Earlier this year on Earth Day, singer-songwriter Jack Johnson performed an intimate set on the Kōkua Learning Farm, an educational and agricultural destination located in the heart of Hale’iwa, Hawai’i. Part of Johnson’s Kōkua Hawai’i Foundation, the farm aims to “establish agricultural, educational and retail activities that promote local food, waste reduction and environmental stewardship.”
Johnson’s performance sought to direct attention to the planet; his concerns for the environment run deep, and he often addresses the earth’s plight in his music.
But given the rate at which climate change seems to be progressing, it’s gotta be difficult for anyone promoting sustainability and eco-awareness to stay positive. How does Johnson do it?
“I would start by saying I don’t always stay positive,” says Johnson in a recent phone interview. Jack Johnson brings the tour in support of his forthcoming album, Meet the Moonlight, to Blossom on Thursday, July 14, and he spoke from Santa Barbara, where he was rehearsing with his band with “the real gear that we’ll take out on the road,” as he puts it, adding that he often just plays acoustic guitar at home. “I try not to look at the whole thing at once. That can be overwhelming. I think it’s better to draw a circle around one small thing where you feel you can make the most change.”
He sees the Kōkua Learning Farm as that “one small thing.”
“Every day, you show up and see progress,” he says. “First, we were got rid of the invasive trees that have been there for a while. Then, we established native plants, and we saw native insects and native birds come back. You see positive change, and that’s inspiring. It makes you want to do more. Making sure to present hope to people is really important. I don’t think every song on the new record is full of optimism, but I try to find a little spark of it in each song.”
Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Perfume Genius, Jim James) produced the new LP, Johnson’s eighth studio album and first full-length release in five years. Johnson recorded both in Los Angeles (at Sound City and EastWest) and the Mango Tree (Johnson’s studio in Hawaii). The songs came from one-on-one collaboration with Mills (whose contributions included everything from fretless guitar to Moog synth and steel drums).
“I didn’t know him prior to this,” says Johnson when asked about Mills. “I knew he played music, but when I learned that he produced albums, I became interested. When we got connected and talked a few times, he said we should get together for a week and not worry about making a record but just see how we get along. We developed a great friendship. It was really fun making any album together. He can play just about anything. It was 50-50 in terms of who was playing what. There wasn’t any competition. It was really collaborative. He made me feel confident as a songwriter. He gave me the confidence to be vulnerable. And I had so much confidence in his musicality that it was a good relationship.”
Grounded by the pandemic for the last couple of years, Johnson spent most of that period at home with his family. He describes it as “a time to sit and be introspective.” That solitude informed the lyrics on the album.
“I was feeling the isolation and divisiveness,” he says. “But it wasn’t all negative. I saw communities come together to make sure that people were fed during stressful times. In Hawai’i, we were wondering if we would have enough food because a lot of our food is shipped in. There was a lot of support for local farmers, and they became the heroes. Seeing that community come together was really heartwarming. Empathy was a major theme on this record.”
The songwriting on the album is particularly sharp, and the tunes often have a classic singer-songwriter vibe that makes them some of them sound like throwbacks to the ’70s.
“I always go back to [singer-songwriter] Greg Brown,” says Johnson. “I also like Loudon Wainwright and Nick Drake. Greg Brown started in the ’70s. A lot of the singer-songwriters from the ’70s informed my music, and Greg Brown can sing about something really deep and almost make you cry, but he always finds a way to have a line or two that will make you laugh. It’s the vibe of a ‘it’s messed up world, but I love it anyway.’ That informed my writing quite a bit.”
The slightly psychedelic instrumentation that kicks off “3Am Radio” shows just how meticulous Johnson and Blake were when it came to crafting the album.
“I had that guitar part and Blake had the idea of tracking to an analog synthesizer with drumbeats on it that had a JJ Cale vibe,” says Johnson when asked about the song. “The thing that’s cool about those is they’re not exact. They fluctuate a bit. We tracked to that. It had a really cool feel. We figured it would be nice to put in some percussion. If I’m trying to stay awake, I’ll flip around between radio stations trying to find something to listen to. As you’re flipping around, these weird noises come in and if you push the gas and accelerate, they change. We were trying to recreate those strange but beautiful sounds.”
Johnson says he wrote “Calm Down” for his wife, whom he refers to as his "editor."
“We’ve been together since we were 18,” Johnson says of his wife. “She would be the first ears. I have always trusted her taste more than my own. She had a cooler CD collection than mine. [For ‘Calm Down,’] I remember wanting to make a song that I could play to her. I wanted to impress her. I made this version on my phone and played it softly and used my wedding ring as percussion. That was just a bit of serendipity. The percussion you hear as the backbeat is my wedding ring on the guitar.”
Johnson says he’s particularly excited for the summer tour that’ll bring him back to Blossom later this month.
“I’m so lucky to have friends and family in my band,” he says. “When we saw each other the other day at rehearsals, the hugs were a little longer, and we weren’t taking it for granted. We get to go out and share music and travel as a family. We’re excited to go out and play live music again. We love playing outside, and there’s something really nice about being in outdoor venues like Blossom.”
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]