Jack Johnson: Beach boy

Jack Johnson provided a soundtrack for backpackers all over the world. And now he's America's Number 1. But there's a problem with selling so many millions of albums: like, when do you fit in surf time, dude?
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The Independent Culture

Girls love him and guys want to be like him. He's the handsome, gifted, athletic, laid-back surf dude with a knack for writing songs that make everyone feel momentarily as if they occupy the same stretch of Hawaiian paradise that he calls home. On paper, it's easy to see why people might hate Jack Johnson.

It was bad enough at the beginning of his career, in 2001, when he released his first album, Bushfire Fairytales. There he was, making those singing-round-the-campfire funky-folk records that only ever seemed to be listened to by backpacking students year-offing in Australia. Then Johnson broke through to the mainstream, and he did it the way he had always gone about things: quietly. With no defining moment, no perceptible tipping point and no grand marketing strategy, there he was in February, pipping the Pussycat Dolls to the International Breakthrough Act at the Brits, before performing alongside Prince, the Kaisers, Coldplay and "Captain" Blunt.

And here we are some three months on, with Johnson's third album, In Between Dreams, still holding its own in the UK chart more than a year after its initial release. Sales in the US have topped the two-million mark and if that all weren't enough, Johnson recently had his first US number-one album with his latest recording, Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the film Curious George, a collection of what might be best described as singalongs and lullabies for the film Curious George, which hits UK cinema screens this week.

"We never expected that first album to sell more than 20,000 copies," he tells me in London during a whistlestop European tour. The album - which he put out himself, without a record company to fund it - has now sold well over a million copies. "The way I figure it is that in places like Brazil, Australia and Hawaii the whole acoustic guitar and sunny lyrics thing blends into the lifestyle. In colder areas, it represents a sort of escape. You hear this music on holiday and you associate it with happy times."

According to accepted pop wisdom, this is the moment for Johnson to cash-in, capitalise, consolidate. This is the time to tour endlessly around the world until the next set of songs comes along and the whole process can kick off again. Johnson, though, has different plans for his immediate future. "I'm gonna hang it up for a while, now, actually. This level of success has totally surprised me. If I understood it too well it would be dangerous because there'd be nothing left for me but to become a caricature. So it's definitely time to go home, put the guitar in the closet for a while and concentrate on other aspects of my life."

Damn. To that list of handsome, gifted, etc, add self-aware and rounded. Other aspects of life? Jack, you're a bona fide pop star. You are supposed to exist purely for public consumption. What could possibly occupy you and nourish your soul away from stage and spotlight?

"Well," says the 31-year-old, without missing a beat, "the thing is, I was five years old when I got my first surfboard. It's become so ingrained in who I am and how I find balance in my life. When I was a kid, my dad took me and my two older brothers to the ocean every day. He raised us in the ocean. It became a sort of church for us. It's where we would go to find family unity. So while making music in a garage with a couple of friends can be a kind of spiritual thing too, singing these songs in front of people is more of a social thing; it's about sharing ideas and communicating. It's what I do and I love it, but if I ever had to stop surfing it would mess up my life. Music is just not on that level."

In person, it's difficult to dislike, let alone hate, Jack Johnson. Like his recent single says, it really is better when we're together. And, true to his word, Johnson will, by the time you read this, have returned to his seafront home in Oahu, Hawaii, where he will be spending time with his wife and two-year-old son, surfing, doing the odd bit for local environmental causes, hanging out with his extended family - who all live within a mile - and, no doubt, sitting under coconut trees with no shoes on his feet, living the kind of life most of us only dare contemplate while throwing our money away on Lottery tickets. It all sounds too good to be true, but this idyllic template for existence is the vision of perhaps the only person alive who just might be cooler than Jack Johnson. And that's Jeff Johnson. Or as Jack prefers to call him, Dad.

It was the mid-1960s and San Francisco was the centre of the world for the beatniks and counter-culture pioneers who would write the book on "cool" for decades to come. Jeff Johnson was in his early twenties, and though he lived down the road from Allen Ginsberg and saw the revolutionary writing on the wall, instead of hanging-out and loving-in and all that other stuff that was really just a creative excuse for sitting around not doing very much, Jeff took it upon himself to learn how to sail single-handed, using only the stars for navigation, and set off to make his home on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii.

Jack is still in awe. "My dad is the kind of character you'd read books about and stuff," he says. "He's one of those guys that I would never be able to be as cool as. He wasn't a hipster so much as a sailor, like somebody out of a Steinbeck story or something. When he first came to Oahu, the North Shore was inhabited by fishermen, carpenters, surfers and working-class people. It's still a beautiful place, but real-estate prices have gone up so much since then that these days it's more doctors, lawyers and actors. f When I was a kid my parents didn't stand out because there were all these other eccentrics about the place also trying to get away from mainstream America and coming here to dodge the draft."

The horror. To all those other attributes you can now add the kind of childhood most of us thought only existed in Disney films.

"But for us it just seemed normal. It was only when I went to college in California at 18 and started visiting other people's homes and seeing their lifestyle that I realised quite how unique my own upbringing had been." It was also at this point in his life that Johnson met and fell in love with his wife-to-be, Kim. "I went to college looking forward to playing the field a little bit," he says almost bashfully, "then one week in I met Kim and we've been together ever since."

If all this fairy-tale stuff is making you- like it did me, before I met the man - feel a little nauseous, there is perhaps a perfectly reasonable explanation for why Johnson has such a Zen attitude to every aspect of life. It's a story he has alluded to in song and it's the story of how he got into music in the first place.

He was 14 and it was the very week he'd been selected to be the youngest ever competitor for the Pipeline Masters, which, in surfing, is as big as it gets. With the confidence soaring through his blood, and fermenting into cockiness, Johnson set out with his friend, the now seven-times world-champion Kelly Slater.

Jack, Kelly and a bunch of other North Shore surf dudes would practise every day, egging each other on to ride riskier and riskier waves. "Kelly dared me to make this wave and I made the drop, and I rode it and pulled up into the tube and travelled a little while in that," Johnson says in terms that will only make sense if you know a thing or two about making the drop and suchlike. "Then," he continues, "I tried to do something I'd done a million times before - drop off and jump through the back of the wave."

Mmmm, I nod, as if this was just the kind of thing I got up to on a daily basis as a kid.

"As I tried to jump through the back, the whole wave closed out. It sucked the water away and opened up the reef underneath, which I landed on face first and blacked out. By the time I came back to the surface the next wave was breaking over the top of me, so I must have been out for about 12 seconds. I was awake, but aware that I was drifting off, and I kept thinking, 'OK, you've just hit your head real hard and you've gotta start swimming.' I don't know if I was in shock or a little paralysed but I couldn't move. It was like an alarm clock going off, when you keep pushing the snooze button and you know you've got to get to work and all of a sudden the clock goes off again and you look at it and realise you're late for work. I kept pushing that snooze button and thinking, 'Give me a few more seconds.'

"And then I was under, and I swallowed water, which jarred me awake. At that point, I realised, 'OK, I'm gonna drown here.' So I swam to the surface and threw up on the beach in front of my house. Luckily, there was a paramedic staying next door."

Good thing those real-estate prices had started to go up.

"Yeah," he laughs. "A fisherman would have been useless in that situation. But the thing is, before the accident, I thought I was the shit [the best] and all that. So the whole experience was kind of a wake-up call. It was positive in the end because I was getting a little full of myself."

Two months later, Johnson was back in the water but his ambitions to be a world-champion surfer were as dented as his face, which needed more than 150 stitches to his lips, gums and forehead to piece back together (the scars are still visible - calm down, girls).

It was during the enforced period of recuperation that Johnston taught himself the guitar, learning songs he'd grown up listening to (Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" was a favourite).

Later, at college, Johnson made documentary surf films, to which his songs were intended to provide merely background presence. But slowly his music started to sell beyond all expectation and the Jack Johnson we have come to know and love/hate emerged. Just like Cat Stevens and the classic singer-songwriters of the 1970s before him, Johnson is getting used to accusations of being bland but, as far as he is concerned, he represents nothing other than a guy who got lucky. He's as surprised by the widespread appeal of his unpretentious music as you are.

Not that he's afraid to rock the boat occasionally. There was the matter of Johnson having taken part in one of the Vote For Change concerts that urged his Americans to vote for anyone other than George W Bush at the last presidential election. "I never go on the computer very much in general and I rarely look at my own website," Johnson says. "But when I announced I was going to do that show, there were people on my site's messageboard saying things like, 'I like his music but I don't understand why he's suddenly talking about politics.' Which is ridiculous, because I make lyrical music and if you don't want to hear my opinions you can't really listen to my songs. Anyway, fans on the site started a petition asking people to sign up if they didn't think I should play that show. It was weird, 'cos I played with Bonnie Raitt and Crosby, Stills and Nash and any of us could have individually filled the venue, but because we were performing under a political banner we didn't even sell it out."

Like the majority of liberal/left-leaning folk in the US, Johnson seems genuinely surprised that there are people out there who might not share such reasonable views. "Things are so pocketed in the US, right now," he says by way of explanation. "Judging by all the people I'm around in the bubble of my life, you just couldn't believe that Bush would have won."

Was it never tempting, even for a moment, to rebel against his upbringing and become what his father's generation might have called a square? "A lot of people I know did rebel against the whole cool-background thing," he says. "One friend of mine, his parents were total hippies and he was telling me recently that he just wanted to be the furthest thing he could be from that. But I want to raise my kids real similar to the way I was raised. I never had that period of rebellion because my parents never gave me a reason to have one. They walked that line between letting us experiment with things while making sure we were never idiots. They were like, 'Look, we know you're going to go to parties and stuff but always be respectful and if you need a ride home, just call us and we'll come get you rather than have you driving around drunk.'"

So that, then, is Jack Johnson. A handsome surf dude with an eminently reasonable outlook on life and a knack for making records that make people feel they're in Hawaii. You can sneer at the "blandness" of his music and you can hide your envy of his lifestyle with disinterest. You can hate him if you must. But for what it's worth, there have been moments when that laid-back persona has been tested. Many gigs have been arranged specifically in areas where Johnson and his crew might get to do a little snowboarding in their downtime, but where promoters then ask Johnson to sign a contract promising he won't risk injury by going out on the slopes before a show. "I just look at them and say, 'What do you think we came here for in the first place?'"

The single 'Upside Down' and the album 'Sing-A-Longs & Lullabies for the film Curious George' are both out now on Island Records. 'Curious George' is in cinemas nationwide from Friday