Compared to other artists using their star power to fuel the green bandwagon, Jack Johnson’s eco-altruism is more a milestone than part of the momentum.
The Hawaiian singer-songwriter recorded his fifth album, Sleep Through The Static, entirely in solar-powered studios in Hawaii and Los Angeles.
Johnson is also the co-founder (with his wife, Kim) of the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, a non-profit organization set up in 2004 to promote environmental education in schools and communities in Hawaii. The group is also behind the Kokua Festival, an annual benefit festival on the majestic island of Oahu that brings together environmental organizations, eco-friendly businesses, both preeminent and locally popular musicians, artists, teachers and community leaders to increase awareness of sustainability issues.
This year’s festival, featuring performances by Johnson, Dave Matthews and Paula Fuga, will take place on April 19 and 20 at Honolulu’s Waikiki Shell.
Johnson, also a photographer, filmmaker and former pro surfer, only began writing songs after a 1992 accident on the legendary Banzai Pipeline surf break, which cracked open the then-17-year-old’s skull, broke his nose, almost tore off his upper lip and left him with 150 stitches. He’s since become heavily involved with fundraising activities throughout the year, and plans on donating proceeds from his upcoming world tour to local charities doing their bit for the environment.
And he takes his work home with him, too—his house on Oahu’s North Shore boasts solar panels for homegrown energy and its own water catchment system, and he’s switched to using bio-diesel fuel.
While the father of two’s music is often described as chilled-out, a rare interview with Johnson reveals that his ambitions are anything but mellow.
How did the new record come to be?
“I wrote the 14 songs a couple of years ago, put them together on the record, then recorded it—half in the Brushfire Records studio in L.A., and half at home in Hawaii. Both those studios are solar-powered, so it was kind of fun to do them in those places. A couple of the band [members] live in L.A., so it was good to do it there, because I’m always making them come out to Hawaii. Which isn’t a bad thing, you know. But it’s nice to let them sleep back in their own beds every night, and I crash on the couches.
“We started recording it back in June 2007. I don’t tend to get to the studio until most of the songs are done—I’ll finish off writing a little bit in the studio, but I've never gone into a studio and tried to write and create the whole thing. This is only my fifth record, so there [haven’t] been too many. I don't know if I could finish it if I went in with nothing.”
How was it recording in solar-powered studios?
“It wasn't too bad. You don't even notice you're in a studio. Luckily, we didn't have any technical difficulties.”
It's a commendable feat. Have you always been environmentally aware?
“It’s sort of always been there, though I’ve been learning along the way. I run an environmental program, the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, and that’s been a learning process for me.
“I get the chance to meet a lot of really interesting people who are doing great things in Hawaii. I learn a lot from them. So, slowly but surely, our cars are run on bio-diesel and recycled vegetable oil, I’ve added solar panels to my house and we have a compost heap and a water catchment system at our house. It’s kind of homemade, so we don’t drink it; we just use it for watering our garden.
"I’ve got a couple of [approximately 190-litre] drums from the bakery nearby, and I just hook them up to our gutters, and put some screens on them so that mosquitoes don’t breed in there. I’m like Swiss Family Robinson—it’s kind of fun to try to make things run on your own and not be dependent on the grid.”
Sounds like you're quite a hands-on guy?
“I am, a bit. My brother would call me the sissy musician because he can fix anything. He’s the guy who can build a whole house. He helps me with a lot of it. Our dad was a builder, a carpenter and everything, so he could always fix anything. He passed a lot of his skills to us.”
You're also quite involved with charities, aren't you?
“Yes, [I try to help out] as much as I can. We do a lot of fundraisers. Through our own non-profit here in Hawaii, we support environmental education for kids. We have fun-filled trips and start school gardens, recycling programs in schools, and different things like that.
“I also support a lot of different groups like Support the Ocean that I do fundraising for. My wife and Zach’s [Gill, Jack’s pianist] wife, Jessica, did environmental work after college—a lot of non-profit stuff—so we got her on board. We donate something to all these different groups in each town and city that we go to on the next tour, and find ways to help them get their name out there.
“We’re going to be working with quite a few non-profits around the world this time. We always try and do something, just never anything so organized before. We also hope to work with big groups like Peace Alliance.”
Going back to the new album, it seems like this record contains more personal songs than its predecessors.
“Those are just different things I’ve been thinking about. I never really intend to make one [record] more personal than the other; it’s just how the songs are coming out of me.
“This time around, with that war that just keeps on going, I couldn't help [writing a song about] it. It seems like if I think back, every record has one or two songs that are political commentary—the last album had a song called ‘Crying Shame,’ which is about the war.
“I saw a couple of bumper stickers one day on a car that made me start writing the title track, ‘Sleep Through The Static.’ It was a ‘Jesus Loves You’ sticker and a ‘Support Our Troops’ right next to each other, and it got me thinking. That’s where that song came from.
“A lot of the songs on the record end up coming from little jokes around the house. The single, ‘If I Had Eyes,’ came from me telling my son that if he drank too much soy milk he was going to grow a tail and it would have an eyeball at the end. And then we started singing a song about that.
“He pointed his finger at me, pretending he had a tail, and said, ‘You look good, dad.’ So I started writing a song with the line: ‘If I had an eyeball at the back of my tail, I would tell you that you looked good as I walked away.’
“The songs about my kids and my wife definitely come from a personal place, but I always hope they mean something to somebody else and apply to their lives. I never try to write one that’s specific only to myself, something that
no one else can relate to. My songs aren’t a window—more like a two-way mirror.”
You recorded sing-alongs and lullabies for the film Curious George for your eldest son. Would you record another children's album?
“Yeah, you never know. I don't know if that time is now, but it’s definitely something I can see myself doing. Half the time I’m just goofing off, writing songs about brushing your teeth and the other half of the time, when they’re asleep, I sit and write songs. But I can definitely see myself doing a kid’s record. You never know.”
Despite unintentionally finding a career making music, you've managed to become a huge success worldwide. What's your secret?
“I don't know. I think if I figure it out, it will probably all go away. I don’t try to mess with that one.
“I love doing it; it’s really fun. I love writing songs and I love playing them for people. Every time I do that, I’m always present. I’m never just going through the motions. I’ve never made a record just because I have to turn one around or because it’s time to make another.
“But I’m not too sure. It surprises me more than anybody that it keeps on rolling, so I have to keep rolling with it.”