Earth Day Reflections: Jack Johnson on ‘The Smog of The Sea,’ North Atlantic Gyre and Water as Inspiration

Dean Budnick on April 22, 2021
Earth Day Reflections: Jack Johnson on ‘The Smog of The Sea,’ North Atlantic Gyre and Water as Inspiration

In honor of Earth Day, we revisit this conversation with Jack Johnson.

“I think life speeds up a little bit,” Jack Johnson muses, as he considers the four-year lag between the release of his last studio record, From Here to Now to You and his latest album, All the Light Above It Too. The gap is the longest of his career, dating back to his 2001 debut, Brushfire Fairytales. “I have three kids, which speeds life up for you. And then, if you think about when you’re one year old, one year is basically 100 percent of your life. Then, when you’re two years old, one year is 50 percent of your life, and so on. And it’s this exponential graph where, once you’re 42 like I am, one year is just a fraction of your life, so the years pass quicker. But it’s good to focus on that and not let it get away from you.” Johnson recorded All the Light Above It Too at his own Mango Tree Studio in Hawaii. He produced it with Robbie Lackritz (Feist, Bahamas), and while his steady bandmates—drummer Adam Topol, bassist Merlo Podlewski and keyboard player Zach Gill—appear on a few of the tracks, Johnson handled most of the instrumental duties himself. “The main idea is that as soon as you learn how to play a song, there’s that moment when you know all the chords and lyrics and you don’t have to read them, and it feels really magical. Then, it only takes a few more times of having to play that song all the way through, and you feel like you’re reciting, rather than doing a magic trick,” he explains. “So I just wanted to have a friend in the room that could push ‘record’ with a good microphone while the song still felt like magic.”

As you began working on material over the past few years, was there any particular moment where you decided that enough was enough and it was time to go back into the studio and record?

I’m always writing, always putting little ideas down. It’s really easy for me to get one line for a song, or get a hook that feels like a great song. And then I put it away and forget about it. Sometimes it just takes some help from my wife, who’s always been my editor—ever since we first met when we were 18 and I was trying to write my first songs. She always participated without even realizing it. Sometimes I’d be playing music, even when she was in the corner of the other room grading papers when she was a teacher, and if something caught her attention, then I’d know it was worth keeping. If I couldn’t catch her attention, then I’d just move on.

Every once in a while, she would see what a scatterbrain I was, and would say, “OK, I see that this song and this song are two different songs but about the same thing. You could really combine those two and you’d be done with that one because this one would be the chorus, and that’s your verse.” And she would help me connect all these dots. We’d get out some paper, make a list of all the ideas I had and gather the different recordings. I don’t even know what that job is called, but she was like a curator. [Laughs.] Every couple of years, she’ll realize I’ve had enough experiences, and we’ll piece it all together and put it out as a record.

When it comes to writing songs, do you compel yourself to sit down and work, or do you wait for a bolt of inspiration?

A little bit of each. The way my brain works is mostly in rhymes—it’s how I remember things. If someone gives me their phone number or if I’m trying to remember someone’sname, I’ll usually put it to something that rhymes in my head. And after everyone’s asleep, I’ll get my guitar out, and if there’s one line that’s been in my head all day, I’ll put  it to a melody and see whether it sparks something. And then there is the question in my mind of, “Why is that relevant to what’s going on in the world? How is that a metaphor for something else I’ve been reading about or seen?” I’ll start working on it a bit and, a lot of times, one verse or one chorus will come really quickly. If I don’t have the time, then I’ll put it aside, knowing that it can become a song.

Actually finishing what I started is when the work comes in. Anyone can have a good idea, a thesis for a paper. I was always the guy doing the all-nighters the day before my paper was due. It’s the same now. Once I know I have the real ideas, and I have 10 or so of them, I can get in the studio, but I almost need that deadline to actually write the third verse. A lot of times, I just need that kick in the butt to actually finish the thing. The songs need to be sparked from an inspired place—something needs to happen where they pop into my mind.

When I recently spoke with Zach Gill, he mentioned that you connected when he first met you back at University of California, Santa Barbara, because you were the only other person he knew who was serious about writing original songs. Do you have a similar recollection?

I had the exact same feeling. Isla Vista was a beautiful place to be at 18-22 years old. There were so many garages in that town that were set up with drums, bass and keyboard, and I knew a bunch of different spots where you could just ride by to see if a great jam was happening. It was so fun.

We met during freshman year, but it wasn’t until junior or senior year that we started hanging out, just the two of us, doing the four-track stuff all night. It’d be more about showing each other lyrics and creating these smaller spaces where our lyrics had room to breathe. For me, it was a guitar and a voice, and for him, it was either a Wurly or a piano and a voice, and then just some light embellishment—different sounds to support it.

Besides my [now] wife, he was the first person I felt like I could hang out with and share my lyrics. Zach seemed to be trying to do the same thing I was, and I respected his mind and the way it worked. And I still do. That was a strong bonding experience.

Jumping back prior to that moment, do you remember the first song that you ever wrote?

There are two or three that I can remember from high school, when we had a punk band called Limber Chicken. We would do mostly Minor Threat covers, but we had some Descendents, Bad Religion, Fugazi, Ramones and Dead Kennedys mixed in there. We wrote one called “Apathy,” and it was the bass player who did most of the singing. I remember all of us being in the garage that day, chiming in and trying to find words that rhymed. He was a little ahead of us in terms of wanting to do originals. And so we went along with him. But once we finished it and played it, I remember thinking, “This is just as good as those songs we’re covering.”

I love seeing something come from nothing, starting with just the title and an idea, and then having a complete thing. I love that feeling of producing something, whether it’s a film or a song or an album. And then I remember trying to write a couple songs of my own; they were more like exercises in rhyming. I remember thinking that the particular song didn’t mean much to me—I was sort of held back by the idea of having to find things that rhymed. So that was the beginning of it, in high school. But it wasn’t until the first year of college that I really started writing songs. I look back now and I laugh at a few of them, but at the same time, I believed in them then. I was still in college when I started to work on half of that first batch of songs, including “Flake” and “Posters,” which were on my first album. For some of them, I changed the lyrical content, but the melodies were mostly from my senior year. That’s where the songwriting process started for me.

Before I heard Brushfire Fairytales in 2001, I knew your background as a surfer, and I assumed it would sound like Minor Threat. Then when it didn’t, I decided that maybe the music reflected your perspective in keeping your cool inside the eye of a storm. Do you think that’s accurate in some way?

Absolutely, 100 percent. I wake up every morning curious about what the swell direction is. The ocean is where I want to be every day; surfing is what I love to do. And with that, there are so many decisions you have to make that are happening really quick, and it slows time down a little bit when you have to ride a wave.

That’s something my bass player pointed out to me. Sometimes when you’re out there and the sound sucks at a club, or you get a horrible review, those things could really slow you down if you take them on too much. It’s just learning how to change directions and steer out of it and improvise a little bit. We always think of improvising in terms of music, but it’s also with your path in life, being able to readjust, move around things, keep flowing and let it all brush off of you. You always get to kick out when you’re surfing, and you always get another chance to go out and catch another wave. And so I can see the analogy to that for sure, with my choices in music and how we’ve gotten there.

The All the Light song “Fragments” originally appeared in the documentary The Smog of the Sea, in which you joined scientist Marcus Eriksen to examine plastic pollution in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. How did you come to be involved with the film?

Right now, I’m on the north-facing side of the island I live on. It’s a place where a lot of tourists visit and you see a lot of pictures of the clean, white sandy beaches. After storms, we’ll get some debris, and plastic will wash in but, dayto- day, you really don’t see it along the high-tide line. But if you just go 15-20 minutes from where I live to the east side of the island, there are a few beaches where it really happens. It’s something about the exact direction that they’re facing, like a filtering system in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and it is just out of control. You can’t believe how high the high-tide line fills up with plastic. All these little pieces of things we see from our own lives, like forks, toothbrushes, lighters and bottle caps—some broken down with bites taken out of them, others in perfect form.

Some might have come from this island, but the majority, you can tell, have been in the ocean for a long time. And the scarier thing is, when you move the plastic off the top of the sand, and you take a scoop, it’s really colorful because these little pieces of plastic have broken down to a level where they’re just becoming part of the makeup of the sand.

The more I traveled, and the more I started looking at windward-facing beaches around the world, I could see that same problem in a lot of places. So it was interesting to travel out with these experts from the 5 Gyres [a nonprofit focusing on reducing plastics pollution], who do a lot of the data collection out in the middle of the ocean, where these gyres gather and the debris collects. It was interesting and exciting to learn about something—to get to play the role of the citizen scientist and go out there in the middle of the ocean, and yet, we were learning a lot of depressing facts that this group has been finding for a long time. They always say hatred comes from fear of what you don’t know, so at least you start to understand.

The film is equally striking and alarming in many ways. What would you encourage people to do to attempt to mitigate this?

The first step is cutting single-use plastic out of our lives. There’s a great movie called Bag It that talks about how plastic is a very amazing material. It’s so strong and light, and basically lasts forever. And so there are certain things that should be made out of plastic. But for all of these things that we’re using for a moment and then tossing away, there is no “away.” Plastic lasts.

We need to try and eliminate as many of those things as we can—simple things like straws and bags and water bottles. It’s hard to find anything that’s not wrapped in plastic. It’s about trying to get your produce from local farmers markets that don’t require much packaging, and then legislation is important to look at. In Hawaii, we’ve banned plastic bags and it’s been interesting to watch the shift. People might not realize it, but plastic is relatively new and something we’ve become attached to in a short period of time. We can unattach ourselves to it as well.

In terms of this album, you wrote an introductory letter in which you mention the president and the North Atlantic Gyre. What would you like the listener to take away from the record?

I’ve always found that it’s a balance between sharing things that are personal and trying to translate them into a form where they feel broad enough that someone could apply them to their own life. I’m not trying to make it into a reality TV show, with all of my feelings totally exposed and I’m completely vulnerable, but there has to be vulnerability involved.Then, ultimately, once I decide to share them, I’m deciding that they’re not just mine anymore. I’m putting them out to the whole world.

So I always find it interesting just to see who connects with which songs, and how people interpret the songs. Sometimes I like the way people interpret them more than what I intended them to be. [Laughs.] So I don’t know if I ever have any one thing that I’m hoping for. I always hope that every record I put out will be somebody’s favorite record.

I always try to write from a place that’s true to where I’m at in my life, and if that appeals to somebody, then that’s great. The one thing I try not to do is stay forever young, in the sense of trying to write songs for younger people. I just hope that the human connection can apply to somebody who is younger because they feel the same way. I just want to write from where I’m at in my life. I’m a 42-year-old guy that has three kids, and these are the experiences that I have. So, I’m not sure what I hope people get out of it. I just like to share the songs, and I hope they make people feel good.

These are tumultuous times, in a lot of respects, for many different people. Did that push you to either say, “I want to address this,” or “I want to be able to take people away from that?”

It’s funny, I didn’t mean for it to be this way, but when I listen to the sequence, to me, Side A is sort of political and social commentary—what’s happening in the world right now. And then Side B is like driving away from that. Literally, the first song on Side B is a song about driving up the coast going camping. And it’s meant to be an effort of trying to find freedom between these lines—the lines of society. So the second half becomes a little more personal. There’s a love song on there, there’s a song about camping, there’s a song about the trip I did on the sailboat and all those kinds of things.

I hope that if someone wants to escape, they’ll just put on Side B. [Laughs.] But it also felt really good to sing out on that song, “My Mind Is for Sale.” I’ve had so many strong responses to the song, both positive and negative, even from old friends. So I’m glad I wrote that song. It feels like it was important to at least touch on that stuff. But it’s also important to remind ourselves that it’s a beautiful world, and that even when it feels like it’s falling apart sometimes, there’s still a lot to appreciate.