Jack Johnson – Keeping the Feather Afloat

“Colbert just walked in [to the green room] and sang every word to ‘Sleep through the Static,’” says Jack Johnson. “Really?” respond his incredulous band members in near unison.

“It’s got a lot of words,” notes keyboardist Zach Gill.

“Yeah, really,” says Johnson. “Colbert told me, ‘I wore that record out.’”

Moments later Stephen Colbert takes his seat behind his well-known desk on the set of The Colbert Report. As the techies maneuver the cameras and microphones, Colbert uses a pencil to tap out the lilting rhythm to “Static” on the desk top and quietly sings “Trouble travels fast/ When you’re specially designed for crash testing/ Or wearing wool sunglasses in the afternoon/ Come on and tell us what you’re trying to prove.”

We doubters are convinced. Colbert knows Johnson’s music.

I’m sitting with Johnson and band members Gill, bassist Merlo Podlewski and drummer Adam Topol for the run-through of tonight’s Colbert Report, on which Johnson and band will perform. Johnson is beaming and the band members appear awestruck, of both their leader and Mr. Colbert. As Colbert will later tell me, while visiting Iraq in 2009 to entertain the U.S. troops, he listened to two pieces of music, each night while attempting to fall asleep:  Sleep Through the Static and a classical piano recording. “It was a stressful environment. Jack’s music really helped me.” “Chillaxed” is how Colbert describes Johnson and his music.

This certainly has been a chillaxed day, spent chatting all things acoustic guitar and music while wandering New York City’s Central Park on an unusually balmy September afternoon. Yep, that’s right. The Colbert folks booked Johnson and band into the least laid-back of accommodations, Trump International Hotel and Tower. Hoping for a setting in which Johnson might feel more comfortable, and discovering via Google Maps that the Ode to Capitalism sits across the street from the park, I suggested, almost facetiously, that we conduct the interview while strolling among the crowd in the only open space in one of the world’s largest, busiest, meanest cities. To my astonishment, Johnson jumped at the chance. “Yeah, that would be great.” When I arrived at the Donald’s lobby, Johnson and his wife and children were returning from hanging out at the Central Park playground. Chillaxed, indeed.

Or maybe “centered” is the best word, I guess. Johnson travels with his wife and three children. Kim Johnson, formerly a teacher, home schools—or make that road schools—the kids when Johnson is on tour. “It’s about balance,” Johnson tells me. “I wouldn’t tour if it interfered with my time with my family. And really, it’s an opportunity for the kids.” So, the full family heads out on tour, making sure that there are interesting and educational sights to visit at each tour stop. The kids study and do homework, venture out with Mom and Dad to visit a museum or two and hit the best playgrounds in town, and then the travel-along nanny tends the kids during the evening concert.

Actually, the whole band is centered. As Johnson, guitar in hand, and I cross Central Park West and begin our stroll through the park, band members and their kids are heading back to Trump Central. And no one recognizes the guy who has sold some 20 million CDs and whom Time magazine has called “the master of mellow, surf folk-rock.”

Or maybe that is not precisely correct. Among the tens of thousands of people hanging in Central Park and populating nearby sidewalks, precisely three recognize Johnson. While Johnson sits on a rock singing and playing guitar, a thirtysomething woman approaches and politely and timidly says, “I know you’re Jack Johnson. Would it be okay if someone took my picture with you?” Johnson consents and I do the honors. The other two are a couple who pass us walking in the opposite direction, stop, look back at us, embrace, and then approach with substantial trepidation. “We know you are Jack Johnson,” the man says in English heavily accented with Spanish. “And we’d like you to know that you mean a lot to us.” The couple then withdraw, embrace again, and both begin weeping. Johnson says to me, “I think they’re having a moment.” I walk over and inquire. They’re Argentinians visiting the States for the first time, married a couple of years ago, and had Johnson’s music played at their wedding. I return to Johnson and ask if he’ll be photographed with them. “Of course,” he offers. I again do the honors. As we continue our stroll, Johnson says, “Stuff like that, it’s really neat. It makes me want to keep on doing it. When you realize it’s meaning something in people’s lives at that level.”

As we continue walking it becomes obvious that if you don’t dress like a rock star—Johnson is clad in T-shirt, jeans and his regardless-of-context-or-weather flip-flops—or, more importantly, act like a rock star, no one will think you’re a rock star. I’m in Central Park with a guy whose latest CD has just hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, who was on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last night and will join Colbert tonight, and he’s nearly invisible to the usually celebrity-mad New York public.

Johnson’s 2013 CD, From Here to Now to You, occasioned the meeting. It’s Johnson’s sixth disc. The prior one, 2010’s To the Sea, was a bit of an outlier in the Johnson canon. Placed on a bed of snarling electric guitars, the lyrics eschewed the usual sunny topics of the chillaxed and focused on the life of Johnson’s recently departed father. From Here to Now to You marks a return to the land of the laid-back and may be Johnson’s best album. It also sports a new sound in the Johnson musical lexicon: the nylon-string guitar. Almost from the first note to the last, the nylon strings are front and center. The album opener “I Got You”begins with muffled, percussive strumming on nylon-string guitar, which gives way to a melodic line doubled on nylon-string and slide guitar. The penultimate cut,“Change,” features a lazy, looping, funky rhythm on nylon strings (the CD’s last cut, appropriately titled “Home,” is one of the few tracks not to feature nylon strings). The sound really serves Johnson’s gentle style of guitar playing.

“Yeah,” says Johnson, “that guitar really was why I made this record. I wasn’t really thinking of recording, but then I got this guitar, and, well, it really inspired me.”

The guitar, which Johnson, leaning back against an ancient stone bridge abutment, has now pulled out of its case and is tuning, is a gorgeous koa and cedar creation built by Pepe Romero Jr. Yes, of that Romero family—you know, the royal family of the Spanish classical and flamenco guitar who often perform as a quartet of the brothers Pepe, Lito, Celin and Celin’s son, Celino. In 2000, Spain’s King Juan Carlos I anointed Pepe, Celin and Angel (who no longer performs with the brothers) with the Grand Cross of Isabel la Catolica, Spain’s version of the knighthood.

The pull of the classical guitar world proved too strong for Pepe Jr. to resist, though he chose instrument-making over performing. He built Johnson’s guitar for himself, played it for a while and sent it out on the road with Sir Pepe Sr. As appears to happen so often in Johnson’s life, he met Pepe Jr. “through a surfer friend.” Johnson fell hard for the guitar and ended up taking it home.

Johnson was home after a tour and, as is his custom, spending more time surfing than playing music.

“I don’t play for a month at a time. When I get home from touring, I put the thing away. I just want to surf.”

He breaks out a guitar only when musician friends drop in. “I love the guitar, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t have to have it like I have to have surfing.” So Johnson surfs, hangs with his family, surfs some more and waits for inspiration. This guitar provided the inspiration.

I remark that the guitar serves Johnson’s playing style so well—the slides, the partial chords, the hammer-ons and pull-offs—that it’s surprising he hasn’t used a nylon-string guitar before. “Yeah, Pepe [Jr.] kept saying that, too,” responds Johnson.

Johnson has granted the guitar special status. I remark that the video accompanying “I Got You,” the single released from the CD, depicts him with two different classical guitars as he wanders the seaside, rides subways and skateboards about town. “Oh, yeah,” Johnson says with a laugh. “I used a different guitar when I was skateboarding because I didn’t want to drop this one.”

Johnson adds that “this one is really nice, real pretty” as he starts to noodle on it. I take this as my opportunity to quiz him on the latest CD and his guitar playing. I tell him that I spent a fair part of the prior evening learning some of the recording’s guitar parts and ask why so many songs appear to be in the key of B flat. “Oh, that,” he says. “One day one of my guitars in my house got knocked over by one of my kids and it hit one of the tuning pegs and broke. So I couldn’t tune that string and had to tune the others to it.” When Johnson checked the guitar’s tuning with an electronic tuner, he discovered that the instrument was in B flat. “Neil Young had told me once that the universe was tuned to B flat, so I was kind of excited about that,” Johnson says, laughing. (The tuning is, low to high, B flat – F – C – F – B flat – D.)

That question out of the way, I ask about some of Johnson’s patented guitar phrases. “What songs?” he asks. And right there in Central Park, I get an impromptu lesson in how to play “I Got You,” “Never Fade,” “Ones and Zeros,” “Tape Deck” and “Don’t Believe a Thing I Say.”

I start to quiz Johnson on his playing technique and he responds with “Technique?” in a tone of voice that says, “Who, me?” But it becomes clear that he really can play and that he’s as thoughtful about the notes he picks as he is about the words he sings. We talk a bit about the Hawaiian slack-key players and their influence on his playing. “You know,” he then says, “a lot of people wouldn’t guess this, but I consider Jimi Hendrix to be my biggest guitar-playing influence. Not the wild guitar solos, but the chords and chord progressions.” He adds, “All the little hammer-ons…” and then plays snippets from “Little Wing,” “Castles Made of Sand” and“Bold as Love.”

Hearing Electric Ladyland at the age of 15 “changed my life,” he adds, especially the song “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be).” Johnson plays some suspended, sliding sixth and sharp fifth chords and I’m almost a believer, sort of.

The next evening’s concert closer, a medley of Johnson’s own “At or With Me,” with its infectious but verging on annoying refrain of “Oh, oh, oh, oh,” and “Crosstown Traffic,” proves his point. Those Hendrixian sharp 7 sharp 9 chords fit both songs perfectly. As I chuckle to myself, I get a “what’s up with you” look from my neighbors. I’m guessing that most Jack Johnson fans don’t spend a lot of time listening to Hendrix. But maybe they should.

And maybe Hendrix fans should give Jack Johnson a listen. Really. Sure, it’s easy to dismiss Johnson as an artist of any gravitas because, well, everything he does looks easy. But grab your favorite guitar, cue up a Johnson CD and play what he’s playing. No extra notes, no big bar chords. Play only the notes he’s playing. If Johnson plays the root and the sixth of the chord, it’s no fair grabbing the whole chord. Play only what he plays. Oh, and sing at the same time. Sometimes sing just behind the beat while playing precisely on the beat. A couple of measures later, sing precisely on the beat while playing just behind it. A measure later, play and sing right on top of the beat. You’ve got to make the rhythm mimic the waxing and waning of the Hawaiian surf. And this is important: make it look easy. While wearing flip-flops. And sometimes while riding a skateboard.

Of course, sometimes the lyrics tend toward the way-too-cute: “It’s as simple as something that nobody knows/ that her eyes are as big as her bubbly toes” (from

“Bubble Toes” on Johnson’s 2001 debut, Brushfire Fairytales). But you also get “Ones and Zeros” from Johnson’s 2013 album, a subtle, not-preachy warning about a modern world in which young people hold handheld devices “while they’re eating and they’re sleeping” and our heroes steal “the sunlight from the future” and “drain half the glass.”

From Here to Now to You is as spectacular as it is, well, easy-going. “Washing Dishes” is an infectious ode to everyday life, “Never Fade” a testament to everlasting love, and “Tape Deck” a recounting of Johnson’s college years in a band that played Fugazi covers (really—I wonder if he slipped in a few Hendrix chords now and then). I remark about the irony of chopping out rhythm on a nylon-string guitar while singing about Fugazi. “Was that intentionally ironic?” I ask. “Oh, yeah,” says Johnson, “absolutely. Thanks for noticing that. We were laughing.”

“Don’t Believe a Thing I Say” is a gorgeous and seemingly simple love song that on close examination reveals itself to be a serious contemplation of fatalism: “Are we free or afraid of what we’re told? Are we out of or under control?” The song is Jack Johnson’s music in microcosm: Yeah, it’s pleasant and hummable, but there’s also some serious depth there. Plus, as Johnson will soon reveal to Colbert, he’s now written “I don’t know, probably 30, 40” love songs to his wife. How can you not like a guy who’s made a career in rock music out of writing and singing love songs to his wife?

Johnson’s music reveals him for the accidental rock star that he is. Born in Hawaii, he was a precocious surfer who at the age of 17 became the youngest ever finalist in the venerated Pipeline Masters surfing competition. A mere week later, though, he suffered a serious surfing injury and, rolling with the punches as well as the waves, veered from a life path aiming at professional surfing and entered film school at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Graduating in 1997 with the film degree and knowledge of the Fugazi and a few Hendrix chords, Johnson set out to merge his interests in film, music and surfing. The results were two surf documentaries that Johnson directed and whose soundtracks he scored and performed, 2000’s Thicker than Water and 2002’s The September Sessions: The Tomorrowland Story Brought to Life in Brilliant 16mm Film.

That 16 mm film stock proved not to be alone in its brilliance. Around the same time that Johnson recorded the songs that would comprise Brushfire Fairytales, he met J. P. Plunier, Ben Harper’s manager and producer. He not only gained a friend and musical co-conspirator in Harper, but became the first artist signed to Plunier’s Enjoy Records (now Everloving Records) indie label. When Brushfire lit a fire on the indie record charts, Universal Records came calling, and quicker than you can say “surf’s up,” Johnson became the king of chillaxed rock.

Not only has the multiplatinum recording career failed to separate Johnson from his aw shucks persona, but it hasn’t kept him away from his beloved surfboard, either. “I like touring where I can be near the ocean,” Johnson says. If you want to mix music and surfing, you can’t do much better than booking gigs in Australia. Johnson is big in Australia. His most recent tour sold out at all stops, including a tour-ending three nights at the Sydney Opera House. He’s scheduled to headline 2014’s 25th anniversary Byron Bay Bluesfest.

Australia also played a large role in Johnson’s steel-string guitar of choice. “I was in Australia with Ben Harper and he knew the Cole Clark guys. And Ben talked them into giving me a guitar.” Johnson pretty much played Cole Clark guitars exclusively until bonding with his new Pepe Romero nylon-string guitar. Johnson plays Cole Clark Fat Lady models, both the relatively unadorned Fat Lady 1 and the fancier Fat Lady 2. They are dreadnought-size instruments so named because company founder Brad Clark (who’s since left Cole Clark) preferred a name that referenced a woman, however large, instead of a battleship.

The use of indigenous Australian renewable woods—bunya spruce tops and either maple or blackwood backs and sides—appeals to Jack Johnson the environmentalist. Founded in 2003, Johnson’s Kokua Hawaii Foundation supports environmental education throughout Hawaii. The Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, created in 2008, supports organizations around the globe “that focus on environmental, art and music education.”

Johnson also likes the Cole Clark pickup system. “It’s really clean sounding, but also sounds natural.” According to the company’s literature, the “Face Brace System” features a sizable sensor that “runs across a large section of the face [underside of the guitar’s top] resulting in a truly live signal.” “It’s a really good pickup for live performance,” he says.

Speaking of live performance, Johnson’s 2013 Bonnaroo appearance was about as live as it gets. “Yeah, I got the call a couple of days before the festival. The Mumford guys weren’t gonna be able to do it.” On the eve of the festival, Mumford & Sons bassist Ted Dwane was diagnosed with a blood clot in his brain and underwent emergency surgery. “You know,” adds Johnson, “we [the band] hadn’t played together in about a year. But I really wanted to do it for the Mumford guys and the fans, so I said, ‘We’ll do our best.’” Band members flew in from around the globe, got part of a day’s rehearsal, and then headlined Saturday night. YouTube evidence attests to the usual Johnson humility and grace, never more so than when he and the band performed Mumford & Sons’ then-current hit The Cave.

That humility, grace and more than a little charm are about to light up the small screen. We’ve now left Central Park and piled into a couple of cars headed for Colbert’s studio at Comedy Central. Johnson and band are chatting about what songs to play. “Home” and “Don’t Believe a Thing I Say” have been floated to the Colbert crew. After a bit of banter, a band member suggests “Home”—“It sums up the record and you really well”—and Johnson agrees; I’m silently nodding, too. An homage to the home and a plaintive request for the tour to end, with a slightly Calypso-like rhythm, this song, if any, says “Jack Johnson”: “I’ve gotta get home, there’s a garden to tend/ There’s food on the ground and the birds have all moved back/ Into my attic, whistling static and the young learn to fly/ I will patch all the holes up again.”

Johnson and band sound check the two songs and, as evidence of Colbert’s affection for Johnson’s music, perform both on the program. Colbert then offers a gentle poke at Johnson’s laid-back image: “How does a Jack Johnson relax? You know what I mean? If your career path is strumming on a guitar and singing to the ocean, how do you kick back?” A nervously laughing and blushing Johnson has no answer.

The interview ends with Colbert pulling a feather from his pocket and inquiring, “Do you want to join me in keeping a feather afloat?” The two then close out the program by blowing the feather back and forth volleyball style.

It’s the perfect metaphor for Jack Johnson the man and the musician. Gentle, letting the breeze or, perhaps more appropriately, a wave choose the path, and moving through the world with as much grace and beauty as possible.

This article appeared in the Fretboard Journal #33. Subscribe today to get more stories like this one.