ACHIEVING a happy work-life balance can prove elusive for many of us . . . but not it seems for Jack Johnson.
You’ll probably feel a twinge of envy when you consider how the 47-year-old singer from Hawaii, noted for his laidback acoustic vibe, spends his days.
His chief priorities are his family, his biding passion for surfing, environmental initiatives and, when the mood takes him, music.
With wife Kim and their three teenage children, he lives on the North Shore of Oahu where he grew up and where he keeps The Mango Tree Studio.
Just picture the white sand, the palm trees and the big, foam-crested waves crashing into the world-renowned Sunset Beach.
Then consider that Jack is the son of a legendary surfer, the late Jeff Johnson, and that he started learning the thrilling sport when he was five.
“I never know how to say this without people taking it the wrong way but music really is secondary for me,” he says over Zoom.
Although he’s sitting in a Los Angeles hotel room under artificial light, he still looks the picture of health, like someone who relishes the great outdoors.
Jack continues: “Family and surfing are my first loves and they’re the things I like to focus my time on.”
That said, he affirms: “I do love making music. I appreciate that I get to do this for a living and I’m thankful for everything that comes along because of it.”
Her CD collection was cooler than mine
It’s noting that Johnson had four consecutive No1 albums in the States, and they don’t include his biggest seller, In Between Dreams, which twice hit No2.
Now he’s back with his first album in five years, Meet The Moonlight, a beautifully realised songcycle filled with subtle textures and profound expression.
His chief collaborator this time round is guitarist, producer and solo artist Blake Mills, noted for his work with Alabama Shakes, Fiona Apple, Laura Marling and John Legend.
He also played on Bob Dylan’s longest ever song, Murder Most Foul, inspired by John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Like the rest of us, Jack has been through “a couple of strange years” because of the Covid pandemic.
But the enforced hiatus produced personal positives, as he explains: “I couldn’t tour for a couple of years so I got to be around my children quite a bit. I had a lot of time to observe things and to write music.”
Even when he has enough new songs floating around, it’s down to his partner Kim to get the album process up and running.
“Whether I start a record has a lot to do with my wife recognising that I have material ready.” says Jack.
“I know it sounds funny but she’s been with me in this whole thing since we were 18 years old. She’s always been my editor.”
He gives a wry smile when he remembers that “her CD collection was cooler than mine when we first met . . . she loved bands like the Pixies.
“She turned me on to a lot of music and I’ve always trusted her ear more than my own.
“Once she hears me playing songs around the house, she eventually says, ‘Sounds like you have enough for another album’. She really helps me to bring it all together.”
The big difference for Meet The Moonlight is Blake Mills who helped Jack crack the song Any Wonder, which had been “hanging around for the past two albums but the words just didn’t come”.
Now it is the fully fledged album finale, a gorgeous rumination on the passage of time complete with one of the singer’s most affecting vocals.
Jack is filled with praise for his collaborator. “I love Blake’s guitar playing and his production skills.
“One of the reasons I wanted to work with him was just to sit in a room and play with him and my eldest son, who’s better than me at guitar now.”
He was also impressed by Mills’ production work on the Alabama Shakes’ second and last album, Sound & Color, a genre-busting, Grammy-winning tour de force featuring the breathtaking vocals from Brittany Howard.
Prompted by Emmett Malloy, who co-manages him along with his wife, Jack got Blake on the phone.
“We chatted for an hour and it was like talking to an old friend right off the bat,” he says. “We were having a lot of fun and our humour seemed to line up. . . always a good sign.”
They also bonded over their shared love for American folk singer Greg Brown and the late blues-rock maestro JJ Cale.
DREAM OF SOLUTIONS
The Meet The Moonlight sessions took place, when Covid allowed, partly at Sound City Studios in LA, famed for recordings by Nirvana, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and Johnny Cash, but mostly in the more leisurely surroundings of The Mango Tree.
As for the themes employed by Jack across ten tracks, he gives a typically thoughtful response.
“I would be having a conversation with a friend or my wife or my brothers and later that night I’d find myself thinking about it,” he says.
The songs, he decides, become “meditations on things that stick in my mind”.
“For this album, there have been so many conversations about isolation, tribalism and empathy. . . Both negative and positive emotions through this pandemic.”
In Hawaii, Jack experienced a real sense of the community, particularly over food issues, but also witness “friendships divided”.
This led him to dwell on the changing nature of how we talk to each other and he says: “Even you and I are on this Zoom but we’re kind of face-to-face.
“Communication has changed so much and our human nature hasn’t had time to move with it.”
With the divisive nature of social media on his mind, Jack quotes the first line from his song One Step Ahead, “How can you be so certain that you’re the one flirting with fire?”
He says: “Everybody feels as if they have the ability to grab things off the internet so quick and then act like they’re a news source.”
LOVE IS THE MOST POWERFUL HUMAN EMOTION
The becalmed title song Meet The Moonlight is about why the best moments in life can’t be planned and why “love is the most powerful human emotion”.
Taking his cue from an idea by author Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five), he says: “Whenever you find yourself just sitting in the shade, maybe drinking a lemonade with a friend, and you think to yourself, ‘Well, this is really nice’, it’s good to say it out loud.
“I always try it on my kids. If the family’s together and we’re playing cards, I tell them, ‘Hey, this is as good as it gets, right here’. Because it really is.”
Jack recalls the time he “walked into the back of the tour bus and saw his whole family sleeping on top of each other”.
“A funny thing like that provided me with one of the best memories of my life. You don’t get to plan them, they just show up.”
Bearing in mind his album’s title, I ask Jack whether he likes to look up at the moon and stars.
“Even though the stars are beautiful in Hawaii and we’re lucky to have that sky, all too often I’m inside during the night,” he says.
Family and surfing are my first loves…but I’m thankful for everything music has given me
“But sometimes I’ll walk outside, maybe to take the trash out, and I’ll think, ‘How do I not walk out here every night? This is crazy, all I had to do was go through the doorway’.
“In the song, I guess the stars and the moonlight symbolise being outside of four walls.”
If I had only one word to describe Jack’s album, it would be intimate.
This atmosphere is enhanced by a couple of ad hoc instruments. “On Calm Down, we used the demo I’d made on my own, and the main backbeat is my wedding ring hitting against this hand drum in my studio,” says Jack.
Then, on Costume Party, we find him blowing into a row of beer bottles filled with descending amounts of liquid, a trick he learned by doing Led Zeppelin’s Dazed And Confused in such unlikely fashion.
Jack says: “The reason I’m in LA is because me and the band are starting to rehearse for our tour and I’m learning to do that (beer bottle) part live.
“I said to them, ‘You guys would tell me if I’m making a complete fool of myself, right?’ I still can’t tell if it’s a good idea or the worst I’ve ever had!”
OPTIMIST BY DEFAULT
No interview with this character who lives on the other side of the world would be complete without the latest on his environmental campaigning.
His charity, the Kokua Foundation, acquired an eight-acre farm a couple of years ago where children learn about organic farming methods and now it even contains a bird sanctuary.
Jack says this work “is more important than ever for me. It’s become my main job at home.
“We’re connecting kids to where their food comes from and getting them out in nature. Seeing them on a field trip laughing and running outside, that’s my real love.”
He tries to make his tours as green as possible, running trucks on bio-diesel, but is horrified by the “sea of plastic bottles” at the end of a festival.
“Being a surfer, I see that the east side of every island in Hawaii gets more and more colorful from all the micro-plastics in the sand.
“We do beach clean-ups so people can see the real problem. Hawaii is like a filter out in the middle of the ocean for pollution.”
On a wider scale, does Jack think humanity can turn things around when it comes to climate change and non-biodegradable waste?
“It depends on when you ask me the question,” he replies.
“If I’ve just had a cup of coffee and it’s the morning, sure we can change it all. But don’t ask me at 3am.
“We can dream of solutions and I would like to think they’re there but this next generation is better at dreaming than we are. I have to have hope. I’m a bit of an optimist by default.”
On that note, Jack leaves me with some interesting thoughts on our Zoom hour together.
“This is one of the first real interviews I’ve done for this album,” he says. “It’s a bit like seeing a psychiatrist . . . you bring up all these themes in the songs and it makes me have to reflect.
“So I appreciate it. I feel more clear-headed after this.”