Jack Johnson: Why Voting Matters and What Makes Him Lose His Cool

Singer-songwriter discusses his efforts to increase turnout and the star-studded live LP he'd love to release

Jack Johnson performs at the Firefly Music Festival on June 22, 2014. The singer-songwriter is encouraging young voters to turn out this midterm election. Credit: Michael Loccisano

Coming off a 10-month world tour in support of last year's From Here to Now to You, acoustic hero Jack Johnson has focused increasingly on activism and philanthropy – exploring how he can get involved both on and off the stage. Approaching today's mid-term elections, the singer-songwriter has worked to boost youth voter turnout, hosting non-profits at his shows and partnering with HeadCount.org, an organization that uses social media (among other things) to achieve the same goal. Calling from Hawaii, Johnson spoke to Rolling Stone about his political history, his current work and the live compilation he'd love to release.

You have a pretty interesting cast of characters supporting this cause. How did everyone come together on HeadCount?
We started realizing, our whole touring crew, that we're gathering people every night and there's some simple things we could do to motivate especially a younger crowd that are coming to their first show. It's always a balance for us to create an atmosphere where people can learn and get inspired but not get preached to. We tend to have an area with non-profit groups set up where people can go. We try to incentivize people to get there with sometimes unannounced acoustic shows earlier in the night by myself and friends, or other times it's just ways they can win tickets to sit on the side of the stage. It's all tied into things we were naturally doing, which was trying to create an atmosphere where kids could get inspired.

HeadCount really targets the millennial demographic. Were you politically motivated in your twenties?
Yes and no. I mean I've always voted every time it's come around. I voted even when I was young. But as a father, and getting more involved with local politics and things like that, if you vote you have the right to grumble about things. You're first time around you might think, "OK, I get to vote for the president," or, "I get to vote for a mayor." Those are the obvious ones, but there are so many important bills that come around, and it's almost more important is to find out what's happening locally. That was something we wanted to get involved with.

Here's a place where kids could register to vote and what we call the Village Green, which is where all the non-profit groups will be tabling. They can learn about different issues in their area: It might be how they can support their local food system, or water quality groups, groups that come out and fight for water quality and against single-use plastics. Again, we're trying to find that balance of not preaching to people but to have information at the show if they do want to find it.

How did music affect your political activism when you were younger?
All the music I grew up on, the bands had things to say besides just in the songs. That's why I was interested in them, because the songs were one vehicle they had to share ideas. When I'd go to their concerts and things I would learn about some new path they'd take me down, a new trail that was inspiring. So I try to emulate that same thing that all of my favorite musicians had done for me.

You've got a reputation for being such a chill, laid-back dude. Does anything politcal make you lose your temper?
I'm like anybody else. It's funny to watch a caricature of yourself grow. Like if you think I'm mellow, you should meet some of my friends in Hawaii. My friends always laugh like, "How are you the mellow guy? You're really competitive." Whenever we play anything I love to win. But my brother did used to call me Ghandi. It's sort of a joke because surfers get into fights in the water. I just never tended to get into fights. I was always the one trying to smooth things over so he'd always joke and call me Ghandi.

Looking back on your discography, it's been a full decade since In Between Dreams dropped.
Yeah, isn't that crazy?

Do you have anything in the works for its anniversary?
A friend just sent me a few live recordings, the same guy who's run the front of house for us since the very beginning, in 2001 or so. He's got all these old recordings. Sometimes he'll send me really cool little things like, "Hey, look what I just found!" He recorded any show we've had the capacity to record since the very beginning. He always sends me stuff where Kid Koala's spinning records with us and doing some trippy thing with phone tones from shows back in 2002.

Sometimes I think it would be fun to dig through all the old sit-ins we've ever had. We were lucky to be part of that tradition and to see it early on, opening for bands like G Love & Special Sauce or Ben Harper – just the collaborative spirit. So anytime there's ever been a musician in-house we've always invited them to come up on stage with us. I think it would be fun to put out a collaboration album with all the live moments of different people sitting in.