Jack Johnson Biography

Singer and songwriter

Born in May, 1975, in Oahu, HI; son of Jeff (a surf pro) and Patti Johnson; married Kim (a teacher); children: Moe. Education: Graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, c. 1997.

Addresses: Home —Oahu, HI. Office —c/o Moonshine Conspiracy Records, 2020 Union St., San Francisco, CA 94123.


Filmed two surfing documentaries, Thicker Than Water and The September Sessions , late 1990s; first published song, "Rodeo Clowns, " recorded with Garrett Dutton of G. Love and Special Sauce and appears on G. Love's 1999 album Philadelphonic ; released Brushfire Fairytales on indie label Enjoy Records, 2001; toured with Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, 2001; signed distribution deal with Universal Records; toured as co-headlining act with Ben Harper, 2003; released CDs On and On , 2003, and In Between Dreams , 2005; established the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, a nonprofit environmental awareness group.


Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson reveled in some thoroughly unexpected success thanks to his debut record, Brushfire Fairytales. A collection of songs that the onetime pro surfer had merely played to entertain friends at beach campfires, the album reached the one-million sales mark in early 2003, less than two years after its release. Johnson's second

career was, he admitted, somewhat of a drastic departure from the competitive surf circuit. "Surfing, for me, isn't really about sharing, " he replied when Sports Illustrated writer Josh Elliott asked him about the differences between his favorite sport and the music business. "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."

Johnson was born in 1975 on Oahu, the third largest island among the archipelago of Hawaii. His father, Jeff, was a well-known professional surfer and Johnson, like his two older brothers, Trent and Pete, spent his earliest years in and on the water. It was an idyllic childhood, he told Emma Hope in an interview that appeared in London's Sunday Telegraph. " My dad would take us out fishing or snorkelling every day, so we grew up in the ocean—it was our playground, " he recalled. "We'd spend all our time outside. The house was just to sleep in. It was always too hot in my room."

Johnson learned to surf off Oahu's legendary North Shore, where surfers from around the globe gathered during the winter months. Its Banzai Pipeline, like other choice spots along the North Shore, was famous for the massive waves that rolled in from stormy North Pacific currents during the season. Johnson started surfing at the age of four, and emerged as a prodigy by his early teens. At the age of 14, he landed a sponsorship deal with Quicksilver, a surf-togs company, and competed on the professional circuit for a few years. In 1993, however, a near-disastrous wipeout left the 17-year-old Johnson with a broken nose and more than 100 stitches; he also lost a few teeth in the face-down collision with a reef.

During his recuperation, Johnson turned to music to pass the time. He had been playing guitar for about three years by then, and spent an increasing amount of hours practicing and playing for friends. A few months off also made him realize that the pro surf circuit was becoming distressingly commercialized, and so he opted to enter the University of California at Santa Barbara. It was not an easy transition, Johnson later admitted. "When I left for college, I watched my friends surf professionally, traveling all over the world, and it was tough, " he told Elliott in the Sports Illustrated article. "I thought I'd made a mistake, choosing such a normal life."

Johnson began his college career as a math major, but switched to filmmaking. By 1998 he had graduated and was traveling extensively with his old surfing pals, and filming their exploits on the waves wherever they went. The footage he shot resulted in a documentary, Thicker Than Water. It follows Johnson and his friends on a global trek that stops at some of the top surfing spots. He followed it with The September Sessions , which features a few of Johnson's well-known friends taking a break from the competitive circuit for a few weeks to simply enjoy a few of their favorite surfing spots.

Johnson still played guitar, and began writing songs after he bought a Bob Dylan album on cassette during a surfing trip to Indonesia. He debuted his songs in the most low-key of settings, usually an audience of friends sitting around a beach campfire after a long day of surfing. He eventually made a four-track recording of what he considered his best work, and his surfer friends made copies for their friends on the circuit. The demo reached Garrett Dutton of G. Love and Special Sauce, an amateur surfer, who liked Johnson's "Rodeo Clowns" track, and invited him to record it for the Philadelphonic LP. That G. Love album was released in 1999, the same year as Thicker Than Water , and was the sole track to chart from it on the U.S. college-radio lists.

Johnson was introduced to J. P. Plunier, who managed singer-songwriter Ben Harper. Plunier put Johnson in touch with a drummer, Adam Topol, and bassist Merlo Podlewski, and sent them into the studio. Brushfire Fairytales was recorded in just seven days, and released on Enjoy Records. Plunier and a former Virgin Records executive had launched the label to issue the record, sensing that Johnson was wary of any deal with the majors, who were courting him nonetheless. During meetings, executives would ask, "Do you always have a shaved head? Would you be willing not to surf, not to make films and to tour instead?" as Johnson told Elliott in the Sports Illustrated interview. "Right there they'd shoot themselves in the foot. They had no idea what I was about at all."

Brushfire Fairytales was released in 2001, and Johnson toured as an opening act for Harper that year. Enthusiastic reviews followed for both the album and his performances. "With a supersoft vocal style and influences ranging from Jimmy Buffett and Cat Stevens to Ben Harper and De La Soul, Johnson has perfected the admittedly picayune art of contemporary beach music, " asserted Time critic Josh Tyrangiel. Writing in Sports Illustrated , Elliott also compared Johnson's style to Buffett as well as a drastically different American icon, finding that Brushfire Fairytales 's "blend of folk and blues, its nods to [Jimi] Hendrix and Buffett, its mix of smoky vocals and playful guitar and hip-hop sensibilityis as laid back as it is eclectic."

Steadily growing sales for Brushfire Fairytales prompted executives at Universal Records to offer a distribution deal for it. This helped sales pass the one-million mark, and Johnson's debut was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in early 2003. The achievement was doubly impressive given the fact that there had been virtually no marketing budget behind it, and the buzz around the record had mounted simply via word-of-mouth. There was talk that because the surfing crowd picked up on Johnson's music first, it moved effortlessly to a wider audience thanks to the cache of that first group. Johnson was skeptical about the idea that surfers were trendsetters responsible for the success of his music. "I don't know many real surfers who put a bunch of energy into trying to figure out what's coming next, " he told Chris Mauro in Surfer. "That's the problem with labels sometimes, they have formulas for everything, always trying to figure out why things work and then duplicate them, but the bottom line is you can't formulate authenticity, timing, or luck."

Not surprisingly, Johnson still operated in the characteristically relaxed surfer mode despite his phenomenal success. "I can get stressed if there are too many shows in a row, " he admitted to Entertainment Weekly writer Carina Chocano. "I don't always feel like getting in front of people or entertaining a crowd. But once I get up, the energy from the crowd is always so good, I have fun." He returned to the studio to make his second record, On and On , but the studio was his brother's garage. Will Hermes reviewed it for Entertainment Weekly and gave it high marks. "There are signs of rhythmic sharpening, " he noted, and commended some of the tracks that took a decidedly political stance, which he felt "show a man more culturally engaged than you'd suspect." Hermes also surveyed Johnson's place in his genre, and concluded that "while the vocal similarities to jam-band peers Harper and Dave Matthews are striking, Johnson's songs are, frankly, more instantly likable than theirs, more tuneful and less earnest."

Johnson remains based in Hawaii, where he lives with his wife, Kim, a math teacher he met at U.C.-Santa Barbara. In 2004, he began to hold benefit concerts to fund a charity he established, the Kokua Hawaii Foundation. Its goal is to promote the protection of the island state's fragile environment through educational efforts in the schools. Overdevelopment was one issue he felt strongly about, and had witnessed the long-reaching ramifications of resort-building on Oahu during his own lifetime. Where beachfront hotels cropped up, he noted, it seemed to tear apart the community, robbing Hawaiian teens of recreational activities, he told Hope in the Sunday Telegraph. The illegal drug known as crystal meth was a growing problem in the more populated areas of Hawaii, he pointed out. "Where there's access to surfing beaches, there's not really a drug problem, " he asserted. "Kids that surf don't need any drugs."

Johnson's message of respecting the environment also came through on one of the songs that Johnson contributed to the soundtrack for Curious George , the 2006 film adaptation of the popular children's stories. "The Three R's" urged kids to become more environment-friendly consumers by re-using and recycling. "Sometimes it takes a big warning sign before people take notice, or you have to wait till it's all too far gone before they start worrying about it, " he said in the Sunday Telegraph interview. "It seems to me that putting a little bit of energy into teaching kids can't hurt. You can't teach them too much—all you can do is put the seed into their minds. I try not to be too preachy about it."

Johnson released his third record, In Between Dreams , in March of 2005. A little more than a year later, it had sold more than two million copies. One single, "Good People, " reached the Top 30 on the U.S. modern-rock charts, and the album also did well in the United Kingdom. Still with Topol and Podlewski, Johnson continued to perform for sell-out crowds, including a two-night gig in New York City's Central Park in September of 2005. On a tour of England a few months later, adoring ticket-holders greeted his performances with an enthusiasm that matched the ardor of his American fan base.

Known for appearing onstage in flip-flops or sometimes even barefoot, Johnson continues to divide his time between the demands of the Banzai Pipeline and those of his music career. He and his wife had become parents, to a son they named Moe. Johnson joked with Mauro in the Surfer article that people sometimes ask him about his three-pronged career and future direction, noting some say, "'You're so ambitious, is there anything else you want to tackle in life?' I just laugh because I've always considered myself more of a slacker than an ambitious person. In reality I wake up, surf, go shoot some film or play music for a couple hours, surf again, then at night play some more. It's just my lifestyle."

Selected discography

(Contributor) Philadelphonic , Sony, 1999.

(Contributor) Loose Change (soundtrack), Surf Dog, 2000.

(Contributor) Out Cold (soundtrack), RCA, 2001.

Brushfire Fairytales , Enjoy, 2001; reissued, Universal, 2002.

(Contributor) The September Sessions (soundtrack), Universal/Moonshine Conspiracy, 2002.

On and On , Universal/Moonshine Conspiracy, 2003.

In Between Dreams , Brushfire/Universal, 2005.

Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George , Brushfire/Island, 2006.



Contemporary Musicians , vol. 45, Gale Group, 2004.


Entertainment Weekly , May 9, 2003, p. 74, p. L2T15.

New York Times , September 14, 2005, p. E1.

Sports Illustrated , May 27, 2002, p. A20.

Sunday Telegraph (London, England), April 2, 2006, p. 3.

Surfer , June 2003, p. 53.

Time , September 17, 2001, p. 100.

Carol Brennan

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