A circle unbroken: Jack Johnson’s quiet revolution changed music
His performance at BeachLife Ranch on September 22 will be a homecoming
by Gavin Heaney
In 1999, my alt-rock college band played its last gig on a Tuesday night at Coconut Teaser on the Sunset Strip to a dwindling crowd of grunge rockers. Feeling frustrated with it all, I took up a friend’s invitation to see his buddy play at The Mint. I walked into a brand new scene. The club was packed with a silent crowd, fixated by the man on stage, alone, strumming and picking his acoustic guitar, gently but very audibly, imparting simple and earnest songs. You could hear every word, and each song clicked. Coming from an ear-ringing, chaotic rock show where it was impossible to gather any meaning from the unintelligible words shouted over a deafening band, it was like a miracle. People were paying attention; they weren’t there to party or pose, they were there to listen. It felt like the music was placed in a museum, not as a relic, but as something properly displayed for our own critical recognition.
That lone singer-songwriter, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, flip-flops, and cropped hair, was Jack Johnson. I knew at that moment that everything had changed.
“I remember that show,” Johnson said in a Zoom interview from Hawaii. “I was so nervous and wondering, ‘Does this even work?’ I know everything you’re supposed to do when you entertain on a stage, but I don’t feel like I have any of that. I can play the songs I’ve written, but I’m just standing here closing my eyes and singing and thinking, ‘What am I doing here? What in the world is happening?’ These clubs are starting to fill up and I just kept questioning everything.”
If that’s how he felt, it didn’t show. Jack’s performance was smooth, slow and measured. His no-frills approach was then and remains now direct, with no pretension, the complete opposite of what was happening at that time musically. The ‘90s rock music regime had become decadent, drug-addled, suicidal, and soul-sick. It was keeling over like ‘80s hair metal before it. The death toll of songwriters, including Kurt Cobain, Bradley Nowell and Elliott Smith, made the music unsustainable. Gen X had hit its expiration date.
Jack Johnson, one of the last of his generation, stood at the cusp of the new millennium, and at the dawn of the digital age. Neither he nor anyone else realized it at the time, but Johnson was clearing a path for the songwriter movement that would emerge in the early 2000s. He was bringing the song back home. He had traveled through the noise and happened upon some bare-boned musical truths.
“In high school, I used to have a punk band in Hawaii. We played a few graduation parties and would cover Minor Threat, Fugazi, Descendants, Bad Religion and Pennywise. It was all the bands we were hearing on Taylor Steele’s surf movies,” he recalled. “I remember watching Nirvana Unplugged in particular and thinking ‘Wow, those songs still work even without all the distortion. They’re still just beautiful songs.’ I would play them on acoustic guitar, like a folk version, and my friends would pay attention. I started learning that a really good song can be played in any form.”
At the same time, Johnson was also playing classic tunes from the ‘60s and ‘70s, the songs of his parent’s generation. His folks lived in Manhattan Beach before moving to Hawaii. Johnson started learning guitar at age eight from local South Bay surfing legend Peff Eick.
“Peff would show me stuff on guitar,” Johnson said. “It was almost more than lessons. He was kind of a mentor. I was learning a lot of Cat Stevens, Beatles, and James Taylor. Whatever Peff knew, he was teaching me. I had the love of learning all those songs.”
Music is an oral tradition. Our cultural history is encapsulated in song, and when absorbed, is acquired. Thus the circle of song remains unbroken. So it was when Johnson brought Peff onstage with him at The Greek Theater in 2014 to encore with Jimmy Buffett’s “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” a song he taught Johnson to play.
“Peff was the one who realized I was getting into music and left his guitar with me for a while when he was visiting in Hawaii,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t until years later that I realized the guitar left me was this magic Martin that had really great action and the nicest tone.”
Johnson studied film at UC Santa Barbara, but music was always on his mind. He formed a band called Soil and performed at college parties in Isla Vista.
“It was a lot of fun to improvise with friends, bring something up and be open to interpretation, and see where the song would go. We even played at Orville and Wilbur’s once in Manhattan Beach,” he said. “It was our first gig outside Isla Vista.”
Around this time he took influence from songwriters like Ben Harper and G Love, seeing a line for his own songwriting to progress.
“When I saw Ben Harper, I thought this is a really cool way to present it, so stripped down and minimalist,” he recalled. “It made me feel that musically this is a path I could go down.”
He would go on to collaborate and perform with both of his influencers, preserving the continuum of songcraft passing from accomplished master to aspiring practitioner. His music would continue to rest on the clarity of his acoustic guitar and the stripped-down nature of the songs themselves.
“After college, when I got a chance to get in the studio, I would start with the acoustic guitar,” he said. “And then we decided where to add drums and bass, always making sure the song worked.”
Johnson’s recordings have evolved, ever organically. His early solo four-track home recordings demoed his catchy songwriting, his contagious, swingy signature guitar strumming, and warmly doubled-up, crooning vocals. The demo was pre-Napster and was ripped, burned, and circulated on CD-R throughout Isla Vista before it was ever downloaded. Early versions of “Bubble Toes,” “Flake” and “Taylor” became college town favorites, though at the time they remained unnamed on bootlegged discs that had “Jack Johnson” sharpied on them. That demo would eventually find its way to Ben Harper’s producer, J.P. Plunier, in 2000, while Johnson was working on his first surf film, “Thicker Than Water.” The highly regarded surf documentary featured Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Shane Dorian, and the Malloy brothers.
Before Jack Johnson was a professional musician, he was a filmmaker, and before that, a North Shore pro surfer. He was the youngest competitor, at 17, to make the finals of the Pipeline Masters. After a shattering collision with the notoriously deadly Pipeline reef, Jack withdrew from the surf scene to focus on film school.
“I never planned on making surf films and actually kind of wanted to avoid it, because the last thing I wanted to do was sit on the beach and film my friends. I just wanted to surf,” he said, laughing. “But when it became an opportunity, it was the most fun I ever had in my life, getting to travel the world with my friends, bringing a 16-millimeter camera and making ‘Thicker Than Water.’ Taylor Steele already had his thing going with punk music and the high impact, big aerials, extreme sports part of it. I thought, ‘This space is filled. How do we make something that feels different?’”
As ‘90s punk music and surfing’s agro attitude waned, Johnson supplied the soundtrack for the renewal of surfing’s soul, which focused more on atmosphere than adrenaline. It was “The Endless Summer updated,” foregoing the hokey skits and outdated cultural references and reintroducing the natural state of surfing. “Thicker Than Water” focused on the timeless experience of surfing, friendship, travel, and nature that everyone could enjoy. Its music functioned in the same way, elevating the senses and inspiring modern-day DIY surf safaris and campfire jams. Johnson partnered up with his friend Chris Malloy and enlisted his pro surfer friends to imprint the sights and sounds of surfing’s paradise regained.
“We wanted to capture that feeling when you’re sunburned, and you still got saltwater on your skin. You’re surfed out and it’s sunset, you’re watching your friends get a good wave, and the lighting has changed,” Johnson said. “We want to show how it feels after a long day of surfing when everything slows down, so we would shoot a lot in slow-mo to get a really smooth, old-school feel. We wanted to make films that show the other part of surfing that we’re all experiencing.”
Johnson captured, on film, the spirit of surfing in its most inexpressible, subliminal state. Like his music, his film distilled it down to its simple elegance and surreal essence. Placing the soundtrack for the film fell naturally to him.
“One thing we noticed when we started doing the editing was that the song was almost more important than the image,” he said. “If you had a really great song, and you put that to scratch Super Eight footage, it just made it feel so emotional. And so that became a huge part, tying the music together and picking songs that felt really good. Then it was making our own tracks. I was lucky to have friends who were pushing me to put more of my own music in there because I was pretty insecure about it. They thought it gave the film its own original feel, and looking back, they were totally right. It was a good call.”
Perhaps gathering from his surfer’s intuition, Johnson must have sensed his set coming over the horizon, because in expert fashion he lined it up, timed it, turned and stroked into the perfect wave, which he rode to incredible musical success. He was the guy in the spot.
The crossfire of his viral demo and exposure from his critically acclaimed surf film, along with a CD insert in Surfer magazine, put Johnson’s music in all the right hands at just the right time. He hit the studio with Plunier and Ben Harper. The demo was reworked, recorded, and released as his first album, Brushfire Fairytales in 2001. His song “Flake” was on a spin cycle on KROQ and his songs spread like California wildfire. Jack Johnson has since released nine studio albums, and has acquired a worldwide fan base. His 2006 soundtrack Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George reached the top of the U.S Billboard 200 Chart, and made him a household name for a generation of kids. It also launched the careers of some of the friends he included on the album. His latest release, “Meet The Moonlight,” (2022) was produced by guitarist Blake Mills and is woven with the same timeless thread of quality songwriting and transparent production. Above all, the enduring messages of Johnson’s songs are what keeps his work relatable and his lyrics lasting. His sentiments are expressed chiefly out of concern and love for humanity. Johnson has an innocence to him, always maintaining an open-hearted, and child-like curiosity while asking the big questions without too much judgment.
Well, how could we have known?
I’ll tell them it’s not so hard to tell,
If you keep adding stones
Soon the water will be lost in the well
His words from “Traffic In The Sky,” on his 2003 album “On and On,” examine the price of material progress just as Cat Stevens did before him. But he’s not blaming society for its short-sightedness; he is pointing out its tragic error, with love. This is the highest form of songcraft, instructing us with kindness and wisdom. It’s a song that inspires people to take action and change the world. His tone is comforting and compassionate, like a steadfast friend, always siding with the solution, not the problem. Yet there’s a pervasive, soft melancholy in his undertone that poignantly implores, a deep longing for a better world. He is the kind of guy who leaves things better than the way he found them.
Whether it’s music, filmmaking or philanthropy, it’s a family affair for Johnson. He collaborates with his mentors, family, and friends who help cultivate his craft and has built a home for a life of creating.
“Going through my whole career, all the decisions I’ve made, for better or for worse, I’ve always put friends and family above the art,” he said. “And it kind of worked out. I love working with people I am comfortable with as friends.”
Johnson’s commitment to sustainability goes beyond his songs. His mission is to help the planet’s health by integrating the inventive greening techniques he’s adopted at his Mango Tree Studio, Kokua Festival, and in his touring. He is at the forefront of an artist-led movement to cut carbon emissions and end single-use plastics.He founded The Kokua Hawaiʻi Foundation with his wife Kim to support environmental education in the schools and communities of Hawaiʻi, and The Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, which spreads environmental education worldwide.
Johnson’s performance at BeachLife Ranch brings him back to where his song began, both geographically and musically.
“Willie and Waylon, that whole era is definitely a big influence on me and my music, and John Prine too,” Johnson said. “I wrote something of a country song about one night I spent with Willie Nelson called ‘Willie Got Me Stoned.’ It’s a true story. I played it at his 90th birthday a few months back.”
The song has a country swing and humorously tells how Jophnson got smoked at poker by the Red Headed Stranger. Although absent twang, Johnson’s folky style with its Hawaiian slack key sway, melds with country music and is imbued with Americana tradition, which he has inherited from the lineage of learning songs, beginning with Peff Eick.
“I’m really excited to be doing the BeachLife Ranch Festival because it’s a little homecoming for me,” he said. “I have aunties and uncles in Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo that I would visit as a kid. It’s going to be really fun to catch up with old friends and I’m looking forward to the lineup. They really curated a great show. I know how much work it takes to put on a music festival. So it’s an honor to get to come and play.”
Jack Johnson plays BeachLife Ranch September 22. BeachLifeRanch.com