Jack Johnson on music, longevity and channeling Led Zeppelin by blowing in beer bottles
The Hawaii native and former professional surfer released his debut album 21 years ago. He is now on tour to promote his latest album, “Meet the Moonlight,” which is his first collaboration with producer Blake Mills
Many of Jack Johnson’s songs are soft and lilting, but he credits being periodically fatalistic as a key to his now 21-year-long music career.
“I have to trick myself into thinking every album is my last one,” said the professional surfer-turned-singer-songwriter.
“I find I write better when I’m not thinking about performing — or when I’m thinking that people may not ever hear the songs I’m writing.”
Achieving such a state of mind may be a challenge for this Hawaii native.
Since the release of his 2001 debut, “Brushfire Fairytales,” Johnson’s worldwide album sales have topped the 25 million mark.
He has headlined such major festivals as Coachella, Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, Ohana, and San Diego’s now apparently defunct KAABOO.
The fate of the dormant upscale music festival, which is mired in litigation in several states, remains unclear. Some ticketholders have gone two years seeking, but failing to obtain, refunds
His concert tours see him performing in outdoor venues with capacities of 15,000 to 20,000, such as Chula Vista’s North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre, where Johnson performs with his band next Friday.
First tour in 5 years
“Sometimes, if I’m not careful, I can take it for granted,” said the 47-year-old troubadour and happily married father of three.
“Going on tour now, for the first time in five years, is a reminder that it’s a pretty special thing to sing songs — with my friends in my band — and present them to an audience that appreciates hearing them.”
One of those special songs is “Better Together,” the euphonious love ballad featured on Johnson’s third album, 2005’s “In Between Dreams.”
“A lot of people have shared with me that they used that song for their weddings,” he said. “Or that some of my songs remind them of a road trip they took. I know how that feels because I’m such a big music fan myself.”
The soothing, islands-flavored folk and soft-rock songs that propelled Johnson into the spotlight are a far cry from the punk rock he played in his teens as a member of the Oahu band Limber Chicken. At the time, he was a fan of such incendiary post-hardcore acts as Fugazi and Minor Threat.
But he also grew up hearing records by his parents’ favorite artists, from The Beatles and Bob Dylan to Neil Young and Cat Stevens. And such Johnson songs as “I Tend to Digress” and “3 A.M. Reunion” — both from his inviting new album, “Meet the Moonlight” — suggest he is quite conversant with the music of Paul Simon. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Simon & Garfunkel’s 1964 debut album was entitled “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.”)
“I love Paul Simon!” Johnson said. “I don’t tend to intentionally try (to sound like other artists), but I’ve listened to enough Paul Simon where it makes a lot of sense that you can hear his influence.
“With ‘3 a.m. Reunion,’ I was listening to a lot of JJ Cale. It’s funny; sometimes, what you’re shooting for doesn’t come out and another influence will, like Paul Simon.”
JJ Cale fan
Cale, who died in 2013, was a longtime resident of the northern San Diego County community of Valley Center.
Cale’s deceptively laid-back songs, which mixed country, blues, rock, swing and more, were models of restraint and concision. His music influenced everyone from Neil Young and Eric Clapton to Mark Knopfler and Beck.
“My band and my friends send a lot of playlists to each other,” said Johnson, who also traded playlists with Blake Mills, the producer of “Meet the Moonlight.”
Speaking by phone from his oceanfront home on Oahu, Johnson broke into a verse from Cale’s unabashedly romantic 1976 song, “Cherry.”
“A friend and I were talking about how cool some of the lyrics, instrumental layers and background vocals on ‘Cherry’ are,” Johnson elaborated. “Sometimes, we’ll have playlists that focus on guitar tones, or a specific atmosphere people create, like a (pretty) song by a band that was known for being dissonant, like Velvet Underground.”
Released in June, “Meet the Moonlight” is Johnson’s eighth studio album. It is his first with Mills, an electric guitar wizard whose previous production credits range from Fiona Apple, Alabama Shakes and Perfume Genius to John Legend, Marcus Mumford and San Diego’s Sara Watkins.
Johnson credits Mills with pushing him out of his comfort zone and encouraging spontaneity while recording together. Although Johnson’s band members perform on “Meet the Moonlight,” most of the instrumentation on the album is provided by Johnson and Mills, who also provides many of the background vocals.
“We did a lot of things in tandem,” Johnson said, "(including) playing two guitars at once. For the percussion parts, it was sometimes like a race for instruments in the studio, instead of discussing ‘What about this idea?’ or ‘What about that idea?’
“And we were both good about admitting the other person’s ideas were as good as our own.”
Recording and ping pong
That doesn’t mean he and Mills weren’t competitive, be it while recording in Hawaii and Hollywood, or playing table tennis in between recording sessions.
“Using that metaphor, neither of us cared too much about winning our Ping-Pong games,” Johnson replied. “But it was a lot of fun to play — and it was the same in the studio ... It was always a fun argument, where I liked the challenge, not of the winning the argument but coming up with the best line of argument.”
The 10-song “Meet the Moonlight” clocks in at a compact 35 minutes. It is not a dramatic departure from Johnson’s previous albums but a subtle one, with some of his lyrics expressing a new sense of moral ambiguity that reflect the increasingly uncertain times in which we live.
Mills adds sonic dimension to the album with unexpected tonal textures and ambient touches, which are felt in the music as much as heard.
“After a certain point I started to go along with Blake’s ideas, even when they weren’t my natural instincts,” Johnson said. “Like, for example, regarding a guitar tone or the BPM (beats per minute) of a song where he slowed it down from where I was.
“I realized he’s really good at making albums and that, sometimes, that’s a different thing than just writing a song. So, it was fun for me to start off thinking one thing (about a song) and then be convinced otherwise by someone I have a lot of respect for.”
“We were coming at it in a funny way,” he recalled of his collaboration with Mills.
“We’d argue about really dumb things — not argue, but debate. One day, we tried to decide if there was always ‘now,’ or if ‘now’ is only now. I was like: ‘It could only be one or the other.’ And Blake was like: ‘No, both are true.’ ”
Mills also encouraged Johnson to leave in recording “mistakes,” such as the mildly jarring sound heard near the beginning of the song “Costume Party.”
“You know what that is?” Johnson said, sounding like a giddy teenager. “I don’t want give away secrets, but there were little contact microphones on a cymbal next to me to get reverb. I was singing close to cymbal and (my vocal microphone) was picking up the reverb.
“I said: ‘Can you take that part out?’ And Blake said: ‘It’s great! Leave it in.’ It’s easy to edit all the life out of a song.”
Another unexpected twist in the melancholic “Costume Party” comes with its instrumentation. Johnson performs, in a manner, on beer bottles. He does so by taking a sip and then blowing into the bottles to create a descending bass line that was modeled after the 1969 Led Zeppelin classic, “Dazed and Confused.”
“I told Blake about the beer bottles idea,” Johnson recounted. “And he said: ‘Let’s try it’ (on the record). Because ‘Costume Party’ is meant to be a song about the after-party and a metaphor about how, at this point in your life, you feel comfortable enough to take off a little of your costume.
“We were talking about (post-concert) after-parties backstage, where a friend is blowing in a beer bottle — and thinking they are killing it — and they don’t realize how discordant it is.”
Jack Johnson, with Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, and Ron Artis II & Thunderstorm Artis
When: 6 p.m. Oct. 7
Where: North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre, 2050 Entertainment Circle, Chula Vista
Tickets: $41.50-$61.50, plus service fees
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