At 29, Jack Johnson has two massively popular albums under his belt, is headlining what promises to be one of the more interesting tours of the summer, owns a small but promising record label, has a major radio presence while maintaining his image as an independent artist, and has virtually invented a style of surf-rock.Imagine what Johnson might have accomplished had be been trying to have a music career.Johnson’s real aim was to make surf films. A product of the famed North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, Johnson accomplished that goal when “Thicker Than Water,” a 16mm film by Johnson and his longtime friends, brothers Chris and Emmett Malloy, was released in 1999. “Thicker Than Water” was followed in 2000 by “The September Sessions,” another collaboration with the Malloys. A lifetime of surfing and filming surf exploits seemed to be in the cards.Music was an important sidelight to the surf. Since learning his first two songs – interestingly enough, Metallica’s “One” and Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” – at the age of 14, Johnson had always strummed a guitar and sang. Most of the music-making was done on the porch of his family’s house, which looked out at the beach and ocean. Along with the films came soundtracks, filled with Johnson’s mellow, acoustic-saturated sounds. But these were low-budget, mostly instrumental affairs, passed around informally and not meant to rack up sales or attention.”I was making surf films, and that was a dream job,” said Johnson, from his home, still in Oahu. “I wasn’t looking for a job change.”
The music, though, was building a life of its own. Johnson was shocked when he would go to various surf spots, and find that cassettes of his music had made the rounds, and other surfers were playing his songs around beach campfires. “I’d be surfing,” said Johnson, “and I’d have someone come up to me and say, ‘I like your record.’ And I’d think, ‘Well, I don’t have a record.’ So that was surprising.”Among the more prominent fans was Garrett Dutton, better known as G. Love, leader of the hip-hop/blues trio G. Love & Special Sauce. Johnson had used some of G. Love’s music in his films. Love, a surfer and a fan of Johnson’s films, visited Johnson at his then home in Southern California. After a day riding the waves, the two broke out the guitars and swapped songs. Love was impressed enough that he recorded Johnson’s somber, hip-hoppy “Rodeo Clowns,” as a duet with Johnson, for his 1999 CD, “Philadelphonic.” The song was impressive enough to become the radio single off the album. Based on the popularity of the song, Johnson began playing in cafes and bars around Santa Barbara. Those gigs started out small, but a scene of musicians and surfers built up around it. Johnson still thought of himself as a surf-filmmaker who played some music. But he took the music seriously enough to make an eponymous album. “Brushfire Fairytales” featured a slide guitar part by Ben Harper, and was produced by Harper’s regular collaborator, JP Plunier.”It was a slow process,” said Johnson. “I’d make a surf film for eight months, then make a four-track record at home that got passed around. It was relaxed; it was just sort of slow.”To no one’s surprise, “Brushfire Fairytales” came out of the gates slow. But on the strength of the downbeat “Middle Man” and the fizzier “Bubble Toes,” and Johnson’s decision to finally try his hand at touring, the album climbed and climbed.
If music can reflect the musician’s approach to his career, Johnson is as fine an example as there is. All of Johnson’s songs – on the debut album, and on last year’s “On and On” – move slowly, with minimal dressing. The principal accompaniment for Johnson’s low-key voice is his acoustic guitar, which he strums and plays brief, simple licks. His rhythm section of drummer Adam Topol and drummer Merlo Podlewski stick to the basics. It is the sound of someone not trying too hard to impress the music-listening public. And Johnson says that might be the key to his appeal.”I think what people like is that it doesn’t sound like it’s made to sell records,” said Johnson. “It sounds new and different, not like there’s a team of people trying to get it on radio.”While the music is consistently, insistently laidback – the opening chorus on the first album, “Slow down everyone, you’re moving too fast,” seems to set the template for all of the music – Johnson has a deceptive weight. His songs are far from sunshiny beach pop, but instead examine dark motives, the eternal passing of time and the foolishness of humanity. And though his voice is hushed, its husky tone reveals more complex emotions with further listenings.Johnson isn’t about to mess with his non-formula for success. For the third record he is about to make, he is returning to the garage studio where he made “On and On.” His biggest concern is staving off the pressure that comes with past success – but even than doesn’t seem to weighing him down much.”The first record was real easy. I just picked 12 songs I had,” he said. “When we recorded the second record, the first was still underground, so there wasn’t that much pressure. Now we’re about to make a third album, in October, and I’m not stressed about it. We’re not looking to change too much. But we’re not looking not to change it either.”
One way to keep the pressure down is to surround himself with true friends. His film partner Emmett Malloy is his manager, and runs Johnson’s Brushfire Records. Signed to the label are G. Love and Johnson’s childhood friend Donavon Frankenreiter. The three labelmates embarked on a national tour together Aug. 25. Managed by and touring with friends, Johnson has been able to keep the music industry at bay.”We wanted to get in a situation where nobody is our boss, no one tells us when to tour or what our records should sound like,” he said. His music still feels much like it did at the beginning – something to do for fun. “The way I try to look at it is, I never expected it to get this big. It’s just this fun, exciting thing that happened.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org