When we rang up Hawaii singer-songwriter-musician Jack Johnson at his home on Oahu’s North Shore, he immediately gave us a weather and surf report: two to four foot surf, breaking off shore, and clear blue skies.
The surf wasn't tempting enough for a seasoned surfer like Johnson. But that's good, he's supposed to be staying off his surfboard because of a strained hamstring.
“It happened a couple of months ago,” said Johnson. “I kept surfing on it, but it just didn’t feel right so I’ve been limiting myself to bodysurfing, which has been good.”
It's hard to believe that the same guy who once told me he kept surfboards on his tour bus just in case he pulled into a town with decent waves, would be satisfied with just … bodysurfing.
But Johnson has time to heal. He’s spent most of this year at home on a long break, following a 2008 world tour in support of his fifth studio album Sleep Through the Static. He and his wife, Kim, also recently became parents to a new baby girl—the couple’s first daughter after two boys.
“That’s the big thing in my life,” said Johnson.
On November 13 and 14, Johnson will take a break from his break. He'll do his only full live shows of 2009—right in his backyard, at the Hawaii Theatre on Oahu. The acoustic shows—also featuring his bandmate Zach Gill—will be benefits for Johnson’s Hawaii-based Kokua Hawaii Foundation and his more recently formed Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation. These concerts will also be his only ones supporting his new live CD/DVD Jack Johnson En Concert—out on October 27. (We have video from the DVD on the last page of this post.)
Directed by Johnson’s manager, film partner and longtime friend, Emmett Malloy, the En Concert DVD captures the singer on stage and off during his summer 2008 European tour.
The En Concert CD brings Johnson a bit closer to home, with 19 tracks culled mostly from U.S. stops on the Sleep Through the Static tour—including three songs from Johnson’s last pair of Kokua Festival benefit concerts at the Waikiki Shell.
Tickets for Johnson’s En Concert, In Hawaii shows go on sale Oct. 24, in-person only at the Hawaii Theatre box office [1130 Bethel St., Honolulu, (808) 528-0506]. Kokua Hawaii Foundation members will have the first chance to purchase tickets between 10 a.m. and 12 noon, before general public sales begin. Prices are $125, $100, $75 and $50, service fees included. Shows will begin at 8 p.m. both nights with a screening of En Concert, followed by a full acoustic set by Johnson and Gill.
During our phone call, Johnson discussed the upcoming Hawaii concerts, the En Concert film and CD, and his plans for his next studio album. We also asked why he's been giving away all of his tour proceeds to his non-profit foundations and whether Hawaii will always be home to him.
I got the sense reading Emmett’s En Concert director’s notes that the film kind of happened without some grand plan of, “Let’s put together a film of Jack Johnson’s summer tour or Europe.”
"Yeah. Whether he had some other ideas going on in his mind about how to trick me into doing it, that was better than to say, 'Let’s make a film where I follow you around and stuff.' So he just said, 'Hey, let’s just film the shows. That way we’ll just have them documented for down the line if we ever wanted to show our kids or put something out at some point.' He knows to always leave it very open-ended with me. (Laughs.) So he tricked me in that way, and came out and filmed them."
Did the project kind of sneak up on you while Emmett was filming it, before you could really do anything about it?
"No, no. It was very much after we were done with the tour. He would just say, 'Hey, I’ll show you some of the footage. See what you think. See if it’s worth doing something.' I liked it. Once I checked it out. He put together just some rough stuff of the performances and it all seemed worth doing something with."
Were you checking out the footage during the tour?
"No. Definitely not. I never listen to the shows or watch any footage on tour. I used to. It’s funny, the first tour we ever did, we were opening for Ben Harper. Ben was bigger at the time. So we were lucky enough that we had a real sound guy who was helping us out. … He would just record our set every night. And so, all of a sudden, at the end of the night, there’s a guy handing you a CD saying, 'Here’s your set from tonight.'
"We’d listen to it when we were driving in our car or something. And I didn’t really like it. It was just weird to think too much about it. Because then (after a show) you’d have a good feeling about the night (and) you’d listen back and hear some mistake you made and think, 'Aw, man!' … It didn’t seem positive. So after that I just never really listened to shows until after the tour was over.
"I haven’t watched this one (En Concert) that much. I just checked out a little bit. It was a hard thing because Emmett and I worked so much on surf films together. So it was a normal relationship that we worked together on films. But I just told him at some point, 'I don’t really want to be a part of the making of it. Just show it to me so I can make sure that there isn’t some interview part that I didn’t want in there, or something.' So he pretty much did this one. I just played the music."
That said, what do you like about the final cut of the film?
"It’s kind of a continuation of the filming from our surf films (Thicker Than Water, September Sessions). It definitely has a bit of a rambling, on-the-road feel. There’s not any kind of a grand message or anything. It doesn’t try to dig too deep into the personal lives of the people in the film. It’s more of a visual journey that shows a lot of the places we were at. It kind of shows what we’re doing. But very much in a dreamlike way.
"There’s a movie called Jazz on a Summer’s Night, that I’ve always liked a lot. It shows performances from a lot of the great jazz musicians. In the middle of the songs, it just drifts off into showing some of the scenery around (where they were playing)—some real nice footage, whatever they got at the time. They just kind of blended it together in an abstract way. I think (En Concert) has a lot of that—just drifts into little parts that remind me of Thicker Than Water or September Sessions a little."
Were there any great moments from the tour that you’re particularly happy were captured on film?
"There’s a standing wave in a river in Munich. That was a pretty fun day, because here we were in Munich, not thinking we were going to go surfing or anything. And then to get invited by the local surfers to come and check out their wave and go hang out with those guys was pretty fun. When you watch that part, anybody you see with a surfboard standing on the side of the river … came to the show that night."
You invited them?
"We were in Munich, and we didn’t have any friends and family there. So the guest list was wide open. So I just invited everybody who was at the river to the show. All the surfers were pretty happy."
That standing wave looked pretty tough to ride.
"As a surfer, you look at it and think, 'I got this thing … easy.' Then you jump on it and the water is moving so much faster than a normal wave. Every time you do a turn, it just wants to pull you right off the back of the wave. As a surfer, it wasn’t one of those things where I look at it (and) it’s a glorious ride or anything. It’s more just about the experience of finding the wave, really."
Any other moments?
"Some of the performances that were captured. … When you know somebody’s filming you feel kind of nervous. A nice thing was (the film crew) wouldn’t tell us which songs they were filming. So I feel like there’s some parts that really capture the playfulness of the band more than other stuff that we’ve put out before, (and) shows the interaction between the guys on stage in a nice way."
The upcoming Hawaii Theatre shows are the only ones you’re doing in support of the En Concert CD and DVD. Why did you want to do the only two live shows you’re doing this year at home in Hawaii?
"All of the money (raised) is going to go to the Kokua Hawaii Foundation. So, in part, it was a fun reason for everybody to get together and do a little show. We haven’t played for a while so we thought it would be fun. To raise money for Kokua seemed like a good reason to get together, too, since we didn’t do the (Kokua) Festival this year, as well.
"The last Hawaii Theatre shows we did (in August 2004) were a lot of fun, a little more intimate. And that’s why we decided to do two nights, too, so, hopefully, more people will be able to get in."
The shows will also be stripped-down, acoustic ones, right?
"They’re going to be real acoustic—just Zach (Gill) and myself, really. And that’s it. It’ll be fun. I think Zach will probably play some accordion. I don’t know if we’re getting a piano in there or what we’re going to do. We haven’t really thought about it much. It’s always more fun for me when Zach’s around, though. It’s fun to have two guys up there. It still stays real stripped down, which is a fun way to do the show. The songs sound so different when you do them without bass and drums. It’s kind of fun to present them that way, as well."
The Hawaii shows are benefits for the Kokua Hawaii Foundation and the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation. We’ve talked about Kokua Hawaii before. But the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation is new.
"We’d started Kokua Hawaii Foundation years ago, and it’s always really rewarding to have the shows and have the money go towards environmental education in Hawaii. Then we started thinking as we toured everywhere else that it would be nice to start something that benefited all those cities and communities we were playing at. And so that’s what the (new foundation) does.
"Basically, all of the shows we did last year were fundraisers—like mini Kokua Festivals. And everywhere we played, money from the shows went directly to the group that night and then the rest of it got put away. We give out the interest every year to groups that are doing good things. But the (Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation) is more for using worldwide, not just for Hawaii."
You’re donating 100 percent of the profits from En Concert CD/DVD sales and the Hawaii Theatre concerts to your two non-profit foundations. You did the same for every concert on the Sleep Through the Static tour—100 percent of the profits. No one does that, Jack. I mean, that’s everything.
(Laughs.) "It’s one of those things. We’ve been so lucky to be able to just keep doing this. And, when I say 'we' I mean everybody between my wife (Kim) and everybody in the band and everybody who’s involved. It’s not easy to keep something like this going. I mean, I’ll be the first to tell you that after we had success on the first record (2001’s Brushfire Fairytales) that I assumed that was going to be it, and that I was going to fade into obscurity. And then the fact that it continued and we were able to continue to make a living, we just thought that it’d be really nice to be able to have a non-profit wing of what we do.
"And so we decided that the touring (profits) made logical sense, because here you have all these people coming together every night. It’s a community of people coming together. So (why not) use that money we’re raising to go towards positive things? It just made perfect sense for us to do.
"Not everybody can do it. I mean, most musicians depend on their touring income to make a living. And a lot of times you have one or the other—you have a solid touring thing and not so great (income) on the CD sales, or vice versa. We can live off the CD sales and we’re lucky that people keep getting our albums. So we decided to use the touring (profits) for raising money for people that are doing positive things."
Will Kokua Festival return in 2010?
"I wish I could tell you definite. But we’re right on the time of trying to figure it all out. We just had a lot going on last year with life in general and decided to take a little break. Right now, we’re just starting to get back in the mode of thinking about everything—whether we’re going to record another album this year or tour next year and Kokua Festival. I wish I had a more definite answer for you."
Are you continuing your break from touring and recording after the Hawaii Theatre concerts? Winter’s coming up. I know you like being home for winter surf on the North Shore.
"Yeah, I’m going to be home. I thought I’d use the time to record again. All of a sudden, we’re feeling like there’s enough material to do an album. At least, maybe by the time January or February rolls around, we might try to lay everything down and see if we can get something out by next summer. But if not, we’re just going to kind of take it as it comes and see if we have enough. No pressure."
So you’ve been writing.
"Yeah, I have been. I’ve been writing a lot and spending a lot of time just kind of laying (music) down. … I have this little four-track (recorder) I got. It’s really cool. It’s just a little hand-held four-track thing. It makes it real easy, because I can take it in my studio and record drums and bass and guitar up there. Then I can be at home, and after the kids are asleep I can sing into the thing. It makes it real nice because I can get all these little demos together and (record them) anywhere from my living room to the recording studio. It’s been kind of nice. I just got that."
Any early thoughts on what direction you’ll take musically with the next album? Any radical changes?
"Nah, I don’t think so. If anything, it’ll probably be a little more lively than the last one (Sleep Through the Static). I think, the last one was just … I mean, the songs they just sort of come. I write ‘em, but I don’t really get to choose the mood of ‘em. It’s kind of dictated by what’s going on in my life. So looking back on that one, it’s somewhat of a somber album but it’s also just the reality of what I was going through.
"It seems like right now, a lot of the songs … I have a new baby and everything and there’s a new life in the world, and a lot of the songs are upbeat. I feel pretty good."
I look forward to hearing it. The first time we chatted back in 2001, you were living in Santa Barbara. You told me, “What I’m really looking to do is move back to Oahu sometime in the next few years for good. If I can pull it off where I can live in Hawaii and keep doing this, that’d be nice. That’d be the idea.” You’ve been back home here in Hawaii a few years now. Do you still feel the same excitement about living here?
"Oh, yeah! Definitely. (Laughs.) … I love being here. It’s pretty ideal. I grew up here, too, so it just feels like home more than anything. It’s nice that when you have surf here, you don’t have to wear a wetsuit."
What does Hawaii give you that no other place in the world does?
"It’s hard to say, because I think of it mostly just as home. Even though at the time of that quote you were reading I was working to get home. It’s not one of those things where I grew up always having this idea of what Hawaii was and wanted to get there. It’s just always been home. It’s hard for me to differentiate. It just feels like home. … A warm climate is nice, too. I don’t like clothes that much."
(Click below for video of Jack Johnson performing "Bubble Toes," from En Concert.)
Photos from En Concert: Emmett Malloy