With harvest season upon us, we once again are reminded of the bountiful produce available here in Central PA. Whether shopping at a local farmer’s market or dining at one of the region’s many farm-to-table restaurants, it doesn’t take much effort to draw the line from the field/tree/garden to your fork/mouth/belly. We are lucky in that regard, however; as laid-back surfer-songwriter Jack Johnson demonstrates, there are many children in the world who associate food with big-box grocery stores.
In addition to writing chart-topping music, Johnson has long used his celebrity to bring agricultural and environmental education to the youth of his native Hawaii. So in honor of the harvest season – not to mention National Farm to School Month – we dip into the vault for our September 2012 interview with Johnson which ran in advance of his performing at the 2012 Farm Aid concert in Hershey.
Surf & Turf
In 2001, singer-songwriter and ex-professional surfer Jack Johnson paddled onto the national music scene and into our collective hearts with the laid-back, feel-good folk sound of his debut album, Brushfire Fairytales.
In the decade since, the native Hawaiian has released four additional albums, established his own label (Brushfire Records) and founded an environmental education organization called the Kokua Hawaii Foundation with his wife, Kim, in 2003.
This month, Johnson makes his first-ever appearance at the annual Farm Aid concert. On September 22 at Hersheypark Stadium, he takes the stage alongside event organizers Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp. (Johnson also performs that same week at a special Rock the Vote concert in State College.)
We caught up with the surfer-songwriter last month on a rainy day in Hawaii – by phone, sadly – to talk about the evolution of his musical career, from his chance meeting with Ben Harper to his appearance at Farm Aid this month.
Fly Magazine: With your work at the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, it’s amazing you haven’t played Farm Aid before.
Jack Johnson: It’s come up in the past, but we always had touring conflicts. And both Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews have come to Hawaii and played at the Kokua Festival, which raises awareness and finances for the foundation my wife and I started. Since they’ve both been here and have seen what we’re doing in the schools, I’m excited to come to Farm Aid and learn more about what they’re doing on a national level. I’m excited to finally get to pay those guys back.
FM: What kind of work is the Kokua Hawaii Foundation doing?
JJ: We’re doing similar things to what Farm Aid is doing at the national level, but we’re focusing it here in Hawaii. When my music career started growing, my wife saw an opportunity to take the spotlight that was on me and help to shine it on things that we thought were important. We’re connecting kids to nature and to their food at a young age with garden-based learning, field trips, recycling programs and healthy snacks programs in schools. In Hawaii, we have some big challenges with the amount of food that’s shipped in.
FM: What is the farming culture like in Hawaii?
JJ: We’re obviously known for our sugar cane and pineapple industries. But a lot of the crops we grow here get shipped out of the state. Now, people are developing smaller family farms and keeping more of the locally grown food in Hawaii for a lot of reasons – it’s better for the environment, it’s fresher and healthier, it’s better for the local economy. The Kokua Hawaii Foundation isn’t the only organization doing things here, but our part is to work with kids and make sure they are aware that food is grown and doesn’t just pop up in the supermarkets.
FM: How has your Hawaiian upbringing influenced your music?
JJ: Growing up in Hawaii, pretty much every minute we had as kids was spent out in the ocean surfing and sailing or hiking up in the mountains. So when I got older, I started looking back and wanted to do what I could to perpetuate that beauty and give back and keep it as beautiful as it is. That’s definitely played a part in both the sound of my music and, once we had a little spotlight, being able to do things with it. Even early on when we first started being able to fill up a small club, we were having groups like the Surfrider Foundation or Heal The Ocean come to us and ask us to do fundraising events.
FM: You were you living in California when you recorded your debut album. What brought you back to Hawaii?
JJ: I lived in California for a while after college. I had been making surf films and my wife was a teacher in Santa Barbara. I recorded Brushfire Fairytales in L.A. on a shoestring budget. We rented out a studio space and recorded the whole thing in six days. That album ended up doing pretty well for us and afforded for us to come back to Hawaii.
FM: I read that you built a solar-powered studio?
JJ: When I was getting ready to record my second album, a friend of mine asked me, “Why would you record in California? You should just build your own little recording studio at home.” And he was right – you don’t really need much these days. All the equipment’s portable and smaller. So we soundproofed a garage, and that’s how we made the second album, On & On. Then we put solar panels on the roof, and from In Between Dreams on, the recordings were done either there or at our record label, which has solar panels too.
FM: Brushfire Records has grown significantly since then.
JJ: The idea was to put out my own music and the soundtracks for the surf movies I was making. We set it up to give ourselves creative control and to give our artists as much room as they wanted. I love to have space and not have anyone checking in on me while I’m recording. The artists that are on the label now have come from relationships – both musical and personal. Early on, G. Love was coming off a major label and looking for something smaller. The singer from Rogue Wave, Zach – his wife and my wife were best friends growing up. So we met in college and we used to go see Ben Harper shows together.
FM: So you were a Ben Harper fan before you and Ben linked up musically?
JJ: I remember lip-syncing every word in the crowd at his shows. Then I realized I had a friend in common with Ben, so I gave him this four-track tape of my songs to pass along. He told me Ben heard it and wanted me to come back stage after his next show to meet him.
I was so nervous, and I was actually looking in the other direction and talking to somebody. All of a sudden, from behind me I heard somebody with a better voice than mine started singing, “I know she says it’s alright.” I turned around and it was Ben Harper who just sang one of my lines. I couldn’t believe – not only to hear that he actually heard enough that he remembered the line. It went from there. We just kept in touch. It was a neat relationship with him because I was a surfer who kind of had this hobby of playing music and he was a musician that this hobby of skateboarding and surfing and snowboarding. So when we’d go out on tour, it was great – he’d bring me out there and teach me all about being on the road and show me around, and on the days off – especially if we were in Australia or somewhere with a coast – I would take us down and find some boards for us. I had friends in all these different areas from the surf movies that would loan us boards and wet suits. So it was a really cool thing; we were able to bring each other into our worlds.
FM: Are you doing any writing for a new album these days?
JJ: I’m always writing, although I never really set aside time for it. I like the feeling of not writing for a while. Sometimes, if I’m spending too much time trying to finish an album, it gets draining. I like to have a period where I don’t write at all and I just take things in, experience life, read a lot of books. I’ve kind of been doing that for a while now. But recently, I’ll find myself sitting at the piano or picking up the guitar once the kids are asleep. A lot of times the ideas are reactions to a conversation with my wife, and it makes me want to finish the conversation in a song.
October is National Farm to School Month in the United States. Join Jack Johnson in supporting the National Farm to School Network as it aims to improve child nutrition, support local economies and educate children about the origins of food. Hooray for local food!