Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, April 22, 2001

Jack Johnson went surfing, made music and found success.

North Shore native
rides an acoustic wave

By Gary C.W. Chun

Surfing and music go hand in hand in Jack Johnson's life. The music that is slowly garnering national attention for him can't come to life without some head-clearing time alone in the ocean.

There's a wonderful, imagistic song on Johnson's debut CD, "Brushfire Fairytales," that represents the best of his low-key, acoustic groove music. And a story behind it that succinctly tells how his love of surfing infuses all of his songs.

First off, before his musical career took precedence in his young life of 25 years, he was the all-round creator of surf films. His most recent film, "The September Sessions," scored a best-film award for Johnson, winner of this year's Surfer magazine poll. One of those location shoots inspired his song "F-Stop Blues."

"While shooting in Indonesia, I had to spend two weeks on a boat, and during those times I was putting together a song that was inspired by the trip. ... Well, basically it wasn't really a song, but just a bunch of images in my head," he said by phone from his Santa Barbara, Calif., home. (He was born and raised in Haleiwa, near Ehukai Beach Park.)

"F-Stop Blues" has a nice, kick-back feel to it, with an especially disarming vocal by Johnson in his light, supple voice. Lyrical images like "imagining lightning striking seasickness away" fill the song.

"The line about a kid coming to me with hermit crabs and cowry shells in his hands has a story behind it. I'd put down my film cases on these deserted beaches that are filled with these crabs and shells -- and it seemed like half of these shells are alive with crabs living in them -- so much so that I'd have to keep the cases closed, or else these crabs would crawl in!

"I saw this Indonesian kid fishing, and he later cruised on by, staring at the film camera I had set up. I had him look into the viewer of the camera with a long zoom lens attached. I had it focused on his friends down the beach, and it was obvious he had never seen a camera before, because he couldn't quite figure out how he could see his friends close up in clear detail through the camera and then look up and see them a hundred yards away. He was just thoroughly amazed.

"And the line where I lose my shoes in quicksand -- that actually happened where I came off a reef I was walking on and into sand that I sunk into waist deep!"

Johnson considers himself lucky that he's been able to wed his love of the surf with music without compromising his vision.

Opening for his musical hero Ben Harper during a run of 23 shows in and around the East Coast in February certainly helped garner fans for his music. (Johnson said he'll be joining Harper on the road again, "picking up in Kentucky and doing 16 shows up and down the west coast of Canada and the U.S.")

"Doing the shows with Ben is not work at all, although the constant touring can get a little grueling. But at least once a day during that tour, I would trip out ... opening for a guy that was a favorite of mine for the past seven years!

"It's because his music was the first kind of my generation that I really connected with," Johnson said. "And it changed the way that I approached my own music -- not in just copying Ben's style of music, but in staying true with what I want to do with my own music."

The musicians share a similar approach in utilizing the almighty groove; they both opt for a small and simple group size, with the guitar-playing Johnson touring with just a standup bassist and drummer/percussionist. And he's hoping to tour Hawaii in August, so all the local listeners who've been steadily buying his CD since its release last month will finally get to see him in concert.

Johnson and his wife, Kim, visited recently to see family and, of course, surf. He had just gotten back from Australia, where he played a music festival in Byron Bay. "There I was thrilled to finally meet Taj Mahal, who used to live on Kauai and is one of the biggest influences on my music."

Johnson also got together with some of his surf film friends, who were shooting there, and may provide them with a soundtrack.

Johnson's musical career had its start back in his teenage years, after a hellacious surfing accident. The son of surfing pioneer Jeff Johnson, Jack became such a skilled and avid surfer himself that by age 14 he was already competing in the Pipeline Masters tournament. But three years later, he said, he simply "bashed my head" in a near-fatal wipeout onto a dry reef that ended his budding pro career. (The gory details: a cracked skull, lost front teeth and an upper lip severed from nose to cheekbones. It took 100 stitches to repair the damage.)

Johnson had already been learning music, using a friend's old guitar. After the accident his mother bought him his own guitar, "and I played it every day during my recovery."

These were Johnson's humble beginnings in music. He and his friends from Kahuku High started a punk band ("We were horrible, but we had fun learning our instruments"). Later, when he went to college in Santa Barbara, Calif., he joined a party band called Soil.

"We were fairly decent -- we opened for shows for Sublime and the Dave Matthews Band before they got big. It was then that I started writing my own songs -- not singing them, because I didn't have any confidence in my voice at all."

But there was one song that Soil played toward the end of the band's tenure -- "Flake," a song with a Latin lilt that has Ben Harper guesting on guitar.

The Harper connection came about purely by chance. His album producer (and subsequently Johnson's), J.P. Plunier, is a surfer, and he and Johnson hung out on the water together. "I didn't even tell J.P. about my music for four, five months -- not until a friend of mine passed him some four-track tapes of mine.

"After hearing them he gave me some pointers, but then nothing came of it since I had to work on a surf film that took up a year of my time. Afterwards, I finally met Ben, and his producer mentioned that he and a partner of his, Andy Factor, were starting their own label (Enjoy) and wanted me to be their first artist."

For Johnson this was a welcome departure from his encounters with the major labels. "I know it's a cliché, but it really was like 'selling your soul to rock 'n' roll.' They were looking for someone who was willing to do anything to be a star ... and that wasn't for me."

Now, although he's doing the touring and interviews to promote his music, at least it's on his terms. The CD is a seamless collection of thoughtful songs held together by his beguiling voice and appropriately sparse production. And his family is pretty jazzed by his newfound notoriety. "My dad and mom are excited for me -- and they know all the words to my songs because they've heard them whenever I've come home over the past couple of years, working on them while sitting on our front porch.

"It was a pretty surreal scene for my two brothers and their wives when they saw me play at one of the East Coast shows. They know it was weird for me to be playing in front of all these people -- they were more nervous for me than I was for myself!"

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