Jack Johnson is not necessarily known as an issues-first songwriter. One of his biggest hits, the top 40-cracking "Upside Down" from the soundtrack for the Curious George movie, is a guileless breeze; a cotton-candy exterior surrounding a core of childlike wonder.
But one of his favorite moments as a musician stems from a reaction to "Sleep Through the Static," a song that Johnson tells Rolling Stone is "me struggling with the idea of living in a country that's going to a war that you might not believe in." During a visit to The Colbert Report in 2013, Colbert burst into an unprompted rendition of "Sleep Through the Static" backstage. "He sang the whole song," Johnson remembers, speaking with Rolling Stone by phone from his Hawaii home. "He said when he was in Iraq doing shows for the soldiers, he would put that on his headphones every night before he went to bed. That song helped him make sense of it. That's one of the coolest compliments I've ever gotten."
These pressing macro-level concerns are the inspiration for Johnson's latest work: he scored a new documentary, The Smog of the Sea, detailing the destructive effects of plastic pollution on the world's oceans. The 30-minute film, available to stream free online, follows a group of scientists, surfers and activists – including lifelong surfer Johnson – as they sail through the ocean collecting data on the fine plastic particles accumulating in the water and damaging aquatic ecosystems. "Some of [the plastic] is from cruise ships dumping, some of it's from fishing fleets, a lot of it is blown from land sources, or things are shipped to other countries that are not set up to recycle like we can," Johnson explains.
In addition to disrupting the function of ocean life, this detritus has potential negative consequences for humans as well. "Smaller fish that have ingested micro plastics end up in the food chain," he says. "It's a health issue."
The subject inspired a new song, "Fragments," that appears in the documentary. It begins as a spare ballad, with Johnson singing a melody that mirrors a descending line from his guitar. Around the one-minute mark, he stealthily tacks on new elements in quick succession: first a distant, Beach Boys-like synth, then a second guitar, spiky and electric, and finally another layer of his own voice that stalks the lead vocal. The music is soothing, but the lyrics are pointed: "Fragments on the sea, birds of prey above/ All that lies beneath, no longer what it was."
"The struggle with a song like ["Fragments"] is trying to keep it from sounding like a public service announcement," Johnson says. "By the end, I felt like the lyrics touched more on the psychology of why something like this might happen and where we are in history as humans, so it wasn't too literal."
He worked on "Fragments" and other parts of The Smog of the Sea's music with Simon Beins, a composer who has contributed to soundtracks for a variety of features (It's Kind of a Funny Story) and documentaries (The light pollution-themed The City Dark), and their easy rapport in the studio played an important part in pushing Johnson towards completing a new full-length album. He hasn't put out a studio album since September 2013, his longest gap between records since his 2001 debut. "I tend to not finish an album until the night before the deadline," he notes. "This time I don't owe anybody any records. That's the hard part."
It doesn't help that he's been blessed lately with prime surfing conditions. "The waves have been really good this winter over here," he admits. "Every time the waves are good, I have trouble getting into the studio."
But Beins lives down the street from Johnson, so the two were able to catch studio time in between waves as promising ideas recently piled up. "All these songs started coming together, and I decided basically a week or two ago that I was going to try to put them all together for a record," Johnson says. Instead of laying down tracks with his longtime band, he is playing every instrument himself, which presents a different challenge. "It's cruise control when you've got a really good rhythm section, cause they always make you sound good," he notes. "I'll start layering things a lot, then listen back, think, 'I sound like an amateur,' pull it back off. The songs end up really stripped down."
Johnson hopes to release the as-yet-untitled album before he heads out on a short summer tour in June and July. (A free download of "Fragments" comes with a purchase of a ticket to any show.) The gigs will double as a chance to debut fresh material – "we're suckers for getting people dancing; at the same time it's fun to play new ones" – and an opportunity to continue advocating on behalf of reducing plastic use and other practices that encourage sustainability and local agriculture.
"At different levels, at different venues, we're trying to get rid of single-use plastic," Johnson explains. "The most important thing we're working on right now is talking to all the venues to put in place these reusable pint cup programs. At the Santa Barbara Bowl, we already got this in place: you buy your stainless steel cup, and for every drink when you come back, you get a dollar off – for the whole season.
"Every time I step over the tideline as a surfer, I see the amount of plastic that's starting to gather and the more colorful it's getting, not in a good way," Johnson continues. "And after a show, I look out and see a sea of plastic – the industry I'm part of is contributing in a major way to this problem. I feel a responsibility."
Jack Johnson Tour Dates
June 2 - Chicago, IL @ Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island
June 3 - Cuyahoga Falls, OH @ Blossom Music Center
June 4 - Toronto, ON @ Budweiser Stage
June 7 - Bangor, ME @ Darling's Waterfront Pavilion
June 9 - Mansfield, MA @ Xfinity Center
June 10 - Camden, NJ @ BB&T Pavilion
June 11 - Columbia, MD @ Merriweather Post Pavilion
June 14 - Forest Hills, NY @ Forest Hills Stadium
July 14 - Englewood, CO @ Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre
July 16 - Los Angeles, CA @ Hollywood Bowl
July 17 - Santa Barbara, CA @ Santa Barbara Bowl
July 18 - Santa Barbara, CA @ Santa Barbara Bowl
July 20 - Bend, OR @ Les Schwab Amphitheatre
July 22 - Quincy, WA @ The Gorge Amphitheatre
July 23 - Burnaby, BC @ Deer Lake Park
July 26 - Berkeley, CA @ Greek Theatre
July 28 - Stateline, NV @ Harvey's Lake Tahoe Amphitheatre