Feature The seemingly ever-chilled Jack Johnson's passions go far beyond surfing and singing.
Times like these
The seemingly ever-chilled Jack Johnson takes a long-term view about his eco responsibilities, having recently worked on an album to raise awareness and funds for climate crisis projects. Michael Odell meets a man whose passions go far beyond surfing and singing. Jack Johnson understands very well that it's the easy-listening chill of his music that makes him the natural choice for evening barbecues across the globe. The only problem is, the former surfer is so diligent about his eco responsibilities that he doesn't want to be responsible for the emissions of those barbecue coals. "I hear I get played a lot at cookouts. Someone once said I should put a warning on my albums: 'Please use smokeless fuel when cooking or eating to this CD'."
"On tour I've actually heard people say that they are looking forward to a warmer climate in Europe. Kind of like they think it's their turn for a bit of sunny climate. The fact that the world climate will be altered for good doesn't count for them. It's a short-term view to say the least." It's partly for this reason that this month he joined forces with Amy Winehouse, the Rolling Stones and The Killers, among others, on the latest Rhythms Del Mundo album, Classics, produced to raise awareness and funds for climate crisis projects.
Many celebrities have jumped on the eco-bandwagon, but Johnson takes it more seriously than most. His folk/pop music may be mellow to the point of being annoying but when it comes to green issues he is a highly engaged political activist. He began writing songs at college to impress his then girlfriend Kim (they have been married for nine years and have two children). The success of albums such as Brushfire Fairytales, On & On and Sleep Through The Static, which have sold more than 15 million copies, have landed him a huge problem.
"The songs I write were meant to be heard by Kim and maybe a couple of friends at most. I never thought it would mean me touring the world and trucks full of gear. That weighs heavy on me sometimes. But there's no point moaning. I am in a position to go out there and do something about it." Not for him the eco-sloganeering of, say, British star Jamiroquai who struggles to reconcile his environmental beliefs with owning a fleet of luxury sports cars. No, Johnson is the surfer poster boy who has put his money where his mouth is.
"My carbon footprint was something I had to think about because we went from playing clubs to theatres to worldwide shows pretty quickly. Willie Nelson, Pearl Jam and Neil Young all set me a good example with the biodiesel idea and I followed them. I won't get in a tour bus unless it's running on the right fuel. The idea of taking your music to a wider audience is full of very difficult contradictions if you are concerned about environmental care. Even biodiesel is frowned upon in some quarters but I've looked at some of the data and I think it is the right thing to do. Is there toilet paper from sustainable forests in the bus? I think so. Yes. There better be. I'll double check that."
In recognition of his efforts to reduce the environmental impact of touring, in 2005, the Climate Neutral Network granted Johnson's tour Climate Cool certification. Johnson's eco record is impressive. In 2003 he founded the Kokua Hawaii Foundation to support environmental education in Hawaii's schools. He has successfully campaigned against hotel developments in Pupukea Paumalu, a part of Hawaii that had been earmarked by Japanese developers. When a friend had the idea of making a public purchase of the land and turning it into a hiking and conservation area, they together organised fund-raising concerts, applied for grants and bought it. "Twelve hundred acres on the bluffs overlooking a great surfing hot spot." He beams.
His efforts go further afield, too. On his last European tour he set up an eco-village within each venue for environmental organisations to campaign and he donated some proceeds from his shows. He has set up www.allatonce.org for eco-warriors to network with each other. He chooses hotels that recycle and demands that venues recycle too. "We recorded our last album Sleep Through The Static at Solar Powered Plastic Plant - a studio in LA with solar panels. In the grand scheme of things I guess it's not going to save the planet but it goes to show that you can do things differently. I mean, I have seriously thought about not touring and not flying but on balance the message I try and put across makes it worth it. Otherwise, someone else spreading no ideas might be sitting on that plane. But I do think about it. I'd be happy to not tour and do things locally."
Clearly, Johnson is not your average rock star. Born in 1975 on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii, where his American surfer father Jeff had settled, he almost followed him into the highly competitive world of pro surfing. Instead, he was lured away by his brother Trent's record collection. "He is older than me. He had the record collection and I just picked up the guitar and tried to emulate what I heard: Queen and Hendrix."
He still surfs. In fact, he never tours during the Hawaiian winter when the best waves or "tubes" are available. He spent four to five hours a day in the sea from the age of five. "It sounds a little clichéd when you explain it, but that's four or five hours at peace with nature. You don't talk to anyone, you just surf. It takes you somewhere deep and peaceful." Once upon a time surf music celebrated the hedonism of summer at the beach: Johnson's father was a big fan of The Beach Boys, for example. Jack Johnson has brought some of that to a new generation with his music. But his activism springs from his concern that this might be the last generation to see the ocean as a natural wonder rather than a threat.
"The Beach Boys sing of an innocent time I guess. The surf, the girls? it's hard not to look at a place like Waikiki now and think, 'Will this all still be here when my kids grow up? Or will it be under water?'"