Awareness is essential to Johnson
BY ELIZABETH KIESZKOWSKI / email@example.com
Jack Johnson rarely stops smiling, and one of the most commonly repeated words he uses is “fun.”
Perpetually tanned and sporting a surfer’s zenned-out aura of relaxed poise, he pulls off the daunting feat of exuding both child-friendly approachability and performer’s cool.
That charisma was on full display May 7 in Central Oahu, where Johnson sang for the kids at Mililani Ike Elementary School.
Johnson stood up front with his acoustic guitar, as a cool breeze blew into the open-air gym. He sang “Three, it’s a magic number” — calling up memories of both “Schoolhouse Rock” and A Tribe Called Quest while praising the “magic” three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle.
A room full of wide-eyed kids clapped along. Some, Johnson hopes, will go on to be environment-conscious for life.
The three-song concert publicized recycling initiatives supported by his family-founded Kokua Hawai’i Foundation as well as Johnson’s appearance at the Waikiki Shell, with two shows scheduled Friday and Saturday.
“This is a show about growing up in Hawaii. You guys know about that,” Johnson said, smiling, before he launched into “Mudfootball” from his “Brushfire Fairytales” album: “We used to laugh a lot, but only because we thought that everything good always would remain …”
Johnson has become a favorite son of Hawaii, speaking out for land preservation and environmental causes and hosting the popular Kokua Festival for several years at the Waikiki Shell.
It doesn’t hurt that he is also an international star, with concerts and festival appearances, strong music sales and soundtrack work, including the music for “Curious George,” to his credit.
When tickets for Johnson’s Friday concert went on sale — reserved for buyers with a Hawaii ZIP code — the show sold out immediately. That prompted the addition of Saturday’s second show, which also quickly sold out.
THIS TIME around, Johnson and his band will be looking for “an acoustic feel” at the Waikiki Shell.
“I’m excited to play at the Shell for the first time and not have to think about hosting a festival,” he said.
“It’ll be all the guys in the band, same guys I’ve been playing with since the beginning, and then as far as the sit-ins — it’ll be fun, I promise.
“The last show I did at the Hawaii Theatre, an acoustic solo show, was a lot of fun, but I’m excited to be outside again, especially in Hawaii,” he said.
“I like doing something like playing for the kids, where, you know, you look around and some kids are right there singing along, and other kids are picking their nose and it’s — it’s just fun.
“And doing the theaters is really nice, because you can actually hear when people call out a song, and you can respond, or you can have a conversation with somebody in the front. So that’s really intimate — you can have a conversation throughout the whole show.
“The outdoor shows — I love being out in the stars, and out in the fresh air.”
The Waikiki Shell concerts come at the end of an international tour for Johnson and his band.
“Those festivals, like Fuji Rock — that’s like singing to an ocean,” he said. “There’s no way you’re going to hear anything; more like, they become a monster, the whole audience.
“But the amount of energy you can get off an audience like that is like nothing else. And when they start singing together all at the same time, it’s like having an entire backing section, you know?
“They’re all fun, they all offer something. And I like to mix ’em up, play the different styles. Makes it more exciting.”
Where: Waikiki Shell
JOHNSON said he’d been surfing as much as possible while he was at home on the North Shore. Aside from that, he had been paying attention to issues with environmental impact on the islands.
He praised the state’s initiative to preserve Kawela Bay and Kahuku Point near Turtle Bay, adding, “The North Shore is pretty excited about that.”
Despite his surging international popularity, Johnson said he isn’t bothered much when he’s in Hawaii.
“I grow a beard pretty fast,” he said. “A couple of weeks and I’ve got a beard, and I can blend right in with the other scruffs.”
When not touring, Johnson and his family might head out to MA’O Organic Farms to check out the organic produce, or ride their bikes.
Johnson tries to live and tour according to his environmental principles, though every decision comes with its pitfalls and contradictions. The struggle comes out in “Ones and Zeroes,” from his 2013 album “From Here to Now to You”: “A lot of people like to have a feast / Not so many can stomach the killing / A lot of traffic on the streets / So who’s really doing all the drilling?”
“People want to eat meat, but don’t like the idea of killing an animal, or a lot of people maybe want to drive a car, but don’t really like the idea of drilling offshore,” he said. “The idea is that when we see the problems in the world, we have to include ourselves. …
“I had to make the decision: Should I just stop touring? Because that would have the lowest environmental impact.
“But at some point, I decided, well, I’d rather go out and donate 100 percent of the tour proceeds to nonprofit groups. And also really look at how to tour, and if we could make this industry that we’re part of more responsible, wouldn’t that be in the long run, a better thing to do?
“So, to bring it back to that song, it’s good to bring up the things that matter to you and it’s good to be open to changing the way you are, as well.”
ENVIRONMENTALISM “feels more like my job than music does, in a way,” Johnson said.
“To me, I’ve always been a little confused. I figured out that if I made surf films, then I got to do camera work — that’s what I studied in college, film studies — and that felt like the best job I could ever have. I was getting to travel, and make things, but it was still a job, I had to deal with all the camera gear. …
“All of a sudden, when the music thing took off I felt a little bit confused, because it wasn’t even like a job. I just got to goof around and play music all the time!
“And so that is a nice thing about working with all these nonprofit groups, including our own. It makes it feel a little bit more like a career.
“It gives me motivation to tour sometimes — it pulls you back on the road, knowing you can find these groups to support.
“When we do a show in Hawaii, it always goes 100 percent to the Kokua Hawai’i Foundation,” Johnson said. “And when we tour around the world, since 2008, 100 percent of our profits have gone to nonprofit groups.”
In addition to Kokua Hawai’i, Johnson has set up the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, which distributes concert proceeds to nonprofits in locales where he tours.
“It’s a perpetual thing now, where we’ve invested the money,” he said.
“An exciting thing that we’re exploring now is impact investing … investing in, like, Pacific Biodiesel, or getting farmers on land. … Maybe it’s renewable energy and things like that. It’s almost like giving grants that give a return.”
In Hawaii, the Kokua Hawai’i Foundation (kokuahawaiifoundation.org), supports gardening programs and environmental education, a school recycling program and the Plastic Free Hawaii initiative.
GETTING BACK to the music, Johnson said, “I’m excited to play at the Shell. … It’s going to be nice that this is at the end of our touring cycle, to be back in Hawaii and be able to present our show.”
The concert will be “a little bit of a medley of all of our albums,” he said. “We just try to have a good time, we try to improvise every night.
“We have a certain list of songs that we set out every night, but we tend to go off that. Someone in the band will say, ‘Why don’t we play this?’ And that song sets it up all different.
“I grew up in Hawaii, and as a teenage kid, when I started going to shows, it was hard when I couldn’t get into a concert, get tickets, you know? So I wanted to make sure we gave people from Hawaii a chance to get tickets. … That’s something we learned years ago when we started playing at the Shell.
“It makes a difference, you know — I get to see friends, and people I recognize from the surf — people all over the islands.”