Jack Johnson’s Unexpected Longevity

Thanks to TikTok and a bold new album, the singer-songwriter is still making waves
Jack Johnson
(Credit: Kizzy O’Neal)

In 2020, Jack Johnson’s teenage son came to him with some unexpected news: “Upside Down,” Johnson’s 2009 song off the Curious George soundtrack, went viral. The groovy tune, it turned out, had been used by a TikToker to soundtrack a comical video involving a stolen TV from Arby’s. The video quickly amassed 3.5 million likes and soon, 50,000 other TikTokers were making their own memes around it. In short order, streams and sales for Johnson’s entire catalog skyrocketed.

“Soon the people at my record label, Brushfire, were calling me up telling me about this Tik Tok thing,” the perpetually mellow singer-songwriter says over the phone from Hawaii. “It was just so funny because you do all this other work at AAA Radio and one person chooses to put you in the background of their TikTok now and that does it. It’s crazy. Things certainly are different now.”

Yes, it’s been a long but steady road for Johnson after his 2001 debut album, Brushfire Fairytales, broke in a major way at radio thanks to its hook-y lead single “Flake.” In the process, the singer-songwriter and his brand of laid-back, easygoing acoustic vibes have practically become its own genre.

Jack Johnson
(Credit: Morgan Maassen)

So, while no, Johnson doesn’t do TikTok (“I’m always like, ‘Would Bob Marley do that? Would Jimi Hendrix do that?’”), the 47-year-old understands we live in a much different musical world than he did when he and his first roadie, Josh Arroyo, would skateboard around Boulder, Colorado hawking Johnson’s CDs at local stores. “We called it the Skateboard CD Distribution —or some cheesy name — because no record stores had our CDs at that point,” Johnson recalls with a laugh.

Still, the music lifer who started writing songs at age 12 can’t help but lean on old tropes. Like the fact that he still loves to make cohesive-sounding albums, and oftentimes goes so far as to obsess over the tracklisting as if were Side A and Side B of a vinyl record. “I have teenage kids that laugh at me — “What are you talking about? People just listen to whatever they want now,’” Johnson says. “But my mind just doesn’t think like that. Usually, when I have a new song, I think about how it will sit amongst other ones and which part of the album it will sit on.”

His latest album, Meet the Moonlight, his eighth overall, might very well be his boldest work yet — not to mention his best-sounding LP in years. Working for the first time with producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Jim James, Perfume Genius), Johnson crafted an equal-parts uplifting and tender collection of songs — sonically intriguing from start to finish thanks to intricate instrumentation and less straightforward arrangements than Johnson typically offers. Working with Mills, Johnson explains, was a daring new decision for someone like him who typically sticks with a core group of musical collaborators. “I just tend to like to work with people I know or already have a relationship with,” Johnson says. “A lot of times my manager Emmett will suggest someone to me and I’ll pass. But this one time I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

“Initially, I figured that working together would result in a record of Jack‘s music surrounded by sounds and ways of playing that were unfamiliar to his previous recordings,” Mills says. “Looking back at that notion, it was a pretty two-dimensional way of seeing it. As soon as we started meeting up and working together, that approach felt not only foreign but kind of phony. And I’m grateful that it did, because it forced us both to rethink what our goals for this experiment were. We ended up kind of championing each other’s strengths rather than defending our own sensibilities.”

Following an hour-long phone meeting, and then a week-long meetup last October at Mills’ studio at the famed Sound City in the San Fernando Valley, Johnson knew he had found an exciting new collaborator to work with. If nothing else, Johnson explains, Mills’ ability to push him outside his comfort zone was a refreshing change of pace. “With some of my other guys I’ve worked with, we might differ in opinions on which way the track will go, and in the end, they almost always roll with my opinion. With Blake, it was really funny because there’d be times where I’d have to tell him 20 times that I didn’t like something and wanted to go another route. But he would persist. Eventually, he’d wear me down to the point where I realized it was actually better his way.”

Jack Johnson
(Credit: Morgan Maassen)

“Initially, I figured that working together would result in a record of Jack‘s music surrounded by sounds and ways of playing that were unfamiliar to his previous recordings,” Mills says. “Looking back at that notion, it was a pretty two-dimensional way of seeing it. As soon as we started meeting up and working together, that approach felt not only foreign but kind of phony. And I’m grateful that it did, because it forced us both to rethink what our goals for this experiment were. We ended up kind of championing each other’s strengths rather than defending our own sensibilities.”

As Johnson describes it, he and Mills – working together at both Sound City and EastWest Studios in Los Angeles as well as Johnson’s Mango Tree studio in Oahu — worked so well together because their musical minds overlapped like “a Venn diagram” — sometimes one of their tastes might veer outside of the other’s interests “but in the end, it’s just enough different that you fight it for a while and then at some point your ear comes around to it.” The best example is lead single “One Step Ahead.” Arriving with just the verses, Mills helped Johnson flesh out the chorus and added his signature textural musical flourishes to the beautiful, slightly funky cut. “Never mind all the noise going through your head,” Johnson sings at the hook, “Because every time we talk we say/The same things that we’ve said.”

Making albums, and especially speaking about the process, Johnson says, is one of the rare times he can reflect on the past. While some musicians love to talk about how their career has flown by in the blink of an eye, Johnson admits it does feel like 20 years since his debut album.

“Every once in a while, somebody will say something was 20 years ago and you think of everything in between. ‘Yeah, that seems about 20 years ago. Was it 30? Feels like forever ago.’ When I think about all the shows and all the tours and all the in-stores and all the radio stations… when I stop for a moment and think about all the experiences between now and when we put out that first album, it does feel a good 20 years ago.”

In fact, all the record sales and touring that’s happened to him over the past two decades? Well, Johnson didn’t expect any of it. “When [Brushfire Fairytales] was about to come out, in my wildest dreams I had no idea it was going to do what it did,” he admits. “I remember driving with my wife and listening to rough mixes and telling her, “I just want this record to be somebody’s favorite. I just hope somebody can feel the way I feel when I put on a Ben Harper record or when I listen to Jimi Hendrix.” That was my goal — just to make somebody love it.”

It’s safe to say he exceeded his own expectations.

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