Jack Johnson already knows how he’ll pass time flying from Hawaii to Seattle for his gig Saturday at the Gorge.
“I’ll be reading ‘The Cold Millions,’ Johnson said while calling from his Oahu home. “Jess Walter is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read most of what he has written. I loved ‘Beautiful Ruins’ and ‘We Live in Water: Stories.’ I know Jess is from Spokane. I’m not going to Spokane but I’ll be close.”
Ever since Johnson can remember, he’s lived in water. The laid back singer-songwriter grew up surfing and has directed a number of surf films. “Surfing has always been a passion of mine,” Johnson said. “I still love it.”
However, Johnson, 47, was drawn to music while studying at the University of California Santa Barbara during the mid-1990s.
“You would hear Ben Harper and G. Love and Special Sauce in the dorms,” Johnson said. “I became a big fan of both of those artists.”
Johnson morphed from aficionado to tour support for the former and co-writer with the latter at the dawn of the century.
“It was such a strange thing to happen,” Johnson said. “To meet both of those guys and build a friendship with Garrett (Dutton, aka G. Love) and Ben is something I’m eternally grateful for.”
Johnson co-wrote “Rodeo Clowns” with Dutton at the turn of the century, which appeared on G. Love’s “Philadelphonic” album. From there, Johnson dove in as a songwriter and scored a record deal with Enjoy Records in 2000. 2001’s “Brushfire Fairytale” features Harper on lap steel. Harper’s producer, J.P. Plunier, was behind the board for Johnson’s debut.
“I can’t thank those guys enough for everything,” Johnson said. “We’re all still good friends. I’ve opened a number of times for Ben at the Gorge and I’ve learned so much from him.”
Johnson has a loyal fan base, which favors his sensitive, earnest acoustic pop-rock. The catchy single “Flake” caught on 20 years ago and Johnson’s deep and soothing music hit commercial paydirt. Four of Johnson’s albums, 2006’s “Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George,” 2008’s “Sleep Through the Static,’ 2010’s ‘To the Sea” and 2013’s “From Here to Now to You” each hit number one on the Billboard 200 chart.
“I never expected to have this kind of success,” Johnson said. “It still amazes me.”
Johnson’s latest “Meet the Moonlight,” which dropped in June, features familiar mellow vibes but there are a few sonic surprises courtesy of adventurous Blake Mills (Fiona Apple, Lana Del Rey), who adds a subtle edge.
“I appreciate what Blake brought to the table,” Johnson said. “I respect the way he plays guitar. I love the way his mind works and the ideas he had for chord changes. I learned a lot from him about guitar. I’m always looking to learn. Some of the early takes he found vulnerable moments with me. As a fan, you love hearing those vulnerable moments when you listen to your favorite recording artists but it’s difficult when the vulnerable moments are yours. Blake pushed me with this album.”
Johnson is open to working with Mills again since they forged a bond.
“There’s trust between us and trust is an important thing,” Johnson said. “I love the sounds he makes with his guitar. It reminds me of what Jimi Hendrix did with his guitar. As a kid I would listen to his music and it was like magic. I learned some of the magic tricks Hendrix came up with and I didn’t learn other stuff, which is still like magic to me. I would go to sleep every night with ‘Electric Ladyland’ playing on my headphones. It would play again and again throughout the night. I’m sure it had an impact on me when I was sleeping. I’ll be headed back to Washington where Jimi Hendrix is from.”
The latest Gorge show will be the eighth for Johnson, who added it’s one of his favorite venues to play in the world. “I tell everyone that it’s on my short list of venues you have to experience,” Johnson said. “I have so many memories playing the Gorge.”
When Johnson hiked around the Gorge he and his crew couldn’t find their way back to the main gate.
“We got lost and I had to sneak into my own show,” Johnson said. “I hopped the fence and made a run for it. On that hike it was the first time I heard a rattlesnake. I love how wild it is there. We jumped off some pretty high cliffs (into the Columbia River). There are a couple of fun spots for jumping and we’ve done some boating there. The cool thing for a band is that when you go to a place like the Gorge you can recharge your batteries.”
Much has been made of Johnson’s surfing career and how far he could have gone with that sport. However, the humble Johnson plays down his ability.
“Some things with my surfing background have been exaggerated,” Johnson said. “I grew up around the best surfers in the world. I did really well in one tournament but a week later I fell back to earth. I did a face dive into a reef and lost my three front teeth and had some stitches in my face. I had no problem moving from (competitive) surfing to music but I enjoyed making movies about surfing. When I was about to sign to a label I was asked not to go away surfing and I had a good thing going on with the films. I would be off to Indonesia and Tahiti. But part of the reason I signed with (Enjoy Records) is that I was told I could still go off on these surfing adventures.”
As a middle-aged married father of three, Johnson doesn’t embark on surfing safaris anymore but he can be spotted on his board every day in Hawaii.
“I go out just to stay in shape,” Johnson said. “I really don’t know what exercise I can do while on the road. I’m not going to be out there doing jumping jacks because who else knows what I can do well on the road?”
Good point since Johnson admits that his hiking skills are questionable. Johnson wouldn’t want to get lost again in the Gorge. “Exactly,” Johnson said.
The only bummer for Johnson is that he misses out on the gorgeous Gorge view while performing. Johnson occasionally remedies that by walking into the crowd when the opener performs. Look for the undercover Johnson, who will be relatively easy to spot.
“I tend to go out into the Gorge crowd ninja style with a T-shirt over my head with eye holes so I can see the amazing sunset,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to miss out on that.”
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