Jack Johnson on Environment, New Music, Hanging with Jack White

New United Nations goodwill ambassador explains his role for World Environment Day

Jack Johnson discusses his role as United Nations global ambassador for World Environment Day. Credit: Michael Locciasano/Getty

Jack Johnson may be off the road, but he's busy with another full-time job: environmental work. For Friday's World Environment Day, Johnson is in the Bahamas for a ceremony on the Eleuthera Islands where he will become a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme.

He's taking the job seriously: Afterwards, he will head out for the 5 Gyres Sea Change research expeditions to promote alternatives to disposable plastics. "I'm really excited about it. I feel like I'm in college again and I've got a 22-page course reader," he tells Rolling Stone. "We're bringing some guitars on the trip too and I'm really looking forward to being on this thing that looks like a pirate ship it's a big old wooden schooner."

What exactly will you be doing as "global ambassador"?
We're going to be setting sail from the Bahamas to Bermuda and doing a beach cleanup with kids. When I was a kid, beach cleanups seemed like a beautification type of thing. Now it's advanced to the point where you collect this material and then there's an international database that you can put things into – how much types of plastic you're finding, what types of language you find on the fishing floats – so they can start to track where the currents are pulling things. It's much more interesting for kids to take part in now because they get to play scientist for the day and see the action they took is making an impact bigger than just cleaning up the beach for that day.

Also, I will be becoming a United Nations goodwill ambassador, which is exciting for me and a big honor. It was right in line with all of the initiatives that we bring on tour in trying to cut down on some of these plastics and all those actions we try to take at our shows. We're [also] trying to source all of our food locally. They have another program called the Think.Eat.Save campaign and that sustainable food system is something I'm really interested in, which is why we have so much of our food shipped in here. So we work a lot to try and get more local food into our food system here. We've had conversations that could help get those types of messages out because of things we're really interested in in our touring and day-to-day life. 

Do you have a scientific brain that can enjoy reading about the environment or do you have to push yourself?
The funnest thing is to try and keep learning and so for me, this is a chance to do that. It's an inhale/exhale thing with the songwriting, and putting out all the things you've learned over the years and sharing ideas and then it's fun to do a big inhale sometimes and just learn about new things. It's really a great learning experience.

I was a math major. There's a side of me that has a mathematical, scientific brain that enjoys this stuff. It's fun to read the studies that actually have the evidence that if you talk about the fragmentation and see more accounts with the smaller and larger micro plastics, you realize that that's good evidence that the marine life is actually ingesting it.

Neil Young has a new song where he talks about more fish dying and other environmental issues, but says "People want to hear about love." Is it hard to get people to listen when you talk about it?
I love the fact that he could put that in his song in such a creative way to approach it. So many of my songs are based on love whether it's romantic love with your partner, or loving your children, and I think it is magnetic and pulls people and there's ways that we can create a space that people can learn about [other] things. There's certain times I've written songs specific for kids and I've got a whole little set I just played last week actually at a cafeteria; a little list of kids' songs and some of those will have to do with recycling. With the younger audience, I'll play those songs that actually address environmental things.

Are you working on other new music?
I have been actually thinking about this trip coming up. We're going t0 be making a documentary on the trip. I've been hoping to write some songs and make a soundtrack for the film and different themes have been coming across my mind; ideas of how I could incorporate some of the things we're learning on the trip or use metaphors to explain what's happening. The "disposable dream" has been going through my mind lately –  the 1950s [had this] idea of the throwaway culture; the idea that we can just use things once and just throw them away, and now we're seeing the results of that. Maybe a song about that. I like the idea that it could just be thought of as dreams we have that are disposable as well as work on a lot of different levels so a song doesn't feel so environmentally themed but at the same time it can touch on those topics.

Are you writing in more the plugged in style or acoustic style like "Radiate"?
Very acoustic. I haven't plugged in in a while. My 11-year-old plugs in. He's been rocking a lot of White Stripes around the house lately. I've been into a lot of Jack White songs because we were lucky enough to get paid a visit by Jack White. He came and hung out for a day at our house when played in Hawaii. He's amazing. He played the best show.

I took a couple of guys in his band surfing for the first time and then we hung out the whole day, and he asked me to sit in that night, but I had no idea. I'm watching the show in the audience and all a sudden, somebody comes running out from his crew and says, 'Hey, you have to come backstage real quick." I was thinking it was an emergency, like a friend was sick, so I ran back there and then I'm looking over and they're like, "Jack wants you onstage," and I go up there. The only song I know the chords for is "We're Going To Be Friends." So we played that in totally different keys so it was pretty. It was a nice Chinese fire drill where the band members kept showing me signs, like, here comes a C, here comes a G or whatever. It was a pretty simple song. We had fun; it was great. Anyways, long story short, my kid is inspired by getting to hang out with Jack White and playing a lot of the White Stipes songs. He's been plugged in, but I've been mostly acoustic.

When he comes over, do you guys collaborate on music?
We just hung out and played some music around the house. We were all just jamming out a little bit in the living room and with our piano there. And then we just watched the sunset, had some food. It was a nice time. It's fun to talk to other musicians that inspired me. And somebody like that, I really look up to him and the songwriting he does. It's fun to hear his stories about getting to meet different people, like Bob Dylan or other people he's met along the way as well.

That's great. And last year, you covered "A Pirate Looks At 40." The pirate has turned 40. How was that?
I hadn't thought about that in ages. You're the first one to bring that up. I can't sing I'm underage, what does it say, I'm an underage, how does it go, I'm an over 30 victim of fate? Now I'm an over 40 victim of fate.