Q&A: Jack Johnson Explains Why He Hasn't Written Many Happy Songs Lately

The name Jack Johnson alone can make some folks involuntarily close their eyes and find themselves on a sunny beach. They hear his voice and brush imaginary sand from their shoulders. Keep those eyes closed and look beyond the sun-bathing beauties, piña coladas, and playful breakers. If you're like Jack, the next obvious step after staring out into the ocean sublime, imagining conquering the sparkling waves, is writing a supercatchy acoustic tune about it.

Johnson's Thursday visit to Cruzan Amphitheatre comes five years after he last performed for SoFla enthusiasts. Fans of Johnson know him to be a contemplative songwriter, and those paying attention have noticed that over the course of his past two records, 2008's Sleep Through the Static and 2010's To the Sea, his gaze has shifted further from the shoreline and the playful out toward the mysterious horizon and beyond. Recently, County Grind had the chance to chat with Johnson about what has inspired the shift, what he's been seeing out there, and of course, about fun in the sun and keeping cool.

When was the last time you surfed in


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Probably 2005. Whenever the last time

we were there was.

Are you bringing a board this time


I don't know if I will. I've got to

figure it out. A lot of times, if we're gonna be on the coast

enough, I'll pack one in. Other times, I'll just hit the local

surf shops and kinda beg a little bit and see if I can borrow one.

A couple of months ago, Donovan

Frankenreiter was down here, and we had the pleasure of talking with

him. He pretty much designed his tour to be a two-month surf session.

He stuck to the coast all the way.

It's fun touring with him. I always

like it. It's nice to have somebody else to help motivate me to get

down to the beach.

He talked to us about your beginnings

hanging out in Hawaii together, surfing and playing guitar. Then,

years later, there was a moment there where you caught people's

attention and blew up. And that actually allowed for him to make a

record too.

Yeah, that was fun. We collaborated on

his first album. That was pretty cool. I had my recording studio here

in Hawaii. We were basically surfing and recording every day. It was


You seem to be perceived as a generally

laid-back and humble dude. How did the experience of fame come on,

and how have you learned to deal with it?

I mean, I guess the quickest answer

would be my wife. Because my wife and I have been together since we

were 18 years old. While the whole thing was going on, I was

living off of her salary for a while. I was making the surf films.

Then I decided to go out and do the music. We started going out

playing little clubs. We had one sound guy and one friend who was

helping us set up the drums. That same guy is still my sound guy

today, and that same guy is still helping us set up the drums. It

doesn't let you get too far away from yourself when you keep the

same people around you. We used to be carrying our own gear in and

setting up. When you've got those same guys around, you can't

start suddenly acting all big-time. They know you for who you really

are. It's just basically a big group of friends. We're all on

the same level.

Your music has always been somewhat

philosophical. Are there any particular philosophical ideas or books

that have been big for you or that you've recently been interested


Some of the ones that keep coming back

for me are Kurt Vonnegut, Joesph Campbell, and one of the latest

books I've read was from a guy named Robert Bly named Iron

John. A lot of the new record has thoughts and ideas that come

from that book.

There is a sense of vulnerability on

the new record. And the title, To the Sea, seems to have deep


Songs put you in a pretty vulnerable

state. You're basically sharing your ideas. Ones that you have a

solid concept on, and ones that are just kind of entering your mind.

For me, writing a song is a lot of times just trying to answer a

question in my own head. The idea of To the Sea, in my mind,

was from reading a lot of Joseph Campbell. A lot of his

interpretations of myths and dreams and the idea of a body of water

always representing the subconscious. So, I was thinking: For me,

what is that? The ocean. It's a place my dad would always take me.

I would physically jump in, but also it was a place where we'd

spend a lot of time, the two of us, on camping trips, and I'd have a

lot of time to think about things. When I think back to a lot of the

concepts that have developed in my mind or the way that I see the

world, a lot of the time when I think of the place where I first had

these thoughts, it's on one of the outer islands along the coast

where we were alone with the ocean. So physically and emotionally,

the ocean is definitely a big part of my life. And it's something

that has mythological proportions.

There is somewhat of a sad tone to the

last two records. Do you see that as a departure? And do you feel

like people expect you to write happy songs?

I don't spend too much time worrying

about it, but it's definitely something that you do get. Whether

it's from a fan or a friend. You get about 50/50. You get

some people saying, "Well, I don't like this one as much because it

doesn't remind me of this part of that one." Or you get critics

saying that you haven't changed enough. If you listen to that stuff

too much, it'll confuse the hell out of you. I've always just

tried to write the songs that came naturally.

I think the last two albums were

definitely a shift. Sleep Through the Static was the first

time I had to lose somebody. I lost a friend who was only 20

years old during the making of Sleep Through the Static.

There's this new reality that hits you about what life is all

about. There is a sadder tone to it. The first half of your life,

you're saying hello to all these new things, and the second half

you have to start to say goodbye to them. You can only write from a

place that's real. Having to write about those things becomes a

reality. I think on the last two it's been... not only the sad

parts. There is still new life coming in. There is still the love,

and all these different ways of experiencing love, even if you're

saying goodbye to it with a friend.

Has the motivation for writing songs

remained the same, more or less, since the beginning? Or, was there a

shift where you began to feel like you had an obligation to write,

for fans or because of contractual agreements?

I've always done one-record deals. I

never wanted to have to write to fulfill any kind of a contract.

We've been lucky. Basically, once I feel like I have enough songs

again, I'll sign on to do another album. So that's never really

been an issue for me.

Thinking way back, there was a time

where I liked the idea of being a songwriter, but I was just a kid,

really, almost just playing the roll of a songwriter, writing these

songs. To me, I look back at some of them, and they don't mean much.

They are just exercises in rhyming. Even when I look back to some of

the songs on my first and second album, I see some of them as being

pretty meaningful to where I was in my life at the time, but other

ones I feel, even if it was how I felt at the time, I've grown from

there. They seem almost more in that place of being an exercise in


Over time, after doing that long

enough, it just became a way that I processed things. So now when I

write a song, it helps me to get past something. Sometimes I feel

like a Dewey Decimal system or something. I've got this certain

amount of space in my mind, and until I write a song about something,

it takes up space. Then once I write it, I can file it away and move

on to other thoughts. The songs really do mean something to me, and

they help me process things, more than they used to. I feel lucky to

not have any pressure on when I have to write them, but they're

nice when they come.

With G. Love and ALO. 5:30 p.m. Thursday, August 26, at Cruzan

Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $35 to

$55. Click here.

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