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It's a Swell Life A pro surfing career wasn't for Jack Johnson, but his passion for waves helped him carve a role as one of the sport's most creative influences, first as an award-winning filmmaker and now as one of music's fastest-rising newcomers

May 27, 2002
May 27, 2002

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May 27, 2002

Si Adventure

It's a Swell Life A pro surfing career wasn't for Jack Johnson, but his passion for waves helped him carve a role as one of the sport's most creative influences, first as an award-winning filmmaker and now as one of music's fastest-rising newcomers

In these last moments Jack Johnson is, as ever, at peace. Beyond
the curtain the packed concert hall pulses with the agitated,
expectant energy of 2,500 souls, come for tonight's show. For
even the savviest performer it's a tall order: a date at New
Orleans's venerable Saenger Theatre on the second Thursday of
the city's hallowed Jazz & Heritage Festival. Johnson--erstwhile
teen surfing wonder, award-winning surf filmmaker and unlikely,
even accidental, rock star--rises in his dressing room, kisses
his wife, Kim, and heads for the stage. Accustomed as he is to
the momentum of rising tides, Johnson is nothing if not ready.

This is an article from the May 27, 2002 issue

His guitar, however, is not. The set list, drawn up with drummer
Adam Topol and bassist Merlo Todlewski, calls for a four-song
solo opener, just Jack and his instrument, but the latter is
clearly out of tune. "Oops," he says, moving from amp to strings
and back again, trying to work it out on the fly. Hundreds of
these fans were queued up more than an hour ago in the
stultifying early-May heat, and they're growing noisily restless.
What luck, then, that this tanned fellow with the closely cropped
hair, in mustard-yellow T-shirt, baggy jeans and flip-flops,
knows about pressure and split-second decisions. He turns a final
knob, strums a single chord, seamless, golden. "Hi, I'm Jack," he
says. "Thanks for coming out."

A euphoric wave crests and breaks. "We love you, Jack!" screams a
female voice. Johnson blushes and steps from the microphone,
smiling bashfully, bobbing slightly to his own silent beat. Jack
Johnson, it seems, is exactly where he belongs.

Or is he?

Johnson, age 27, is still new to the rock star thing: Before he
emerged as surf-folk's new hope--his debut album, Brushfire
Fairytales, has sold 200,000 copies since its release in
January--he was the retro savior of surf filmmaking, thanks to
1999's old-soul Thicker Than Water and the seminal The September
Sessions the following year. Before that he was a North Shore
surfing prodigy, so talented that at 14 he nabbed a Quiksilver
sponsorship and at 17 became the youngest-ever invitee to the
Pipeline Masters, perhaps the sport's toughest test. Though he
chose to study filmmaking at UC Santa Barbara rather than go pro,
he remains a simple Oahu waterman at heart.

"It's all so surreal that nothing trips me out anymore," Johnson
says in his clipped islander accent. "When I left for college, I
watched my friends surf professionally, traveling all over the
world, and it was tough. I thought I'd made a mistake, choosing
such a normal life."

"I've surfed with him for 12 years, and he could've been at a
level as high as anyone," says elite pro and two-time U.S. Open
titleholder Rob Machado. "He doesn't abuse a wave; he dances with
it. Watching him surf is like listening to his music--it's
beautiful."

Don't expect Johnson to wax poetic regarding his talents. The
surfing? He's done it since he was four, and to him it's no more
impressive than riding a bike. The movies? Just the product of a
liberating major in film studies. The music? A series of lucky
breaks that brought out a hidden gift.

Such humility seems almost hereditary, the by-product of growing
up on the North Shore, surfing's Mecca. His parents, Jeff
(himself a longboard legend) and Patti, were unassuming and
free-thinking. His older brothers, Trent and Pete, endured his
presence as he trailed them, retrieverlike, into the waves. As
teens, Jack and his surfing pals, among them Machado and the
great Kelly Slater, stored their boards at the Johnsons'
beachfront house; they would grow from groms into the world's
finest surfers. Little wonder, then, that his music--with its
blend of folk and blues, its nods to Hendrix and Buffett, its mix
of smoky vocals and playful guitar and hip-hop sensibility--is as
laid back as it is eclectic.

"I don't think Jack will ever get too big for himself," says his
brother Pete. "He's always been a sensitive guy who just wanted
to hang with his brothers and his friends and do what they were
doing, until one day he passed most of us by." That explains why
Johnson seems most at home at home, in his cozy one-bedroom
apartment in Santa Barbara (three minutes from the beach and a
10-minute drive from the supple break of Rincon), playing his
Maton or listening to the cars roaring down Highway 101.

As his inner circle sees it, Johnson's appeal lies in his
simplicity. "It's impossible to be around Jack and not think he's
just a genuine cat," says J.P. Plunier, who produced Brushfire.
"He's just a kid who surfs. His songs resonate because of
that--he's telling you his stories." Adds Machado, "He's never
wanted the limelight, and his audience knows that. If he came out
at a concert wearing shoes, they'd all say, 'We're outta here.'"

Johnson is surely the only rock star who rises at 6:30 every
morning to cook his high school teacher wife breakfast
(preferably avocado-egg sandwiches), schedules his days around
her afternoon return, and wholly involves her in his
songwriting. "He'll be strumming by himself, and his hums turn
to words," Kim says with a laugh. "Sometimes I'll ask him what
he just sang, and he'll say, 'I don't know.' Sharing with me is
part of the creative process."

So too is surfing every day, which means all touring and no waves
makes Jack a crabby guy. "If we ever have a conflict," Kim says,
"it's just because he's been away too long and needs to surf.
Like when he's touring and Rincon's good, I avoid discussing it.
I understand that surfing's his first love: It keeps him whole.
The music could end tomorrow, and we'd be fine, as long as we
still had each other, and he could still surf."

Shortly after his first Pipeline Masters, Johnson did a
face-plant onto a reef that left him with scars above his brow
line and snaking across his upper lip. Though he was back at Pipe
the following year, his passion for the sport's competitive side
began to ebb. Then, on a surf trip to Indonesia with his brothers
during the summer before his senior year of high school, Johnson
bought a Bob Dylan bootleg containing a track called Last
Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, which Johnson calls "really a hip-hop
song, the words stumbling on top of each other. It made me
believe I could write songs."

Surfing was his escape in college, and it also brought him work,
first as a camp counselor then as a freelance cameraman.
Initially averse to making surf movies after he got his degree--he
wasn't sure he could handle watching other people surf for a
living--Johnson soon realized that his connections would provide
good filmmaking opportunities and that he would be able to ride
when the light was poor. "We always thought that I'd have the
steady job and he'd have his freelance work, since I could never
expect him to conform to normal work hours," Kim says.

While making movies, Johnson also began recording songs for
friends. (Machado jokingly claims to have the earliest recording
of the Brushfire song Flake, a 1996 version made in a seaside
hotel room in France.) Unbeknownst to Johnson, his buddies were
burning dozens of copies for their pals. One day at Rincon a
young surfer approached Johnson and complimented him on his
album. Johnson said thanks even while thinking, What album?

Surfing has been behind his every break. It was after a surf at
Topanga with Garrett Dutton, front man of the top-selling funk
outfit G. Love & Special Sauce, that the two settled in for an
impromptu jam session. That led to the inclusion on G. Love's
1999 hit album Philadelphonic of Johnson's Rodeo Clowns, which
became a college-radio hit. Later, while editing Thicker Than
Water, Johnson met folk-rocker Ben Harper and his manager,
Plunier. After hearing a rough mix of Flake--now Brushfire's
certifiable hit--and other songs, Plunier encouraged Johnson to
take his music further. With music-video director Emmett Malloy
acting as his manager, Johnson embarked on a record-label
gab-and-grub tour. "We'd sit with these people, kicking each
other under the table while they asked everything," Johnson
recalls. "Do you do drugs? Do you always have a shaved head?
Would you be willing not to surf, not to make films and to tour
instead? Right there they'd shoot themselves in the foot. They
had no idea what I was about at all."

While filming the elegiac Sessions with, among others, Slater,
Machado and Shane Dorian in Indonesia in early 2000, Johnson
finished writing the songs that would make up Brushfire. He felt
confident enough to include one of them, the plaintive F-Stop
Blues, written for a seasick Machado, on the film's soundtrack.
Soon Johnson and Plunier struck a deal to record the album for
Plunier's newly formed Enjoy Records label.

The deal gave Johnson control of his material and meant he
wouldn't have to commit to the tours most labels demand of a new
artist. Which is to say he could still hit the waves whenever a
swell beckoned. After all, says Plunier, "how could I tell a kid
who grew up on Pipeline not to surf?"

Johnson's ambivalence toward the road changed when he spent three
months last year opening for Harper, his idol. "No one's ever
been more embraced by our fans than Jack," Harper says. "He was
meant to do this. He's reeled the surf culture back to its roots,
and he's exposing a generation of kids to surfing's spiritual
side. Everything about him is in perfect balance. I went ice
skating with the guy in Hartford, and damn if he doesn't ice
skate the way he surfs, the way he plays music: real smooth,
totally graceful. He's got nothing to worry about. He'll always
be roots."

Two days after the New Orleans show, Johnson & Co. are rolling in
their rented motor home, a Fun Mover, on their way from a
festival in Atlanta to a concert in Nashville. Jack is in a good
mood: Kim is still with the band (she'll depart the next day); he
is dominating the usual game of Risk with bandmates Todlewski and
Topol; and in two weeks the minitour will be over and summer
break on Oahu can begin. The talk turns to the differences
between music and surfing, and Jack falls silent for a moment.
"Surfing, for me, isn't really about sharing," he says finally.
"It's about finding a good little spot, private and perfect.
Surfing's too special to categorize. It's not a language, not
communication. It's just complete, even when no one sees it.

"But my music feels incomplete if I'm not playing for somebody. I
need to give it to people. If I don't, what's the point of it?"

In Last Thoughts Dylan writes, "There's something on yer mind you
wanna be saying/That somebody somewhere oughta be hearin'."
Johnson, with plenty on his mind, can rest assured that he's
being heard.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DON KING/SURFER MAG BREAKING RIGHT He's surfed since age four, but Johnson (below, in New Orleans) has moved on to a new stage.COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF JOHNSON FAMILY FILM STAR At age 16 Johnson (at Pipe) was already a camera favorite; now he catches his biggest waves behind the lens.COLOR PHOTO: ART BREWER [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: MICHAEL ECKERMAN ROCKIN' During a jam session with his neighbor Skill Johnson, two-year-old Jack showed an early affinity for making music.B/W PHOTO: SCOTT SOENS [See caption above]
"When I left for college, I watched my friends surf
professionally, traveling the world," says Johnson. "I thought
I'd made a mistake."
"Jack's reeled the surf culture back to its roots," says Harper,
"and he's exposing a generation of kids to surfing's spiritual
side."
"I understand that surfing's his first love," says Kim. "The
music could end tomorrow and we'd be fine, as long as he could
still surf."