Editor’s note: Jack Johnson performs Sept. 4-5 at Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena at Harveys in Stateline, Nevada. Ziggy Marley opens.
A lot has changed for Jack Johnson since he was a college student writing songs for his first album, 2001’s “Brushfire Fairytales.” Far from living with six college roommates, he has been married for more than 20 years to his wife, Kim, and has three kids.
A one-time professional surfer – at age 17, he was the youngest invitee to make the finals of the Pipeline Masters – Johnson now searches out big waves purely for recreation.
He’s left behind his early ventures in film making to become a highly successful musician. His seven previous albums have sold a combined 25 million copies. He commonly headlines major outdoor amphitheaters, sharing his laid-back blend of acoustic pop, folk and island musical styles with a loyal audience.
He’s become one of music’s leading philanthropists. He and Kim have formed the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, which supports environmental, art and music education, and the Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation, which supports environmental education. He’s also raised money for a variety of relief efforts following natural disasters, including the Japan tsunami of 2011 and Hurricane Sandy. During the pandemic, he and his wife restored an eight-acre plot of land near their home in Haleiwa on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, converting it into a learning farm for local kids.
But one thing hasn’t changed – his ambition for each album he makes.
“When I made my first one, my wife and I were driving, and I have this memory where we’re listening to it, and it was the first time I listened to a final mix and thought I want to change this, that and the other, but I had to let it go,” Johnson said in an early June phone interview. “I remember saying to her, it’s like well, it’s not the best record ever, but I hope it’s somebody’s favorite.
“I’m not trying to get more numbers or anything like that,” he said. “I hope somebody still holds this one and says ‘Hey, this is my favorite one so far.’ So that would be the only thing I have an ambition to beat on every album, that it’s somebody’s favorite.”
The “this one” Johnson mentions is his newly released eighth album, “Meet The Moonlight,” and chances are it will find its way into the heart of some of his fans and become their favorite Johnson album.
If “Meet The Moonlight” sounds very much like a Johnson album, it does introduce a significant new collaborator into Johnson’s world in singer/songwriter and producer Blake Mills.
“Blake and I were connected through a couple of friends, and I loved his music,” Johnson said. “I didn’t really know he produced records until more recently, and somebody mentioned that and then they pointed out which ones. I ended up loving a lot of those albums.”
They started the ball rolling with a test run at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles.
“He (Mills) said why don’t you just come over and let’s just make music for a week and see by the end, maybe you don’t like my style of working or visa versa,” Johnson said. “Why don’t we just get together and play for a little while and see what happens. So we had a lot of fun just for a week.”
It turned out to be a productive week, as Johnson and Mills emerged with several tracks that made the final album, including the title song, the spare acoustic ballad “I Tend To Digress” and the foundations for “3 AM Radio” and “One Step Ahead.”
Deciding to move ahead on the project, the pair then reconvened at Johnson’s studio in Hawaii, where the bulk of the album came together. Mills and Johnson developed a working partnership that extended well beyond the typical role of producer overseeing the recording and guiding the project to completion.
“All of those producers I’ve worked with have been great,” Johnson said. “They don’t tend to play music on the record. They mostly have been listening and making suggestions, whereas Blake played on every single track on the whole album one way or another. We’d start almost every song by sitting down with two guitars facing each other, pointing in different directions.
“It was really nice to start with a live track every time between two people playing and playing off of each other,” he said. “Even though we didn’t always know where we were going to go with the track, we would always start with the two guitars. And the way he plays would kind of elevate what I was playing. I think he’s such a supportive player. He’s an amazing guitar player where he can be as flashy as he wants, but what he does is he listens to the song and he always finds a part that just supports what I was playing and elevates it a little. It was really beautiful to work with him.”
Mills ended up not only playing guitars on the album, but at various points, adding percussion, bass, steel drum, organ and Moog synthesizer parts. Then to round things out, Johnson had his touring band of keyboardist Zach Gill, drummer Adam Topol and bassist Merlo Podlewski come out to EastWest Studios in Los Angeles to add various parts to the tracks.
“Meet The Moonlight” fits in nicely alongside Johnson’s other albums, as he offers up 10 relaxed songs that find a sweet spot between folk and pop and boast inviting vocal melodies. While the largely acoustic songs may seem spare and even simple at first, they are filled with a variety of instrumental touches and bits of ear candy that add considerable interest to the tunes.
Lyrically, “Meet The Moonlight” references circumstances of the past few years, including the pandemic and the political/social divisions in society, but retains a sense that people can find hope, calm and even consensus and joy during troubled times.
“It’s been a strange few years, and when writing these songs, I tried to focus on some of the bigger themes and not get (tied) too much to the topic of the pandemic, for instance. That wouldn’t make too interesting of a song or it’s not a very long-lasting theme,” Johnson said. “Instead, I’m looking at things like empathy. I think empathy was a big goal for me to consider on this album. I feel like it’s what the world needs more of right now, but also, looking at some of the tribalism and isolation and all of the experiences people have been having and trying to keep some kind of optimism. I had a friend who after listening to the album said it sounds like there’s still optimism there, but it’s maybe a little harder for me to find it and a little more of a struggle. I think that could be true. Yeah, it’s been a challenging time for everyone. But I still try to hold onto that hope. I think deep down I’m an optimist no matter what.”
Johnson is bringing his warm melodies and positive vibes to audiences this summer on his first full tour since 2017. Fans can expect a mix of songs from “Meet The Moonlight” and Johnson’s seven previous albums. He’s also working on re-creating a cool part from the new song “Costume Party,” where Johnson blew into beer bottles to create the opening notes.
“I have like four different bottles in different notes so we’re seeing if that one’s going to work live,” Johnson said. “It was fun in the studio. Now I’ve got to figure out how to translate it to the live set.”
-Alan Sculley, Last Word Features