Jack Johnson Loves Playing Music With Others, Talks New LP ‘Meet the Moonlight’

There are many factors that can contribute to a lifetime of music. For the Oahu, Hawaii-born, Grammy-nominated songwriter and performer Jack Johnson, those factors were initially comprised of an old ukulele, Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix. Johnson, who released his latest LP, Meet the Moonlight, on June 24, says he can remember way back to strumming the traditional Hawaiian stringed instrument as a kid. His parents had one around the house. But he also had older brothers, who would pass them their old vinyl albums when they were done with them. Black Sabbath was prized among them, but others included KISS and Queen. 

Videos by American Songwriter

He remembers staring at the album art, playing them on a little plastic record player he had at the time. Later, he bought a Hendrix cassette tape, the first album he purchased with his own money, which he earned from working at a pizza place, he says. He was lucky, found it at a “trippy hippy shop” that sold crystals. He recalls buying moonstone earrings for a girl there for her birthday. He played the cassette out in a waterproof yellow Walkman. He moved next to Fugazi, which he heard on the radio. Hearing that band made him want to form his own.

“I was a backup singer,” Johnson tells American Songwriter, remembering that early ensemble—a punk band. 

Today, Johnson is a genre unto himself. Often playing an acoustic guitar, palm-muting it, and singing his mellow, ocean-inspired songs, he’s instantly recognizable as soon as a track like “Flake” or “Bubble Toes” or “Taylor” comes on. But that reality stems from lots of practice. He would strum his acoustic constantly as a young person. But he’d also love to get into the water and surf. Famously, Johnson made early surf movies in Hawaii (some of which were the subject of the excellent HBO documentary, Momentum Generation). Back then, he’d transpose hip-hop tracks onto the guitar, often trying to play the melody, bass, and drums on the six-strings all at once. 

“A lot of [my] style comes from me trying to play non-folk music in a folky style,” he says. “Over the years, it kind of became a natural thing without me even trying. Your own limitations sometimes help define you.” 

Johnson made a name for himself in the early 2000s as an acoustic revival was taking place in popular music. His contemporaries include Ben Harper, G Love, Howie Day, Guster, O.A.R., Dispatch, and even Dave Matthews. Before becoming popular, with his album Brushfire Fairytales and later with On and On, Johnson would play small rooms, and open mics. He adored performing for the 40-some people in the room, giddy whenever someone new walked in. Soon, he met G Love and Ben Harper, who later invited him to collaborate and even tour. He liked those artists for their abilities to blend genres, from folk to reggae to rock and hip-hop. 

“I wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for either,” Johnson says of Love and Harper. “Both of those guys are brothers.” 

He remembers Harper inviting him onto the road and him saying back “I’m not ready.” But Harper simply replied, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. I get to choose. Come out with me!” Johnson’s first big recording break came when he featured on one of Love’s albums, performing his song, “Rodeo Clowns,” together. That song was a hit, from radio to college campuses. It features Johnson’s signature palm-muted, reggae-like acoustic guitar and his soft but strong voice. Instantly, a star was born. Looking back on those songs and early albums today, Johnson says they remind him of where he was then. While he’s the “same person,” he can also feel transported to the late ’90s and early 2000s when he was living in a house with six roommates, trying to hone, and perfect, songs like “Flake” as a sophomore in college. He recalls how “Bubble Toes” wasn’t quite finished but on the day they tracked the song, he had to get it down, hence the la-la-la’s and da-da-da’s on the recording. 

“I guess the good news,” Johnson says, “is I don’t feel overly embarrassed when I hear them.” 

He still plays many of those early songs at shows these days. The genre he’s in, he says, allows him, as a 47-year-old, to keep playing them. Even songs like “Cookie Jar” still come back in the fold. That track is about blame and people not accepting it. He wrote that tune, he says, directly after the Columbine mass school shooting. More recently, he played it at a “common sense” rally for gun reform on Maui. But while tragedy can lead to songwriting, so can natural beauty like the Pacific Ocean. A prolific surfer, as mentioned above, Johnson has always been around the ocean. He’s grown up close to it. As he sleeps, he can hear waves crashing every 10-12 seconds. It may even be the root of his sound. 

“It’s the ultimate rhythm in my life,” Johnson says. “The one I always hear whether I try to or not.” 

When writing songs, he often starts or finishes them while on his surfboard in the salt water. The ocean is an inspiration and an escape. Stress melts away and insight bubbles up. On his latest LP, Johnson says he had accumulated a certain number of songs and, at that point, felt ready to lay them down. He worked with a producer, Blake Mills, who provided a great deal of guitar on the album, too. They recorded it in Mills’ studio in Los Angeles and in Johnson’s makeshift home studio in his garage. It was collaborative, Johnson says. Standouts include “Don’t Look Now,” “Costume Party” and “Any Wonder.” The first of which, he says, is about consequences. It was born when his son kept getting woken up by a new neighborhood rooster. Johnson’s son threatened to kill the rooster (which he never actually did) but the idea spawned the track. And “Any Wonder” came about after Johnson lost a close family member, an uncle. It’s the kind of song people might hear and thank him for later, as it helped them get through their own tough moments of loss. 

Indeed, it’s this two-way street that Johnson loves most about his craft. Sharing it, making it in unison. From those early ukulele moments to receiving an album from a brother. Music is connectivity made real through melody and rhythm. 

“I really do love sitting around playing music with friends,” Johnson says. “I write a lot when I’m alone, I like writing alone. But I really do love the way it sounds when two guitars come together, and you add drums. I love playing music with people.” 

Photo by Morgan Maassen / Big and Bright PR

Leave a Reply

Jeff Hanna on Why The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Took on Bob Dylan

Work Hard, Play Hard: An Exclusive Look at a Day in the Life of Jacob Sartorius