magical.

So with that being said, like the closest thing to kind of the question you're asking right now, I can remember trying to write my first few songs and. When I learned guitar, it was always to play music on the front porch or in the living room. I mean, the front porch is the romantic version of it, but just like wherever, it was just around the house and our family would always be there and we'd like, sit around and play like Beatles songs or Bob Marley or different things.

And I was kind of, um, learning from one of my dad's friends, how to play the chords. And then when he would be gone, I'd be the guy and it would be like, ‘it's not time.’ And then they'd have to wait for me to move my fingers, ‘to make a change. Just Relax.’ You know, and everybody'd be so sweet, cause they'd all sit there and wait for me to like, get my fingers all set on the C and stuff.

But my grandma was right there. She lived next door to us and so she'd be sitting there listening. And then my brother's kids, my niece and nephew, they'd be sitting there listening and we'd play these songs. Like these family kind of songs you could play. And I remember writing my first songs and I, I think somewhere in there I could just picture like my family sitting around, listening to the songs, you know?

And like, I think I always sort of wrote for families like, uh, not intentionally, but I think it was just the understanding of like, that's where these songs would be played and like shared with those are cuz I wasn't writing songs ever thinking that this would happen. I was just writing songs to kind of play like, ‘Hey look, what do you think of this family?’

I never dreamed it would go beyond now really. And so, um, I think somewhere in there that was just my perspective is like everybody would be sitting around listening this. So I was kind of writing from my grandma and I remember my grandma saying to me one time, like, ‘I think it's so brave that you're sharing your thoughts with everybody.’ You know, and like that always stuck with me. Like, my grandma saying that would always pop in my head.

Like it's so brave to share those thoughts. And I would be like, ‘okay, do this for grandma.’

Michael: Well here's the interesting part, right? Is because people reach for your music to feel good. But I'm, I'm thinking about your tour. That's coming up here, you know, really soon 35 dates, you know, the first time in five years you being out there. And I know because you've told me this directly in the past, is early on in your career, the idea of like playing on a stage in front of a lot of people was not something you were thrilled about, you know, very early on. It was, you know, I don't know if it was scary or uncomfortable, but then you got to a point where you embraced it. And you got really good at it, but now I wonder how much you, when you go on tour this time and you're thinking about it and you go out there like. This is giving something to you. Mm-hmm , this is, it's not your grandma.

Jack: Mm-hmm.

But it's a bunch of people who are so excited to see you play and to have that family feeling. Right. And I wonder how that feels coming back at you?

Jack: Yeah. It's really nice. I think, um, my fear used to be. Even if it was a little club and then it's like, I would always kind of be, as I saw it growing, like we were playing this place called the mint in, uh, LA. I would drive down to Santa Barbara and we'd play to like a half full room. Then at some point, like word of mouth that started getting full.

And then there was a couple nights where it was like, they would come tell me like, Hey, there's a line around the block and I can't get in. And it was like, wait, what? This is crazy. You started realizing like, oh, we're gonna have to play the bigger venue. And then like, then we get there.

And the same thing started happening where like we played this book called the El Ray, I think it was called and like that sold out and there was like more people wanted to get in and I'd always be like, oh shoot, I'm just getting comfortable here. I kind of just wanna play here. Can I just stay here? I think the big worry is like, am I gonna hit a wrong chord? Am I gonna forget my lyrics? And then what started happening is whenever those horrifying moments would happen, that I would like, oh no, boom, fully clunk a chord. The whole crowd would start cheering and everybody would love it. And then like all of a sudden you're like, oh wait, we can't really mess up. Like, people don't even care if you hit a wrong chord, I'd forget a line. And the whole crowd was start like cracking up and just like start singing the line for me. So then I started realizing like, oh, this isn't too bad. Like, nobody's really sitting there singing like, ‘oh, is he hitting the right chord? Is he singing the right stuff?’ No, everybody just wants to feel good and have a good time. So as long as you kind of get into this place where you can relax into it, it's hard to really fail. I mean, you play better some nights and you play worse some nights and you walk off the stage. And we as a band, some nights like, oh man, we gotta do better tomorrow night. Like, we didn't play really well, but like. I think the, a lot of the pressure came off when I realized that nobody was coming to my shows to see if I play my scales. Right. Like there's bands that are like that. You wanna see 'em rock and be really tight and stuff, but we're not one of those, like, luckily that's, luckily for us, it's not our gig.

Michael: But the, the, the, the idea of like this going from you know, maybe it went from a, a scary experience

Jack: mm-hmm yeah, yeah. 

Michael: to one that you enjoyed to now one that I'm like, this might be a nurturing experience for you. You know, you're going out there to this larger family that you don't know any of these people, but you're gonna be up there in front of thousands of people.

And they're gonna be singing along with you. And I just wonder. After the last few years, especially, and with the intention behind this album, like if that might feel a little different than it has in past.

Jack: Yeah. I think that's a great question. I think that there's, um, there's a balance there for me. It's like, it definitely feels really good to get people together, to sing all along together. And especially like to be able to like back off the mic sometimes in the crowds singing it. 

Music: You look so pretty sleeping next to me. But there is, there is not enough time. There is no song I could sing. There is no combination of words I can see but I just need to tell you one thing: we’re better together.

Jack: You know, you're gathering people to sing together and to be together and to celebrate together. There's a lot of positive and a lot of healing and it makes me feel good to know that people are getting something. It's nice to give the songs. And I definitely get stuff back from like getting the feedback, but you just have to be careful of like what you're trying to feed yourself with and not let it over inflate.

You, you know what I mean?

You can say anything on a stage and people will cheer. You can say the dumbest thing in the world and people will like clap or cheer. And so you just have to be careful. Like me and my friend, Zach, we always joke when we get home, like, we'll call each other a couple days after being off tour and be like, ‘Hey, I don't know what's going on. Like, I keep saying things around the house and nobody's like clapping about it. Or like, nobody's like my family. Doesn't like, you know, cheer every time I say something dumb.’ 

Like I try to stay kind of even like, I kind of, I feel like when I walk on a stage. You get shivers. I get shivers for sure. Like all the time, like there's parts that move you and stuff during the show. And it's so fun. And, and it's exciting when you, when you nail like a, a guitar part and stuff, and it's fun, you get a little rush.

But when I walk off the stage, I don't wanna be in a state that like, I gain too much from that. I kind of want to just still be level. 

Getting home from a tour, one time, the waves are really good. We got back to Santa Barbara. We were on like a two week break and I went down to the beach, my friend, Vaughn Montgomer.  And we got to the beach and rincon was like six feet and really good. It was like overhead just pumping. And we got our wetsuits on. We were running. It was so good.

We were like hooting. We were like, woo, just like running on the beach. So excited. And I had this thought. I remember like, ‘Oh, I haven't been this happy or excited or like just buzzing the whole last month on tour. ‘I was like, ‘that's a good thing. Try to hold onto that. Like, just remember that.’ Like 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.

Michael: Surfing and music and family aren't the only thing that Jack depends on for happiness, or for finding hope in hard times. Years ago, he and his wife, Kim, created the Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation, a non-profit that supports environmental education in the schools and communities of the islands. More recently, they added the Kokua Learning Farm, an eight acre site on Oahu where they can invite students for nature programming.

Jack has spent a lot of time on the farm, and not just because he enjoys using a shovel.

Jack: Sometimes when people ask me a little bit, like with climate change and everything, the world's up against like, how do you hold onto optimism? And I think one little thing, I figured out is just like, you almost have to draw a circle. Like for me, it's like this circle around this, this eight acres and think like, this is work on this, do our best, see, see positive change here. See things that bring you optimism and just realize like, this is bringing community together, like see families outta nature, happy together, bringing some kind of relief. Like during the really hard, last couple years, it was a place that we could still gather and spread out and be safe. And so many families would say, Hey, this has been so healing, cuz we can be together with not just our family, but see friends and you know, be safe about it, but see each other.

And um, so it's been that place for me. But sometimes even that farm can be overwhelming and I have to make the circle smaller and draw it around that little constructed native wetland and just, okay, I'm gonna focus here a little bit. Where's the positive? It's like sometimes you gotta zone in and like, and zoom in a little bit and just figure out what you're gonna work on and see the positive And in that.

Michael: The last thing I want to ask about, is the final song on the album, “Any Wonder.” Listening to it. It was, it was pretty striking for me because of your vocals. I was like, ‘wow, there's a lot of passion here.’ Like, ‘he's, he's singing. This is, this is like brave, you know?’ And I wonder, you know, again, all these factors that go into a creative project. There's where you're out in your career. There's the messaging and, and what you're trying to communicate to people at a time when things have been dark and they need light. And there's a creative collaboration with Blake. What, what was the alchemy there that like, cause it felt like you went to a bit of a new place. Like, I don't know if I've heard that before.

Jack: Yeah, it's, you're totally hitting the nail in the head as far as like trust from other people, not just Blake, like definitely my wife, I've always, you know, we've been together so long and like, I'll, I'll like show her stuff and be, what do you think? And like, you know, she'll like, let me know of when she feels like, uh, she'll gimme an opinion, always, you know, and just always an honest one.

And so like a song like that, I played it for her and, um, and she really loved it. You know, she loved the version. It's really thinking quite a bit about her uncle. Who's like an uncle to me. I'll call him my uncle too, is the album's gonna be dedicated to uncle Darrell. And, um, he just passed away like shortly before I recorded that song.

And, um, so anyways, like, but then Blake on that, like there was a part right towards the end when I, when it jumps up to the higher register.

Music: If you can’t hear me now. The shadows come and go. Can’t hold on to now. It’s so hard to let go. Maybe I don’t know how. Light will come and go. We get so lost somehow. You can always come back home. If you can’t hear me now. 

Jack: He like really, we did a bunch of takes of the song, but he liked this one where my voice kind of breaks up and I kept being like, are you sure? Like that one sounds so vulnerable and it's all. You love, I love hearing vulnerability at other people's music. And it's always tricky when it's your own to hear that that's good. And like, I'd just be like, ‘doesn't that sound? That didn't sound that good. Right?’And he kept being like, ‘no, no, no, that's the best one.’ And so anyways, I just had to trust him on it.

You know, like to go with that one, he's very good at like, uh, for better or for worse. He's good at like sticking with being very sure that like, ‘no, I'm not gonna let you talk me into using someone. You gotta use this one. This is the one, this one, you know? And so like, I just decided to trust him on a few of those. And uh, so we'll see.

Michael: Yeah, but I wonder if some of that's also just like but you get to a point in life where like, you know, you just, you don't care. You're not worried as much. You're, it’s not gonna change you. Like if people make fun of you. Yeah. Or don't, they've already done that. And so if you're gonna let go, right. And really let go and, and put it into your art, now's the time to do it. You know, and I don't know if you feel that way or

Jack: Yeah, I think, I think you're right. You get to a place where you're a little more comfortable. You've tried different things on different albums. And if people in the room that you trust and enough kind of back you on, because I mean, ultimately it was my idea to sing that part and those parts, it's not like somebody else is saying, get in there and sing these lines.

I mean, those are the melodies I wrote and the parts that I would try when I'm alone. And then it's like, you're in a room suddenly and there's people watching and there's microphones and you do it. And then all of a sudden you're like, wait, does this, you have to kind of check with people. Like, what do you think? What do you think? What do you think? And I kind of go around the room and it's just, you gotta be with people you really trust.

Michael: Yeah. Well, it's like, you're kind of taking me back to when you were a kid and there's grandma and the family.

Jack: Yeah, yeah,

Michael: And like, I, it really sounds like there was some maybe early trust built there.

Jack: Yeah. Yeah,

Michael: You know, and that that's been really important to let you do all of this, so.

Jack: Yeah, definitely.

Music: You can meet the moonlight in a night you really want. It’s waiting in your own backyard. You can make the flame meet the kindling make the fire. 

Michael: Jack Johnson's new album is Meet the Moonlight, It comes out Friday, June 24th. He's on tour now. Details at jackjohnsonmusic.com

Jack is also joining Outside for our first NFT launch, the Bedrock Badge, to raise money for the Kokua Hawaii Foundation. Badge holders have a chance to win tickets to his shows at the Hollywood Bowl and signed copies of Meet the Moonlight. Learn more and get your badge now at outside.io.

My name is Michael Roberts, I produced this episode. Ness Smith-Savedoff recorded my conversation with Jack in LA. Thanks, Ness.

This episode was brought to you by Aruba, an island in the Caribbean that offers so much more than a vacation. Learn more about what awaits you on this very special island at aruba.com.

The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn more about all the benefits of membership at outsideonline.com/podplus. We're offering new members a 25% discount: just enter the code pod25 at checkout.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.