How singing surfer Jack Johnson's old mate, Kelly Slater, nearly derailed his new album

US singer-songwriter Jack Johnson will be returning to Australia at the end of the year for his first tour since 2013.
US singer-songwriter Jack Johnson will be returning to Australia at the end of the year for his first tour since 2013. Danielle McGrane

THE call of the sea has always been strong for singer-songwriter Jack Johnson.

So much so, that when the waves are pumping near his home studio in Hawaii, the former pro-surfer finds it very difficult to resist their call.

This year, when Johnson was supposed to be making his seventh studio album, All the Light Above It Too, was a particularly good surf season, making him glad that he'd chosen to record it in a more stripped back way.

Instead of using the same band he's recorded with since his 2000 debut Brushfire Fairytales, which was embraced in Australia before anywhere else, he wanted to try to capture the spontaneity of his early, demo versions of the songs, meaning it was just him and co-producer Robbie Lackritz in the studio.

"It was just the two of us in there so if the waves were particularly good I would just shoot him a call or a text saying 'hey, give me another 45 minutes - I am busy with a board meeting' and we would meet up a little later,” says Johnson with a chuckle from the home on Hawaii's famed North Shore that also doubles as his studio.

"So that was good - I didn't miss out on too much. That's the worst thing when I am in the studio all day and my brothers are sending me messages saying how good the waves are and then I can't focus. It was a good season for surf - and it was fun recording.”

As it that wasn't bad enough, he then got a call from his old mate, 11-time World Surf Champion Kelly Slater, wanting him to come along to check out a break he'd heard about on a stretch of reefs in the Marshall Islands.

Despite the looming deadline set by Brushfire Records for the album (mind you, he set up and co-owns the label, so you'd assume there's a bit of flexibility) and a coming tour, he packed the boards and the boardies and hit the road.

Kelly Slater in action during the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach earlier this year.
Kelly Slater in action during the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach earlier this year. ED SLOANE - WSL

"I was about 70% of the way through,” Johnson says, admitting that the spontaneous surf safari meant blowing out the initial June release date for the album to coincide with a US summer tour.

"The problem was that I was starting to realise I was still one song short.”

But music moves in mysterious ways and, as has been the case so often for Johnson in the past, the very act of unplugging and getting back to the ocean proved the creative catalyst to come up with Sunsets For Somebody Else, the song that completed the album.

"I wrote a new song on the trip, so I don't know,” he muses.

"Hindsight is 20/20 but I am not sure I would have had that last song I needed, so maybe going on that trip sped up the process for all I know.

"I pretty much wrote that whole thing on the trip - but it wasn't anything about the trip. A lot of times being in the ocean or on a boat or disconnecting from normal life just gives me a chance to reflect on everything that has been happening.”

If that trip marked the end of the album, its genesis came with a trip of a very different kind.

Before he began writing, long-time environmental activist Johnson sailed through the North Atlantic Ocean with 5 Gyres, a non-profit group focused on fighting plastic pollution.

For Johnson, who at one time considered studying marine biology rather than filmmaking, the experience was both inspiring and depressing, as he discovered not only how much plastic is contaminating the ocean, but also how studies suggest that fragmentation is breaking it down into smaller and smaller pieces until it becomes part of the food chain.

"It was interesting, but at the same time the things we don't know are what we fear so giving myself the knowledge of what's out there and the science behind it has made me more passionate about trying to apply some of the ideas that we have about when we tour,” he says.

Jack Johnson performs on stage at the 25th Bluesfest in Byron Bay, Australia, 18 April 2014.
Jack Johnson performs on stage at the 25th Bluesfest in Byron Bay, Australia, 18 April 2014. KABIR DHANJI

Johnson, a father of three, has been writing about technology and, in particular, television ever since his first album, with songs such as The News, Cookie Jar and Good People, and he continues the theme on the new album with My Mind Is For Sale. Just what it is that bugs him about it so much?

"I don't know,” he laughs.

"Good question - I feel like I am on the psychiatrist's couch right now. There is something that fascinates me about it, it's the same thing as the social media and the phones, all that really. I am singing about that same thing, getting addicted to these things that are such great inventions but are really pulling us apart.”

That same song contains some fairly pointed criticisms at Johnson's new president, with lines such as "I don't care for your paranoid 'us against them' walls / I don't care for your careless 'me first, gimme gimme gimme' appetite at all”.

Johnson says he's not anti-Trump as such - and was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as a duly elected president - but admits to being frustrated by his actions since, particularly with environmental policy.

"He has really been making a lot of crazy decisions,” says Johnson who is an ambassador for and donor to a number of environmental charities and foundations.

"Pulling out of the Paris agreement for instance and gutting the Environmental Protection Agency and all these things that are really important to everybody and really important to the work we have been trying to do with environmental issues.

"We were talking about entertainment earlier - it's really entertaining but the problem is we are being entertained by watching this thing that is supposed to be holding us together as a society, kind of unravel. That shouldn't be entertaining. Politics should be entertaining and maybe that is the positive that comes out of this, that it has drawn enough attention to it that.

"I don't think there was a time before this where people would be able to name so many cabinet members of a president and what their positions were and what they did. It's like a reality TV show watching this thing fall apart.”

All the Light Above It Too (Universal) is out today.

Jack Johnson, Sidney Myer Music Bowl, December 8. On sale Monday,

Jack Johnson, Riverstage, December 3. On sale Monday,

Jack Johnson, Opera House Forecourt, December 1. On sale Monday,

Topics:  australian tour jack johnson kelly slater live music

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