Jack Johnson was hard at work on All the Light Above It Too – his first album since 2013, due September 8th – when he got a phone call from an old friend. “He said he’d been watching a spot that, if the wind was going in the right direction and we got a good swell, could be pretty amazing,” the singer says. The buddy in question was 11-time World Surf League Champion Kelly Slater, who took Johnson to a stretch of reefs in the Marshall Islands – about 2,700 miles from the singer-songwriter’s home in Hawaii – where the water is so clear you can see 200 feet below the surface.
For Johnson, music has always been something for “when there’s no waves,” and he wrote many of his early songs on boats during surfing trips. These days, though, he’s usually too busy being a dad to manage spontaneous wave quests. “Most of his downtime between tours is at home with family,” says Slater, who met Johnson when they were teens, and calls the singer a “very good surfer.”
But when Johnson managed to get away this time, he brought a cigar-box ukulele with him, using it to write a breezy meditation on the familiar feeling you get when you see someone you know called “Sunsets for Somebody Else.” The song became a key track on his still-untitled seventh LP, which he recorded in the same garage home studio that birthed every album since his 2000 debut, Brushfire Fairytales. Johnson didn’t stray far from his signature island-tinged folk pop, but the recording process was hardly effortless: After trying his hand at playing all the instruments on every song, he realized he wasn’t up to the task. “It sounded like my band, but with some guy who couldn’t play the drums as good as my drummer,” he says.
His band and producer Robbie Lackritz helped him flesh out songs like “Big Sur,” a whimsically jazzy track about a camping trip, and “My Mind’s for Sale,” a relatively gentle Trump takedown (“I heard that six or seven words he likes to use are always in bad taste”). “It’s depressing to be part of a country with a leader pulling out of the Paris Agreement,” says Johnson, who often finds topical songs easier to write than personal ones. “But it’s also inspiring to hear a couple of days later that Hawaii’s gonna be the first state to adhere to the Paris Agreement.”
Here is what Johnson and Slater had to say about their big surf trip.