Jack Johnson: Catching Fire

At the ripe old age of 26, Jack Johnson is an accomplished surfer and award-winning filmmaker, and in the past year has developed a dedicated fan base as a musician. Yet perhaps his greatest accomplishment is remaining as sincere and humble as the music he plays, still taking time to talk with fans before and after shows.

As an artist, Johnson manages to translate the calm exterior and intense depth of his personality into his music through powerful songwriting. The folk and blues-infused guitar rhythms collide with lyrics that touch on themes and personal philosophies most musicians spend a lifetime attempting to relay.

Born and raised in Hawaii, he started surfing the infamous Pipeline before he was even a teenager. At age 17, he entered the finals as the youngest athlete ever invited to the Pipe trials, surfing’s premier event.
Johnson soon stepped out of the surfing spotlight to explore other aspirations, leaving the islands and contract offers to study film at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He quickly gained the respect of his peers, surfers and filmmakers alike, with his work on major projects and his own surf film, Thicker Than Water. It was at this time he picked up his guitar and began to find his own style as a songwriter.

He soon found himself in the studio with Garrett Dutton (of G. Love & Special Sauce), recording one of his own compositions, “Rodeo Clowns,” which would find its way onto G. Love’s 1999 album, Philadelphonic. The song was chosen as the first single from the record, and Jack Johnson’s music was suddenly heard beyond the community of friends that traded bootlegs of his impromptu recordings.

His debut Brushfire Fairytales was released on Enjoy Records in February of 2001, and he quickly hit the tour circuit with Ben Harper, who also appeared on the album.

As Brushfire Fairytales begins to break in the Midwest behind the single “Flake,” Johnson is back on the road with drummer Adam Topol and bassist Merlo Podlewski, playing a few outdoor festivals and headlining club dates.

Johnson and his touring band stopped in St. Louis in May for a show at Mississippi Nights, entertaining early arrivals to the sold-out show with a brief acoustic set and a screening of his film The September Sessions. Johnson held a captive audience during the full set that followed, playing nearly all of Brushfire Fairytales, some new tunes, and a few covers ranging from Bob Marley to White Stripes.

PlaybackSTL caught up with him en route to St. Louis in his RV.

During the last couple months, you’ve been playing at some diverse venues, from large-scale festivals to small clubs. Do you prefer one type of venue to the other at this point?

Yeah, definitely the smaller gigs. I mean, the festivals are happening because of the time of the year and with it being a little warmer…and those are kind of fun to do as well because you get to play with bands you really dig on. It’s like getting to see a show yourself and then getting to play in the evening as well.

With the extensive touring you’ve done in the last year, are there any shows that stand out as being memorable for you personally?

Well, we’ve had a couple where Ben Harper came down and sat in, and those were super fun and memorable for me and the other guys in the band, because we all dig his music so much. When he comes, or just having Garrett (G. Love) come and sit in at Coachella was fun.

Just last night we had a really fun gig in Urbana. We got out the conga drums and acoustic bass and we did about four or five songs. We just played a real mellow set way earlier than we were gonna play and just played some songs Cuban style, which was a lot of fun.

The change that comes from success as a musician is likely different than some of your other accomplishments. Has it affected your day-to-day life at this point?

Yeah, it affects it a little bit. It’s just like anybody getting a new job or new circumstance around their life. I’m away from home a bit more. I used to travel to make surf films; now I’m traveling for music. And also it’s cool because the crew we have, we’re traveling around in our little RV with seven of us in here, and it’s super cramped and everybody still gets along really good. It’s pretty much just friends out on the road, doing the sound, helping us set up the equipment and the merchandise. If we go up and do a show out in Colorado, we all go snowboarding one day. Everybody skates, surfs, and snowboards.

As a new performer, what did you take from your early experiences with seasoned musicians like Ben Harper and G. Love?

With Garrett, it was like we went to the studio the day after we met. We got along really well. We didn’t know each other all that well, but we did that song and stuff and he was super chill to hang out with.

I guess going out on the road with Ben Harper was the first chance I got to see and really get to know somebody who was doing it, like doing the live performance type of thing and being out on the road a lot. Just seeing how true he was both on and off stage. It wasn’t like they went out and acted appreciative on stage and came back and were rock stars backstage. They were themselves onstage. So I think just getting to see that and realizing that you don’t have to be an actor onstage; you know, you can just go out and be yourself. That was important for me to see and just how that crew was on the road, they were all friends and got along really well.

After having the chance to start your music career with those two artists, is there anyone you hope to collaborate with in the future?

Those were my first picks, so I’m really lucky that I got to do stuff with them. In New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, DJ Logic came and sat in, and that was way fun. Then we did this thing, me and Will.I.Am from the Black Eyed Peas, we just did some stuff at his house one day. We never put it out or anything, but that was pretty fun.

I just like to see whatever happens. I’m not really shooting to work with anybody. It’s more who you end up meeting and getting along with on a personal level that makes it kind of fun to do. There are people I'd like to open for. It’d be fun, ya know, to shoot for the stars with people like Bob Dylan that have really inspired me musically that are still around. We got to open for Toots and the Maytals a couple times, and we just did a festival with The Roots, too.

The thing with Ben Harper and G. Love is that they’re people whose CDs I listened to and kind of got a lot by listening to their music. It inspired me to get to go out and collaborate on any level, whether it was like making music together or just getting to warm up the stage for them.

Where does your own style of songwriting come from?

A lot of different people, but the first thing I ever heard that made me want to start writing songs was this Bob Dylan poem, when I was like 16. I heard this poem called “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” when I was on this trip down in Indonesia with my brothers. You could buy bootlegs for about a dollar down there, so I bought all these tapes, and it was the first time I really splurged on music. I think I spent like 20 bucks and got 20 different tapes. I was listening to this thing called “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”; it’s just a poem that he reads that’s about 10 minutes long. All of the thoughts just kind of stumble over each other and everything, and it just really made me want to start writing in that style. G. Love & Special Sauce, their stuff really inspired me. Nick Drake, Cat Stevens…people like Tracy Chapman. A lot of different things. Also, things that the music doesn’t necessarily sound like I listened to a lot when I was younger, like Fugazi, where even though the lyrics may sound cynical they’re ultimately looking for something positive and trying to be conscious. Ian McKaye…see, I love Fugazi and Minor Threat. We used to have a band in high school that covered all Minor Threat songs.

What are you listening to while you’re on the road in the RV with seven people?

You know, it’s cool because kids at the shows will burns CDs for us and stuff. I get to meet some people after the show and hear some of their music, so I get to hear a lot of stuff that’s not even out on a label.

Also, a lot of times they’ll pass off something really rare, like Bob Marley’s last performance, which I just got the other day. I got this thing with Jimi Hendrix playing guitar in a hotel room writing songs for Electric Ladyland, so we’ve been listening to that quite a bit. It’s a lot of Marley. Picking up new music is one of the best parts of the whole thing.

Your music is heavily traded among fans over the Internet. How do you feel personally about your work being traded as MP3s and bootleg CDs?

I think the key is, like you said, “personally.” The way I feel about it is just the way I feel about my music. I don’t really know how everybody else feels, like how the industry is and who it affects. But just with my own music, I really enjoy hearing that kids are trading around. I like when people tape live shows, and there are four-track recordings that get on there and little demo things. That’s the way it all really started for me, and I just don't want to forget that, you know? And I just feel so lucky to get to be out here doing this. The whole reason I get to is because before I had a real record out, all these four-track recordings that started getting burned and passed around the Internet, and it kind of got the word out there.

My friend Rob Machado, who’s a pro surfer and plays music himself, is one of those guys who loves passing around bootlegs. He’ll get stuff from hangin’ out with Ben Harper, hangin’ out with Eddie Vedder or whatever. He’ll have recordings and he’ll pass them to me. And I know there are a lot of times when he’ll have a MiniDisc recorder on the boat and I'll be playing songs, and then he’ll make copies of it for people, and I think that's what gets out there a lot of times.

With so much going on in different aspects of your career, what are you most focused on right now?

I think music. I mean, I love film, and I just like producing stuff and putting it out. Whatever the thing is that presents itself and makes it easy. Like right now, with the music, everything seems to be there for us to be able to do it so we’re just rolling with it.

I’m mostly just doing music. The main thing I’m focusing on right now is working with my brother. I’m building a studio in Hawaii, so we can record over there this summer and probably do another record in August. We’ll kind of see how long it takes, and I don’t know how long it’ll take to come out, but probably sometime in the next year.

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