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Jack Johnson's rising career

Jack Johnson’s rising career — We chat with the musician about his laid-back image, the new direction of his music, and his reluctant celebrity status

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Jack Johnson is wearing shoes. They do not look like designer affairs. Truth be told, the shapeless slip-ons barely appear to have any design at all. Nonetheless, there they are, in plain view, as Johnson sits on a couch at his solar-powered Los Angeles office-studio complex, strumming a Martin guitar. And this seems wrong.

Of course, a lot of people favor the wearing of shoes. But there is a widespread belief that the 32-year-old Hawaiian singer-songwriter is not among them. In November 2005, Saturday Night Live aired a fake commercial starring Andy Samberg as ”mellow pop-folk singer Jack Johnson.” The ad was for an imaginary product named J.J. Casuals: feet-shaped shoes aimed at people who wanted to feel like they were still barefoot even on those occasions — weddings, dinners at fancy restaurants — when they could not be. ”Mm-mm, do you like to keep it mellow?” sang Samberg, impersonating Johnson’s airy, stonerish tones. ”Can you dig it/Shoes that look like feet…” ”There is an element of truth to it,” Johnson says of the skit. ”I usually wear flip-flops in Hawaii.” The singer looks down at his lower extremities with an expression of bewilderment: ”This is kind of rare that I’m wearing these today.”

The J.J. Casuals sketch both reflected and fueled the notion of Johnson as a preternaturally laid-back dude. It is an image little disturbed by the vibe given off from his songs, which — musically, at least — tend to be so hushed and soothing they can be enjoyed by even the very young. This point was confirmed by Johnson’s last album, the soundtrack to 2006’s animated kids’ movie Curious George. The collection was his fourth CD to go platinum in less than five years, a remarkable achievement in these days of catastrophically falling music sales. Given that Johnson’s new CD, Sleep Through the Static, is in many ways an exercise in not fixing what ain’t broken, there is every reason to believe it will also sell in similarly large quantities following its Feb. 5 release. ”In this very turbulent time for the business, Jack’s trajectory is actually up,” says Monte Lipman, president and CEO of Universal Republic and the prime mover in persuading the independent-minded Johnson to sign with a major label. ”His last proper album” — not including the George soundtrack — ”increased sales beyond the previous two.”

The thumbnail sketch of Johnson as amiable soft-rock troubadour is, technically, not incorrect. In person, he really is a nice, polite, friendly guy who is eloquently and winningly enthusiastic about environmental issues that are close to his heart. If your daughter was hell-bent on marrying a rock star, Johnson is the one you’d want her to wed, were he not already hitched to his college sweetheart, Kim. But there is more to Johnson than meets the eye or tickles the ear. This is a man who can knowledgeably discuss French New Wave film directors and who will gleefully bang out the chords of a song he refers to as ”You’re F—ing With Me Subliminally” (the track, by punk legends Suicidal Tendencies, is actually called ”Subliminal.” But what a thrill to hear the well-spoken Johnson utter the F-word). And as for always being ”Mr. Laid-back,” well…the singer’s subconscious would care to disagree. ”I think I’m getting too famous all the time,” he says, in a genuinely concerned manner. ”I get overwhelmed. I start having dreams — all these eyes looking at me, or cameras. I’ll wake up and be, like, What the hell is going on here? That’s when I know I’m in too deep.”

Jack Johnson never wanted to be a rock star. As a kid growing up in Hawaii, with the ocean almost lapping at his doorstep, Johnson’s ambition was to be a professional surfer. In 1992, the then 17-year-old became the youngest person ever to compete at the Pipeline Masters, a surf competition held on the North Shore of his native island, Oahu. A week later, Johnson was out on the water again when he lost control of his board and smashed his face into a coral reef. ”I was conscious, then I’d start to doze off,” he recalls. ”It was like when you keep pushing snooze on your alarm clock. All of a sudden I said, Wait a minute, I pushed snooze too many times here, I’m gonna die if I don’t start swimming.” The accident cracked Johnson’s skull open and almost tore his upper lip clean off his face. ”It looked like a movie where someone got shot in the head,” he says.

If anyone ever makes a Jack Johnson biopic, this incident will doubtless be presented as a Major Turning Point — the moment when he decides to shift from surfing to singing. But there are two problems with that myth. First, Johnson says that he had already realized he loved surfing too much to make it his career. ”Surfing is kind of a selfish thing,” he explains. ”If you decide to do the pro surfing thing, you really have to share it with people and perform. When I go for a surf, ideally, you find a secret spot with nobody around.” Second, Johnson turned to movies next, not music. He enrolled at UC-Santa Barbara, where he studied film. And after graduation, he traveled the world directing a surf documentary called Thicker Than Water with fellow wave enthusiasts Emmett Malloy and his brother Chris.

Only then did music start to take over. Johnson had played guitar in a high school punk band, covering songs by Minor Threat and Fugazi. But in college he worked on his songwriting and developed a musical style inspired by a combination of Hawaiian music, reggae, and the relaxed funk of Ben Harper. So when it came to creating a soundtrack for Thicker Than Water, Johnson delivered it himself, with a recording that was widely bootlegged and passed around the surf community.

His rising musical profile also started to attract attention from major labels, as Johnson discovered when he and Emmett Malloy were editing their second cinematic collaboration, 2000’s The September Sessions. ”I was in Emmett’s office and I got this call from the assistant to a big-time executive,” Johnson recalls. ”They asked if I’d come in for a meeting. I was like, ‘Hey, Emmett, you can act like you’re my manager.’ So he came with me. Once one person takes a meeting the whole industry hears about it, and I started getting all these phone calls. And Emmett would come with me. We’d sit there and kick each other under the table.” Instead, Johnson signed with an independent label, Enjoy, run by producer and Ben Harper manager J.P. Plunier, yet another aficionado of the surf community. Johnson’s debut CD, the Plunier-produced Brushfire Fairytales, was released in December 2000, and in the course of the next year sold nearly 100,000 copies as Johnson went on tour, including a support slot with his idol Harper. ”After that I pretty much thought I would return to making movies,” he recalls. ”I was making a living in that editing bay. I had no desire to change my job.”

In December 2001, Jack Johnson, budding filmmaker, committed to his musical fate. Where all the other major-label suitors got it wrong, Lipman and Universal, who themselves stumbled by doubling their initial offer, would finally get it right — by simply listening to the singer’s desires. ”Our thing just didn’t have anything to do with the money up front,” says Johnson. ”That’s what scared me. I remember saying, I just never want to feel like I work for a record label.” After Johnson rebuffed the bigger offer, Lipman changed tactics. As Johnson recalls, ”They said, ‘You guys write down what you want.”’

”He was one of the most reluctant artists that I have ever encountered to sign a record deal,” says Lipman. ”He just wasn’t interested in hitching his wagon to a major label.” In the deal that finally won him over, Jack Johnson remained master of his musical output. The singer’s albums are distributed by Universal but constructed under the banner of Johnson’s own company, Brushfire Records. Brushfire is based here at Johnson’s L.A. HQ, where he recorded much of Sleep Through the Static in the modest studio to the rear of the building. Upstairs is the office of Emmett Malloy, who did such a fine job of pretending to be the star’s manager that he graduated to the real gig. Indeed, Johnson says, he would rather employ friends at Brushfire than people with previous experience. Sleep Through the Static, meanwhile, features the same rhythm section of drummer Adam Topol and bassist Merlo as the pre-Universal Brushfire Fairytales.

Though musically Static is, once again, an easygoing listen, it is both lyrically dense and, at times, quite dark. Johnson says he ”used all my upbeat, poppy songs” on the Curious George CD. The tone of the album was also partly informed by personal tragedy. ”I just lost a really close friend to cancer a few weeks ago,” he reveals. ”So there are songs that I wanted him to hear and songs that are about the process of seeing somebody dying.” One of the tracks inspired by this situation was ”Hope,” which concludes with the line ”You better hope you’re not alone.” ”The song is about how important it was to have family around as he was going through this hard time,” says Johnson. ”Because he wasn’t alone.” The CD’s title track addresses the Iraq conflict and rejects the ”shock and awe-ful” idea that one has to choose between supporting the troops and pushing for peace. ”I almost called it ‘The Anti-Glacier Song,”’ he explains. ”Kurt Vonnegut, at the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, talks about a conversation he was having with a friend about how he’s going to write an antiwar book. His friend said, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’ But Vonnegut talks about how it’s still good to talk about how awful war really is.”

The disc is also sure to cause another spike in Johnson’s Celebrity — something he’s extremely ambivalent about. ”As long as it’s happening naturally, I’ll ride it a little bit,” he says of his career. ”But I’m not going to reinvent myself. I’m not going to fight for my celebrity.” Indeed, arena managers around the country may not be able to count on Johnson to put rear ends in their venues’ seats for much longer. ”Once my kids [Johnson has two sons, both under 5] are in school, I’m not going to go away all the time.”

Of course, that would suit him just fine: If he stays in Hawaii, he’ll never have to wear socks and shoes. Not that he wore socks to this interview anyway. ”I had some on earlier!” Johnson mock-protests. ”Yeah, I got socks! But not many…”

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