For Hawaiian-born musician Jack Johnson, the perfect day starts with an early morning surf before getting the kids ready for school, followed by an afternoon swim at the local beach and a backyard jam session. In between catching waves, selling more than 15 million albums worldwide and performing sell-out tours, Johnson – an Oahu native who began surfing with his dad at the age of five – enjoys applying his green thumb to his home garden.
“It’s nothing too impressive,” he says in his typical down-to-earth way. “It’s a little organic garden outside of our house. I grow kale, Swiss chard, spinach, tomato, bok choy, eggplant … I also grow something that we call kalo in Hawaii, which you would know as taro [Pacific Island root vegetable]. My studio is only a short bike ride away, meaning during recording time, the band can pick salad ingredients straight from the garden.”
When he’s not songwriting, surfing or attending to his vege patch at the home he shares with wife Kim and their three children, Johnson works with environmental and philanthropic aid organisations, including the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, which he created with Kim in 2003.
In 2008, he famously gave 100 per cent of his tour profits to local non-profit organisations through his newly established Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation. “I’m passionate about teaching kids stewardship,” says the 38-year-old artist, who has just released his sixth album, From Here To Now To You. “Supporting environmental education in the schools so that kids can be stewards of the island. About 80 to 90 per cent of our food gets shipped into Hawaii, which is crazy considering we could be growing it here.” Sustainability and agriculture are subjects close to his heart – in particular, the threat of genetic modification to Hawaii’s locally grown produce such as papayas, corn and soy. In fact, Johnson’s lifestyle is about as far from the usual rock star trajectory as you can get without throwing the Cole Clark guitar into the ocean altogether.
At 17, Johnson was the youngest invitee to make the finals in the Pipeline Masters in Oahu, the Superbowl of surfing. A short while later, he sustained a surfing injury that would leave him with 150 stitches and no front teeth. It was during his recuperation that Johnson picked up the acoustic guitar and began to seriously hone his musical skills. “I went to study film at college,” he recalls. “Then I started making some surfing videos, which is when I met [surfing champion] Kelly Slater. Kelly convinced me to do the music for the videos, which I was pretty shy about at first, and it snowballed from there.”
Today, Slater remains in Johnson’s closest circle of friends and the two often get together with family and friends from the Kokua Hawaii Foundation and visit the local farmers’ market before hosting a locally grown dinner. “Everyone likes to bring things over that they’ve grown in their garden – it’s a bit of a competition. Hawaii’s a pretty easy place to grow things,” says Johnson. As for a signature dish, it’s hard not to mention banana pancakes, which the singer dedicated a song to on his album In Between Dreams. “I always like to add lots of mashed banana and macadamia nuts,” he advises. “I also like to make Lau Lau, a traditional Hawaiian meal where you wrap fish (or sweet potatoes) with lots of fresh vegetables and taro in a tea leaf and steam it in an imu, which is an underground Hawaiian oven.”
Life’s a beach
Despite his global recognition, Johnson is still able to enjoy Oahu’s famous waves without getting mobbed by fans. “It’s pretty laid-back here,” he says. “Most of the locals have known me my whole life because I grew up here, so I feel pretty safe. Occasionally during summer, I need to grow my hair or a beard when I go for a swim. I’ve thought about growing a moustache.”
The artist’s trademark chilled, uke-laden sound is undoubtedly the product of being raised on a diet of sun and surf. “I grew up with the sound of water around me. You can’t underestimate what the sun and sea does for your mind either.” Unlike many other Hawaiians in the performing arts, Johnson has no plans to hop over to the US mainland anytime soon. “I’m way too attached to surfing every day,” he quips. “And Hawaii just has that special thing about it – you can’t help but get attached.”
While he’s quick to quell “pro surfer” labels about himself, (though many friends, including Mark Healey, pictured above, are pro surfers) it’s no secret that Johnson made his entrance on the global stage in the surfing arena.
“I feel that the whole ‘professional surfing’ thing gets exaggerated a bit,” he downplays. “A lot of the kids where I was growing up gave surfing a go – it’s what you did in Oahu.”
Quizzed on his top surfing spots around the world, Johnson names Bells Beach on Victoria’s coast and Wollongong on the New South Wales south coast in Australia as some of his favourite breaks, alongside Byron Bay, where the artist has been no stranger to the local Bluesfest lineup. “Basically, I can find a good beach no matter where I’m touring,” says Johnson.
From Here To Now To You is out now through Universal Music. To listen to the first five tracks from the album, click here.