Rhythms to Live By
A conversation with Jack Johnson
I recently spoke with Jack Johnson who is currently in Lake Tahoe where he will begin headlining The Brushfire Tour (although, I'm not sure he looks at it that way). People who have met Johnson in the past must have noticed his humble manner and how it flows into his music. This is where he accomplishes a signature whisper of hope directed towards a great many people and also a select few. His Brushfire label mates will be joining him for a trip across the country; along the way he'll be making a stop at Berkeley's Greek Theatre this Friday at 7pm.
Now that you've had your second album out for some time and now initiating the Brushfire tour today, it doesn't seem like there's signs of stopping anytime soon. What are you looking forward to the most or most excited about for this new tour across the U.S.?
Definitely having all three of our bands out on the road, G. Love and Special Sauce, and Donovan, and myself. We're all just good friends and we play music all the time even when we're not touring and stuff, so I think there's going to be a lot of fun collaborating going on, I like all their bands and stuff and I just feel like it's a good show altogether.
You know we don't have any record out anywhere. We'll probably get into the studio and record right after this tour
That's great! So you have plans to record some of the shows?
Yeah, we're definitely going to be recording all the shows, we tend to record a lot of them, I think at some point we might put out a live recording, I don't know when it will be, could be 10 years, 5 years. At one point we were almost going to do one and then we decided to wait awhile felt like it was little early to put out a live record. But I've been working on a soundtrack for Curious George a lot. Their going to put out a feature length cartoon, it just got pushed back a little bit but its going to be in a year or two, Will Ferrell is doing the voice for the man in the yellow hat.
Oh, really? That's awesome!
Yeah, it's fun.
I recently heard your going to be joining the line-up for Rock for Change, is that true?
Yeah, Vote for Change.
If you had the opportunity to meet with our current president, George W, would there be something you would want to ask him or something you would want to tell him?
I mean I don't necessarily want to have a conversation with him. You know If I had to, my question for him would be, how in the world did you get away with appointing all the key people that are suppose to be protecting the environment? They are all the people who are fighting against all the protection, regulations and things, they are all the lawyers that were basically trying to break those regulations down and now they're the people who are suppose to be upholding them, it's like, how in the world did you get away with it and no one noticed?
I think that's a theme in his presidency actually.
I noticed that in the past you have cited Bob Dylan as a musician that you appreciate, is there a particular album for you that you'd consider to be the quintessential Dylan album?
I like them all, I mean I listen to a lot of them but I guess, "Blood on the Tracks." I got this bootleg when I was a kid, it was probably the one I listened to the most, I was in Indonesia and there was this store where you could buy tapes for a dollar and I got this one where it was like a live thing where he recites "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie" Yeah, that's probably on a regular record but I got it down there so I don't know the name of it.
When your writing lyrics do you have a specific audience in mind?
Um, I try to…there's something that Kurt Vonnegut said that I thought was sort of interesting where he said that ultimately a good writer should be writing for one person. You know you really shouldn't be thinking about who's all going to be reading it, its more like if you want to kind of have a constant and sort of stay true to what you do, cause a lot of times there's one person your writing to, like for him it was his sister. And I just thought that was pretty cool because, you understand that if he thought his sister would dig it he would keep it, if he thought she wouldn't like it he would usually leave it out. It gives you a little continuity in your stuff and so I think it's the same for me I mean I don't' think its necessarily one person but there's a few people who I definitely think of when I write, between my two older brothers, I'm kind of always thinking about what they'll think about the songs, cause I've been always trying to impress them or you know do what they think is right. They're my role models and so I think about them a lot and my wife a lot when I write. There is kind of a group of people that I try to write the songs for and later I share them with everybody, and a lot of times, if your lucky enough they appeal to everyone because they kind of speak to all people and the people you wrote it for.
For some reason when I listen to "Times Like These" on your latest album, I imagine an alternate world where Radiohead covers that song and it would be amazing! Have you ever heard of Susan Tedeschi? For some reason I also see her singing along with you on the song "wasting time" again, some alternate world where these musicians are playing your songs.
That would be cool, yeah. I love Radiohead, I got a chance to hang out with Thom Yorke, we got to do the Bridge School Benefit together and we got to hang out a little bit, yeah that was pretty fun, because I'm a huge fan of their music. We played a little music, we got to play a few songs together back stage.
I arrived at the first Bonnaroo in 2002 and I left 3 days later with a whole new outlook on the world. To bring all of these people together and to have that kind of mutual respect and understanding with 100,000 people, almost like everyone was a part of an enormous family reunion with no history to speak of except a love for music and this inexplicable understanding that something grand was at work. Did you have a similar experience?
Yeah, that's the power of music, whether it's a normal show or a show like that works with people on a bigger level. That's one of the things I love about playing live. I get goose bumps sometimes right when I'm signing a line and you hear the whole crowd singing along and you get this feeling that everybody there feels the same way about something and I feel lucky to be the one who wrote this song that brings us all together. It's something where we're signing along, it's as if anybody could have written the song, everybody feels the same way. That was the deal with Bonnaroo too, it's that they did such a good job of bringing those bands together, that there was kind of a common theme through all of them, which was a really positive vibe. I think that everybody at the festival…I definitely felt it, backstage was different than other festivals I had done where you have, you know everyone has their dressing room and everybody was outside of their dressing rooms the whole time and just hanging out and playing music backstage…
Have you ever heard of the painter Basquiat?
They say that he always had dreams of moving west to give up painting and become a surfer. He never did reach the waves of the pacific in his lifetime. There is something about that story that so straightforward but at the same time seemed to symbolize something so much more. Do you think that your path as a musician is a constant for now, or do you have plans in the future for something else you may want to try your hand at?
No, I think truly who I am, is a surfer. I mean I grew up surfing ever before I could even remember surfing, my brothers would take me in the water and then the music came in a little later in life, but it was definitely an important thing where it came to kind of balance the surfing. It was the thing I would do outside of the water was strum guitar. Right now I have a little kid, everyday I put the guitar down and he just sits there and hits it like a drum and he just loves it already. You know there is just something about music, it's kind of the other type of rhythm: there's rhythm of music and there's the rhythm in the ocean for me and the two things are so important so I think that I'll probably be pretty confident just sticking with the music and the surfing.
by Chris Ellis
"I can't tell you anything but the truth." These words, sung by Jack Johnson in his latest studio album, To The Sea, define the ethos of a man born and raised in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
You could say it was a father's solo sail from California to Hawaii that opened his son's future fate and underpinned it with a personal mythology, but it was Jack's ability to learn his own lessons from life and the sea that birthed his astonishing alchemy of music and poetry.
Truth has found plenty of room to breathe in each of Jack's albums (and in all of his work, from surfing films to his nonprofit, the Kokua Hawaii Foundation), and it comes home to a deeper heart in To The Sea. Here, with his brothers in music - Adam Topol (drums), Merlo Podlewski (bass), and Zach Gill (piano and melodica) - he's on a journey to the center of himself, and to all of us.
It's a transformational crossing, a wide gyre (musically and lyrically) circling home. "You and your heart shouldn't feel so far apart," he sings in the album's opener ... and then:
Road signs were stolen
Left here holding this flame
Who stole my patience
Who stole my way
I'm too tired to try
Jack is all about closing the distance, bridging the gap between who we are and the invisible stories that have shaped us. But even while his music is about bringing things together, he always seems aware of the larger truth...