Interview: Jack Johnson arrives in Tampa with the weight of the world on his shoulders

Ziggy Marley opens for him at MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre.

click to enlarge Jack Johnson, who plays MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Aug. 19. 2022. - Photo by Morgan Massen
Photo by Morgan Massen
Jack Johnson, who plays MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Aug. 19. 2022.
Last year, Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Fairytales celebrated its 20th anniversary. Fans have spent the last two decades humming along to the laidback lyrics of songs like “Flake” and “Bubble Toes,” but much of the Hawaiian-born songwriter’s music has always been marked by the deeply introspective and borderline philosophical bent on songs like “Inaudible Melodies” where the then 25-year-old waxed over the freaks in Plato’s cave and the perils of still-pre-social-media modern living.

Six albums, one global pandemic, and 21 years later, Johnson is back with Meet the Moonlight, his first collection of new music since 2017.
When they get to MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Friday, fans will find the same easy going guy who last played Tampa five years ago—but they may also get a hint of the weight Johnson’s carried around since then. More than any other album he’s released, the material on Moonlight feels like someone working through things and being near the breaking point.

“I made a choice not to lose friends,” Johnson, 47, told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. That was two weeks ahead of Moonlight’s release and in response to a question about the album’s lead single, “One Step Ahead.”
Like so much of his output, the song’s verses are riddled with social commentary and a touch of anxiety about humanity. But over the last few years, people seem to be at each other's throats more than ever before.

Despite being able to stay home on Oahu during the pandemic, Johnson could not escape societal noise that’s risen to near maddening levels. The fragility and unknowns of the pandemic pushed him, like the rest of us, into heated debates with friends and family. In response, he made a decision to try to kind of be as empathetic as possible, to see things from different sides, and try to encourage others to do the same.

Still, Johnson admitted, “I wasn't perfect.”

A byproduct of that struggle are cuts that meditate on the push and pull between his own head and heart; it’s Johnson trying to remind himself to take a breath and listen more than he talked.

And when he made way for others, Johnson found a little bit of peace. In February 2021, Kōkua Learning Farm—which he launched with his wife Kim in 2019—reopened for socially-distant farm work days. The seven-acre property in the rural surf town of Haleiwa is an almost magical place where you can see and speak to the peaks of the Mokulēʻia Forest Reserve while you pick green beans or tend to taro among other farm duties.

According to the Pacific Business Journal, the 80% from the three-year average of expenses for Johnson’s nonprofit went to programming, a testament to the commitment the family has made to a community that also found solace at the farm and in the education programs run by Kōkua. At the onset of the pandemic, farmers helped Johnson—an optimist who subscribes to the Joseph Campbell quote, "Participate fully in the sorrows of the world”—find a distraction from the divisiveness when they banded together to make sure that kupuna [a grandparent, ancestor, and/or honored elder] would have enough food to eat.

“In Hawaii 90% of our food is shipped in, which is an unfortunate fact,” Johnson said. “Just to see how much the community came together to make sure everybody had food. Those are the kinds of things that I wanted to kind of focus on, and find the beauty in those moments.”

And when it came time to turn everything on Johnson’s mind into a record, he looked to another new voice: Blake Mills, a renowned producer whose credits appear on work by an eclectic collection of artists including My Morning Jacket, Alabama Shakes, Perfume Genius, Pino Palladino and even John Legend, Ed Sheeran and Phoebe Bridgers. Press materials say Mills pushed Johnson out of his comfort zone.  You can hear some of that in flashes of experimentation with chordal accidents (“Meet the Moonlight”) and non-traditional instruments (a wedding ring on “Calm Down,” beer bottles for “Costume Party”), but Johnson said that there was a trust that Mills wouldn’t push him so far away that he might regret the final outcome. More than anything, Mills and Johnson bonded over card games (one called “Cafe con Leche” the Johnsons learned and renamed on a trip through Spain), a love of Greg Brown and hour-long debates over existential matters like the concept of now.

“We're both so bullheaded, so we would just like sometimes take the opposite side of each other. It'd be so dumb, but it'd be really fun,” Johnson said. “More than anything, I feel like we developed a really nice friendship through the whole thing. And I know we're gonna play a lot of music together in the future.”

In Johnson’s immediate future is the second leg of a 37-stop North American tour which kicks off Thursday in West Palm Beach and ends in October in southern California. Between 2008-2013, Johnson donated 100% of profits from multiple tours to nonprofits in the towns they visited. These days, his tour donates $2 from each ticket to environmental efforts and is still one of the greenest in the industry.

For Johnson—who knows that the best thing for his own carbon footprint would be not to tour at all—there are still reasons beyond the communal and healing nature of music, to get on the road.

“I kind of wonder, since I'm part of this industry that has a large environmental footprint, is it not the better thing for me to do what I can to kind of push the industry into a better place and see if we can kind of mitigate a lot of those negative impacts as best we can,” he said. “Then really, I think the only thing that we can do to really spread the positive impact of touring is connecting with the nonprofits in every town that are working within that town, so after we leave, there's energy from the show, both in funding and in connecting the fans and this younger energy with these established nonprofits so that after we leave, there's all these new members of these groups.”

“I've heard that several times where people have gotten involved, and they've even become part of the staff of the group,” Johnson said. “Those are the stories that kind of makes me feel like it's worth it, you know, and it's the positive impact of my own tour hopefully outweighs the negative.”

Finding light in the dark has always been Johnson’s speciality. And in the literal hot mess that is Florida, we could all use a little of that moonlight, too.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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