A new album explores personal myths stemming from his childhood

The ocean has been the setting for every record Jack Johnson has made. For the past ten years he’s been the bard of beachside pop — you can practically hear the sea splashing in the background as he plays his Jimmy Buffett-meets-James Taylor folk rock.

But the water is also a personal place for the surfer, filmmaker, and singer-songwriter. It’s where Johnson goes to talk to his father, who passed away last summer after a long battle with cancer. “Only the Ocean” — the last song on his latest album, To the Sea — pays tribute to the man. “That’s one for whenever I go surfing or enter the ocean,” he says. “I feel the presence of my dad. It’s the place I go to visit him.”

The new record and this summer’s tour in support of it are a celebration of fathers, sons, and families. The CD cover features an old photo of dad Jeff building a wooden sculpture of a curling wave on the mudflats of Berkeley, California — right before the 21-year-old sailed to Hawaii, where he started his family on the north shore of Oahu. The title track tells of a smaller journey, but it’s just as important: It’s about a father and his kid going to the edge of the ocean and deciding whether to jump in and swim beneath the surface. It’s a metaphor for discovering each other, “Me looking at my dad, and me looking at my own sons,” says Johnson.

“This album is a lot about myths. I’ve been reading [about] different archetypes — the wild man and the broken king. I saw a lot of my father in a lot of these stories and our family’s history. I have this myth of my dad sailing across the ocean when he was 21, and I felt like that’s the guy I have to live up to be. It felt like having these mythological proportions that I was supposed to achieve.”

It’s heady stuff from a guy most music fans consider a laid-back guitar strummer who surfs and sings about “Wasting Time,” “Banana Pancakes,” and “Bubble Toes.” But the music on To the Sea is fairly carefree and steers clear of any real heavy thinking. “The Upsetter” and “From the Clouds” are two of Johnson’s best and simplest soft rockers, tossing guitars, piano, harmonica, and drums into a late-night beachside barbecue. “Turn Your Love” and “Anything but the Truth” are intimate guitar-and-bard cuts where warm acoustic chords slide beneath Johnson’s whispering vocals. And “You and Your Heart” and “My Little Girl” are sentimental offerings geared toward families — the sort of tunes his fans seem to eat up.

To the Sea is never too adventurous. Johnson may have co-directed the 2000 surf documentary Thicker Than Water, but he’s still best known for writing "Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies" for the film Curious George, which reached No. 1. Johnson’s sound hasn’t changed much from his 2001 debut, Brushfire Fairytales, which soaked his songs in a breezy blend of saltwater and sunshine. It’s an image Johnson is content to perfect: the king of sand-brushed acoustic pop.

“Whatever people want to label it is fine, as long as I get to keep doing this,” he says. “But it’s definitely a projection of one part of who I am. It’s a bit of an exaggeration sometimes, the whole Mr. Mellow thing. But I’m happy with it. It’s better than being the uptight guy.”

Johnson certainly lives up to the stereotype. Our conversation took place just a few hours before he launched his North American tour in Connecticut a couple of weeks ago, and he sounded like he was hosting a luau. Family and friends were hanging out with him backstage before the show. “It feels like a reunion,” he says.

Also fueling the stereotype is the way Johnson and his crew are making their way around the country this summer and how they’re setting up shop at various venues. They’re riding in vehicles running on sustainable biodiesel, peddling eco-friendly merchandise, inviting local community groups to promote their causes, and giving show profits to local charities. In other words, Johnson is hitting new, almost annoying levels of ultimate nice-guyness.

“It’s a balance, and it really depends on who you talk to, whether we do find the balance or not,” he says. “Some want to come just for the music. But there’s also this area where if they want to get information about these groups doing great things in your area, that’s right there too. I’m sure some people find it annoying, but other people really appreciate it.”

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