Jack Johnson - Biography

By David Downs


An eight-times platinum record holder, acoustic rock singer-songwriter Jack Johnson set upon a improbable mission of mellowness in the late '90s from the beaches of Santa Barbara, CA. A former competitive surfer born in Hawaii, Johnson's smooth, downtempo musings and balladry proved an unlikely sales titan amid an era more known for vapid or violent chart-toppers 'N SYNC, Eminem, Linkin Park and 50 Cent. Johnson's debut party single “Rodeo Clowns” preceded the tranquil, assured debut LP Brushfire Fairytales (2000-Enjoy) – an indie album with a limited run that became a sales monster, going platinum by 2002 with help from major label Universal. Its sole single “Flake” belied a solid collection of fan favorites like “F-Stop Blues” and “Bubble Toes”. Acoustic guitar, trap kit drumming by Adam Topol and a spare rhythm section from bassist Merlo Podlewski supported Johnson's lyrics – catchy, hyper-approachable musings from a charmed surfing life, and college at UC Santa Barbara. Critics called Johnson one-dimensional, but he displays a masterful amount of restraint and focus – a style he's adhered to for five albums. Fairytales finished at thirty four on the Billboard 200. Second LP On and On (2003-Universal) also went platinum by 2005 and hit number three on The Billboard 200 with single “The Horizon Has Been Defeated” charting. In Between Dreams (2005-Universal) went double-platinum and hit number two, uncorking four singles: the grammy nominated “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing”, as well as “Good People”, “Breakdown”, and “Better Together”. His most recent release also went platinum. Sleep Through The Static (2008-Universal) and singles “If I Had Eyes”, “Hope” and “Sleep Through The Static” reached number one on the Billboard 200. Among Johnson's many collaborations is the monster hit Sing-A-Longs & Lullabies for the Film Curious George (2006-Universal) which has sold over three million copies since February 2006. The soundtrack even featured two charting singles "Talk of the Town" and "Upside Down".


The ocean plays a key role in Johnson's life and work, from his birth to his discovery of music, industry connections and artistic themes. Jack Johnson's father, Jeff Johnson, was a surfing pioneer who's third son, Jack, was born on May 18, 1975 in Oahu, Hawaii. By high school Jack was surfing competitively in the Pipeline Masters, and touring Indonesia. He counted among his friends those who would become the best surfers in the world, like Kelly Slater. He learned acoustic guitar at fourteen, but a traumatic face injury at age sixteen ended his pro surfing ambitions. While in recovery from a 100-stitch head wound, he began playing more guitar and questioned his pro surfing ambitions. Johnson became interested in film and music. The surf brought Johnson to UC Santa Barbara, a 20,000-student, beachside campus where he studied to be an actuary and took film classes. In a fertile town loaded with musicians and jam sessions, Johnson played rhythm in the band Soil, who opened for early Dave Matthews Band and Sublime, before meeting his wife Kim,  and graduating UCSB in 1997. He stuck around town for the waves, and befriended musician G. Love., and Johnson's song “Rodeo Clowns” on G. Love & Special Sauce album Philadelphonic broke out. He soon befriended fellow mellow surfer Ben Harper as well as his producer J. P. Plunier. Harper and Johnson would later move to the center of a nexus of late '90s acoustic rock that included Animal Liberation Orchestra.


Johnson also teamed up with his former high school peers for a forty-minute surf documentary Thicker than Water (1999). Showcasing footage from Australia, Indonesia, Hawaii, India, and Ireland with surfing by Kelly Slater and Shane Dorian, he scored the film with fourteen tracks by G. Love & Special Sauce, The Meters, Finley Quaye, and Johnson himself.  Johnson's work also spread through surf taper and nascent downloading communities. Eventually, producer Plunier introduced Johnson to Topol, based on a shared musical tastes and an affinity for surfing. The two played acoustic guitar and congas, and Topol brought in Merlo Podlewski. Johnson would write chord progressions and lyrics and the two would add in rhythm -- incorporating reggae, hip hop, and Cuban music.


Their debut album was rehearsed eight times and recorded in seven days. Plunier aimed for a transparent intimacy to Johnson’s songs – more images than stories, full of verbal playfulness. Fairytales was released in December 2000 and became a Heatseekers number three in 2001, garnering distribution from Universal and eventually platinum sales. Single “Flake” leads with clean acoustic guitar pop chords, xylophone and a simple, driving trap kit. Completely G-Rated and approachable, the lyrical conflict comes from a male narrator in a relationship who's done something wrong, but cannot be forgiven. “Bubble Toes” pays homage to a love interest and references the tar-covered beaches of Santa Barbara, while “Fortunate Fool” again sings the praises of a man's new love interest. Final track “It's All Understood” departs from others, beginning with a chant leading into a pensive piano riff. Johnson's lyrics hint at problems with inauthentic people, media misinformation, and his Christian faith, but it's all dealt with obliquely and softly – a non-didactic style he continues to this day. Johnson toured heavily, but in a most mellow fashion, avoiding any type of scandal associated with young pop stars.


Filming the documentary September Sessions (2002) gave the budding director plenty of time to work on more songs as he and Kelly Slater surfed the coast of Sumatra, leaving their now-global stardom behind them. The soundtrack includes Johnson, G. Love & Special Sauce, and Ozomatli. Johnson then decamped to Hawaii with Topol, Podlewski and producer Mario Caldato Jr. for follow-up LP On and On (2003-Universal) which also went platinum by 2005 and hit number three on The Billboard 200 with single “The Horizon Has Been Defeated”. The album picks up where Johnson had left off, acoustic and slow-tempoed. The title track is essentially Johnson's 'more money, more problems' anthem. He takes issue with rampant industrialization but delivers lis bromides like a parent singing a child to sleep. Single “Taylor” underscores how the the tension in a Jack Johnson often comes not from the lyrical narrative, but from a tight, muted acoustic groove .


Two concert DVDs Jack Johnson: Live in Japan, and Jack Johnson: A Weekend at the Greek marked 2005, as well and third LP In Between Dreams (Brushfire Records-2005), produced by Mario Caldato Jr. Singles “Good People”, and “Breakdown” show Johnson staying his mellow course. Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder received the same nomination he did for Best Male Pop Vocal 2006 and it is telling company. (He later lost to Wonder.) The Grammy nominated single "Sitting, Waiting, Wishing" is Pop Music 101 – opening with Johnson's acoustic and the title lyric, going directly into a chorus of unrequited love that would make pop afficionado Rivers Cuomo green with envy.


Among his most curious project Sing-A-Longs & Lullabies for the Film Curious George (2006-Universal) sold over three million copies worldwide since February 2006. Self-produced, Johnson wrote most of the tracks for the film along with help from Ben Harper, Topol and Jack White III from the White Stripes. Notably, Johnson also added ALO lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Zack Gill on piano. The album was recorded at The Mango Tree studios, in Hawaii November 2005 and single “Upside Down” again delivering the requisite upbeat vibes.


Sleep Through The Static (2008-Brushfire Records) gave Johnson the number one billboard hit he'd never asked for, but accepted gracefully none the less. Now living in Hawaii with two kids, Johnson recorded the album with one hundred percent solar energy at the Solar Powered Plastic Plant in Los Angeles, CA, and The Mango Tree, Hawaii. Number one single “Sleep Through The Static” exhibits an older, more moral Johnson, but just as sweet. “Hope”, written by Zach Rogue, demonstrates Gill's light contributions to Johnson's sound. Podlewski even writes a track -- “Monsoon”. Strand out track “Go On”  features Trent Johnson on acoustic guitar interplaying with Gill's piano. Gill became an official member and the band toured through through '08.


Johnson married his college sweetheart, and he two moved to back to Johnson's home state, where they have two sons and live in Haleiwa. He's also politically active, supporting the Surfrider Foundation and other causes with songs and appearances. In closing, Johnson remains an unlikely titan of modern music. Using just his acoustic guitar and surf sensibilities, the humble, upper middle-class family man sold millions upon millions of records without the self-destruction usually attached to singer-songwriters. Johnson is reviled by mainstream snipers as pop Prozac, but he's studiously spent five hugely successful albums drilling down into the heart what makes a great pop song. His work evokes the ethos of pop titans like Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson, and his iconic talent has yet to show any signs of shrinking.

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