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.”
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.”