Johnson rocks the waves

Bethany Kohoutek

A few years ago, Jack Johnson didn’t think his life could get much better. He was a professional surfer, sponsored by Quiksilver. His days were spent riding waves in his native state of Hawaii, as well as in pro circuits all over the world. And when he wasn’t surfing, he was making surf films – one, “The September Sessions,” was so good it won an award at the ESPN Film Festival.

“When we’d go on a surfing trip, I’d wake up, and if the light was good, I’d film for a few hours while everyone else was surfing,” he says. “We’d go eat, then I’d usually surf for a few hours myself, then get the camera back out. I’d be exhausted by the end of the day, just surfing and filming all day.”

In short, life was good.

At that time, playing music was a casual pastime, a definite backseat to surfing and filmmaking. His songwriting was shared only with his wife and friends.

“I played in bands before where I was the rhythm guitar player, just kind of in the corner,” he says, calling from Santa Barbara, Calif., the first stop on his six-week U.S. tour. “I was always writing songs, but I was never brave enough to sing them.”

But Johnson worked up the courage to create a few homemade tapes with a four-track recorder. The tapes passed through many hands in the surfing community, and at the behest of some of his new listeners, Johnson gradually agreed to play some live shows.

Eventually, his fresh guitar melodies and silky voice worked their way up the ranks of not only the surfing community, but also the music industry. In particular, one of Johnson’s songs, “Rodeo Clowns,” snagged the ear of the R & B-laced rock group G. Love and Special Sauce, which recorded the tune with Johnson in 1999. The song became the most popular single on G. Love’s resulting album.

“I wrote a song they really liked a lot and used on their record,” Johnson explains modestly, “so I started playing live with them.”

From then, “everything just started happening so quick,” he says.

He recorded his debut album, “Brushfire Fairytales,” in 2000 and less than a year later, he got his big break. He was invited to tour with Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals.

Music had suddenly shifted closer to the top of Johnson’s priority hierarchy.

“As far as getting to open for someone, Ben was really cool because we played in front of such an open-minded crowd, people who want to be turned on to new music,” he says. “It’s nice when people don’t have a wall up.”

Johnson and Harper played shows in both Ames and Cedar Rapids during the tour, pleasing a nearly sold-out crowd at Stephens Auditorium in May.

“Those were both really fun shows,” he says. “I just remember that at those shows, actually at shows in that whole area, the crowds were so cool. Everybody had such a good energy. After the show it made me really want to come back there.”

And the fans Johnson accumulated after that Ames visit apparently haven’t forgotten him, either.

Tickets for his Maintenance Shop headlining show sold out in 22 minutes – the speediest M-Shop sell-out in recent history – leaving many people wondering just what it is about this relatively obscure newcomer that managed to procure what M-Shop staffers call “one of the craziest ticket-selling days yet.”

Some of it can probably be attributed to Johnson’s general sound. His music has a certain appeal for landlocked Iowans. It has a scrubbed-clean feel that conjures images of toes in the sand, tag football games and sea-shells.

However, a closer listen reveals something a bit more profound than a beach-bum, no-worries attitude. Much like Harper’s, Johnson’s music contains gently delivered messages that are more than meets the ear.

And, he says, these themes take on an even more poignant significance after the Sept. 11 crises. It was his song “The News” that Craig Kilbourn of “The Late Late Show” requested Johnson play on the show a few days after the attacks. Johnson declined and played another song, saying he thought people could interpret the tune the wrong way.

“A million people died on the news tonight . Why don’t the newscasters cry when they read about people who die/ At least they could be decent enough to put just a tear in their eye,” read the lyrics.

At first, Johnson was impressed by the news media and their uncharacteristic display of sentiment.

“People really were affected,” he says. “The newscasters were crying and people were really emotional about it.”

But a month after Sept. 11, though, Johnson says he is rethinking that stance.

“This morning I turned on the radio and it was talking about the bombings and the newscasters are reporting it like it’s no big deal that innocent villagers in Afghanistan died last night,” he says. “Are they blind to not realize that those are humans, too, and that we’re just as bad as they are by doing this back? It makes me so mad and it makes me feel like singing the song again.”

“The News” is only one of the many instances on the album where Johnson casts a concerned eye upon the state of society and calls for pacific reform.

“Even at the small level I am at, I wouldn’t want to spread any kind of negativity,” he says.

Small level or not, judging by the way tickets have been selling for Johnson’s concerts, this singer/songwriter won’t be an unknown for too much longer.

Despite his recent musical success, however “small” Johnson insists it is, he hasn’t forgotten surfing. Embarking on a major tour means performing in front of large crowds and being separated from the waves Johnson loves in Hawaii.

“These gigantic opportunities came up and I had to decide,” he says. “I was so nervous singing in front of people, I could barely think about the idea without my heart racing . I didn’t even know if I wanted to tour.”

But Johnson decided to take the challenge, and he hasn’t regretted it.

“Now I really enjoy touring; it’s fun,” he says. “I still don’t want to tour all the time, though.”

“Surfing still comes first,” he adds, then pauses. “Well, I say that, but then here I am about to go tour for six weeks right when the waves are about to get good. Surfing comes first in my mind, but I love music . it’s a pretty easy sacrifice to get to [make music] for a job.”