“It was so weird to me. I remember thinking, ‘Am I admitting to myself that I'm actually going to try to do this?’"
He’s yet to crack half a century, but Hawaii native Jack Johnson has already lived many lives. A filmmaker turned musician, it would seem that he has always embraced the creative, and that it has led him into a lifestyle worth the envy of his contemporaries.
When he’s not in the water or on the stage, Johnson can be found in his studio making music with a long list of remarkable people – a list that now includes prolific session guitarist and performer, Blake Mills.
“He's a pretty exceptional musician,” Johnson tells of the producer who helped shape his latest album, Meet The Moonlight, which was released in April and will see him return to Australia in November.
“I was a fan of his music for a long time, but I didn't realise he produced records. I've kind of worked with a lot of the same producers over the years – people I knew well as friends already – so we decided that we would get together and just make music for a week and see how it went before we committed to doing a whole album together. We had a lot of fun during that week.
“He has very interesting way of looking at the instrument, so I just was excited to learn more about guitar, because I play it so much, but I get on these kind of plateaus where I kind of level off and I don't practice enough to get better. It was a nice time to actually just focus on playing guitar and learning a little bit.”
It might look like fun and games, but Johnson credits jam sessions like these with inspiring the music – eight whole albums of it – that has coloured his career so far.
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“When I presented the songs to Blake, we'd sit down and start playing, and he would just have an interesting way to do a counter melody that would feel different, or a suggestion on going to a different chord than the original progression.
“Just playing music with different people changes the way you approach a song. Even if I sit down and play a batch of songs with a friend from Hawaii who plays in traditional Hawaiian tuning, the songs have a totally different feel than they would if I sat down with my keyboard player Zach [Gill] and approached it with that instrument.
“It's the instruments you surround yourself with, and the players behind them. That's always a good way to keep it fresh – just playing music with friends as much as possible.”
In fact, friends have played a major role in many of Johnson’s creative pursuits, and in the most literal sense – a dynamic that came to light in the music video for his latest single, One Step Ahead.
“I've been working with the same filmmaker since I used to be a filmmaker myself back in their late ‘90s,” he tells. “We used to make surf films. He's also my manager – he and my wife co-manage me – and so we were pretty comfortable around each other.
“For One Step Ahead, we spent a few days in Hawaii just sort of hanging out with a bunch of friends, some of the friends doing the camera work, or just surf friends. In this video, we were all sitting around talking, and every once in a while, when the light hit right, we’d record a little bit, and then just start talking about whatever again.
“It’s funny how many friends I have who are making surf films, and whenever we have to do a project, it's nice to be able to just tell friends to come around and be with us.”
As much as he loves a good jam session, Johnson’s approach to the writing process is the opposite of communal – but he still relies on a close-knit circle of confidantes to vet his early-stage musings.
“It’s important to have a conversation about what somebody else is interpreting the song to be, because you have an idea when you write the song, and then it isn't necessarily how other people hear it.
“The first five people to hear a song, whether it's my wife, my family, some of my best friends, and then at some point, the people in the studios – the producer or the engineer – it's always interesting to hear what they think the song is about, and sometimes that leads to the third verse. For me, it's all about hearing how people are interpreting the song and being able to kind of expand on that.”
It’s only natural that Johnson’s wife, Kim, receives the first invite to every listening party, as he admits that the trajectory of his career could have been very different – or even non-existent – without her.
“We've been together since we were 18 years old. I wouldn't have even followed the path of playing music if it wasn't for her. Sometimes she's the closest thing I have to a co-writer or an editor. I'll show her a new song, and then she'll tell me the part she likes the most, and it's always been like that. She had a cooler music collection when we first met, so I trust her ear more than my own sometimes.
“She’s the only person I can take criticism from – it’s funny. We have a pretty good way of working together. We kind of joke that she's like my assistant, and then some days, I'm her assistant. We're really good at playing backup for each other.”
There’s no question that the couple are the epitome of equal partners, but this isn’t his only long-term partnership – on tour, it’s all about his guitar, and at home, the prized six-string has earned a special place on the wall.
“There's some times where I don't pick it up at all for a while, and then I get an idea for a song again, so guitar has kind of become like a tool for the songwriting for me. Then there's times where I’m just taking a breath in instead of trying to breathe out and I don't necessarily write a lot of songs for a while. It comes in waves – but the kids and I jam a lot.”
In many ways, those waves are a metaphor for Johnson’s life so far – spent in the company of people who can match his chilled vibe, hanging out on the beach whenever possible. As much as he loves his home in Hawaii, he still credits Australia with kick-starting his career – and he doesn’t mind the beaches here, either.
“I was coming to Australia even five years before my music career even started to make films. I used to have to put down 'filmmaker’ on the little form when I entered Australia, and at some point, I remember coming down for the Byron Bay Bluesfest for the first time and I had to actually write 'musician’ on the entrance form on the aeroplane.
“It was so weird to me. I remember thinking, ‘Am I admitting to myself that I'm actually going to try to do this?’ Because there was a while where I thought music was going to be one summer long, and then I’d get back to making surf films, but it just kept growing. The waves in Australia brought me to the place before music ever did.”
It would seem like Australia’s endless sand, sun and surf would make it a strong contender for Johnson’s list of favourite beaches – but it’s a point of light-hearted contention.
“I can't tell you my favourite beaches, because then the local surfers won't let me come back,” he laughs.
“Basically, anytime we get to a beach, we're happy. I've been touring surrounded by beautiful waves over the years. Other times, there's barely even a surf spot, but it feels really good to get in the water because sometimes we're in Europe or something and we haven't seen the ocean for two weeks, and then we get to a coastline and it's like hitting a reset. I feel like myself again when I get in the ocean – so we love trying to hit the water every day if we can, and Australia is one of the rare places we actually get to do that.”
All of the things Johnson holds close to his heart – the ocean, his home in Hawaii, and his family – culminated in the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, an organisation he and Kim founded together years ago. Having just held a benefit show for the foundation a little while before out chat, Johnson is doing his part to support environmental education – and, with any luck, keep the oceans rolling in for a good while longer.
“We did two nights. We'll be around at home for a couple of weeks now, and then back on the road for a little bit.”
For all the info on Jack Johnson's upcoming Aussie tour, click here.