Jack Johnson’s headlining Sept. 18 KAABOO Del Mar festival performance will mark his first major performance since 2015. It’s also his only show of 2016. So why did the former professional surfer turned mellow troubadour and dedicated environmental activist choose this 2-year-old festival at the Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds for his sole appearance of the year?
“That’s a good question,” said Johnson, speaking from his home on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii, just down the road from the house he grew up in. He lives there with his wife, Kim, and their three sons.
“I wasn’t sure if we’d tour this year or not,” he noted.
“We had to decide pretty early on if we were in or out (with KAABOO). We decided that, even if we don’t tour, it will be fun to go to San Diego. My wife’s dad lives there and we have some aunts, uncles and friends there. So, if nothing else, we thought it would be fun to play in San Diego. We’re excited to come there to surf and play. It’s about the only town where I’d say: ‘OK, let’s commit, even though it’s the only place where we’re going this year.’ I heard positive reports from friends who went (to KAABOO) last year and said it was a lot of fun.”
A University of California Santa Barbara film studies graduate, Johnson, 41, has headlined major festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo. He counts such music legends as Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Jackson Browne among his collaborators and has topped the national U.S. Billboard charts at least three times. His eight albums have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.
These are impressive achievements for any artist, let alone a laid-back musician who has scored just two Top 40 singles - 2010’s “You and Your Heart” and 2006’s “Upside Down” - since the release of his 2001 debut album, “Brushfire Fairytales.”
Hot-to-trot San Diego fans
Before Johnson achieved musical stardom, the low-key singer of such unassuming ditties as “Bubble Toes,” “Better Together” and “Banana Pancakes” performed in various Southern California bars and clubs. And, despite his being based 95 miles north of Los Angeles, his then-slowly-budding career took root in San Diego.
He played gigs at a Gaslamp Quarter bar, the name of which eludes him now, as well as at Martini Ranch in Encinitas. Slowly but surely, he developed a loyal following here. The fact that San Diego surfing legend Rob Machado was a vocal supporter before Johnson had even performed here helped create word-of-mouth buzz, especially within the surf community that formed the core of Johnson’s initial audience.
He gradually moved on to larger venues here, including the Belly Up, the Balboa Theatre, 4th&B and - in 2004 - San Diego Street Scene. But as early as 2001, when Johnson was largely unknown to most music fans around the world, an audience estimated between 8,000 and 12,000 turned up to hear him and his band perform a post-race concert at the Del Mar Racetrack.
“I was living in Santa Barbara and San Diego was the first place that really embraced us. 91X was the first radio station to start playing our music,” Johnson recalled.
“And I remember that Del Mar event really well. We’d been playing in half-filled clubs in San Diego. Then, at Del Mar, thousands showed up and it was by far the biggest show we’d ever done. A week before that, on our first trip to Europe, we were playing to maybe 40 people in rooms that could have held 200. We came back to play Del Mar and it was quite a wake-up call.”
Johnson hasn’t toured in two years, although he may hit the road again next year. Whenever he does, he will again do so with a rare sense of environmental consciousness.
“We run all our tour buses on biodiesel fuel,” Johnson said. “We have an informational area at every show we do called the Village Green, which has booths for the Surfrider Foundation and other environmental organizations. So we try to incentivize, especially the young new fans, to learn about their local nonprofit groups. It’s an ongoing conversation and learning process.
“Backstage, we always have refillable water stations, and we do that in the (venue) as well. It’s written into our contracts - there has to be hookups for refillable water stations at our shows. It’s also in our contract that fans have to be allowed to bring in reusable water bottles. We have an ability to educate at concerts, especially since a lot of the fans that come are young and are still shaping their consciousness.”
Raising consciousness and money
Johnson and his wife are the co-founders of the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, which supports environmental education in Hawaiian communities and schools. The couple also head the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, which supports environmental, art and music education worldwide. Since 2001, the two nonprofits have helped raise more than $30 million for charity.
Johnson is now completing the music for the film documentary “The Smog of the Sea.” It chronicles a weeklong Sargasso Sea journey he took with friends to study the effects of single-use plastic bottles and other plastics that pollute oceans. It’s a cause that resonates especially strongly with Johnson, an avid surfer since boyhood and now a devoted environmentalist. The film, he hopes, will help focus wider attention on our increasingly at-risk seas.
“It’s in the final stages of being edited by a friend of mine, filmmaker Ian Cheney, who did ‘King Corn,’ ‘Truck Farm,’ ‘The City Dark,’ and a lot of other great documentaries,” he said.
“We met him years ago and started talking. I was invited to go on a trip together by the 5 Gyres Institute. ... Gyres are places in the ocean where the rotating currents bring things together. The institute is a plastic pollution research group, and they focus on these five places in the ocean, including the North Atlantic, that have gyres.”
Being green on land and on sea
Johnson asked if he could bring Cheney along on the Sargasso Sea trip. The request was approved and Cheney documented the subsequent voyage on film.
“The title, ‘The Smog of the Sea,’ refers to Dr. Marcus Eriksen of the 5 Gyres Institute,” Johnson explained. “He’s a scientist who was on board for our trip. He equates the plastic pollution problem we have to pollution in the air, and calls it the ‘smog of the sea.’ You don’t really see it unless you take a closer look. When you drag trawls behind a boat, even in the bluest ocean you still pull up these small plastic items. We sailed from Florida to the Bahamas, where we had a three-day youth summit on plastics polluting the ocean, and then sailed on to Bermuda and beyond.”
While many musicians pay lip service to environmental causes, only a few - most notably Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson - walk the walk with as much dedication as Johnson.
“There are a lot of musicians I’ve talked to who are interested in finding ways to make their concerts more plastic-free,” he said. “I have definitely talked to Jackson quite a lot about it - and his wife, Diana, is an activist against pollution. It’s fair to say he’s definitely a leader in this area.
“On our last tour we tried a few new things, and we want to push harder next time. The Santa Barbara County Bowl worked with us to provide reusable cups at out show there. The cups are designed the same as the single-use ones you get, but you take them home. And, every time you come back to a show at that venue, you’d get a dollar off. That had a lot of success, and the venue had to show a lot of initiative. We hope to do more things like that, so that you don’t have a single-use culture, which is prominent in the (concert) touring world. I want to change things in the most positive way I can.”
Second annual KAABOO Del Mar festival
More than 100 music and comedy acts, including Jack Johnson, Aerosmith, Jimmy Buffett & The Coral Reefers, Lenny Kravitz, Ludacris, Fall Out Boy, Dana Carvey, Cheech & Chong
: Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar
$119 daily; $299 one-day VIP pass; $779 three-day VIP pass